Half Marathon Training by Heart Rate

by - Monday, September 20, 2021

One of the things I'm so excited about this fall is that in-person races are back! I was pumped over the summer, but also a bit hesitant to pull the trigger on any registrations because I was having all those hamstring issues.

But by August, my hamstring issues had faded, and I signed up for a handful of races.

I'm running the Bay Bridge 10K on Oct. 31, the Rock N Roll Half Marathon in DC on Nov. 13, and the Rehoboth Seashore Half Marathon on Dec. 4. 

All these races were far enough away that I figured I'd be able to build a solid training base after not racing for a really long time. 


I also decided to try a new-to-me kind of training plan for this training cycle. This training plan bases all your workouts on heart rate rather than on set mileage or set time goals. I thought maybe a heart-rate based training plan would help me avoid over training and potential injuries.

Granted, my hip/IT band/piriformis has been tight since before I started the training plan, but just about one month in, and I'm happy to report that I don't have any new injuries cropping up.

While overall I've been enjoying training in a different way, there are a few things that have been a huge adjustment for me.

First, all the workouts are based on a certain amount of time spent in each of the five major heart rate zones. I'm so used to a training plan that tells me how many miles I have to go out and run each day. This time-based method is a really big mental shift, but it's been good for me.

With mileage-based training plans, I always tried to push myself to get the miles done as quick as possible before I had to start my work day. That often meant I was running my "easy" runs at a pace that was way too fast. 


Now, my workouts are a set amount of time. I don't need to worry how many miles I cover in that time, I just know how much time I need to set aside to finish the workout. 

The second thing that I've realized is that running easy enough is actually really hard for me. My recovery runs are all supposed to be in zone 2, which is only about 65-75% of my max heart rate. For me, that means I need to run really slow to keep my heart rate that low. We're talking sometimes 11 minute miles here. That is really humbling because it feels so painfully slow to me. 

But if I start picking up the pace too much, I pretty quickly move into the next heart rate zone, which means I'm not treating the run as a recovery run. I've found a screen on my GPS watch/heart rate monitor that doesn't show distance, so while I'm in the middle of a workout, I can just see what zone I'm currently working in and the overall elapsed time of the workout. Not seeing my distance or pace per mile helps me worry a lot less on my pace.


The other thing that has been a major struggle for me is getting into zone 5 when I need to. Zone five is the hardest working zone, and I've had one workout each week that requires either hill sprints or some other kind of sprint where you are supposed to be in zone five for 60-90 seconds. But no matter how hard I sprint and no matter how steep the hill is, I have never been able to get my heart rate into zone five. I've gotten basically to the upper limit of zone four, but I'm failing to cross into zone five. 

I'm not sure that this is a huge deal since upper zone four is still really hard, and I feel like I'm still reaping the benefits of my sprints. But it's just one of those things that bugs me.

The last thing I really love about this plan is that I feel like each of my runs has more purpose. Tempo runs have become much more bearable when I only have to worry about holding a certain target heart rate zone for a certain amount of time rather than holding a specific pace. I always struggled to do pace-based tempo runs, but I've been doing pretty well with these heart rate tempo runs. They're still really hard, but I don't beat myself up if my pace wavers because my heart rate shows that I'm still working hard. 

So one month in, I'm really happy with this plan. I'm enjoying my runs more and hopefully I'll have a really strong training base when race day rolls around. 

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