Guide to Utilizing Heart Rate Training as a Runner

Heart rate training is a popular tool for many runners. But what exactly is it, and how do you get started using it?

Heart rate training is when you use your heart rate to inform your running, using key data points such as your maximum heart rate and heart rate zones of intensity. By regularly monitoring your heart rate during runs, heart rate training can help you train smarter, avoid injury, and improve your aerobic capacity.

If you’re interested in learning more about heart rate training, or maybe even trying it, here is our informative guide to help you!

What is Heart Rate Training?

Heart rate training is when you use heart rate to inform the training process, whether it’s for running, cycling, swimming, and/or weight training, to name a few. Heart rate training is most commonly based on an athlete’s maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is the highest number of beats per minute that the heart can pump under maximal stress. There are several ways in which to calculate your maximum heart rate, and some methods are more accurate than others.

With maximum heart rate information, athletes can find their ideal heart rate zones, which are ranges of heartbeats per minute, to monitor their training intensity. Our guide will explain how to find your maximum heart rate, how to calculate and apply your heart rate zones to your runs, and how to use this data to benefit your running.

Benefits of Heart Rate Training For Runners

Tracking your heart rate while you run isn’t always necessary, but there are several benefits to training this way.

A few benefits of heart rate training include:

  • Being able to keep your training within the exercise parameters recommended by the U.S. government (at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 – 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week, or a combination of the two)
  • Helping build running endurance by teaching runners how to stay in the aerobic zone and preventing overexertion.
  • Training smarter by avoiding overtraining (which can cause injury, illness and burnout) or under training (not getting the maximum benefit out of your running to reach your potential)
  • Getting the most out of interval sessions to improve VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise) by training at 90-95% of your maximum heart rate

What are the 5 Heart Rate Zones?

In this article, we will focus on utilizing 5 heart rate zones (there are other methods out there that can use more or less zones). Each zone is described with the type of activity that falls in that category, its percentage of maximum heart rate, as well as the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) this equates to (see scale for explanations).

  • Zone 1 – very light intensity. 50-60% MHR. RPE 1-2. Walking or light recovery jog.
  • Zone 2 – light intensity. 60-70% MHR. RPE 3-4. Easy running. Comfortable to speak conversationally.
  • Zone 3 – moderate intensity. 70-80% MHR. RPE 5-6. Moderately challenging to uncomfortable. Becoming harder to hold a conversation, but could run at this pace 30 mins- 1 hour.
  • Zone 4 – hard intensity. 80-90% MHR. 7-8 on RPE. Short sentences, hard to speak. Similar to your 5k pace.
  • Zone 5 – maximum intensity. 90-100% MHR. 9-10 on RPE. Speaking will be not possible or limited to single words. 30 second – 1 min. all-out sprints.

If you utilize a sports watch, you can often set your own personal HR zones based on your unique maximum heart rate.

How to Figure Out Your Personal Heart Rate Zones

Heart rate zones are commonly based upon your maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate means the highest number of beats per minute your heart can pump when performing at the highest level of physical activity. Maximum heart rate can be found by performing an exercise test in a sports exercise laboratory, by using a simple mathematical formula or by a self-performed field test.

Step 1. Find Your Maximum Heart Rate

The most accurate method to find your maximum heart rate in an exercise laboratory; however, most people do not have access to that kind of testing, so there are two other options.

1.) Use a Mathematical Formula to Determine Heart Rate

The more common (but least accurate) method is to estimate your max heart rate with a mathematical formula based upon your age.

The Fox equation is the oldest, and probably most common and recognizable formula, which is 220 – age = Maximum Heart Rate. The Fox equation, while easy to use, is simplistic and is based upon population statistical averages, does not allow for variances between the sexes, genetics or fitness levels of people of the same age, for example.

Some more recently devised maximum heart rate formulas have tried to perfect and fine-tune the Fox equation for better accuracy. Here are some other common formulas for calculating max heart rate:

  • Gellish equation: 207 – .7*age
  • Tanaka equation: 208 – .7*age
  • Fairbarn female equation: 201 – .63*age
  • Gulati female equation: 206 – .88*age

Deciding which equation to use is up to you. Regardless, remember that your maximum heart rate found via this method is a rough estimate. But it at least will give you a guideline and when used alongside rate of perceived exertion, you can use it to train well.

2.) Complete a Field Test to Determine Maximum Heart Rate

If you would rather try a more accurate method to estimate your maximum heart rate, you can conduct your own maximum heart rate field test (with a doctor’s approval) using a heart rate monitor:

  • After warming up thoroughly, run as fast as you can for 3 minutes. Note your heart rate when you stop.
  • Rest for 3 minutes
  • Repeat another 3 minute run, as fast as you can. Note your heart rate when you stop.
  • Your highest heart rate reading – which should be after your second run – is your maximum heart rate.

If you use this method, it is best to use a chest-strap heart rate monitor (the Polar H10 is often regarded as the best), as those will give the most accurate read. If you are using a wrist-based reading from your running watch, you’ll just want to be sure it’s pretty accurate. The Garmin Forerunner 55 and COROS Pace 3 are examples of GPS watches that also do a good job of measuring heart rate.

Step 2. Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones of Intensity

Once you’ve determined your max heart rate, you can calculate your heart rate zones. For each zone, multiply the highest and lowest percentage number of that zone range by your maximum heart rate.

Here’s an example using the Tanaka equation:

  1. My maximum heart rate using the Tanaka equation: 208 – .7*39 = 180.7
  2. To find my lowest end Zone 1 heart rate (50% of max), I would multiply .5*180.7 = 90.35
  3. To find my highest end Zone 1 heart rate (60% of max), I would multiply .6*180.7 = 108.42
  4. I now know that in order to stay in Zone 1, my heart rate needs to stay between approximately 90 and 108 beats per minute.
  5. Continue this method of calculation for the remaining 4 heart rate zones

In Which Heart Rate Zone(s) Should You Actually Run?

Knowing which target heart rate zone(s) you should be in during your run depends upon the kind of run you’re getting in that day. A higher heart rate means higher exercise intensity. So to effectively train you will want to keep your heart rate lower for your easy and recovery runs, and it will be higher for your quality, or speed, runs. It is best to do very little of your training at mid-intensity, which is often referred to as “junk miles.”

RELATED: It’s Time to Get the Junk Miles Out of Your Marathon Training

In order to build aerobic fitness, the majority (about 80%) of your runs should be run at an easy pace, which typically correlates to Zone 2, or 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. Quality (speed) sessions, which are higher intensity, will typically spike your heart rate into Zones 4-5.

You can also measure exercise intensity by going off of how you feel, which is called your rate of perceived exertion. If you want to know more about rates of perceived exertion and how to use them in your own training, check out our article on 80/20 running and polarized training!

What is Low Heart Rate Training?

Low heart rate training, also known as Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training, is a type of heart rate training invented by Dr. Phil Maffetone. The idea behind Maffetone’s method is that in order to build your aerobic capacity, you need to keep your heart rate – and the intensity of your training – very low. Maffetone believes that exercising at a low intensity is ideal for athletes to maintain or improve their health, while creating lasting fitness gains.

Athletes calculate their MAF heart rate using the MAF 180 Formula, which is: 180 – age = MAF Heart Rate. From there, athletes may need to adjust their heart rate number down even more, depending on factors such as fitness and underlying health issues. The MAF Heart Rate number is how many beats per minute that your heart rate should stay at or below for fitness activities – including running!

For most people, the MAF Heart Rate is extremely low, to the point that some people have to reduce their easy run paces by several minutes per mile in order to keep their heart rate at the appropriate level. For slower runners, this might mean incorporating walking breaks, or temporarily becoming power walkers when they begin using the MAF method. Over time, as aerobic fitness improves, athletes will naturally be able to go faster while maintaining a low heart rate.

The MAF method can take months of patience to see results. But many runners have successfully used it to make fitness gains.

Best Tools for Heart Rate Training

In order to properly train by heart rate, you will need quality devices to help you ensure that you’re training in the proper zones of activity.

Here are three options we like:

Most Accurate: Polar H10 Chest Strap

Because it is the closest to your heart, you will get the truest measurement of your heart rate by utilizing a chest-based monitor.

The Polar H10 is recognized for its precision and also connects with popular sports watches so you can see the readings as you run and workout. According to Cycling News, the best chest straps are over 99 percent accurate in measuring your HR.

Most Comfortable: Wahoo Fitness TICKR FIT Heart Rate Monitor

Nearly as accurate as a chest strap is an arm strap monitor. But it’s less cumbersome and easier to take on and off. So if the chest strap isn’t really your jam, but you want to get a precise read of your HR, this would be a great way to go. Not a scientific description, but it’s always nice to hear from people who are out testing these products, DC Rainmaker shares, “the reason I like armband optical HR sensors…is that they tend to be very accurate….Unlike your wrist, there’s usually a bit more ‘flab’ and ‘chunk’ for really good quality readings.”

Most Convenient: Garmin Forerunner 55

If you are runner, you are going to want a great-quality GPS watch to track your mileage and all the ins and outs of every workout you do. So it’s incredibly convenient (and easier on the wallet) if you can just have one piece of technology. Unfortunately, wrist-based HR monitoring isn’t the most accurate, but the Garmin Forerunner 55 is one that gets pretty darn close. Bottom line – it does the job for most runners who like to have a general idea that they are staying within proper heart rate zones.

Considerations Against Using Heart Rate Training

Heart rate training is not necessarily for everyone. It is an imperfect method with possibilities for inaccuracy. Before you embark on heart rate training, here are several considerations against it:

  • There is no way to truly know if you’re working in the correct heart rate zone
  • Heart rate monitors can be faulty and display incorrect readings and lead to poor training (though chest-based monitors are usually very accurate)
  • The most commonly used Fox equation for maximum heart rate (220 – age) is less accurate than the other max heart rate formulas. The range of error (standard deviation) for the Fox equation is between 10 and 12 beats per minute. It has also been reported to significantly over- and underestimate maximum heart rate in younger and older adults, respectively
  • All equations listed above for maximum heart rate typically produce poor maximum heart rate predictions
  • Your heart rate can be affected by medications, genetics and physiology, etc….which formulas don’t take into account

But this doesn’t mean you should never use HR training. Below is our best tip!

The Bottom Line on HR Training as a Runner

So should you try heart rate training while running? Once you’ve calculated your maximum heart rate and heart rate zones, the best way to practice heart rate training is to use your heart rate zones in conjunction with your rate of perceived exertion, to determine if you’re training in the proper manner, or if you’re over or under exerting yourself on your runs. (Don’t underestimate your own ability to determine the level of effort you’re putting into each of your runs!) Heart rate training should ideally be done using both methods of measurement so that runners can be as accurate as possible and train in the best, most efficient way.

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