I know. I’m with you. Running is hard. There was once a time in my life where I had literally never run more than a mile or so, and that was way back in middle school/high school sports, and after that 1 mile I nearly died. Running was not my thing and I never EVER thought it would be.
And then one day, just as I was starting to make an actual habit of frequenting the gym and doing things like lifting weights and getting on the elliptical, a friend said, “you should run a half marathon.” I told him it was literally the dumbest thing I had ever heard. It really was. At this point I was only getting on the treadmill for a maybe a few minutes to warm up. But 6 months later, I ran a half marathon. For real. Ran it.
That’s me right after that first race, with one of my bffls, Chanelle.
There are lots of tips and plans out there for how to be a better runner, make it easier, etc. But to actually get your body used to that type of cardio and build endurance, I believe there is one thing you really need: a heart rate monitor. Well I mean, get good shoes and stuff like that too. You need all that to get started. But to keep running, you need that heart rate monitor. I recommend getting something that will actually consistently measure your heart rate, and not using the treadmill grips that make you hold them for a million seconds before giving you a shoddy readout of what your heart rate might be. First, let me tell you why I think you need one and then let me tell you how to use it.
Why Use a Heart Rate Monitor
If you look at all the different beginners runners plans out there- they all are a little different but they all have something in common- they start you out running for a certain amount of time, maybe a minute or two, and alternate it with walking. Because as a true beginner, you’re not ready and able to run more than a minute or two before needing a walk break, and running a little at a time and gradually increasing your run time will build up your endurance. This is great, and it works, but how do you know how fast and hard to run, and what if that plan isn’t right for you? Building endurance means building cardiovascular endurance, so you need to cater your training to your current cardiovascular state. Maybe the plan starts you out at 2 minute runs, and it’s too much. Or maybe it’s not enough. The concept of the run/walk to build up your endurance is great, but knowing your heart rate helps you personalize your plan. It lets you know when you’re going too fast and pushing too hard and wearing yourself out, and when you’re slacking off because you didn’t actually need to walk that long (which is great to know as you build your endurance and maybe don’t need those longer walk breaks). Using your heart rate to tell you when and how hard to push is how you avoid wasting your time.
How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor to Build Your Endurance
Alright, there’s a little math involved here, but not much. And I made it easy for you. If you’re between the ages of 20 and 60, have no fear! There is a table below with your numbers. If you’re outside of this age range, or if you want to know where I’m getting my numbers from, here it is:
First, you need to know your maximum heart rate. An easy way to calculate your maximum is to subtract your age from 220. Now, for “vigorous-intensity physical activity” (which is what we’re aiming for when trying to build the cardio endurance), the your heart rate should be about 70-85% of your maximum. So say you’re 25 years old. Your maximum heart rate is 220-25, or 195. To get 70% of that max, multiply 195×0.7. This is your lower limit (136bpm). Now to calculate 85%, multiply 195×0.85. This is your upper limit (166bpm). Your heart rate
will stay between 136 and 166 on your run.
Find yourself on the table.
|Age||Max HeartRate||85% Max (Upper Limit)||70% Max (Lower Limit)|
Important!: if you have a health condition or have any concern that fiddling with your heart rate could be bad news bears for you, then consult your provider before initiating a program like this.
Ok, the hard part is over. So for me, my heart rate should be between about 135 and 165. Now this is it- this is the big thing- When you run, run until your heart rate is at your upper limit (i.e. 165 for me), hold it there for just a little bit (we’re talking a minute or less), and then slow down to a walk, until your heart rate goes down to the lower limit (for me it’s 135). Then run again until you hit that upper limit, then slow down until you reach the lower limit, and so on and so forth. You will notice that each time you go for a run, it will take longer for you to reach that max mark, and once you start walking, it will take less time to get down to the min, because your heart is becoming stronger and more effective. You’re basically doing interval runs that are tailored to your personal fitness level. You might start out only running for 30 seconds before you have to walk, and then you might be walking for 3 minutes before you’re down to your min. That’s alright. Each time, you’ll be able to go a little longer, and you’ll be doing what YOUR body needs. Eventually, you will get to the point where if you’re doing a steady run (not sprints), your heart rate just won’t reach that max mark. When I am doing this on a regular basis, I can run mile after mile and my heart rate will stay around 150. This is how you build cardiovascular endurance and eventually you won’t need to worry about your heart rate at all.
PS- for “moderate-intensity physical activity”, which is what you want to do for fat burn (vs cardio), your heart rate should be at 50-70% of your max. Use the above formula to figure out where your heart rate should be to make sure you stay in the zone. For me that’s about 90bpm-135bpm.
What Kind of Heart Rate Monitor to Use
You have a couple options here. When I first got started, I was running primarily on the treadmill and I used a chest strap because the treadmill would pick up my heart rate and it would display right there next to my time and mileage.
If you’re running at the gym, the treadmills there will probably pick the chest strap up. You can get one for about $30 at a site like Amazon. Hint: if you’re prone to chafing, pick up some Body Glide too, because this strap might cause some irritation.
If this isn’t your cup of tea, you could look into a fitness watch that does heart rate monitoring, like the Fitbit (only the Surge and Charge HR models have constant heart rate monitoring) or the Apple Watch. There are so many options out there for fitness watches, I recommend doing your research and finding what would work best for your budget and lifestyle. Me? I have the Fitbit Surge. I chose that model because it also has GPS functionality for outdoor runs, does constant heart rate monitoring, and also can track your “miles” even when you’re on the treadmill.
There’s also the totally-free option of monitoring your own heart rate, though this is not convenient. It involves stopping every now and then and checking your pulse. If this is how you want to get started, get good and checking your pulse. Look at your wrist, and feel for the bone right underneath your thumb. You’ll notice there’s a tendon just next to it.
Place your fingers over this area, feel for your pulse, and count the beats. To keep things moving while you’re running, count for just 6 seconds (so you’ll still need some sort of watch or time-keeping device to know how long 6 seconds is) and add a zero. If you count 12 beats in 6 seconds, your heart rate is about 120. This isn’t perfect, but it will give you a rough estimate of your heart rate and it won’t make you stop for long or make your brain explode with math.
One more thing. As any runner or trainer will tell you, you can’t just run if you want to be good at running. The method I’m talking about here is a good way to improve your endurance and increase your distance, and I would recommend doing it about once per week, increasing your mileage a little bit every time. As a rule of thumb, to prevent injury, you should increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10% every week. Your other days can and should involve things like speed work (interval runs, fartleks, tempo runs, etc.), easy short runs (once you build up to it, 3 miles is a good distance for this day), strength training, and crosstraining (swimming, biking, elliptical, etc.).
So there you have it friends. You can do this!! I can’t tell you enough how much running changed me, and I don’t think I ever would have been able to get any good at it (i.e. be able to do it for more than a minute) if it wasn’t for this method. Yes, running is still hard, and yes, sometimes I REALLY don’t want to go out for the day’s run. But some days, I look forward to the run. I always say, “I don’t always love to run. I just love that I run.”
Here I am after another half. The look says it all. Exhaustion and excitement. And a little pride.
I guess I do love running. It changes your body and your mind and gives you confidence that you didn’t know you could have. I really encourage you to get out there and do it!
Are you a runner? Do you have your own method for how you got into it?
I’m not making this stuff up: