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The Runner’s Guide to Heart Rate Training

One of the best advancements in running technology recently has been in our heart rate monitors. Virtually every new running watch includes wrist-based heart rate readings, making it simple and easy to track this metric. Apps like Strava and Garmin Connect show us graph representations of how our hearts respond to exercise. This data is right at our fingertips.

So how do you use it? For that matter, why is it even important enough to be a standard feature on so many fitness devices? It’s standard because heart rate is such a baseline measure of the stresses you are putting on your body. Learn how to use heart rate smartly, and it can revolutionize your easy run days, your tempo work, your race pacing, and even how long you rest between hard efforts.

In this short article, we’ll cover everything that you need to know about using heart rate during training runs.

Heart rate training can be a great tool, and we’ll show you how to use your heart rate to help you improve your running. Let’s get started!

Training Your Heart Rate

What is heart rate training?

Heart rate training is using your heart rate – or more specifically, “heart rate zones”- to measure and regulate effort. Difference levels of intensity benefit your body in different ways. A well-planned training cycle will mix easy efforts and hard efforts to make you as strong as possible. The problem? Most runners work too hard on easy days, and not hard enough on hard days. In other words, most runners just kind of muddle through training guessing at effort, not getting the benefits of differentiating workouts.  If you want to see progress in your running, Learning about heart rate zones, and making sure your workouts stick to them, will take you a long way toward.

What are the benefits of heart rate training?

Heart rate training allows you to have real-time feedback while you run. This means that if you are running too hard or too easy, you can quickly make adjustments and get back on track.

Many runners use pace – usually minutes per mile pace – to determine how fast or slow to train. This works well if you are running on flat terrain in mild weather. But if you factor in hills and hot weather, pace won’t match your intensity. Hilly runs and hot weather (cold weather, too, although to a lesser extent) will naturally slow you down. If you are used to running a certain pace for your recovery runs, you’ll find yourself running too hard up hills.

The solution is to train by heart rate. Rather than worry about pace, heart rate stays consistent with your effort level. So it becomes much more effective to gauge intensity while you run.

Training by heart rate is also good for keeping you honest on your effort. On recovery runs or easy days, you might be shocked at how slow your heart rate monitor is telling you you need to go. Likewise, on tempo days or interval workouts, your heart rate might show you that you have been running nowhere near hard enough to gain the benefits of these workouts. Using heart rate will ensure you are running the appropriate effort.

How do you monitor heart rate?

You can monitor your heart rate in two different ways. The more common way is through a wrist heart rate monitor. You often have a heart rate feature in any GPS watch. It will monitor your heart rate at your wrist, as the name implies, requiring no additional gadgets.

Although less common, chest heart rate monitors are more accurate and are more likely to be used by elite athletes. They provide a more reliable reading of what your heart rate is. The chest strap detects your heart rate directly (as opposed to detecting pulse in arteries) as you’re working out and sends the information to your wristwatch display.

Typically, chest strap monitors have special features like sending alarms when you are working too hard or not enough in your training zone. If you’re looking for a good monitor, Nike, Polar, and Timex are all companies to check out.

Types of heart rate

Your heart rate monitor (no matter where it is located) will give you a variety of heart rate information, all of which is important to pay attention to.

Resting Heart Rate

The first is your resting heart rate. This is your heart rate when you are at rest, seated, and not exerting yourself. Typically, you’ll have a 60-100 resting heart rate. Often, the lower the resting heart rate, the better of health someone is in. Athletes may have resting heart rates of 40.

Aside from being a general measure of health, resting heart rate can also hint at overtraining. If your resting heart rate is usually 60, but after a couple weeks of high mileage and hard speed work it has gone up to 70, this is a sign that your body needs substantial rest time. Don’t forget: adequate rest is a vital part of any training program.

Maximum Heart Rate

You can find your approximate maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. This means that if you’re 27 (like I am), your max heart rate is 193. You don’t want your heart to beat more than this when you’re exercising.

It’s rare to ever completely red-line during a workout. More typically, runners try to exert no more than 85% of their maximum heart rate even for vigorous activities. Why? Because the closer you get to that max number, the harder it will be for you to sustain your activity. You’ll only be able to run that hard for a short distance.

Heart Recovery Rate

Recovery Heart Rate

This is a term you likely haven’t heard before, but it’s essential to any good running program: recovery heart rate. This is the speed at which your heart rate goes back to normal after a run. Hint: the faster, the better.

If you’re in good cardiovascular condition, your heart rate will be lower even while you exercise, and you’ll get back to your normal heart rate quickly after a workout. You can calculate your recovery heart rate by measuring your heart rate immediately after a run and then measuring it two minutes later.

Subtract the 2-minute later heart rate from your immediate heart rate. The higher the number the better. If the number is greater than 66, you’re in amazing shape. If the number is less than 22, you might want to start incorporating some more cardio into your workouts.

Training Zones

If you have a fancy watch like I do, you probably know what heart rate training zones look like and have a vague idea what they are. Here’s a run-down:

Zone 1

This is the lowest intensity zone and is called the “very light” training zone. You are using 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. For me, exercising in Zone 1 would be aiming for a heart rate of 97 to 115. You’ll likely achieve this with activities like walking or easy, flat bicycling.

Zone 2

This is the “light” zone; it’s more challenging than Zone 1, but you can go forever and ever in this zone. You’re using 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. For me, that would be between 115 and 135. Use this for easy and recovery runs.

Zone 3

In Zone 3, it starts to get a little harder. This is the “moderate” zone. When you train in this zone, you’re helping to improve circulation in your heart and muscles. Here you’re using 70-80% of your max heart rate. Again, with a max heart rate of 193, I would be targeting 135 to 155. Because this zone is neither hard nor easy, it is a less common target for workouts

Zone 4

You’ve kicked it up a notch with Zone 4, the “hard” zone. You’re going to be pushing yourself hard as you get close to your max heart rate. Zone 4 is 80-90% of your maximum heart rate, which would be 155 to 174 for me. This is often the target zone for tempo and speed work.

Zone 5

Finally, this is the “maximum” or “extremely hard” zone. You’ll only be able to sustain this zone for a short amount of time. This is 90-100% of your maximum heart rate, or 174 to 193 for me. This is the territory of short, all-out sprints.

How do I find my heart rate zones?

After hearing all of this about heart rate training zones, you might be wondering how to find yours. There are several ways. First, you have to calculate your maximum heart rate, and then figure out the percentages from there.

Age-Based Formula

Heart Recovery Rate

I use the basic age-based formula. Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate. While this is easy, it is also the least precise. But it can be a good starting point if you’re just getting into heart rate training.

This target heart rate calculator is based on age and will give you the recommended target heart rate zone if you don’t want to do the math yourself.

Lab Test

Another option is a laboratory test. While it is going to be much more expensive than the age-based formula, you will get an accurate number. Typically, you will either use a maximal treadmill or bicycle stress test to get this number.

Field Test

If you want something more accurate than the age-based formula, but aren’t quite interested in a lab test, you can do a field test, which is the most accurate DIY method. Take 15 minutes to warm up on a flat surface and then run up a hill that will take at least 2 minutes to climb. Run as hard as you can at a pace you could sustain for 20 minutes.

Go back to the bottom of the hill and run harder this time. Run at a pace you could sustain for slightly under 2 miles. Return to the bottom of the hill and run as hard as you can for 1 minute and see what your heart rate is after that minute. This will give you a good idea of your maximum heart rate.

How does heat impact heart rate?

Your heart is going to beat faster on hot days. That’s why you’ll run harder in the summer but not as fast: because your heart is working harder. When your body’s internal temperature rises a degree, your heart tends to beat about 10 beats per minute faster.

That means that you need to go easy on yourself when it’s hot outside because your heart is going to be trying to cool you down in already very hot temperatures. Slowing down on humid days and making sure that you are well-hydrated are good ways to help your heart.

How does elevation impact heart rate?

Similarly, your heart is going to beat faster at higher altitudes/elevations. Because the air is thinner, you can’t get the same amount of oxygen that you would at lower altitudes. Because your body still needs oxygen, your heart rate increases to help push oxygen through the body.

As your body acclimates itself to the altitude, your heart rate will slow down to more normal levels. Typically, if runners are participating in a race at a high altitude, they will train at high elevations as well, and arrive early to make sure that their bodies are ready.

What are some training runs that utilize heart rate?

Finally, here we’ll cover some training runs that you can incorporate into your running regimen where you can use heart rate zones.

Recovery Runs

Recovery Runs

For recovery runs, keep your heart rate low—in Zone 2. It will seem very slow, but you need to give your body a chance to recover and become stronger. If you’re new to running, you’re likely running much too fast on your recovery days.

Make sure that you don’t end up running too fast. If you run too hard, you’ll miss the recovery benefits of these easy runs. Recovery runs need to be easy, and using your heart rate zone can help a lot.

If you have a color that pops up on your watch, look for the blue color, which signifies Zone 2, 60-70% of your max heart rate, and the light zone. If you start to see green, orange, or red, then you’ve gone into the higher zones, and you’re pushing too hard. Slow it down.

Aerobic Endurance Runs

These runs will help you improve your running endurance. You’ll want to run them at about 70-75% of your maximum heart rate or in Zone 3 of “moderate.” This is the zone for longer runs lasting 30 to 60 minutes or even longer.

If you’ve trained at a particular distance, you should easily be able to stay in Zone 3, but if you’re running a longer distance and you’ve started to lose some carbs, your heart rate will creep up.

Lactate Threshold Runs

Lactate threshold runs are the workouts that build your ability to push the pace and run harder and longer. This is Zone 4—the “hard” zone—and it should feel comfortably hard. You are working just about as hard as you can, but at a level that you can hold for a substantial amount of time. Typically, lactate threshold runs are at least 3 miles, and can be up to 8 miles for long-distance runners.

If you’re already in good shape, you might have to push yourself harder in order to get into yourself in Zone 4. For many runners, a lactate-threshold pace is their 10k pace. For elite runners, it might be 15 seconds per mile slower than their 10k pace.

VO2 Max Increase Runs

If you want to increase your VO2 max and overall fitness and power, you need to incorporate some aerobic power workouts into your routine. This means runs in your Zone 5. For most runners, this means hitting the track for speed intervals. You will want to figure out how fast you need to go to get close to your max heart rate. But don’t run any faster than that.

These will be interval workouts where you run hard for at least two minutes, and then rest. Typically, runners will incorporate workouts like this as they get close to race day to get the maximum benefit with the least amount of stress to the body.

In the end, it’s important to mix things up. If you want to become a better runner, you need to include workouts that target all five heart rate zones to always keep your body guessing and improving.

The Wired Runner