How and Why Should You Run at a Low Heart Rate

If you are looking into the topic of heart rate based running, it is likely that you already have a basic understanding of your heart rate zones. Nonetheless, when you run at a seemingly normal pace, your heart rate increases and reaches the red (anaerobic) zone; but if you stick to 130-140 beats per minute (bpm), the pace is unbearably slow. Not to worry, you are not alone.

Low heart rate training is designed, above all, to lower your average heart rate during all kinds of running, by improving the cardiac stroke volume.  This way you reduce the stress on the cardiovascular system and allow your body to ease into training sessions a lot smoother.

How I started training at a low heart rate

Michael Scott on the run
Goodbye speedy long runs!

The idea of watching my heart rate came to me only several years after I started running. I could easily run under 10 km, but adding at least another 5 km seemed monumentally harder. Then I noticed that I was not improving and was not controlling how I felt during running. It could result in serious fatigue or aggression (due to an adrenaline rush) the same or the following day. It also took me 3-5 days to fully recover. Something had to change. 

Your pulse is one of the most important indicators of your well-being during running, so why not take it into account?

I started monitoring my heart rate accidentally.  I got my first heart rate monitor as a gift from my wife to use during my workouts at the gym. Simply out of curiosity, I decided to check my pulse while running and was shocked to find out that my rate jumped to 185-190 beats per minute in the middle of a 10 km run. Having the numbers look back at me, I realized that it was not only a dead end approach, but was also harmful to my health.

It was challenging to start getting into low heart rate running. It was also boring. I was already accustomed to a pace of 5 mins/km, it seemed that 7 mins (which gave me the desired beats per minute) was a valley of misery, and it hurt to see old people surpassing me several times in a single training. Despite that, after those sessions I did not have any fatigue and I felt fully restored the day after. I had to redefine what running meant to me.

At that point I had been running for two years and to me it seemed like I had enough experience already. Alas, this kind of “mindless” running was not enough for any kind of solid progress.

Thanks to my newfound understanding of running and heart rate zones, my endurance improved and I could comfortably do a half-marathon in 6 months. My normal heart rate decreased by 15-20 bpm and I definitely felt fresher after my running sessions.

Physiology

Metabolism

When we bring up the term “low heart rate” during running, usually we mean training that is facilitated by your aerobic metabolism. In broad terms, it’s a 40% to 85% load (ballpark data) of your max heart rate. Going over that, your movement would be facilitated by anaerobic metabolism instead.

During “aerobic training sessions” your body gets energy from carbs, amino acids and fats. That’s the regular way of extracting energy at a resting heart rate. Having enough oxygen in your blood is an essential condition for this type of metabolism. The level of oxygen in your blood is supplied by your lungs. The lungs enrich your blood with oxygen and the heart pumps it to all parts of the body.

After going over the threshold of roughly 85% of MaxBPM, the heart no longer receives enough oxygen-enriched blood from the lungs and the body turns on the “backup” system, anaerobic metabolism. This type of metabolism is less efficient and people cannot last long in this state. One of the side effects of the anaerobic phase is excretion of lactic acid in the muscles. The human body can constantly switch between these two types of metabolism. 

Aerobic metabolism, as opposed to anaerobic, is a more efficient way of getting energy.

One of the scientific articles (2017) that I discovered while researching the topic showed that combining both kinds of metabolism during training had a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. To put it simply, it proves that interval training is good for the cardiovascular system.

Stroke volume

Stroke volume is the amount of blood pumped by the heart in one contraction. Since our bodies need a certain amount of blood pumped, you can decrease the frequency by increasing the stroke volume. It sounds very simple but in reality it takes years of training.

Quantity of contractions X Stroke volume = Cardiac output

Let’s assume someone’s stroke volume is 90 ml, resting heart rate – around 70 bpm. It means that their cardiac output is 90mlx70=6300ml of blood per minute. A person who does sports professionally may have a stroke volume as high as 170 ml, that’s why a trained heart needs to contract less frequently to provide the needed amount of blood. This is the reason why some professional athletes’ resting heart rate is 45 bpm.

A whale’s heart rate, for instance, is 5-10 bpm (although not due to its running experience).

When we bring up the term “stroke volume”, we actually mean the amount of oxygen-rich blood pumped by the left ventricle of the heart in one contraction. It is predetermined by our physiology; some initially have a higher stroke volume than others.

How heart Works
How heart Works

As the heart rate increases, the stroke level does too. But it is limited and goes as high as 40-70% of the max heart rate. Then, the heart can only increase the cardiac output by increasing the frequency, while the stroke volume decreases, since the heart is trying to catch up. The moment it happens differs for everyone, but the universal advice for all who are willing to “upgrade” their hearts – low heart rate running.

Athletic heart syndrome (AHS) is a special term that means that the heart has adapted to a certain level of physical activity. In fact, the heart is not the only thing that adapts, but the whole cardiovascular system. It becomes more productive.

Professional skiers have the largest hearts – 1073 cm3 

For amateur runners this means that you would need to find your low heart rate zone. A wide variety of modern fitness-gadgets and smart-watches offer heart rate zoning data, but it’s important to understand that the data is not perfectly accurate.

My max heart rate is 185-190 bpm. As I have learned by observing my performance, my low heart rate zone is roughly 130 bpm. I feel comfortable maintaining this rate. This way my attention is not split between my breath and my heart rate. It is imperative to maintain the frequency of training sessions to improve, so don’t get alarmed if your stats go down after an illness, for instance. Now though, it will be way easier to get back in shape. 

Running at a low heart rate

Are you a beginner? Congratulations! You are reading this and it means that you have a mature approach to your training. It means you research the topic before you do something. On the contrary, if you are a seasoned runner who’s been running at a high heart rate (like me), I have bad news for you – you need to start over.

Stock up on music playlists for running, podcasts, audiobooks and patience. You’re on your path to achieving a lower heart rate while running! Learning this won’t be too difficult, but it sure will take a long time 🙂

Beurer PM25 and Amazfit Verge Lite

First thing on the list is a heart rate monitor. The old school way of putting two fingers on the neck is good and all, but this kind of multitasking will interfere with the main task at hand. I recommend getting heart rate monitors with an over-chest sensor so that you can receive more accurate data (Garmin is always a safe bet). On the other hand, if going all out is not in your plans, you should consider getting a wrist one (most budget option that doesn’t compromise accuracy too much is “Mi Band 2” “-3”).

To those of you who are used to pushing hard during your training,  a surprise awaits you – turns out you don’t need to sweat too much.

Watch your heart rate when you go out for a run. Try consciously decreasing and increasing it. Find the rate at which you can comfortably go for a long run (for me, a “long run” is 1-1,5 hrs at 130-145 bpm).

You can approximately determine your heart rate zones with a “talking test”. If you can speak in complete sentences in one breath, you’re probably in the aerobic zone. On the other hand, if you’re out of breath after saying just a couple of words, you’re most likely in the anaerobic zone.

It cannot be all figured out in a single session, so spend a good amount of time watching your heart work and notice the correlation between the heart rate and your running pace. Undoubtedly, your heart rate depends on your general level of energy and hormone levels. Hence, the data will differ from one day to another, but will still be in the same range. When I was “relearning” running, I had to switch to walking, just to stay in the desired 130 bpm. That is absolutely normal and you’ll soon learn to appreciate easy runs. You can speed up the pace of walking every time until it turns into running.

If your heart rate goes over the threshold value, switch to walking.

One of the universal methods of decreasing your average running heart rate – using running programs, which take various types of training and increases in their frequency and difficulty into account.

Interval training is another way to improve productivity of the heart.

FARTLEC (Sweden originated term) is free style interval training. Essentially, it is alternation of fast paced running and light jogging. This way your training is divided into intense and relaxed phases. The reason “free” is in the name is that you are the one who sets the duration of each phase. It can be 3 mins of fast pace and 3 mins of light jogging/walking, or 3 to 2 ratio, etc. Previously, the time that I spent in the active rest phase was determined by my heart rate ( if it was down to 130- I would start running again), but doing it that way didn’t provide me with sufficient rest. I usually go for a couple of interval training sessions every few weeks.

Engage in other sporty activities. Come Spring, I constantly do general athletics, ride a bike and sometimes go kayaking.If you like going to the gym, you can use a stationary bike, an elliptical or a rowing machine. And no one invented anything better than swimming yet. Although it might be challenging to track your heart rate in the water, the gadgets for that may be quite pricey.

Sleep and rest. When training, you should really pay attention to the recovery of your body. Sleep at least 8 hours a day.

Conclusion

Low heart rate running is not only a way to upgrade your running stats, but also to improve your health.Those are the basics. Practicing this, you will slowly but surely get better results. If you frequently experience fatigue after running, consider lowering the intensity of your training and watching your heart rate. Keep in mind, that for an amateur runner running is primarily a way to be healthy.

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