A heart rate monitor is great tool, but here’s some of the mistakes Coach Sage sees most often when used by runners.
Coach Sage has touched on this topic a lot over the years, but he thought it needed to be updated based on some new technologies, the latest research, as well as people asking a lot of questions about heart rate based training.

🥇 Don’t compare your heart rate to others.

The first mistake people make is comparing their numbers to other runners. The numbers are relative. It’s very genetic-based when it comes to your heart rate. This is true for your maximum heart rate, as well as how your heart rate may change over time. You may have heard the rule of thumb that as you get older, it drops one beat per year of life, or it’s 220 minus your age. This is not usually the case! 🙅

Your heart rate changes as your fitness improves – especially your resting heart rate. Your whole zones could also shift over time, so me (Sage) running at seven-minute mile pace (or four minutes per kilometer pace) at 150 beats per minute, and you’re running at that pace at 180 beats per minute doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working harder or closer to your threshold than me. It may be the same sort of effort for you even though your heart rate number heart rate value is totally different. Likewise, someone may also be at 120 beats per minute and be breathing very hard and working very hard. The important take away is that there is some genetic variation in heart rate ranges between your max and your minimum heart rate.

📣 It’s NOT worthwhile comparing heart rate numbers, so don’t get caught up comparing yourself to your peers. 📣

🥈 Don’t be a slave to your sensor.

The second point I want to make is don’t be a slave to your sensor! There’s a lot of sensor error that can happen — even if you have something like a chest strap. It could trip errors, like accidentally tuning into your cadence (i.e., how many steps you’re taking in a minute). Even if you have some chest hair, it may read inaccurately. If the strap’s too loose or too tight, or it’s not getting a good connection with the electrical signals of your heart right, again, these things all cause errors.

Same thing with optical straps and sensors, which are typically found on the back of high-end running watches. These are even less accurate, generally, because for them to work, it needs to be very sensitive to surges of blood in your veins using an infrared sensor. That doesn’t always work a lot of times for many people — especially if it’s cold outside and you have cold hands. Additionally, the circulation differs between people, and yet again, the genetic variation comes into play. Finally, wrist straps are not great at getting an accurate reading especially when you’re running or you’re exercising, because your heart rate is constantly changing and fluctuating. So realize your threshold zones don’t magically change by a huge amount overnight. You don’t reach a new max without knowing it!

Now let’s talk about what IS valuable when it comes to heart rate. There is value in your resting heart rate. To get this number, you could use a sensor like a pulse oximeter at resting levels. When you wake up in the morning and you’re calm and relaxed (before you’ve had any coffee or other stimulants), you could try to get a resting pulse resting heart rate reading. Of course, you could do that manually over a span of 60 seconds by counting how many heart beats you feel. Do this by placing your fingers on your throat (you can also Google how to do this) or just over the heart to get a pulse reading over 60 seconds. If you track your resting heart rate over time and it comes down, it’s a good indicator your aerobic fitness is improving.

You can also use resting heart rate as an indicator if you had a stressful event going on. Maybe you had a bad night of sleep. Maybe you drank too many beers the night before! Maybe you’re over training a little bit. All of these things would most likely result in you having an elevated resting pulse in the morning. In conclusion, it’s not a bad idea to keep track or a log of your resting heart rate to see how it changes over the course of your training cycle.

🥉 Most people don’t know their true, 100% max heart rate.
The third mistake people make when training to heart rate, is if they’re doing “zone training” (e.g., Zone one, two, three, four, five), but not actually basing their zones on their true, 100% max heart rate. Some people like to use arbitrary formulas like, “220 minus your age” to find your max heart rate or “180 minus your age” to find your easy aerobic range. These numbers don’t always work as there’s a lot of genetic variation and your heart rate ranges and values are a moving target. A lot of people will not know their hundred percent max heart rate and there are only a few “good” ways to figure it out. The first is a Vo2Max test in a lab which will usually allow you to get up to a 100 max heart rate. There are some workouts and tests you could do, like a well-paced 3k race or two-mile race for example, progressively loading, and building to that hundred percent. But it’s very painful and still very hard to pull out of 100 max heart rate value. In reality, trying to base your zones off your 100% max heart rate is kind of a crap shoot, and that’s why I wouldn’t be a total slave to the numbers and the sensors without knowing getting some vo2max testing if that’s the route you want to go.

If you remember anything, remember this: 🙌

If you want to “un-complicate” your running life, here’s what I try to encourage my athletes to do: Go by perception. Go by your breathing rate. Know that if you want to build aerobic base, most miles are going to be low intensity aerobic base building miles. Even most of my miles (~80%) are these easy, base building miles.