Like most runners, I run first and foremost because I enjoy it, and only secondarily for the many health benefits that come with it. But those benefits are nothing to sneeze at. Running is proven to boost cardiovascular health, keep the brain youthful, and reduce the risk for chronic diseases, such as type-2 diabetes. Running also happens to be the most effective form of exercise for weight loss. Studies show men and women who run shed more pounds than those who spend an equal amount of time walking or swimming. Still, many runners don’t lose as much weight as they could because of one simple mistake: they’re not training at the right intensity. Fortunately, you can avoid this trap with heart-rate based workouts.
According to research, there are two types of runs that are especially effective for weight loss. The most powerful program is one that combines the two: fat-burning runs and high-intensity interval runs. Fat-burning runs are slow, steady runs undertaken at the intensity where the muscles rely most heavily on fat for fuel. This type of run torches more fat than any other type. High-intensity interval runs feature multiple short bursts of very fast running. These workouts promote weight loss by keeping the body’s metabolism elevated for hours afterward.
If you’re like most runners, you spend very little time running in either the low-intensity zone that maximizes fat burning or the high-intensity zone that boosts post-exercise metabolism. More than likely, you’re running between these zones, at a moderate intensity that is not as effective for weight loss. Why? It’s probably because most of us tend to run by feel, and it just so happens that the natural running pace for a majority of runners falls in the moderate-intensity range.
Heart-rate based workouts offer a way out of the moderate-intensity trap. With a heart-rate monitor, running in the maximum fat-burning zone or the high-intensity zone is as easy as targeting your correct heart-rate range. In the five-zone system I use as a coach, for example, the zones are based on lactate-threshold heart rate (not maximum heart-rate), and can be established by running a 30-minute time trial and noting your average heart rate during the last ten minutes, or by using the Pear mobile app. The zones break down like this:
Zone 1: 75-80% of lactate threshold (LT) heart rate (HR)—Very easy effort; use this for warming up.
Zone 2: 81-89% of LT HR—The fat burning zone! Comfortable enough to hold a conversation.
Zone 3: 96-100% of LT HR—“Hard-ish” effort; you can still speak in short sentences.
Zone 4: 102-105% of LT HR – Hard effort; the pace is sustainable, but talking is not.
Zone 5: 106%+ of LT HR—The high-intensity zone! This pace can only be kept for a few minutes.
Here are two simple workouts that tap into the power of heart-rate based training to add to your weekly routine:
Fat-Burning Run: Warm up with 5 minutes of easy jogging in Zone 1. Next, increase your effort slightly to Zone 2, which is where the maximum rate of fat burning occurs. Stay in Zone 2 for at least 20 minutes and then cool down for 5 minutes back in Zone 1
High-Intensity Interval Run: Warm up with 5 minutes of easy jogging followed by 5 minutes of comfortable running in Zone 2. Next, increase your effort to Zone 4. After 2 minutes, reduce your effort to Zone 1 and recover for 3 minutes. Repeat this pattern—2 minutes in Zone 4, and 3 minutes in Zone 1—four times. Finally, cool down with 5 minutes of easy jogging in Zone 1. [Note: Your heart rate will climb through at least the first half of each 2-minute interval, and it may not reach Zone 4 until near the end. Don’t try to run faster to get your heart rate into Zone 4 sooner. Instead, run at the slowest steady pace that is sufficient to elevate your heart rate into Zone 4 before each interval is complete. Likewise, your heart rate will steadily fall during each 3-minute recovery period. Don’t worry if it doesn’t get all the way to Zone 1 before the next Zone 4 interval starts. Just run slow enough so that your heart rate would reach Zone 1 eventually.]
What do you say, ready to try heart-rate based running? What’s your favorite running workout?
Matt Fitzgerald is an award-winning endurance sports journalist and bestselling author of more than 20 books on running, triathlon, fitness, nutrition, and weight loss, including Brain Training for Runners and Racing Weight. His byline appears regularly in national publications including Men’s Journal, Outside, and Women’s Running. An experienced running and triathlon coach and certified sports nutritionist, Matt serves as a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. His FREE One-Week Weight-Loss plan is available on the PEAR Sports app in the Channels section. Get the PEAR Sports app on iTunes or Google Play.