... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Monday, October 10, 2016

It Takes Heart: Incorporating a Heart Rate Monitor Into Training

Back in June I signed up for Ragnar Hawaii, a large team relay race where each runner does three legs, lengths of each leg varying between 3 and 8 miles. Altogether, the race goes all the way from the east side of the island up around the Hamakua Coast to the northern tip, then down the west coast to Kona and back up to finish at Hapuna. It runs all the way through the night from Friday afternoon until Saturday afternoon! Back in June this seemed like an easy enough proposition, but that was before my unfortunate foot accident and then a subsequent slip on the garage stairs leading to a nasty tailbone bruise. What can I say? It’s been a very clumsy summer for me.
So, 5 weeks out from Ragnar, my tailbone still aching a little, I decided pain or no pain I have to get going on training or I’m going to end up walking all three legs. If this were an individual race I wouldn’t really care, but since I’m part of a team I don’t want to be “that person.” Looking at my Ironman training plan, which uses heart rate zones for almost all of the run training, I decided to keep experimenting with my fancy Garmin watch and begin using the heart rate monitor during this training so that I will be very familiar with it once I get to the official Ironman training starting in December.

What I’m realizing very quickly is that heart rate training may be the solution to my slow running!
Up to this point, I have always done run training by simply trying to keep running for as long as possible without walking. At first it’s a few minutes, and eventually it’s an hour, but I have always felt like my speed hits a wall that I simply can’t push beyond because my lungs and heart can't do any more. My exertion levels are often to the absolute max, and my training is focused on conditioning to that level and learning to push through the pain of it. This new training plan, however, starts out with nearly five months of aerobic run training, keeping the heart rate between 60% and 75% of max with only occasional anaerobic sessions. For running, max heart rate is defined as 220 minus your age, plus 5. I had no idea what range my heart rate had been in during a run until I started using the monitor, and oh my holy hell was I in for a surprise! Turns out, my previous “run til you drop” approach had me working in the 85%-95% range for most of the time! No wonder that I couldn’t get any faster!

One of the things I love about the Ironman training plan I’ve chosen is that it has a Q&A portion, and one of the first questions is: “What if I have to walk to keep my heart rate down?” The answer?  ”I don’t care if you have to lie down in the snow and make snow angels – your body needs to learn how to process energy in an aerobic state and this kind of low intensity training is the only efficient way to get this done. Year after year, my athletes are surprised and amazed at how quickly their bodies adapt to this new approach… you will be able to run at a nice clip – even with your heart rate stuck right at 75%!”

This was kind of an epiphany to me, because the feel of 60-75% of max heart rate is extremely manageable. “Easy” isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close. Right now I have to alternate intervals of jogging and walking to stay in that zone, but if I can indeed train my body so that I can feel that same ease while running, it will be a major, major turning point. If 70% can become a steady run instead of a fast walk, I can only imagine how much speed I can add at the more anaerobic levels added later on in the training plan. I’m excited to see where this goes.

So, for the past 4 weeks, I have been alternating runs in which I do a pre-determined ratio of walking and running (for example, I started out walking 2 minutes and running 1, and now I'm up to running 4 minutes and walking 1) and runs in which I go strictly off of heart rate, walking or running as needed to keep it between 60% and 80%. The first week I did three days on, one day off twice, and when I felt the fatigue on day 5 I realized that I have never in my life run three days in a row, much less 6 times in 7 days! My triathlon training was 6 days a week, but I arranged it so that each of the three disciplines was spread out throughout the week, with no more than 2 days in a row of any one thing. I could definitely feel the difference, and when I reached my day off today I was pretty relieved.

It’s very interesting to run just by heart rate. I’m starting to get a feel for what the various percentages feel like in my body. 70%, or about 136 beats per minute, feels very comfortable, and on flat ground in cool weather I can maintain it at a jog for about 4 minutes before my heart rate gets too high. If there are hills, my heart rate jumps faster. I did one run at Puako around 10AM which means HEAT, and got to see for the first time the havoc that heat wreaks upon heart rate. I see now why so many people struggle and collapse when they face higher temperatures for the first time. I had to walk an embarrassing and frustrating amount to keep it under control, and toward the end of the 40 minutes it was impossible to get it below 68% or so, even while walking! I could have actually used some snow to make snow angels in like it said in the Q&A section of the training plan!
Now I’m up to 6.5 miles, as well as doing a couple of 2-a-day workouts to simulate the 3-leg nature of the Ragnar race. It’s a short time period to train and I know I won’t be at my very best, but I have already noticed huge improvements with the new focus on heart rate! When I first started I had to walk the majority of the time to keep my heart rate in the target zone, with my average pace landing around 14:45 minutes per mile (Yes. Really.) Now I'm all the way down to 12-minute miles and I can run for a mile at a time without my heart rate going above 70%! Plus, when I do pace runs, my pace is improving much faster than usual! It should be a fun, different format for a race so I’m looking forward to that.
As I continue with the heart rate training, I am really excited to see the progress I know is coming. I feel like perhaps I’ve found the missing piece in the “Crystal is just a really slow runner” puzzle and I can’t wait to use it!

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