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Run with HR or RPE?

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

I have been asked this question repeatedly by competitive athletes and many individuals who want to take up running to prepare for a race. The internet is rife with advice of every kind about the wonders of training with a heart-rate monitor or heart-rate based programs.  Many athletes find themselves bogged down and unable to improve or get frustrated because they are unable to sustain the duration a heart-rate based regimen is asking for.

It is imperative to remember that the commonly promulgated HR based trainings are calculated based on an erroneous formula that seems to dominate our fitness world. Jonathan Ross, a prominent health and fitness expert, summed it up here "Using any formula that starts with age is problematic and introduces huge error ranges that are potentially as large as the training zones we are using. Any formula including any version of 220 – Age for maximum heart rate calculation is going to be a mess for the same reason that selling a single shoe size to everyone is going to be a problem."

Even the great Joe Friel advises that using the ancient HR formula is ineffective and unreliable "The formula is close to useless for individuals. It works fairly well with large groups of people. If you tested a large group you’d produce a bell-shaped curve. For those in the middle of the curve the formula would predict max heart rate rather closely. But there would be many people at the far ends of the curve, both high and low, for whom the formula is way off. Since you don’t know where you fall on the curve, the formula is mere speculation and likely to be 15 to 20 or more beats off." 

The best approach to HR training is found in a field test that determines your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). when done accurately, you can base and determine your training zones based on the Training Peaks training formula.

If you are not a precision-data obsessed athlete, the easiest and fastest way to training can be found in the polar 5 HR zones formula. It is effective and simple to use. It is the closest formula to allows you to use RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) coupled with an approximation of your safe HR zones.

RPE itself can be a profound training method and many advanced athletes and top coaches use the “conversation“ model to nail down your RPE zone .

Example: if you can have a full uninterrupted conversation with a workout partner during your run, You maybe in zone 1 or 2 (light jogging) . If your sentences become interrupted by harder breathing and you cannot formulate long sentences, you maybe in Zone 3. if your sentences are extremely short, then you are in zone 4, if you cannot formulate more than a two word sentence, then you are in zone 5.

Here’s what it looks like:

HR Zone1: (Full conversation) 50–60% of HRmax ( HR Zone2: (comfortable conversation) 60–70% of HRmax. ... HR Zone3: (short sentences ) 70–80% of HRmax. ... HR Zone4: (extremely difficult to have a conversation ) 80–90% of HRmax. ... HR Zone5: (unable to have more than a two or three word sentences ) 90- 110% of HRmax. 

Training with these zones is simply saying "listen to your body" and train based on your exertion scale and a “safe” HR zones that allows you to train and finish your desired or designed training session without setting yourself up for failure by exclusively depending on a HR formula that could prove to be too hard to execute and may even be erroneous.

The Polar chart is  a more practical and watered-down version of the fuzzy and protracted Borg Scale.

We strongly recommend the Polar chart for most athletes training with RPE  for it's simplicity and practical use for anyone on the go. Most GPS watches these days are equipped with a HR sensor that detects your HR and  illustrates your heart rate zones.

For those who are more advanced in training and racing, we strongly recommend a field test to determine your personal LTHR and you can build your training plan based on that. However, building a training plan itself is a science more than art, but it is also an art more than science endeavor. You should seek a professional coach who is qualified and accredited to help you determine what's the best approach to your PR!

Disclaimer: You should consult your physician or other health professionals before starting any cardiovascular fitness program to determine if you are fit to exercise. Do not start a running or any fitness program if your physician or healthcare provider advises against it.

Marques Garcia , MS, CEP, CSCS-

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