Listen to your heart (rate)

This blog is devoid of any introductions or niceties. Instead it gets straight to the point. If you want to improve your running times you need to train scientifically. And by scientifically I mean you need to start using a heart rate monitor and listen to your body. If you are satisfied with running every morning and continuing to pretty much run the same times for your 10, 21 or 42k, then you can stop reading now. If you, however, want to feel fresh on the start line and improve your times keep going.

It is a proven fact that the under-trained athlete will always outperform the over-trained athlete. This means that you have to rest after a block of training for the training to have any benefit. As Peter Keen the coach to Chris Boardman says: “The body does not get fitter through exercise, it gets fitter through recovering from exercise.” Instead of wondering how tired your body is, or how hard or easy you are running, you can remove the guessing game by using a heart rate monitor. Once you have a monitor you need to understand how to use it.

Step 1: Determining your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

The first step is to determine your maximum heart rate (MHR). There are a number of ways to do this, but the simplest way is to take 220 minus your age. In my case it is 220-40 = 180 (MHR).

Step 2: Determining your Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

The next step is to find your resting heart rate (RHR). This is determined by taking your heart rate in the morning when you wake up and still lying in bed. In my case lying in bed with my monitor on it is normally around 40 beats per minute (bpm). Your RHR is a good gage on whether you are over-trained or coming down with a bug. It can vary by 5 beats on different mornings (40-45). However, if you wake up and your HR is elevated by more than 5 bpm, you should take the day of training. If not chances are you will either end up sick, injured or both!

Step 3: Determining your Heart Rate (HR) Zones

Once you have your MHR and RHR you can now start determining your HR training zones. I like to use to use the four training target zones developed by Polar Heart Rate Monitors (Polar). They are: Aerobic Endurance, Aerobic Stamina, Lactate Tolerance and Maximum. See the explanation of what each zone entails below.


Based on the above percentages you can now determine your own training zones as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. This is done using the following calculation:
(MHR-RHR) x % + RHR =    % of Max Intensity. As my MHR is 180 and my RHR is 40 the following calculation will apply for 50% of intensity for example.
(180- 40) x 50% + 40 = 110 = 50% of Max Intensity. One can now do this calculation for all the zones. With these formulas my HR zones are as per below.


Step 4: Planning for an event

4.1 Planning Principles – when planning for an event there are a few principles to keep in mind.

  • Date of event – fix the date of the event you want to do;
  • Minimum 12 week time to prepare working backwards from date of event;
  • Training cycles of at least 3 weeks – 1 week load, 1 week overload, one week recover;
  • Maximum hours you have to train in your peak week i.e. your biggest training week;
  • Maximum 10% increase in training load per week;

If today is 30 September 2016. The following example applies:

  • Event date: 15 January 2017;
  • Start training: 24 October 2016;
  • This gives you: 4 training cycles of 3 weeks;
  • In your peak week you will have: 8 hours to train;
  • You have decided to increase your training by: 10% every week.

4.2 Weekly principles

You now need to plan an average week. The idea is to have an easy day after every hard day, with your rest day after your Lactate Tolerance day, which would be your speed work day. When planning your week always choose your rest day first, then your long slow day and finally your lactate tolerance day. Then fill in the gaps based on alternating hard and easy days. A well planned week would thus look like this:


4.3 Training program

Based on the above information your training program will look something like this:


  • You will start training on Monday 24 October 2016, have 12 weeks to train and race on Sunday, 15 January 2017.
  • You will increase your training by 10% every week, but will have a rest week every 3rd week where training load is decreased by 20% from the previous week.
  • The first week of every cycle is the same time is the second week of the previous cycle.
  • You peak training week will be Week 8, which allows 4 weeks before your race.
  • The last 3 week cycle will be a taper cycle and training is substantially reduced.
  • Finally it is important to note that one spends most of your time in the aerobic endurance zone, with very limited time in the lactate tolerance zone.

5. Conclusion

A training program like the above is a guide. Stick to it as best you can, but always remember less is more. Every person’s circumstances are unique and you know your body best, so listen to it. If, however, the heart rate bug has now bitten you, there are monitors on the market these days that can tell you when you have recovered from your previous session, how long you have slept and how many of those hours spent sleeping were actually proper sleep! Polar heart rate monitors, such as the V800 or M400 take into account not only the training you do, but all other activities during the day, and includes that in your cumulative recovery time. By then simply syncing your unit with your phone or computer it will map your activities and summarize your life. All you have to do is listen to your heart [(rate) monitor].

For more information go to:

Lieuwe Boonstra

About Lieuwe Boonstra

Lieuwe is one of South Africa's most established triathletes. He is a triple SA Short course triathlon Champion, SA Olympic Distance Champion, SA Xterra Champion, double SA student Champion, Olympic Squad member and multiple podium finisher at the African Triathlon Champs. He represented South Africa in all forms of the sport and stood on the podium on all continents for over 12 years and filled 5 passports in the process. After 4 Epics and an Ironman he retired from professional sport at the end of 2011. He recently turned his attention to trail running, which he does not ever intend to retire from.

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *