For as long as I've been a runner, I've pretty much run the same way: at a comfortably hard pace. Yes, I've thrown in speed work occasionally, and I did a run/walk pattern as I prepared for Ironman Coeur d'Alene, but other than that? Variations on the same theme.
That theme: comfortably hard miles that produced a sweaty sports bra, legs that ache when I climb stairs post-run, and a body that breaks down every six to ten months, unable to withstand the pounding that running inevitably brings.
Instead of adjusting my running style to counteract the hurt, I adjusted my time spent running: from five days a week (in my twenties) to four days a week (in my thirties) to three days a week (in my forties).
With each injury, I mentally tried to move myself towards a place where the run itself was the prize. Just miles of healing, balance, rhythm. No need to race, I told myself, no need to push myself, no need to do anything but live in the step I'm in.
Even with that perspective, I inherently knew that I'd likely be retired from running within a decade, if I were lucky. A year to heal an injured foot, a left hip that hasn't stopped barking since I gave birth 12 years ago, a lower back that feels as delicate as fine china.
So when Mary-Katherine Fleming, a #motherrunner and coach in Denver, approached me at our table at ZOOMA Colorado and started telling me about her philosophy of training—heart-rate based; short strength circuits, foam rolling galore—I bit. I'm enough of an endurance sports geek to know that Mark Allen, Ironman king, swore by heart-rate training, I had the Superior 50K on my wish list, and I had nothing to lose.
I started training under MK's guidance on November 17.
She's got a couple of rules, but here's the most important one with respect to this entry: With few exceptions, your heart rate doesn't go above 140 on a run. If it climbs above that, you walk until it drops below, and then you can run again.
I know there are a bunch of different tests and formulas and zones and percentages to calculate heart rate, but MK is ridiculously knowledgeable about training and the human body, and she told me 140. I didn't need to do any max lactate or VO2 tests. (She uses the Maffetone Formula: 180-age (43): 137. She rounded up, knowing 137 is awkward—and that I'd appreciate the extra 3 beats.)
The idea is that, over time, the pace that I can comfortably run at 140 will increasingly become faster. With an increased cardiovascular base and careful, thoughtful speed work sprinkled in, I will be able to race at paces I believed I'd never see again—or I have never seen before.
I don't want this post to get as long as a half-marathon, so I've distilled my heart rate training thus far into two categories: What I am on a run, and What I am not after a run.
What I am on a run:
Slow. Note: I am about to talk about pace, and I Ioathe talking about pace because my slow is your fast and her slow is my fast and we all get caught up in numbers when a mile is a mile, no matter what speed you run.
Keeping my ticker <140 means I'm running at a pace that I've rarely seen. I used to judge a run as good when it averaged a 9:30 or below. Now my average on my runs is about two minutes slower. I've only run one sub-10 minute mile under 140: a slight downhill, wind at my back, my big dog Mason pulling me along. I won't lie: it felt good to see a 9 pop up.
And I won't lie either about making my pace public, on Strava: I wasn't sure I wanted to post it. Stupid ego. Then I got over myself because a mile is a mile.
Regardless of pace, I feel slow. I almost feel like I'm killing time, bobbing along and waiting for the real run to begin.
Alone. Talking raises your heart rate considerably, but I wouldn't know: I haven't tried to run with anybody while keeping it under 140. (Once a week, I get a "fun run" with no heart rate limit; that's when I run with my pals.)
Sometimes bored. Slow and alone can equal boring. When I set out for a long run on Saturday morning and queued up the new episode of the second season of Serial, I might have sworn when I heard they are going biweekly. Bowe Bergdahl was my Saturday morning, hour-long diversion. Music is ok, but it can't be too uptempo, or I end up running too fast. The Brandi Carlisle station on Pandora is a favorite, as are the Death, Sex, & Money; Reply All; and On Being podcasts.
On the treadmill more than ever. Probably twice a week: sometimes due to weather, and sometimes because it's just easier to keep a steady heart rate. (And I can watch Netflix: Yes, I'm totally sucked into Making a Murderer, like a good portion of this country.)
Not hurting. No injury-related pain, and no exertion-related pain. I know: I can hardly believe it either. (Knocking on wood.) I ran five days last week for a total of 35 miles. The last time I ran 35 miles in one week was likely in 1997, when I was training for the New York City Marathon.
Patient. Heart-rate training is not a quick fix. It's about building a cardiovascular base that is as solid and wide as an Egyptian pyramid, a process that can take at least eight months, if not a couple of years. Patience has never been my forte, so this is a good buy one/get one for me: What I'm learning on the road can easily translate to the rest of my life.
What I am not after a run:
Super sweaty. I ran 75 minutes this morning, which was about 35 degrees. I got home, and my sports bra was barely wet. I came home, Action Wiped, and put on clothes for the day. I need to remind myself to shower after two or three runs. (TMI? But remember: I work from home.)
Crazy hungry. Heart-rate training is supposed to teach your body to convert fat, not glucose, to fuel. (Cue the famed "fat-buring zone" of nineties cardio.) I'm not entirely sure that's going on, but I can say for sure I don't have that famished, I've got to eat all.the.THINGS appetite I used to have after a long run. I'm hungry, but hangry. My family appreciates the difference.
Tired. When you're training with a heart rate under 140, an hour-long run just can't, by definition, be hard if you've been running for a few years. I'm definitely
fatigued after a long run—my longest so far is 2 hours, 30 minutes—but it's more of a mental weariness than physical exhaustion: I'm just don't want to be in motion anymore.
That said, I have that exercised exhausted feeling at the end of the day and am sleeping well, so that's a win.
Dreading my next run. Back in my comfortably hard days, when a run exhausted me and brought me closer to another injury, I kind of dreaded the next time I'd put myself in that position. No longer: now when I head out, I know I'll be feeling the same way when I return home.
I haven't seen much improvement in my <140 pace yet, but it's only been two months. I do, however, have a pace test in the next few weeks. I took one before I started my training with MK, so I'm intrigued to see if I've become a more efficient runner. I'll report the findings. (I know: you'll be waiting on pins and needles!)
In the meantime, I'm curious: Have you trained with heart rate? Did you like it? Are you interested in it? Have questions about it? Let me know in the comments below.