Gear – A Simple Approach for Using Heart Rate Data to Improve Running

Modern runners have a ton of gear available to them to monitor performance. We have global positioning apps, heart rate trackers, smart watches, and even electrocardiograms (EKGs) on demand.

But how much data is too much? I have used a few different fitness trackers, including a Nike+ watch with a GPS tacker, a couple of versions of Fitbits, and a Polar HR7 chest band with an A300 watch. I have tracked time, distance, pace, heart rate, and even weight, food, and sleep with Fitbit.

(Full disclosure, I own a few shares of Fitbit stock, but I am not sponsored by them in any way.)

It was actually the Fitbit that got me thinking about how much data is usable. I like looking at my heart rate from time to time and seeing how it changes throughout the day and by activity. This kind of data has been documented as helping people in some instances, like one where a man’s doctor used his Fitbit data to help evaluate him. But does it really help to know that my heart rate is 83 beats per minute after climbing a flight of stairs or 93 on the same flight if I am carrying something?

In all honesty, it doesn’t help me much. It is sometimes interesting, but I am not putting any real analysis into it. I only have so many hours in the day, and my training is not Olympic level. But I have found a way to use heart rate and pacing data to improve my training.

Pacing data has helped me gain speed by giving me the information I need to know whether or not I need to speed up to reach a goal. That’s pretty obvious. I pair that with heart rate data to figure out whether or not a pace is sustainable for me and if I am working hard enough.

This applies differently depending on whether I am training or racing, and it varies by what kind of training I am doing. My method is for generally healthy people – someone with a particular condition might not benefit from this. People should always check with a doctor before trying any kind of training if they think they might have an underlying health problem.

My method doesn’t require a lot of historical record keeping or charting. It does require having a notion of what my heart rate looks like on slow runs, during intervals, and in races. Many apps and trackers will give you an average heart rate and average pace. Knowing what both are when I do a slow and easy run, a training run, and a race gives me reference points for other times.

The basic method I use is to look at my pace in comparison to my goal time. If they are in line, then I gauge how I feel and take a look at my heart rate. If I feel pretty good and my heart rate is in “slow run” range, then maybe my goals are too modest, and I should push myself.

If my pace is off, I’m not feeling so great on a particular run, and my heart rate is high, then I might back it down. Maybe I have a cold, need water, or it’s too hot, but it lets me know that I am not just being lazy (thought that can happen too).

One place where heart rate can be a good check is when I am in a race. Sometimes I’ll be running a 5K and feel like I have found a nice rhythm. Maybe I am even passing some people, and everything seems to be going smoothly. If I check my heart rate and it is in a slow run range, then I know I need to pick up the pace to have a better race, even if I am not watching my pace.  On the other hand, if I am trying to catch up with a runner ahead of me and my heart rate shoots up, then I need to find my own pace.

Heart rate is not the ultimate guide to athletic performance. People need to start by paying attention to their bodies. How you feel is the most important thing that matters. Just because your heart rate seems okay, that doesn’t mean you should run yourself into the ground, especially if you don’t feel good in other ways. Your heart rate says nothing about whether or not you have shin splints, for example.

My running is about having fun and staying healthy, so the tools I use need to contribute to those goals. Getting faster is part of both of those things to me, so having the pace/heart rate correlation is a useful tool for developing performance.

My favorite tracker so far has been the Polar Beat App, because it shows time in particular training zones based on the standard heart rate training formula of 220-age. That has helped me find some guideposts for my training. The color coding for different levels makes it easy to see where you are in terms of training. Other folks might prefer different displays or measures.


Matching pace to how you feel and what your heart rate is a good way to check your effort and progress without a huge statistical undertaking. But, hey, if statistics are your thing, then get fancy. Let me know what your data use methods and favorite trackers are.

Posted in Gear | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Races – Restarting on Global Running Day

Today was “Global Running Day,” as declared by,

um, someone,

let me Google,

the New York Road Runners, I guess.

It seemed like a good day to restart this blog, and to go for a run. I am traveling for work, and the conference I am at is in a Westin hotel. As I have written about before, the Westin has a program where they encourage running and will even rent you shoes and running gear for about $5.

My plan was to rent them this time, so I did not pack my running shoes. When I tried to do so, though, they didn’t have any shoes in my size. (I wonder if I could have reserved them ahead.)

But I had gotten an e-mail in advance of my trip telling me that the run concierge – apparently that is a position here – would be holding a special run today. So, I was in a running mindset.

Thanks to the miracles of the internet, I discovered a shoe store not far from my hotel. I walked over and bought a $30 pair of Nike Shox. They are different than my other running shoes, but for being on sale and being able to do the run this morning, it seems like they were a good deal.


I got up at 6 a.m. to be in the lobby by 6:30. There were about 14 people, and we ran a 3-mile loop through part of the city. We ran along the river, through a park, and over some bridges. It was nice to have someone plan the route in a different city so that you had a good sense of direction and distance.


Other Westin hotels I have stayed in have had maps at the check in desk, which helps. But this is the first time I have heard of a run concierge. Apparently, she works in another Westin department and this is a little add on thing she does. She nicely went out and chalked the route with encouraging messages along the way.


It was a good way to start the day, but it is always tough when you know you need to be up by a certain time but are worried about your alarm.  I hope to get up and do another group run tomorrow. We’ll see.

But after a hiatus that involved focusing on other sports and an interstate move, I am back, and with any luck, my running and posting will be consistent.

Posted in Races | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Eating and Drinking — Low Salt Salad Dressing

I can be convinced to eat my greens, but salad dressing is a must.

My problem is that salad dressing is salt-a-rific. So, I began googling around for low-salt salad dressing and found a recipe that called for olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and mustard.

Below is a photo of my variation on the theme.


I use a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of honey mustard, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

My method is to us a teaspoon and measure it out in that order. There are three teaspoons to a table spoon. I measure the oil first, then I put the mustard in; and since the oil went in first, it solves the problem of the mustard sticking on the spoon. (I realize this is not a huge deal, but sometimes solving the little aggravations makes life a lot better.) Then I add the vinegar.

It is a simple recipe, but it does the job. I find the honey mustard has a better flavor and lower sodium than other kinds of mustard.

(Despite the holiday, my weight is still trending int he right direction: 194.5 lbs.)

Posted in Eating and Drinking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gear – Tracking Food with Fitbit and a Notebook

The weight loss journey continues, and I am now into week two.

When it comes to trimming one’s gut, everyone knows the old adages, which tend to be repeated ad nauseam:

  1. Abs are made in the kitchen, and
  2. You can’t out-train a bad diet.

Given these truisms, I have been working on the bad diet thing with various levels of success for awhile. My big concern up to this challenge, as noted in an earlier blog, has been with salt, since my blood pressure has been borderline.

So, I have been tracking my food, and my food diary has looked like this:

Food Diary in Spiral Notebook

Tracking food the old fashioned way and doing my own arithmetic.

I have tracked calories, salt, fiber, and calcium at first. Then I added potassium, because that balances or counteracts the salt on some level according to research. Then, I added protein because of its importance to building muscle.

When I began this stage, I decided that I would try a tool I had hanging around on my phone – my Fitbit app.

(Full disclosure: I own Fitbit stock, but they don’t know that I am writing this, and I have no connection with the company.)

So I have the app, a Fitbit Blaze watch, and we have the scale. These things were purchased over time, and I decided I should use the tools I have. (Kind of like that gym membership.)

The scale and the watch synch to the app, and if you log your food, it gives you a budget of calories and the breakdown of the macro-nutrients you eat.  It all looks like this:



It is interesting to see how your caloric budget changes throughout the day as you move around and burn calories. My assumption is that it is all an estimate, but a decent one. It has gotten me to pull back on my snacking and portion sizes. I am now weighing and measuring things so that I can log them accurately.

The drawback to the Fitbit app is that while I am seeing my consumption of the three macronutrients, I don’t know what the ideal ratios should be. I know I eat too many carbs, but adding protein can be tough.

The other concern I have is that I do not have a sense of how much sodium I am consuming each day. I Know Fitbit has that information, but I haven’t figured out how to get the app to show me that. I am still eating low sodium foods, but it is not always clear how I am doing.

So, I think I will likely add back some version of my notebook for tracking the other nutrients that I am concerned about.

So where am I after a week? I am down about four pounds and my waist has shrunk a little bit. Still, most of my exercise has been fencing, and I need to add to that to make more progress.

Measuring tape around a person wearing a tee shirt.

There’s a little shrinkage here.


Weight: 195.2lbs



Posted in Gear | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Training – A $150 Weight Loss Bet, or The Fancy Pants Challenge

I’ve made a $150 weight loss bet – I have 28 days to lose an inch or two off my waist.

How did this come to be?

While running is one of my regular sports, I am also a fencer.

In a sport where people poke at each other with metal sticks, it makes sense to have protective gear. The standard fencing uniform has a mask, glove jacket, extra layer of an underarm protector, and what fencers in the U.S. call knickers, which are the pants.

White fencing uniform, black mask, glove.

This is a fencing uniform, and those are the fancy pants in question.

The clothing has rankings based on how much force it can withstand to protect fencers against a puncture from a broken blade. The first level of protection defends against 350 newtons of force.  The second level protects against 800 newtons of force. A newton is the amount of force that it takes to accelerate 1 kilogram of mass at a rate of one meter per second each second.

Now, it has been awhile since freshman physics for me, but I have the Internet, which tells me that this is equal to about .224 pounds of force, or about 5 newtons per pound. This means that the higher level protects against a sharp pointy object coming at you with about 160 pounds of force. (These are rough numbers, and I am sure my math and science friends will find something to correct. That’s what the comments section is for.)

I already have an 800-newton jacket and an 800-newton underarm protector that provides a second layer of protection for the upper body. I decided I would upgrade the knickers to the higher level as well. I measured myself and ordered what I thought would be a good fit.

When the knickers arrived they were, ahem, a bit tight. They were too tight for me to spend a couple hours fencing in. So, do I return them for the next size up, or do I try to lose some weight?

Measuring tape shoing 40 inches around the waist.

Yes, that’s how big my gut is.

I have 28 days to return them, provided I don’t wear them or sweat in them. Based on the shipping date, that gives me until April 9 to either lose enough around my middle to wear them or ship them back. If I do not get the weight off or ship them back on time, then I am out a $150 on these fancy pants. (For the record $150 is about the price of expensive running shoes, and these will last much longer. I’m talking years.)

The clock is ticking, and I am two days into trying to cut calories and get my fair share of exercise in.  I will keep you posted on how it goes.

I want a cookie.

(Starting Weight: 199.2 lbs.)

Posted in Training | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Races – Trying a Triathlon

As evidenced by the relative quiet of this blog, I have not been very active with 5K races lately. I skipped the New Year’s Day 5K, but decided to try something different to get 2018 off to a good start.

My YMCA had a “Try a Tri” program. Participants could simply register for the race, or they could sign up for an 8-week training program leading up to the race. Since I am not much of a swimming and have not been on a bike for a long time, I thought the training course would be the best way to go.

The course consisted of a swim workout on Tuesdays and a dry land workout of running on a treadmill or biking on an exercise bike, or both. The YMCA also gave the participants a sheet with workouts for most of the other days of the week.

The race all in doors. We swam 10 minutes, had a 10 minute transition, then rode an exercise bike for 30 minutes, and then had a five minute transition to the treadmills. The goal was to cover as much distance as you could in those time frames. We had someone counting our lengths as we swam, and then the machines gave us the distance for the other two legs. Those time frames meant that we would not be covering super long distances, which of course is fine for me.


Here is the format of the race and the wave times.

It was good to have multiple skills and ways of working out. Looking at it by discipline, here is what I found.

Swimming: Some people are very efficient in the water. I am not one of those people. I feel like swimming is an important skill, but I did not learn it until later in life. The training course was helpful because it made me swim freestyle, and it made me get in the pool at least twice a week. I still am learning how to do freestyle and get the breathing down. One struggle for me has always been having water go up my nose. The instruction told me to hum as I swam, and that worked. It seems kind of intense and does take some air, but I am now mostly able to swim without a snout full of chlorine.

Also, I am much better at swimming side stroke and breast stroke. As I was learning to breathe and swim with freestyle, I threw in a little sidestroke one day. It helped me breathe, but as I was experimenting for myself, I started to try to combine the strokes. The light bulb went off, and now I think I have a better idea of what swimmers mean when they talk about rotating the body to breathe. There is work left to do to figure this out, but it makes more sense.

Biking: After not having been on a bike in years, it was surprising how much energy riding can demand. The effort seemed hard, which I think has to do with using the big muscle of the legs. It reminded me of how doing squats while lifting weights can boost my heart rate more than other exercises. Riding was a nice change up from running. The only drawback was the seat could get uncomfortable after a while.

Running: Hey, this is what I do, right? This I considered my strength. But doing it at the end of the event and having done the other two disciplines was a test of my endurance. Still, I felt good about my run and achieved the distance I wanted to cover. Also, the days that combined biking and running into bricks was a nice way to build a longer workout.

One other thing I learned from the training program was the value of stretching. When we did our land workouts, we took time to stretch. It was built into the workout time. I found I was more flexible than I thought, and that stretching can improve flexibility and recovery times. Foam rollers are nice tools for helping with both.

Triathlon results.

My results. I was pretty happy and did better on the swim than I thought.

Trying the tri has changed my perspective a bit. I would like to do at least one outdoor event, I think. The swim still intimidates me a bit, but I think I could train up for it and just accept that it would be a slow leg. I like the multi-sport aspect of triathlons. It makes me feel like a more well-rounded person. I also will be spending more time on stretching.

The only drawback to the program was that focusing on the triathlon led me to neglect strength training more than I wanted to. I did some push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, but I think in the future I want to make sure that strength training is part of the big picture, whatever even I am training for.

Up next, though, will be more 5Ks. Back to the short distance.


Posted in Races | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Races – Going Twice the Distance, I Ran the Salem 10K

This is a blog about running 5Ks, and as I wrote early on, that is my preferred distance. But this past weekend, I went twice the distance when I ran the Salem 10K.


But why?

Well, because it was part of the Cambridge 5K race series. Since it was included in my package of races, I decided to go long for a day.

I did prep by doing some longer runs to make sure that I could cover the distance. I wasn’t particularly worried, but it is good to test yourself a little bit and make sure you will be able to cover the new amount of ground before jumping into a new distance.

This, however, does not mean that I have a new passion for longer distances – and you will not see me running a marathon. It was a chance to try something longer, but I won’t be seeking out 10Ks to run. This was good enough for me.

Going into the race, I had two goals:

  1. Finish – check.
  2. Finish in under an hour.

In preparing, I read the 10K chapter in The New York Road Runners club Complete Book of Running and Fitness. In it, elite runner Grete Waitz noted that:

“Ten kilometers is about six miles, and more people can walk that distance comfortably at four miles per hour. Therefore, even walking all the way, you could do it one and one-half hours. Think of this way – any improvement on an hour and a half is progress!”

My net time and gun time are shown below.

Salem 10K results

I just barely made it, but number 2, check!

A 10K is twice as long as a 5K, and so you see some interesting things, especially when the route is through Salem, Massachusetts.

For example, you get spectators like this.


And you have places like Derby Joe’s handing offering cinnamon rolls to runners. I was on the wrong side of the crowd to grab one, so I went back later.

There was also an ugly road kill along the route. To the woman running alongside me – I hope you didn’t step in anything yucky. I would have tried to move over had I noticed before we go to it.

The race was sponsored by Notch Brewery. They make a fine Session Pils that does a great job as a recovery beer.


Finally, I need to give my thanks to the City and people of Salem. They are nice to put up with and support the race. On the way to the start line, a guy in a truck stopped and told me about how he felt like there was a race every weekend and that he’d have to say something to the mayor. He was nice about it, but you could tell he was a little over random streets being shut down. I hope that the disruption was not huge and that people got a little business and fun out of watching the runners.


Posted in Races | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Races — Something Went Wrong at the YMCA 5K!

In my earlier post, I mentioned how I was using a new training method of Maximum Aerobic Function, developed by Phil Maffetone for endurance athletes. Last weekend was my first 5-K after a couple of months of training. This gave me a chance to see how it is working.

The race was the Waltham YMCA’s Five to Thrive 5K. The benefits went to support the YMCA Annual Fund Campaign and YMCA Chronic Disease Programs, including LIVESTRONG at the YMCA and the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program.


After a couple months of slow running, my time was 36:11 and I placed 21/22 in my age group.


Something’s not right. I saw the clock as I finished — it read somewhere in the 27s. Was I crazy from the heat?

Looking at the official RaceWire picture, I see that’s not me at all.

Thats not me waltham ymca

Turns out, my wife and I grabbed the wrong bibs.

She came in at a blazing 26:55 and about six-foot-five.

thats me waltham five to thrive YMCA

Now, anyone looking at this blog will notice that my time here is a slower than times I was putting up in earlier races. What does that mean for the MAF training method?

First, let me say that I felt pretty good during this race. I felt like I had a good pace and a steady clip, even if my heart rate maxed out at 183 at some point. So, that is a point in its favor.

Second, the course had some long up hills and finished on a steep grade – and I have been training on a flat track. Because the course went through the town, there were some narrow points where it was hard to pass people and find my place in the pack.

The weather was about 65 degrees and 58% humidity. It felt sultry, but it wasn’t brutally hot.

So, I think I may have slowed down a bit. As my wife said, there may have been a bit of conditioning ourselves to run slower, even though we tried to kick in some speed.

It is hard to gauge the effectiveness of the method on a course that I haven’t run in the past. This coming weekend, there is a biathlon on a familiar course, so that may give another clue. For now, I am sticking with the method, because it is a way to train in summer without overheating. But if times don’t improve over the next couple of races, it will be a call to re-evaluate the approach.




Posted in Races | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Training — Will Slowing Down Speed Me Up?

After doing some races, my running has fallen off a bit. So, it is time to start back up again.

For the time being, I am adopting a new training program. I have decided to use Philip Maffetone’s Maximum Aerobic Function approach. The training part essentially works by taking 180 – your age to determine your heart zone for maximum aerobic function.

The idea is that you run at that heart rate and try to slowly go faster without exceeding your target zone. For example, if you are 30, then your MAF heart rate would be 150, and your training range would be 140 to 150.

This is the high level, and it comes from Maffetone’s book: The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. The book is aimed at marathoners and triathletes, and discourages cross training in things like calisthenics and weightlifting, both of which I like to include.

The other thing is that the book does not prescribe any particular training schedule or regimen. The plan seems to be run at or just below your maximum heart rate for whatever training time or program that you normally do. The goal is that you gradually get faster at a lower heart rate.

For now, my experiment will be to run three times a week in my hear rate zone for about half an hour with a goal towards lowering my 5K times. I will plan to continue to add some cross training.

One of the reasons that I think this might be a good method is that I have turned in some good times on 5Ks when I was not doing much running. I was, however, fencing, and that gave me time in a good cardio zone.

My last race was on April 30, and my time was 26:14. Before that I ran another race on April 9, and my results were as follows.

JB Blastoff 2017 Results

So, my times were reasonable. Now, I am trying this approach to run training. If I understand the rationale correctly, the goal is to train the body to burn fat rather than sugar, which leads to more endurance. The question is how effective this will be for shorter races as opposed to the longer ones Maffetone has trained athletes for in the past.

Over time, though, I should see my race times come down. Apparently exceeding the MAF heart rate during a race is okay.

The other thing I notice is that 180 minus your age is similar to what a lot of heart rate zone training regimens call the “fat burn” zone based on a max heart rate of 220. Additionally, the American Heart Association recommends working out at 50-85% of a maximum heart rate determined by 220 – your age. So, for a 30-year-old, a target rate based on 80% of the maximum would be: 220-30=190, and 190 X  80% = 152 BPM.

So the range is about the same. Running slower is more difficult, though I find I can finish three miles in about 30 minutes. I still need to identify my next 5K, but I figure I should have some sense of whether or not this is working in the next month or so. That will determine whether or not I stick with it.

If you have done this method of training, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Posted in Training | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Digressions – I Lost 12 Pounds By Running Away from High Blood Pressure

Weight loss is probably a goal of many runners – maybe even the majority of hobby runners like myself – so I suppose I should share how I lost 12 pounds from November to March.

In late November I drove to an ear doctor’s appointment, and they took my blood pressure. It registered so high that they actually brought out a different machine. Well, by the end of the appointment, they took it again and it had come down, but was still high. So, I was advised to follow up with my general doctor. Since I had a physical already scheduled, that was easy enough to do.

At that appointment, the doctor found that I had borderline high blood pressure.

(You can find information on blood pressure numbers here: Really, though, if you have any concerns, check in with a doctor.)

I know that there is a lot of debate over whether or not the annual physical is good or necessary, but a quick check with a doctor once a year or every couple of years is a good thing. It identified this problem for me, and physicals give a doctor a chance to see you when you are healthy, so that if something does go wrong, they have a sense of how bad things are. So, I think there are soft benefits that go beyond some of the measures used to evaluate the benefits of the annual appointment.

My choices: I could try to control it with diet and exercise and check in with the doctor, or else I could go on medication.

Being naturally pill-adverse, I wanted to try to solve it on my own. So, I took the diet and exercise route. This led to my dropping 12 pounds over the past few months. While I looked for advice from reliable sources, and had information on the DASH diet, I tried to keep it simple.

First, I started a food diary and tried to limit my salt intake to 1500 mg a day or less. That led to a few big changes. First, it reduced the amount of bread and processed food I ate. I also eat out a lot less – holy cow does restaurant food and deli meat have a lot of salt.


A couple of pages from my food diary.


One trick was looking at the labels and avoiding anything that had more than 100 mg of salt per servicing. That seems to help a lot. I found some bread that is 105 mg per slice, which is about a third of the salt in the bread I was eating before.

Second, in addition to packing my own breakfast and lunch every day, I began to make my own salad dressing.

The dressing recipe I adapted from the Internet was:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar

1 Teaspoon Honey Mustard

Stirring up well makes it better. Mustard can be high in sodium, so you need to choose carefully which you use.

In addition, I looked at the American Heart Association for suggestions on exercise. I had a bit of concern that it might not be good to work out too hard, but the Heart Association’s advice was that the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks and that 40 minutes of exercise was good for people trying to control their blood pressure (a little more than the standard 30 minute recommendation). Here is a link to the recommendations for physical activity:

Since I have been physically active for some time, I decided to keep up with what I had been doing.

So, I got on the treadmill for 40 minutes about twice a week, fenced about twice a week, and lifted weights about twice a week. When I couldn’t lift, I would do bodyweight exercises at home.

Over the course of a few months, this led to my weight loss. My blood pressure is still a bit above 120/80, and I think that stress plays a big part in it. I certainly welcome any suggestions on how to manage stress, but I am working on it.

I still need to keep at it, and it is easy to slip out of the food logging habit, but I can tell you that if you keep most of your meals healthy, even when you do have a burger and chips (and ice cream), your daily totals for things like calories and sodium can still be in a healthy range.

It can be as easy as it looks, but it takes a little time, patience, and creativity. (And, yes, sometimes I still just want some salt in my meal, but it is worth it to skip it.)

Posted in Eating and Drinking | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments