What, if any, are the actual disadvantages of running without a HR monitor (optical, chest strap, whatever) to check on my heart rate?

Is it not viable to simply run by the "feeling"? If I feel my heart pounding and my lungs straining, I am close to some limit. I wouldn't push harder than I actually could, regardless of what the monitor said. Conversely, if I feel comfy and relaxed, or only moderately strained, I can always push harder.

What does the above approach lack? What are the risks/dangers in following it? Do I really need to track my heart rate with a monitor? And what exactly do I gain by using a HR monitor?

To give some context to the question, let's assume I am a semi-serious hobbyist runner. I can do a half marathon in about 2 hrs without much preparation. Some weeks I run 0 km, some weeks about 35 km (1 x 25km + 2 x 5km), or something in between. The overall goal is to get much better - as much as possible, but there are no hard goals (attain pace of x, do marathon in y minutes, etc).

5 Answers 5


If you really want to get better, you need a lot more consistency than what you have outlined in your post. Endurance running improvements (For the most part) are simply a matter of putting in the miles, day after day. Doesn't have to be astounding mileage, but just more of the same rather than huge bursts every now and again.

You don't even necessarily need to run fast, most recreational runners make the mistake of going too hard on easy days, and not hard enough on hard days.

I personally am not a fan of HR based training, for a couple of reasons. It's a metric that tells you what is happening 30 seconds - 1 minute ago, it will naturally rise with fatigue and workout duration, and it can be affected by many outside vectors that would not impact your workout or have minimal effect (Such as sleep, caffeine, work stress, etc). Additionally, even the best HR sensors can be affected by sweat rates, contact with skin, etc.

So in short, I would ignore the HR monitor, and train by pace and feel. Stick to the pace on the easy days, even if you could go harder, and kill yourself on the hard days. Put in consistent days, not sporadic, and you will improve over your current level.

  • Thank you very much for the advice and support!
    – ahron
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 16:57

Heart rate monitors are pretty new to the world of running. People have been running without them for decades, even hundreds of years (although the first person to run a marathon died, but that's only a legend.... maybe).

They did this by, as you stated, listening to their body. You know the distance that you need to run, and you know that you can make that distance at a more leisurely pace. Though if you push too hard, you'll exhaust yourself out. Through training and experience, you know what you need to do to reach the goal.

Also, the human body has certain safety factors in place to ensure you won't go too hard. Under normal circumstances (i.e, not being chased by bears or something), it'll simply be too painful to continue. There will be so much lactic acid buildup and the muscles will be too exhausted. You might sprain a muscle by pushing through that, but that's a small injury compared to the heart giving out.

What a heart rate monitor does give you is a visual representation of the stresses you put on your body. It can show the amount of effort you're doing to run. This can be useful to show potential overreaching or undertraining.

For example, let's say you typically run a 10 km at a 4 min/km pace, and your heart rate averages 140. If you run the same pace and it's 170, then you are most likely pushing too hard or there is something that is adding more stress than usual (lack of sleep, food, etc.). If you run the same pace and it's 130, then it may be time to speed up.

  • Good answer. The one thing I would add is about monitoring resting heart rate (which can be done with or without a monitor). Under a repeatable condition, let's say after waking up after a rest day, check your resting heart rate. If it goes down over the course of months, you are getting fitter. If it goes up, you are overtraining (or fighting infection etc). Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 19:00

The thing is, if you want to take running a bit more serious and want to improve, you want to train in different heartrate zones. Training without one will often result in training too hard, which will be detrimental to ones progress.

So if you are simply running for the sake of running because you want to stay in shape, or enjoy running as a hobby, there is no need to use a heartrate monitor.

If you are training for any competitive event, you might want to use a heartrate monitor to train in certain zones for certain amounts of time, to improve. In this case you want to meassure your max heartrate, calculate different heartrate zones and start training accordingly.

  • It might help to delineate how you test for your max HR, and outside vectors that can affect HR.
    – JohnP
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 14:42
  • @JohnP I see why it would help but I didn't because that wasn't the question and I didn't want to overcomplicate things, if OP would like more information on it I would be happy to help :)
    – MJB
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 7:41

The main risk of training without HR is going to hard. The cardiovascular system can be damaged when constanty pushing it too far. But if you know yourself well and have no ambition to do structured training but only go out when you fell like it, it is more unlikely. Also knowing your HR does not always mean you are on the safeside since HR between indiviuals can vary and general assuptions on which HR Zone you should be training in without personalizing could cause damage aswell. HR can help you get a bit extra out of your trainig, but consistency is more important


To monitor your heart rate has multiple useful aspects that you'll be missing if you don't measure it. I could think of three, they mainly differ in the time when you use them:

  1. While You Are Running
    To throttle your running speed
  2. Immediately After Running
    In order get to know your own body and the signs it sends you better.
  3. Long Term After Running
    To have a long-term log of your fitness

While You Are Running

Watch your heart rate while running to throttle your running speed so your heart rate stays in a specific range. As a beginner in order not to overdo things, you could say e.g. "I don't want my heart rate to go above 170 bpm"
More advanced runners use specific heart rate ranges, measured as percentage of the individual maximum heart rate, e.g. 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. Different ranges train different aspects of your physical fitness.
Problems with this:

  1. Your heart rate has a lag of maybe 30 seconds to the actual stress.
    If you are running on the streets or in the woods, the hill that pushed your rate beyond limits may already lie behind you.
    This probably is not a problem when your track is even, like a tartan track or even a tread mill at the gym.
  2. Knowing your maximum heart rate requires a test assisted by professionals.
    Rules-of-thumb ("220 minus age") or self assessments (doing intervals or run-up-that-hill-three-times) do not produce viable results.

Personally, I found this really frustrating, because I never found the right speed because of these problems, so I wouldn't recommend it to a hobby runner. I found that using my breath is better to assess my strain while running: I count the steps for breathing in and out, a quite common habit among runners.
For Example:

  • breathe-in 3 steps, breathe-out 3 steps equals normal strain I can endure for hours
  • breathe-in 2 steps, breathe-out 2 steps equals very high strain I can endure for minutes

But please note that these steps-per-breathe values are individual and just meant as an example, your breathing cycles may be completely different.

Immediately After Running

If you have measured and logged your heart rate while running, it can help you get to know your own body better.
Usually, even as a hobby runner, you do runs of varying intensity, e.g. long slow runs, sometimes (what the heck!) blazingly fast but shorter runs etc.
When you measured your heart rate, you can check afterwards if your subjective level of stress resembles your heart rate. If it does not, then what could be the cause? High temperatures? A yet undetected infect? (Btw never run willingly with an infect, seriously!) Is it possible that you somehow did not notice signs your body sent?
All this helps you to better assess and adjust your level of stress on the next run.
I found that getting to know your own body is of tremendous importance for beginners (such as I am) : To learn to interpret the subtle signs of your body, see when you were pushing too hard, or, on the opposite, you did not challenge it enough.

Long Term After Running

If you are consistently monitoring and logging your heart rate, you have a long-term log of your fitness. It helps motivating yourself ("yeah, I ran the same distance at higher speed but with lower heart rate than 2 months ago!") or detect flaws in your training ("boy did not running on christmas kick me down, now the heart rate's through the roof after the holidays, didn't used to be like that before")


If you are healthy, I would consider it highly unlikely to actually damage your cardio vascular system when running at high / excessive strains. Long before that can happen your body will just refuse to go further. It's like trying to suffocate yourself just by holding your breath.
But what may happen if you overdo things, is that it is becoming more likely that you start having injuries due to overload - actually the cardio vascular system will adapt quite fast to your training, but the bones, senews etc. will take much longer.

I am a laymen and not a professional runner, nor do I have a medical profession.

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