Heart Rate Training, Explained

There’s been quite a bit of chatter lately about heart rate training. What is it? What does it mean? What good does it do? I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about how it works and why it’s important, but explaining it in a thread of Facebook comments is somewhat cumbersome and I think it’s worth diving into further. So here we go.

When I first started running, like most new runners, I was entirely focused on pace. I wanted to be fast, so I ran fast. As fast as I could, all the time. Every run ended the same way. Me, in a pile of exhausted, panting in the living room floor. Pooped. Kinda feeling sick. Must take a nap. Now.

What I didn’t realize was, I was shortchanging myself. I was running too fast. Yes, you can run too fast.

Let me explain.

Two process help our bodies bring necessary fuel to our muscles during exercise: aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism. Though they never work exclusively, one will always dominate depending on the intensity of exercise. The less intense aerobic process uses oxygen to turn fat into fuel and the more intense anaerobic process converts stored glycogen (sugar) into energy in the absence of oxygen.

Confused? Stay with me.

When you run slowly, you’re not working hard; your heart rate is low and breathing is slow. Your body is burning mostly fat. Fat metabolism is an oxaditive process – meaning your body needs oxygen to turn your fat stores into usable energy. If your heart rate is low, and your breathing is controlled, you are providing your body plenty of oxygen to burn your fat.

The faster your move the more your fat metabolism revvs up and the more oxygen your body demands. As soon as your body demands more oxygen than you can effectively deliver (a.k.a. you start breathing hard or panting), an oxygen defect is created and your body starts looking for an alternative source of fuel that doesn’t require oxygen for metabolism- enter glycogen (sugar).

If fat is your gas tank. Sugar is your nitrous oxide boost.

The heart rate in which your body switches from primarily fat burning to sugar burning is called your lactate threshold.

As long as you stay in that happy, I’m-not-panting zone your exercise is self-sustaining and you can almost run forever off stored fat. But with only 2,000 calories of glycogen (sugar) available, there’s really not that much there. Wanna know why marathoners hit the wall? They’re exceeding their body’s ability to burn fat and they run out of sugar. That’s it.

Got it? Good.

But what does that have to do with running too fast?

You can manipulate how your body burns fat and sugar by how fast you run during training. Your body adapts to the stress placed on it. Which means, the more you stress your body in the oxygen demanding, fat burning, slow, I-love-running, happy zone, the more efficient your body becomes at delivering oxygen to your muscles and burning fat.

How does it become more efficient? Inside, you grow more capillaries to deliver available oxygen to muscle cells and you produce more mitochondria which use that oxygen to turn fat into fuel. You’re literally growing new body parts. Pretty cool, huh?

This is aerobic development. And guess what? You don’t grow body parts overnight. Aerobic development is a slow process which takes WEEKS, MONTHS and even YEARS.

Run a lot. Run slower. Become more efficient. Be patient. Get faster. It’s an easy process that pays off.

What is the secret formula for determining the ideal heart rate for training?

If you’re an advanced athlete, getting a VO2 max test done will be beneficial. Use the results and stay at the top end of zone 2 – but most recreational athletes can get by with using an age based formula.

180- your age with the following modifications:

-10, if you’re recovering from major illness or are on regular medication, or you’ve never exercised before
-5, if you are coming back from a layoff, or workout 1-2 times per week
+/-0, if you work out 3-4 times per week
+5, if you’ve been running injury free for at least 2 years and/or work out 5+ times per week, or are older than 60/younger than 20

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not had a VO2 max test done and am training with the 180-age formula. I’m 38 years old and I add 5 because I run a gazillion times a week.


142+5=147 is my target.

I’ve spent the past 15 months running at a heart rate of slightly less than 147, with the exception of a handful of speed sessions leading up to Boston, and it’s paying off, in spades.

Wanna see the proof?

This was my first heart rate based run (see image below), April 20, 2016. I had qualified for Boston only three months earlier; I was in the best shape of my life. I thought I was the sh!t. I was served a big fat piece of humble pie on a giant silver platter.

Average heart rate 145. Average pace 10:30/mile. Chew on that. Ugh. Maybe I wasn’t in as good of shape as I thought.

Notice the peaks and valleys in the heart rate as I struggled to keep it under control? Just a slight change in pace caused a significant increase in heart rate as my body teetered on the edge of being able to deliver enough oxygen to my muscles.

Fast forward a year and three months. This run was July 20, 2017 (see image below). Average heart rate 142. Average pace 9:10/mile. The cool part is, this includes my warm up. The further into the run I got, the faster I could go as my heart got in sync with what I was asking it to do. By the time my body was moving efficiently at mile 3, I was at an 8:13. For me, that’s sub-BQ pace, at a heart rate of 147. Pretty freggin’ cool.

Notice how steady my heart rate is? My body isn’t struggling to deliver oxygen. My heart is easily able to keep up with the oxygen demand as I slowly increase my pace.

Both runs are public on Garmin Connect if you’d like to click the links and look at the data.

What does it boil down to? The aerobic base is secret speed training.

Think about it this way. Everyone has a maximum heart rate which doesn’t really change except with age. So, if my heart is beating at 145 bpm at a 10:30 and my max heart rate is a 185, by the time I get down to an 8:00/mile I’m thinking OMG-I’m-going-to-die! BUT if at the same heart rate I’m running an 8:15 instead, my OMG pace is closer to a 6:30/mile. All of a sudden my performance is no longer limited by my heart, it’s limited by my legs.


This aerobic base is the key to running fast over time. Though speed work has its place in training – its effects are lost more quickly once de-training begins. Aerobic development, however isn’t lost so easily, so you don’t loose quite as much speed between training cycles. And when it’s time to train for a race you can do significantly less speed work.

What’s more, the slower pace is less stressful on your body, allowing your body to naturally build up it’s smaller stabilizing muscles as your pace increases over time and lowering your chances of overuse injury. So next time you’re tempted to up the pace of your run remember, you have to run slow before you can run fast! Slow down!

UPDATE: I wrote this article in mid-July and I’ve since had a VO2 Max test done (9/14/17). Since I have not yet been able to use the results of the test in training, I am refraining from including any of that information in this post. I will write a separate post about the test itself and the results.

Becoming A Swimmer

I have a confession. I hate swimming. Maybe it’s claustrophobia? Maybe I don’t like staring at the bottom of a pool? Maybe I don’t feel comfortable in the water? Maybe I don’t like restricted breathing?

Most likely, I don’t like being stuck in my own head. There’s some creepy stuff in there, y’all.

Whatever the reason, we aren’t friends. Getting to the pool, even once a week, is a challenge.  I LOVE running and I LOVE cycling (which will be its own post) but swimming and I are having relationship issues. I know I need to swim. But I never WANT to swim.

I bought a cheap waterproof MP3 player off Amazon and it helped. The sound quality is horrible, everything sounds like it’s being played through a tin can, but it distracts me enough to keep me in the pool a little longer…and for only $30, it was worth it.

I did my first open water swim a week before Cypress Tri.

Before I started, I took a selfie.

Here it is.

Don’t I look excited??

A couple of minutes into the swim, about 100 yards from shore, as I bobbed up and down unable to see my hand in front of my face, I had a moment, not of panic but of WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Let’s just say, I’m glad I signed up for Ironman before my first open water adventure…because you can bet, as sure as the sun shines, that I would have chickened out right then and there.

2.4 miles of this? Oh hell no. Nope. No way. Uh no.

Which leaves me with quite the conundrum. I have to swim nearly 2.5 miles, in a lake, in 10 months. This girl needs some serious open water practice and some serious time in the pool. Serious, like as in, every day.

Which leaves me here, semi-complaining about how much I don’t like to swim. Well, it’s time for that to change.

Upon recommendation from a friend, I bought Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes. It’s full of great exercises and drills that you do both in and out of the pool. I joined a local swim club and have been swimming there twice a week, and I am spending another two hours a week in the pool at the Y.

Much like anything else I don’t really enjoy, swimming is an opportunity to grow – to take the person that I am today and turn myself into a better person tomorrow.

To take a part of me that is weak and do whatever it takes to make it strong.

Whatever. It. Takes. No excuses. No complaining.

I may never genuinely love swimming, but then again – there was a time when I thought I would never love running either…

…there’s hope, and that’s all I need.

San Antonio & Weekly Workout Recap

I’ve fallen into a pretty solid workout routine lately but this week it all got messed up due to an impromptu trip to San Antonio.

We left last Sunday morning and came back on Tuesday afternoon with one goal. Eat all the food.

And we did.

The first stop Sunday was lunch in Lockhart at Black’s Barbecue. 1/2 pound of moist brisket, a link of sausage, mac n cheese and peach cobbler. Plate cleaned.

Then dinner at Ruth Chris on the Riverwalk. Look, y’all! I own something other than running shorts!

A loaf of bread, three lump crab cakes, some lobster mac and cheese, a glass of wine, and whiskey bread pudding. Ooof. So much food. 

I woke up Monday morning early, intending to go for a run on the Riverwalk. Unfortunately, the weather hand different plans. Instead, I went downstairs to the most awesome hotel fitness center ever and I ran 6 miles on the treadmill while I watched it rain horizontally outside.

By late morning the rain was tapering off so the Food Tour de San Antonio continued with brunch at Magnolia Pancake Haus. Two eggs over easy, two slices of bacon and two blueberry pancakes. Yum.

That afternoon we walked from the hotel to The Friendly Spot, a really cool icehouse in the King William district.

Then, we went down the street to Rosario’s. I had some amazing soft tacos on corn tortillas (Griselda’s Tacos Callejeros) and drank a Mexican Handshake (I have no idea what was in it) then ate crepes, stuffed with vanilla bean ice cream and drizzled with housemade Mexican caramel. Yum.

Tuesday morning, I was determined to get the Riverwalk run that I’d missed the day before. So first thing, I tossed on my running clothes and went downstairs.

It took all of 3 steps to figure out that my legs felt like lead weights and I’d rather be in bed. I cringed through a whole mile before going back to the hotel and admitting defeat.

After my run, we headed out to breakfast at The Guenther House.

I ate the most delicious Strawberry Sweet Cream Waffle on the entire planet. After that we got in the car and headed home. Fun over.

The remainder of the week, my workouts all felt a little “off.”


Needless to say, I’ve been slightly more cognizant of my food intake since we got back.

Here’s what the rest of workout week looked like:

Swim Bike Run
Monday 6 miles
Tuesday 1 mile
Wednesday 1900 yards 7 miles
Thursday 2200 yards 6 miles
Friday  600 yards 5 miles
Saturday 8 miles
Sunday 51 miles 4 miles

Swim – 1 hour, 49 minutes
Bike – 3 hours, 2 minutes
Run – 7 hours, 41 minutes
Strength Training – 1 hour

Total – 13 hours, 34 minutes

Triathlon #1: Cypress Triathlon

The road to Ironman started this past Sunday, when I did my first triathlon. Cypress Triathlon was a sprint distance event held in a local neighborhood with about 1000 participants. It was a FUN event and I’m already planning on doing it again next year!

I’m not going into much technical detail here because no one really cares about splits and transition times instead I’ll just let you look at the pictures and talk about the pleathora of things I learned on Sunday.

Because when you do something for the first time it’s nothing, if not a learning experience. Right?

First of all, when they say sprint triathlon, they really mean SPRINT triathlon. There was panting. There was grunting. And expletives. And PAIN. Because me being me, I couldn’t just enjoy it and have a good time while figuring out how to do an entirely new sport, oh no. I had to give it an all out effort – because I don’t have an off button.

I was excited before the race. I met a friend and we ran a warm up mile and just prior to the start I climbed in the lake and did a little open water warm up. Everything felt good. The lake was warm and getting a chance to experience the water before the start helped ease my nerves, of which there were many.

I had done the practice swim the weekend prior so I had an idea of what open water swimming would be like but I’d never done it in a race before. The biggest lesson of the day was that open water swimming does not equal pool swimming. It really is a free for all. No rhyme or reason, no passing on your left, no organization of any kind. Every man for himself. There’s kicking, grabbing, and all sorts of blind inappropriate touching. Yeah.

It kinda resembles this:

It was HARD. I had a tough time finding a rhythm because people kept stopping in front of me. About 100 yards from the swim exit I started feeling tired, slightly claustrophobic, and a little panicky. All I wanted was to get out of the water and fast.

Transition #1 went well. I had practiced in the back yard the week before, so it was not unfamiliar. Wipe grass off feet, put on bike shoes, helmet, glasses, and gloves. Grab bike and go!

Things were better once I got on the bike. I’ve spent a lot of time on it lately and I’m getting used to it. I’m finally comfortable riding in aero, which honestly is terrifying. No lie.

Transition #2 was uneventful. Drop off bike. Take off helment. Put on running shoes. Done. Onto the run.

Those first few steps were exceptionally painful. Apparently, running after biking leaves me with the flexibility of a steel post. For the first time EVER I hit the magic 180 steps per minute on a run…because it was physically impossible to make my strides longer than two feet. But apparently, I can penguin waddle a 7:40/mile. Pretty impressive.

3.1 miles of torture later and finish! Not too bad for a first attempt! In four weeks, I get another shot. Town Lake Tri is on Labor Day! Until then, you can find me in the pool.

Ironman Training, The Starting Point

This weekend I’m doing my first triathlon, Cypress Tri. It’s a sprint distance (550 yard swim, 12 mile bike, and 5k run), which I should be able to complete with no problem. It’s more ceremonial than anything else. Being my first triathlon, it marks the unofficial beginning of Ironman Texas training. I have 10 months to learn how to be a triathlete and it all starts Sunday.

For those of you who don’t know what an Ironman is, let me explain. It’s a triathlon, which begins with a 4,200 yard open water swim, is followed by a 112 mile bike ride and finishes with a 26.2 mile run (yes, a full marathon). As you may imagine with an event of this magnitude, the training is difficult.

Peaking at 18-20 hours per week, for a beginner, it’s an average of three hours per day of training.

Three. Hours. Per. Day.

It’s not to be taken lightly. It takes both physical and emotional energy, and will impact all aspects of my life. Relationships. Energy levels. Appetite. It’s a test of endurance in more ways than one.

I thought it would be fun to document the training, how it impacts my life, my diet, my body and my routine. It’s going to be quite the adventure..

Much like the “before” and “after” photos in weight loss commericals, the journey is best documented when starting at the very beginning. Today’s post is about just that – where I am now.  Training. Food. Body composition. The whole shebang.

So, here we go.


I run 6 days a week, averaging 40-45 miles total, I bike twice a week and swim once to twice a week. My workout routine looks something like this…

Monday: 6-7 mile run
Tuesday: 6-7 mile run & 2200 yard swim
Wednesday: 20 mile ride & 6-7 mile run
Thursday: 6-7 mile run
Friday: 30+ mile ride
Saturday: 10 mile trail run
Sunday: 6-7 mile run or something else light and fun like mountain biking

Things get switched up every week but this is a good snapshot of how things usually go. It’s not much different than my routine when training for Boston, just without the massive long runs on Saturday and epic weight lifting sessions.

When training for Boston, I peaked at 15 hours per week of cardio and since then it’s dropped down to about 12 hours. The training abyss between 15 and 20 hours is the area of the unknown.


When it comes to nutrition, for the past several years, I’ve followed the 80/20 rule and it works pretty well for me.

80% of the time I eat a whole food diet that’s high in fat and protein with a few carbs. I generally eat all types of meat but try to limit each kind to once a week so I don’t overdo it.  The carbs I do eat are mostly fruits, vegetables and full fat dairy. I tend to avoid wheat, white rice, grains, refined sugar, syrup, etc. If I’m training for an event and my body needs an additional shot of carbs to recover from a workout I’ll eat rolled oats or brown rice.

The other 20% of the time (mostly on the weekend), I eat whatever strikes my fancy. If we go out for breakfast and a cinnamon roll is staring me in the face saying ,”EAT ME,” you can bet I’m going to eat it.

I drink 2-3 servings of alcohol per week. Most of the time, it’s wine or beer. I also have 2 cups of coffee a day, which I drink black or with a little half and half, depending on my mood.

Because I follow the 80/20 rule, I don’t count calories. I eat until I’m satisfied. If I’m still hungry, I eat a little more, all within the bounds of my “rules.”

Breakfast is usually my biggest meal and also the highest in fat and protein, lunch is the second largest and dinner is the smallest. The carb content of each meal increases as I get closer to the end of the day. I’m not exactly sure why, but it works for me.

I know that as training intensifies, my diet will change significantly. Past experience has taught me that getting enough calories becomes difficult as I get closer to 15 hours per week of exercise. My 80/20, whole food, diet turns into the Michael Phelps diet, so I can only imagine what will happen as the 15 hours turns to 20. The words “moving dumpster” come to mind.


My body operates well on 8 hours of sleep a night; ideally, that’s what I shoot for. Lately, stress and a few other factors have caused it dip into the 6-7 hour range. Most of the time I go to bed around 10, fall asleep around 11 and wake up sometime between 5-6 AM.


My eating habits keep me pretty lean. I was body fat tested during Boston training and it was 19%. I suspect it’s probably closer to 20-21% now, as I’ve gained a few pounds and lost a bit of muscle since then.

As of this morning, I weigh 128.8 pounds and my current measurements are as follows…

Upper Arms: 10.5″
Chest: 33″
Waist, at smallest: 27.5″
Waist, at largest: 33.5″
Hips: 37″
Thighs, at largest: 22.5″
Thighs, at smallest: 17.75″
Calves: 14″

For the record…because I feel like I need to say this…IRONMAN IS NOT ABOUT LOSING WEIGHT. It’s not about loosing inches, or changing my body shape in any way. It’s not about looking better in a swimsuit or looking skinner in pictures.

Much like Boston, I’m doing it to challenge myself and to test the limits of my physical and mental endurance. BUT, I recognize as I take my body into the unknown, that it will change and adapt and I’d be remiss if I didn’t document the starting point…

…which includes a picture. I’m not exactly modest and I’m no stranger to posting swimsuit pictures on the internet, but that doesn’t make me any more comfortable with being scantily clad in front of the world. Regardless, here it is, in all it’s running-tan-line glory.

That’s it! Let the training begin!

Listen To Your Body

Listen to your body.

You hear experienced athletes say this all the time. But what does it mean?

A few weeks ago I went through something which is all too common. I felt off. You know when you can just tell that something isn’t quite right?

I hadn’t been sleeping well. I fought bouts of acid reflux. I had a hard time concentrating. I didn’t want to meet my friends for our Saturday morning trail run.

On top of that, I lost my running shoes. I lost my running shoes.

I. Lost. Them.

They were gone for two days before I finally found them.

I was texting my running partner about my epic case of scatterbrain and you know what he told me?

Listen to your body!

I hadn’t thought about that. He was right.

Something wasn’t right and my body was telling me about it. It was my job to listen.

I am constantly telling my clients to “listen to your body,” and it’s true. Your body is constantly communicating with you. You can learn a lot about yourself if you tune into its cues. I listen to my body a lot – especially when it comes to random aches and pains but I hadn’t thought that the other random symptoms I’d been experiencing were my body’s subtle way of telling me that something was wrong.

Listening to your body means knowing what is normal for you and what isn’t. It means getting to know your body on an intimate level. Is that slight ache below your knee new, or has it been there for a while?  Is it normal for you to have a tightness in your hip after a run?

How has your sleep been? Have you been overly tired? Cranky? Are you unusally forgetful? Craving carbs? Do you normally struggle to get out the door?

Listening to your body, means reading your body’s subtle cues and actually taking action. Yes, it’s hard to take time off but it’s easier to recover from a injury if you catch it early. It’s always better to take a few days off now than being forced to take a few weeks off later.

In my case, I wasn’t fighting a physical injury but I WAS fighting a mental one. Some significant stress in my personal life, in addition to maintaining my hefty weekly base mileage, was enough to send my body into the early phases of Overtraining Syndrome.

That next weekend, I let my Saturday morning trail crew go alone. Instead of waking up at 4:00 am, I woke up at 6:30 am. Instead of running, I sat on my back patio and drank a cup of coffee – and I was totally okay with it.

coffee on patio

I took THREE DAYS off. I normally run six days a week, often times twice a day, so taking three days off is a big deal.

Instead of running I caught up on my sleep, spent the extra time with my family, took my kids to the playground and to the pool at the Y. I cleaned the house and did the laundry.

By the next Monday I was ready to run again. I wanted to run again. My energy level was higher, my reflux was gone, I was able to concentrate on my trail runs. I was happier. My poor body needed the break.

As runners, we all love our hobby, and it’s easy to let that passion overshadow the very real possibility of injury. The next time something feels off take a step back and ask yourself what your body is saying. It’s your job to listen.

Ironman Texas!

Y’all I registered for Ironman Texas. Not sure what I was thinking.

An Ironman has been on my radar for several years. The idea was planted shortly after my son was born. We bought a BOB Ironman branded running stroller and my husband made some comment in passing about needing to do an Ironman since we had the stroller. My immediate response was, “Have you lost your mind?!”

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. I put it on my bucket list, along with running Boston and completing an ultra.

Last fall, I started to think about life after Boston. I’d dedicated a large chunk of physical and emotional energy to that race, and I knew I’d be battling some severe post-marathon blues. Having another goal was important to get me through the inevitable post-race let down.

Around that time Ironman came up in a conversation with a friend and it made me think about it again. Perhaps that’s what I needed to focus on after Boston? I’ve been batting the idea around since then – thinking it over in my head, and talking to friends about it. No commitment. Just talk.

I talked to several friends who have completed the half and full Ironman distance. They know me, they know my fitness level, they know my training schedule…they all said I could do it with no problem.

I would love to say I have all the confidence in the world but I’m truly terrified and that’s what kept me from registering when it opened the week prior.

On Monday afternoon, I drank a beer (liquid courage!), and pulled up the IMTX registration page. I slowly started filling out the form telling myself that nothing was official until I entered my credit card information…

…when I got to the payment screen I just stared at my computer. Did I really want to do this? I’ve never done a triathlon so clearly an Ironman is a good place to start, right?

Staring at that payment screen, my heart raced and my hands shook. Knowing there’s no better time than the present, I typed in my credit card info and hit submit before I had a chance to change my mind.

Holy. Crap.