Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Low HR Training

So what I'm going to be writing about here is the training program that I have been using mostly on, but sometimes off over the past 28 years. What has brought me back here is my recent increasing fatigue, poor training and knee problems...let me explain how I began and came to this...

Back in 1978 I was training for my first marathon, the NYC marathon and did the training that it seemed everyone was doing. Run as much as you can fit in, but one thing this inexperienced runner didn't know was how to pace. I was running along the Charles River bike path back then and was running as hard as I could every day, figuring that my body would get used to this and eventually get even faster! Ha! It doesn't work this way... I ended up finishing the marathon, running it in 3:45. I felt great, I finished a marathon!

Well, of course now I want to run one faster and luckily I fell into the right training program by finding a small book published by Runner's World called "The Van Aaken Method" by Dr. Ernst Van Aaken. In his writing, Dr. Van Aaken mentioned of rarely going above a HR of 130-150 and possibly lower. Training at these low HR's built a large aerobic engine, which enabled you to go for miles burning fat, instead of sugar. He said that no more than 5% of your training miles should be faster than this pace.

I immediately began running to and from work at slow paces (HR monitors did not exist yet for the average person), running as many miles as I could on the weekend and included one 2.5 mile race every Saturday morning. I was running up and over 70 mpw, but almost all at a slow pace.
One year after my first marathon I ran 2:59 at the 1979 NYC marathon. Hey, this training works! 6 weeks later, most of which was recovering from NY and a few tune-up shorter races, I ran a 2:49:08 at the 1979 Cape Cod Marathon in December.

I was now on to something...soon more books went through my hands and eyes, one being Tom Osler's "Serious Runner's Handbook". This book was also an eye opener, as I learned about Ultrarunning and how Tom would run to the beach, some 50 miles away for training and meet his family there. Almost always running at a slow pace, Tom was another runner that was a champion and a low HR runner. You can read some of his material, which was the basis for his book here and here.

As the years went on I got more into Ultrarunning, but not until the late 90's...before that I had trouble ever getting another PB in the marathon (although I ran many 2:49's, because you had to, to run Boston). This is because I would continually return to the typical interval based training that most good runners use. My best year was 1981, when I was running to and from work, all slow, up to and some weeks beyond 100 mpw. With this I ran a couple of sub 2:50 marathons, a 16:32 5K and a 4:55 mile on the track....all on mostly slow running, but high mileage.

In 2002, I tripped at the Wasatch 100 and injured my back that I thought was my hamstring. In my research for answers on it, I found Phil Maffetone and the work he had been doing with low HR training. I dove in (again) and thoroughly enjoyed running again. I did have trouble running at his extremely low heart rates (this time I had a monitor) because it made me need to walk every hill I got near...but according to Maffetone, stick with it and you will get faster. I did and I did, but not as fast as I wanted. So I looked into it even more and after discussing with a coach who just so happens to be a pro-triathlete, his suggestion was to find my max and run at 70% of that for most of my running. I later found out that Maffetone's formula had me running more at 60%. I at the time thought this was too slow, but I continue to learn. Nate's max HR test, which I did several times over the course of a month had my max at 187, my resting was and still is around 48. So with all of that in order to train at 70%, I had to keep my HR under 141. Maffetone's formula had me at 133, so it's pretty close...

After reading Phil Maffetone's book, I found Stu Mittleman's "Slow Burn". Maffetone was Stu's coach when he was setting Ultrarunning records in the 100 mile and 6 day races. In Slow Burn, Stu said it was ok to go a little above Maffetone's formula numbers, but only by about 5....but he also said that you still gain a lot of endurance and the increased fat burning as fuel at even lower heart rates! Stu also in his book tried to describe how you should feel when fat burning or sugar burning. Fat burning you should feel like you are in a 3D world with sounds of birds and wind, you are very aware of your surroundings. Sugar burning you feel as if you are in a tunnel with the world painted on the walls, streaming by you as you try to fill your lungs with oxygen. I am now in the process of re-reading this book to bring me back to the world of freshness and restfulness. Sometimes I feel like I need to come back once in awhile and I feel the older I get the more I need to come back sooner and sooner.

Another of Phil Maffetone's athletes was the famous Triathlete, Mark Allen. Mark struggled to place in the Ironman until he hooked up with Maffetone, who showed him that his hard training was overtraining! Mark took on Phil's low HR training and had to suffer through slow miles for several months, but soon the 8.5 mpm that he was training at became 5.5mpm, all on slow running. Mark went on to win the Hawaii Ironman 6 times. Here is a great article by Mark. From what I understand another Triathlete, Mike Pigg could not beat Mark Allen....that is until HE started training with Phil Maffetone. ;-)

Ever since Hardrock of last year, which I trained for with a low HR training method, I wanted to see how fast I could get at the age of 57. So what did I did I do? I bought a copy of Peter Pfitzinger's "Advanced Marathoning" . I tried the best I could to implement Pete's training, even at his lower mileage which is about what I usually run, but it wore me down. I almost thought that maybe I was getting too finally happened, after 34 years, running was too much for me! I even failed at two marathon attempts....a year ago after doing nothing but easy training and some 5K's here and there, I cruised through a road marathon in 3:45, qualifying for Boston. After trying some harder training this year, I dropped out of my first marathon with a knee injury and then struggled through another in 3:51. What I learned was it was time to yet again return to what I knew worked for me and has been working for many years, Low HR Training.

Here is a link to a friend of mine's FAQ on Low HR training....lots of good stuff in there...

More links on Low HR training or just HR training...

Hadd who says to train at about 50 bpm below your max.

Matt Carpenter learned that HR training is the way to go...
(Matt is an Olympic Trails marathoner and world class ultramarathoner)


Letsrun discussion on Van Aaken ...
and another

Also here is a good Low HR training discussion forum that I started a couple of years ago on Running Ahead.

I guess that's it for this time....if I think of anything else, I will add it, but this is something that is very debatable in the running circles, but for me it works better than beating myself up. I think if it meant that I could not be competitive anymore, I would still stick with this type of training.
The nice thing about Low HR training is when you're done running you don't feel like you've done anything...which in turn makes you run more, which in turn helps you improve with increased mileage. I've never been one to like things that are instant and Low HR training takes time. Mark Allen in his three months of very Low HR training every year, calls it his patience phase. Try it, you might like it! If you have any questions about it, you can email me at ultrastevep at gmail dot com.

Til next time!
My training log


Dan said...

Steve, thanks for a very informative post. I do most of my running at an easy pace but don't use a monitor. Perhaps I should get one and give this a try.

olga said...

I think that's what I do, even if without knowing it and why. Lets see if it brings me anywhere:)

ultrastevep said...

Dan, there is no comparison to wearing a monitor. You may "think" you're running easy, when in fact you are above where you need to be for aerobic development. Once you get there you can dabble in some faster running, but not for too long before you have to return to the slower paces. Maffetone states that if you go above your MAF you compromise your aerobic building...
Here's a monitor I just found that's pretty inexpensive, although I do think the Polar models are best.
go to and look around for the Reebok monitor.

ultrastevep said...

Olga....this type of training works really well for Hardrock ;-)

But like I said to Dan, if you're not wearing a monitor, you really don't know where you are training!

Dan said...

Steve, Thanks for the tip! I think I'll look into the Polar monitors and also the books you reference.

Run Home Pam said...


Great post! I have been reading Maffetone at your suggestion. Here's your Zen quote for the day, because it seems oddly appropriate:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters.
When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains,
and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see
mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

Ch'ing yan Wei Hsan (Zen guy).

What goes around comes around!

Geri Lynn Sanchez said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, Steve! It was a great read, interesting & informative. I will definitely give it a try! Cheers!!
Geri Lynn Sanchez - Dailymile friend.