The Benefits of Low Heart Rate Training for Runners

The Benefits of Low Heart Rate Training for Runners

Low heart-rate training is a method to improve running endurance and speed. It was created by Dr. Philip Maffetone and described in his book, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. The goal of low heart-rate training? To achieve faster speeds with less cardiovascular effort. In addition to strengthening your heart and boosting your speed, it can improve your form and help prevent injuries.

Long-distance running training programs, such as for 5k races and marathons, typically dictate your running pace and distance. With low heart-rate training, your running is dictated by your heart rate and distance or time — but most importantly, your heart rate. Monitoring your heart rate in real-time with a device is critical in low heart rate running since you'll need to adjust your intensity to keep your heart rate under a specific threshold. Your low heart rate training threshold, or "MAF" heart rate, is calculated using Dr. Maffetone's 180-Age formula.

Maffetone’s Low Heart Rate Training Guide

Your MAF heart rate is the maximum heart rate you should reach during low heart-rate training, so the first step is to work out your own MAF heart rate. Next, plan your running around low heart rate running by wearing a heart rate monitor, slowing your pace, and avoiding speed work. As you go, track your progress using the MAF 3-5 mile test.

The 180-Age Formula

Calculate your maximum heart rate for low heart-rate training using the 180-Age Formula:

  1. Subtract Your Age from 180
  2. Subtract 10 if you're recovering from an injury or from overtraining, or if you have a chronic illness
  3. Subtract 5 if you're overweight, currently injured, have allergies or asthma, or are new to running
  4. Add 5 to your number if you've been training for over 2 consecutive years without injury

The number you end up with is your MAF heart rate, which will change year to year (or sooner, if you experience rapid progress).

Use a Good Heart Rate Monitor

Using a reliable heart-rate monitor, you can be alerted when you go over your MAF heart rate, and adjust your running pace accordingly. Chest strap heart-rate monitors such as the Polar H10 are considered the most accurate, but a Fitbit or Apple watch will work, too. The key is to set an alert when your heart rate surpasses your MAF heart rate, so you know to slow down. If you have to walk to bring your heart rate down, do so. With continuous low heart-rate training, you'll slow your pace less and less.

Stop Speed Workouts Temporarily

Low heart rate training will improve your speed by strengthening your aerobic fitness. It will condition your cardiovascular system to require less energy to deliver oxygen to your muscles so that you're more efficient at any speed you run. That said, putting speed workouts on pause can help you get faster results from low heart rate training. Plus, you'll see the results in your speed work when you start it up again.

Focus on Form

Running slower than usual is inevitable with low heart-rate training, but you can use that to your advantage. Focus your mind on your form as you run. Straighten your posture, loosen your shoulders, and shorten your stride. When you practice good form in low heart rate training, it becomes a natural rhythm you take with you at any speed for maximal efficiency.

Test and Track Your Progress

Dr. Maffetone's low heart rate training method involves tracking your progress, starting with a baseline test before you begin training. The test used is called a MAF 3-5 mile test. 

  • 3 or 5-mile distance - If you run less than 60 minutes in your longest run, choose a 3-mile route. If you've been doing runs that last over an hour, choose a 5-mile route to complete the test.
  • Warm-up - Run the first mile at a warm-up pace by keeping your heart rate 10 beats per minute lower than your MAF heart rate. 
  • Complete the distance - Run at a pace that puts you below your MAF heart rate but as close to it as possible. To achieve this, continually slow your pace as you go along until you complete the distance.
  • Track your time - Record how long it takes you to complete your route along with the date of the test. Over time, you'll see your time reduce.
  • Repeat periodically - Repeat the test once a month in the first 2 or 3 months of low heart rate training, then test every 4 months.

Benefits of Low Heart Rate Training

Low heart rate training offers benefits to runners of all levels training for various events. Most of the benefits stem from its ability to improve your cardiovascular function.

Increased VO2 Max

Low heart rate training boosts your long-distance running endurance and speed specifically by increasing your aerobic capacity, or VO2 max. VO2 max measures your cardiovascular system's ability to deliver oxygen through your body. It affects your performance and stamina in virtually any exercise activity, and improving your VO2 max protects against heart disease.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, low-intensity endurance training achieved the same VO2 max outcomes in participants as compared to moderate-intensity training. 

Injury Prevention

Besides protecting your heart's health, low heart rate training also protects against injury. If running gives you aches and pains, your muscles may not be getting the oxygen and nutrients they need and could benefit from low heart rate training. Slower runs have lower impact on your joints, and you're able to focus on posture and form. All these factors can help you prevent common running injuries and recover faster between your workouts.

Does Low Heart Rate Training Work for Marathon Training?

Low heart rate training works as part of a marathon training regimen, especially if you've hit a plateau in your training or are experiencing frequent injuries. After you've seen improvement from low heart rate training, you can add other aspects of marathon training into your regimen, such as speed intervals. Because it boosts both speed and endurance, it's hard to go wrong with low heart rate training.

Why Runners Should Try Low Heart Rate Training

While slowing your pace and monitoring your heart rate may take getting used to, low heart rate training is worthwhile for most runners. If you're getting back into running after an injury, dealing with frequent illness or fatigue, or aren't making the progress in your long-distance running times, low heart rate training can greatly benefit you. However, runners at all levels can benefit from increasing their VO2 max, which is achieved just as effectively through low heart rate training, but at a lower intensity compared to interval workouts.
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