Heart Rate Training: The Importance of Base Building


Heart rate training has gone through its ups and downs throughout the years. To some it is considered a fad, much like fads such as low-carb diets. To others it’s considered the most effective training method still. In my reviews of literature, I fall somewhere in between, however, I sway more toward the side of heart rate training being one of the most effective means by which to train (with important considerations…so make sure you read the entire article).

How Long

The majority of people that monitor their heart rates during workouts really don’t have much of a clue about why they are doing this or what their goal is in doing it. The goal of heart rate training should be to build a base fitness level that is enough to take you through your goal event feeling strong. To adequately build this base, science generally says it will take 4-6 months of heart rate training to build a base, depending on the distance/amount of time the event will take.  Fezzari Bicycles sells many different heart rate monitors and cycling computers.  Give them a call and they can help you find the one best for your training needs.

How Do You Determine Your Optimal Heart Rate In Training?

The ideal heart rate to train at is debated a bit, however most equations result in numbers that are similar. The equation for determining your ideal training heart rate I like best (because of the research behind it) is the one developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone. His equation is 180 minus your age. If you have had injuries caused by training (knee pain, ITB syndrome, etc), or have been sick in the last 3 months you should subtract 5. If you have been training consistently for at least 6 months without any sickness or injuries, you can add 5. If you have a chronic health problem, such as heart disease or diabetes, subtract 10.

Dr. Phil Maffetone’s Heart Rate Training Calculation Example

As an example of calculating an ideal base building heart rate, we will use a 32 year old that has only been consistently training for 2 months, so we will not add or subtract anything. Their ideal heart rate would be 148.

Value  Age Example  Ideal Training Rate
Base 180  – 32  148 bpm
Base – Injury 180  – (32 – 5)  153 bpm
Base + Healthy 180  – (32 + 5)  143 bpm

In setting a plan for base building, you first must consider your race distance. If your goal is an Ironman 70.3, most evidence says you will need at least 4 months of base building at your ideal heart rate. If it is a full Ironman (140.6), at least 6 months of base building is necessary.

While base building, all of your training is done at your ideal heart rate. Speed work, intervals, progressions, and such are thrown away. For most triathletes, this concept is VERY hard to do because we have it engrained in us that we will lose speed if we don’t do speed work. I ensure you, this is not true at all, and in fact the research, both anecdotal and empirical says you will gain speed. The goal of base building is to increase aerobic speed (the speed you can go at heart rate). Building aerobic speed is relatively easy with heart rate training. After 3-4 weeks of base building you will find that you are able to run faster at the same heart rate. Throughout the rest of base building, you will continue to improve.

What Were My Personal Heart Rate Training Results?

Now, let me share my personal experience with training in this manner. When I first began, I had been training 4 months consecutively without injuries. I was doing a lot of speed work and going anaerobic in nearly every workout. My body constantly felt like it was recovering. Initially, I could run a 7:50 pace at a heart rate of 148. While training at heart rate, I felt MUCH better. My body nearly always felt fresh, long runs didn’t kill me, back to back runs were now possible, and I got sick less often. After 3 months I was able to run a 7:25 pace at a heart rate of 148. Then I hit race season (without having done any speed work at all). Here are the results in the run:

  • Race 1 (sprint tri) – 6:14 pace (compared to 6:55 the prior year)
  • Race 2 (sprint tri)- 6:13 pace after averaging 25.0 mph on bike (didn’t do this race the prior year)
  • Race 3 (olympic tri) – 6:37 pace after averaging 24.1 mph on bike (compared to 6:53 the prior year)
  • Race 4 (olympic plus tri) – 6:23 pace after a bike route that had 1500 ft of climbing (7:03 prior year)

I would look at my watch after each race and wonder where these times were coming from because I was now standing on the podium.

Regarding my improvements, they fall exactly in line with what the research says you can expect. After your base building period, I usually recommend adding speed work 1-2 days per week. In my case in the year referenced above, I didn’t get to add speed work because I began my base building so late. I used my races as my speed work.

Heart rate training is effective, reduces injuries, and reduces general stress on the body. It remains one of the most effective means of training for endurance athletes.

  1. Gordon,
    Were talking about heart rate traing to establish a base. In the winter months you can work on this and keep one work out per week doing intervals. I think what the goal here is to develope speed or distance with out increasing the heart rate.

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