Is It Best To Run Intervals Based On Pace, Heart Rate OR Effort Level?

Let’s start with a quick story. Last year, I participated in the Hilton Head 5k in South Carolina. As I started my warm-up, I realized that it was taking longer than usual for my watch to acquire a satellite connection. To my surprise, once the race began, my watch was displaying inaccurate pace times. Instead of showing my sub-6:00 minute per mile pace, it was reporting paces in the 7:00s. This discrepancy persisted throughout the entire race, leaving me frustrated and puzzled.

running intervals

I initially thought that the dense tree cover might have interfered with the satellites, causing my watch to display inaccurate pace times. However, I chose not to let this setback get the best of me. While having accurate pace times can be helpful in keeping track of my progress, I relied on my personal experience and training to maintain the target effort level I had set for myself. I was confident in my ability to reach my goal, regardless of the technical difficulties I encountered during the race. This experience taught me the importance of trusting my instincts and honing in on a target effort level to reach my goal. 

running based on intervals

In the end, all my efforts paid off, as I crossed the finish line with a time of 17:34, right on target with my goal of maintaining a 5:40 pace. This outcome is a testament to the power of consistent practice and hard work. 

Throughout my training, I focused on performing interval workouts at a targeted effort, rather than relying solely on pace or heart rate, and this approach proved to be a valuable asset in achieving my desired result. I am proud of my accomplishment and grateful for the lessons I learned during this journey, which I will carry with me in my future races.

The question of whether effort-based training is superior to pace or heart rate-based training is a complex one. It ultimately depends on an individual’s specific goals and needs. While I believe that effort-based training can be the most beneficial for a majority of people, there are valid reasons why some athletes may prefer to use pace or heart rate as their primary metric.

running on pace

While heart rate can be a useful metric for some people, it is not always the most appropriate option for everyone. For instance, if you do not have access to a chest strap heart rate monitor, it may not be the best choice for you.

Chest strap monitors are the most accurate way to measure heart rate, and without one, relying on heart rate alone as a metric may not give you a complete picture of your training efforts.

 In this case, it may be more beneficial to focus on other metrics, such as effort or pace, that can be easily tracked without specialized equipment.

Another reason why heart rate may not be the best choice as a metric is if you have an atypical heart rate response. Heart rate is an indirect measure of effort, and it can be influenced by various factors, such as stress levels, hydration, and medications. As a result, if your heart rate response is not typical, relying on it as a primary metric can be misleading.

In my experience, using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale has proven to be the most effective training method for me. The RPE scale, also known as the “1-10 scale,” asks the question “how hard does it feel?” This subjective measure of effort takes into account the individual’s unique physiological response, making it a more personalized and accurate way to track progress.

While the RPE scale is a powerful tool, it is not the only metric available. If desired, one can choose to “check in” with their pace or heart rate during their training. This can provide valuable additional information and help to fine-tune the RPE scale for each individual. By combining the RPE scale with other metrics, you can get a comprehensive view of your training efforts and make more informed decisions about your progress.

* * *

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about who we are and what we do, click this link:

a man standing in front of a sign that says up and running physical therapy.

Dr. AJ Cohen

Up And Running Physical Therapy

"We Help Runners And Active Adults In The Fort Collins Area Overcome Injury And Be Stronger Than Ever, Avoid Unnecessary Time Off, All Without Medications, Injections, Or Surgery."