Review: Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot

Cover of Heart Monitor Training Book

This is a quick review of John Parker’s book, Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot (3d ed. 2009).  If the name John Parker sounds familiar to you, it should.  He wrote what is perhaps the best novel book on running, Once a Runner.  Turns out that Mr. Parker is a pretty good coach too.  Here are the key takeaways from my quick read of this great book.

Basic Idea: Use Your HRM to Keep Recovery Runs Easy and Hard Runs Hard

Mr. Parker starts his book with an interesting proposition– stick with his program for just one month and, if you are not racing faster and feeling better, he’ll give you your money back along with a certificate of apology.  Fortunately or unfortunately, his program makes sense so that I don’t think that there will be many people demanding a refund.  Here’s the general formula for how runners should do all of their training.

  • Calculate Your Heart Rate Percentages Using the Karvonen Method. These are percentages based on your functional heart range (obviously, the range between your resting and maximum heart rates) then adds back your minimum heart rate.  Expressed mathematically,

X% of Max Heart Rate = (maxHR – minHR) x X% + minHR

  • Do All Recovery Runs at 70% Max HR.  This is the most important advice in the book.  You want to make sure that you do a recovery run at least every other day (no more back to back hard days) and that all of those recovery runs are done at a heart rate below the magical 70% Max HR.  For instance, my maxHR is about 180 and my resting heart rate is 36.  So using the formula above, my 70% Max HR is 0.7 x (180-36) + 36 = 136 bpm.
  • Use % Max HR in Your Speedwork Too.  Mr. Parker suggests different percentages for different types of speedwork.  For instance, he suggests about 80-85% for tempo efforts and 85-90% for hard track intervals.  Or, if you are a highly competitive person, you could just not look at the heart rate monitor during your speed sessions.
  • Conduct Actual Max HR Testing.  A pretty good estimate of your max HR is to subtract half of your age from 205, which just happens to hit mine exactly,  But nothing beats testing.  Find a steep hill that is 200-300 meters long and run it hard five times, progressing going faster and faster.  Jog the downhills, but permit no other rest.  The last 100 meters on the last interval should be all-out.  Watch your heart rate throughout each interval and record how your HR responds in each interval and afterwards (it may very well be highest a few seconds after the interval).
  • Follow a Build or Follow Your Own Model.  Now you can just take the heart rate “zones” (although Mr. Parker seems to hate that concept) and plug it into your training program– as long as you have at least one recovery day at no more than 70% Max HR between each hard day.  For instance, if you are a follower of the FIRST program, you can just apply it to that program.  Or, if you don’t have a specific build, Mr. Parker has dozens of pages of builds that you can follow.

Radical Advice for Triathletes

For multisport athletes, Parker suggests doing only ONE workout each day in ONE sport— three recovery workouts in each sport, three hard workouts, one day off per week, and each hard workout separated by an easy workout.  You should also strictly rotate sports so no two consecutive days have the same sport.  Lastly, each recovery workout is slightly harder than if you were strictly just a runner– instead of recovering at 70% Max HR, use 75-80% Max HR instead.  I like and dislike some of these ideas, as I will explain below.

Inspiring Personal Stories, Some Background Science, and More

My notes above are a capsule summary of the key ideas.  The text also provides some useful personal stories and testimonials describing how actual athletes have used these ideas to make breakthrough progress in their running addiction, Mr. Parker describes some of the background science to following a low heart rate training program and the importance of the hard-easy principle of running.  Most of this you probably already know about.  The science isn’t quite up-to-date (e.g. it treats lactic acid as a bad, pain-inducing chemical when it is really a fuel used by the body) but it is still educational if read with a grain of salt.

Why I Like Some of these Ideas and Dislike Others

I’ve mentioned before that I think most multisport coaches overtrain their athletes, particularly in assigning multiple back-to-back hard days in their training schedules.  I also know from personal experience that a restricted diet of slow running can be very good for a runner who tends to run too fast.  So, it should come as no surprise that I really like the idea of holding all recovery runs to 70% max HR.  What I don’t like is that I don’t think it goes far enough.  At the beginning of the season, everyone should be restricted to this same diet for four weeks with absolutely no speedwork (I don’t go as far as Philip Maffetone’s suggestion of holding runners to that low heart rate for a good part of a year before speedwork is introduced).  From my personal experience, I tend to do a good amount of my recovery running at a super slow pace.  In fact, I sometimes pepper even those easy workouts with walk breaks.  Running this slow has been essential to offsetting the effects of my speed work but I don’t think it’s enough– at some point, I just need a good 4-6 week chunk of slow stuff.  I really believe that most of us are a bit overcooked anaerobically (or at least I sure am)– spending a good long time working on the totally aerobic side of things might help “reset” our bodies so that we can approach speed work again from a healthier perspective.

I’m also not wild about Mr. Parker’s suggestions for multisport athletes and the higher intensity allowed for recovery workouts.  75-80% maxHR seems a little too high to facilitate really good recovery  He notes that recovery workouts “can be both higher quality and higher quantity workout because we no longer have to be so miserly about glycogen replenishment: you’ll have two full days before you rotate back to that sport again.”  This might have some truth for swimming (which uses entirely different muscle groups), but running and cycling both use the same leg muscles.  To be safe, I’d use the same 70% maxHR formula for all three sports.  Best to err on the side of too much recovery instead of too little.  Note also that maxHR in swimming, cycling, and running are all likely to be very different values.

I would also like to refine one of Mr. Parker’s other ideas about multisport training– limiting each day to one sport only.  I completely agree that athletes should not try to do two key workouts in different sports on the same day– heck, they shouldn’t even try to do that on back-to-back days.  As far as that goes, I don’t take issue with Mr. Parker’s suggestion; it’s the other implications that I do have a problem with.  First, I see nothing wrong with doing two recovery workouts in two sports on the same day.  In fact, there seems to be every indication that one of the most important determinants of a runner’s success is the number of times they run (as opposed to how many miles they run) in a given week.  Also, volume is pretty important for cyclists, who often spend countless hours pedaling slowly through some pretty darn miserable weather.  The only way to get that volume in is with more workouts– and that may mean doubling down on the easy stuff.  Second, I like brick workouts, which clearly violate Mr. Parker’s suggestions.  I think bricks are important at two times during the year.  During the base period, I sometimes do long but easy bike and run segments.  I find that this really helps split up the boredom of long easy workouts.  Also, during the final third phase of training, brick workouts becoming key workouts in themselves for refining the exactly specificity of race day.

Lastly, at first glance, I also didn’t like Mr. Parker’s suggestion about restricting the number of races run in a year.  In fact, his 12-week builds all end with only one race– or about 4 races a year maximum.  That’s just unacceptable to me.  I really advocate doing a ton of racing because I think that they give better training than just trying to do a hard training run.  But reading further, he does permit “running through” a race– which basically means easing up on the effort and not letting the race interfere with the training schedule.  In my lingo, I think that’s what we call a “C” race (or possibly even a “B-“).  I maintain that, if you don’t kill yourself, there’s nothing wrong with hitting a 5-10K running race at a pace that allows you to still have a hard workout two or even three days later– that still fits into any schedule by carefully folding a six-day workout schedule and day off around it.

The Other Recovery HR Formula — Mark Allen and Philip Maffetone

While we’re on the topic of low heart rate training, I thought it would be good to note the other major low HR model– the Maximum Aerobic Function HR proposed by Philip Maffetone and also made popular by Ironman legend, Mark Allen.  The basic formula is 180 – age, with the following adjustments:

  • Extended illness or time off in the last year, subtract 5 bpm
  • Work out 4+ times a week and have done so for more than a year, add 5 bpm
  • If you are either (1) 55 years old or older or (2) 25 years old or younger, add 5 bpm

How I May Try Using These Ideas

At the end of this season, I need to take some time for some R&R of an aerobic variety.  I’m thinking that sometime around mid October may be the perfect time to hang up my racing flats for awhile and just spend 2 weeks completely off and then 4-6 weeks in easy running.  Personally, I think I may start myself off on the Maffetone formula, simply because it’s a lower heart rate for me (130 bpm).  This might be the ticket to a fresher, better, and less injurious 2015.

In addition, I’m penning this post at the beginning of August after a fairly hectic race calendar this summer.  A solid 3-week period of only 70% max HR might be a nice way to prevent overcooking myself in the summer race frenzy.  By that time of year, my anaerobic system has been getting a little too much attention and I can feel a bit too much fatigue creeping in.  Plus, it’s too hot to race anyway, so it’s a perfect time for a switch.


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