The Secrets of Low Heart-Rate Training

Running Technique Advice
The Secrets of Low Heart-Rate Training

What is Low Heart-Rate Training?

Low heart-rate training was pioneered by running coach Phil Maffetone, who found that it was a very efficient form of running training that improves the aerobic fitness of athletes without over training. Its benefits have already been shown by world class athletes who improved their performance  while using the low heart rate training.

Benefits of Low Heart-Rate Training

  • It increases your aerobic capacity without the strain caused by over training.
  • Eventually you will be able to run close to your race pace with a much lower heart-rate.
  • It means you will be able to maintain your training without the minor injuries and illness that can come from over training.

Running Slower to Get Faster

I discovered low heart rate training a few years ago. One of my friends bought a heart rate monitor and I tried it out on one of my daily training runs. I was shocked to find my heart rate was around 180 on even my easy runs. I felt no strain while running but on reflection I realised I would often feel tired during the day and would regularly get colds and flu-like symptoms.

Around this time I discovered Phil Maffetone, a running coach who had trained the famous triathlete Mark Allen (six time winner of the Hawaii Ironman) and was one of the pioneers of low heart rate training. Triathletes often overtrain because of the volume of training they have to do.

Maffetone had discovered that many athletes were very fit but at the same time unhealthy owing to overtraining. So after much research he came up with a form of low heart rate training which improved aerobic function without overtraining.

Maffetone's Low Heart-Rate Training Plan

The formula Maffetone came up with was 180 minus your age. You do all your training runs at this heart rate.

So I decided to try this training. I was 55 at the time so it was 180 - 55 = 125. Also there was a further modification: if you get more than two colds a year (showing your immune system was under stress) you should take off another 5 so that made 120.

So I tried to train at this new low heart rate. I had been warned that you need a lot of patience at first and this was indeed the case. I was only able to run for a short distance before my heart rate would jump up to around 180. I needed to be really self-disciplined at this point and I decided not to give up and to plough on regardless.

This continued for a couple of weeks of walk/run and was quite frustrating. But with persistent effort, after about a month, I was able to run more consistently at the low heart rate. My pace was very slow but my heart rate seemed to reset itself at this new lower heart rate after a while. Each month I got faster and after 3 months I was able to run at my normal training pace.

My Heart Rate Gets Lower as I Get Fitter

Whereas my heart rate had been around 180 at this training speed it was now 120 for short runs. Gradually each month I was able to run for longer and to keep my new low heart rate. This also meant I didn't feel so tired during the day and didn't get so many colds etc.

Does Low Heart-Rate Training Really Work?

Maffetone found that most of his top triathletes were able to gradually increase their speed each month until they could get close to their race speed while still maintaining their low heart rate.

As a running coach I have encouraged some of the runners I coach to try the low heart-rate training. They have all had good results and after the initial slowing down to adjust to the new low heart rate they were gradually able to increase their training speed back to their normal level or even faster while maintaining their new low heart rate.

One triathlete I recommended the training to was very pleased with the results. He was training with a group and he maintained a better level of performance over the season than the rest of the team, most of which were younger than him. I have also recommended the low heart-rate training to some beginner runners that I coach so that they could develop their aerobic fitness without over-training. To get the full story, including all the modifications according to your level of fitness and health, I suggest you check out Phil Maffetone's website

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Maffetone method?

Phil Maffetone is a running coach who pioneered low heart-rate training. He came up with a formula which is 180 minus your age. According to Maffetone if you do all your heart-rate training runs at this rate you will be able to develop your maximum aerobic fitness (MAF) without overtraining.

Are there any modifications to the 180-age formula?

Yes there are:

  1. If you are recovering from a major illness or operation, are on medication or burned out from overtraining, subtract 10.
  2. If you are injured, are not improving in your training, get more than two colds or bouts of flu a year, have asthma or are just starting or getting back into training, subtract 5.
  3. If you have been training for two years without any of the problems mentioned above then stick to the basic formula ( 180 minus your age)
  4. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems mentioned above and are improving your race times and have no injuries then add 5.
  5. If your are over 65 and have been training for over two years without any of the problems mentioned above and are improving your race times or performance then you can add up to 10 if you feel your body can cope with that.
  6. If you are 16 years old or younger then the 180 minus your age formula is not applicable.
  7. Instead a training heart rate of 165 could be more suitable.

How fast is it possible to improve your running speed when doing low heart rate training?

At first you will have to slow down. Provided you have no other health problems, after three to six months you should be back to your normal training speed with your new low heart-rate. Then you can spend up to 20% of your training doing speed work. The other 80% of your training should be low heart rate (MAF) training.

How can I maintain good running form while doing the low heart rate training?

It's actually more difficult to run slowly with good running form. Most runners when they slow down don't shorten their stride enough. Instead they over-stride and land on a straight leg with a heel strike, which can cause injury. So make sure you shorten your stride and land on a bent leg with a mid-foot strike (whole foot landing). Relax, have more of a glider style rather than the gazelle style of faster runners. If you struggle with good form at slow speed (and many runners do!) then book in an online coaching session with me and I can show you a few simple steps to improve your running technique while running slowly.

How can I measure my heart rate when running?

A heart rate monitor is a device that measures your heart rate. It consists of a transmitter attached to a chest strap and a receiver in the form of a watch. Since 2015 there are watches with a built-in optical heart rate monitor, which means that there is no need to wear a chest strap. When the heart beats, an electrical signal is transmitted through the heart muscle in order for it to contract. The transmitter picks up this signal and sends it to the wrist receiver which displays the data. Please see below for our recommended products.

If you need any further advice on the low heart rate training, correct running technique or running training plans, please leave me a comment below.

Best Heart Rate Monitors for Runners

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Garmin HRM Pro Plus

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Garmin Forerunner 265s

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Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor

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Garmin Forerunner 965

Garmin Forerunner 965
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Always consult your specialist before beginning any exercise programme. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.

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