Heart Rate vs. Perceived Exertion

Lately I have had a lot of athletes ask me about purchasing new GPS units for their training and whether they should get the heart rate monitor as an added tool.  Heart rate monitors provide a lot of benefits and in the past I used them a lot, specifically when I was figure skating and in my early days of running.  I have owned several heart rate monitors over the years.  Most came with various Garmins that I have purchased and the honest truth is, they still sit in the boxes they came in.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great benefits to monitoring your heart rate, but I personally prefer to monitor my perceived exertion.  Both versions have benefits.

As you run faster your body requires more oxygen to be sent to your muscles.  Your heart is thus required to pump more and this is where your heart rate comes into play.


To use heart rate monitoring you first need to figure out your working heart rate.  You can find this by taking 220 and subtracting your current age to determine your maximum heart rate.  You will then subtract your resting heart rate from that number.  To figure out your resting heart rate it is best to do this when you first wake up in the morning when you have yet to exert yourself.  Stay laying down and find your pulse preferably on your wrist.  Using a watch count your pulse for a full minute.

A lower resting heart rate usually indicates a higher level of fitness.  Your heart is a huge muscle and as it gets more efficient with training the slower it will need to pump.  However certain factors can cause your heart rate to go up.  Dehydration can actually cause your heart rate to raise by 10 beats per minute.  A consistent increase in resting heart rate can also be indicative of overtraining and even poor nutrition.

Once you have your working heart rate you can then use the following zones to figure out your proper training.

50-60% of working heart rate improves your overall health and recovery

60-70% of working heart rate improves your endurance and burns fat

70-80% of working heart rate improves endurance (aerobic workouts)

80-90% of working heart rate would be considered a hard workout and increases your maximum performance (anaerobic workouts)

90-100% of working heart rate would be considered your maximum output and will improve your maximum performance and speed  (VO2 max workouts)

Jack Daniels, again the coach and not the drink, points out that tracking your heart rate doesn’t necessarily tell you how hard you are working.  Your heart rate is affected by multiple factors.  Wind, hills, rough terrain and humidity can affect your heart rate.  Running indoors on stationary machines will often show an increase in heart rate due to warm and stagnant air and running on some cold winter days with many layers can also raise your heart rate.

To truly benefit from tracking this you need to consistently run on similar courses with similar conditions.  However, Daniels does point out that heart rate monitoring can be a great way to track your rate of recovery.

According to Daniels, and I would have to agree with this, pace is your best tool for monitoring your progress.  But if you can’t measure pace, using your heart rate is the next best thing.

For me, perceived exertion is a great way to determine how you will be running each workout and also to track your progress.  Most of us are capable of determining what our “easy” pace is versus our “hard” or “effort” pace.  Knowing beforehand what kind of run you will be doing each day can help you to determine which pace you should be running.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have a GPS strapped to you so that you can see what your pace is at all times.  Instead you can just monitor what your pace feels like to you.  If you are doing an easy paced run that day and you feel like you are pushing it too hard, just take your pace down a bit.

Having a tool like a running GPS can be a great way to monitor your pace over time and determine improvements as well as estimate race paces.  While I often check my pace at most miles I loosely use this just to see how I am running on that particular day.  When I finish I use my average pace as a way to track how my overall running is either staying on track, improving, or needs a little help.  If you don’t have a GPS you can determine your pace by using a measured course and keeping track of your overall time.  You can then take your time and divide it by the number of miles you ran to determine your pace.


I prefer using perceived exertion because having to strap in each day and track my heart rate just seems like adding too much technology to a sport that I enjoy for its solitude and relative tranquility.  It also allows me to relax a bit and not freak out when I am struggling on hot and humid days.  Instead I am able to hone in on how I am personally feeling and use my own feedback to determine just how my runs are going.


Another great way to determine your progress is to use effort tests to track your running.  Daniels recommends doing 8-10 400 meter repeats on a track (one lap) with one minute recoveries or a 3-4 mile tempo run to see how you are improving over a season.  Try doing one of these workouts at the start of your training and repeat the same test near the half way point measuring your pace/speed each time you test.

Both of these are great ways to measure your progress and determine if your training needs to be revised.  It really comes down to personal preference.  If you are a recreational runner the perceived exertion is definitely the way to go.  If you love technology, you might just really enjoy having a monitor strapped to your chest!

I love using the track for effort tests.

I love using the track for effort tests.


13 thoughts on “Heart Rate vs. Perceived Exertion

  1. Great post!! I always love your info!! My husband wears a heart rate monitor and GPS!! He loves both!! I’m obsessed with my GPS watch, but haven’t felt the urge to wear a heart rate monitor yet!! I have a feeling a will one day, though!! It’s a fabulous tool!!

  2. I, too, love your posts! I have never used a heart rate monitor but I know for the people that do use them it helps. I love how you talked about running on effort! I am a firm believer and most of my runs are on effort and mental strength. 🙂

  3. You have so much knowledge. 🙂 I love the idea of using the track for effort tests! Now that I have access to one (YAY!) I’m going to try this out from time to time. I have no desire to wear a heart rate monitor either. Too much to fuss with.

  4. thanks for sharing. when i first got off the couch and started really working out, the heart rate was a great tool to see improvements. It put numbers on the perceived exertion. It helped me tell the difference between having a bad day, and just not trying hard. It’s true that heart rate has many variables in it, but it’s a useful tool to help me spend more time in the higher effort zones. cheers! joe

    • Thanks for sharing Joe. Those are excellent points. I was just thinking that perceived effort only works if you are honest with yourself. The HR monitor is great for exactly how you used it.

  5. I will still occasionally use a heart rate monitor (perhaps once per quarter year) just to see how I’m doing. Track work and monitoring pace over time is a reasonable way to check performance.

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