Feeling like you’re not not making as much progress with your running as you’d like? Heart rate training may be exactly what you need. Heart rate training while running teaches your body to work more efficiently at a particular intensity, which (as part of a structured training program) can improve your endurance and speed over time.
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, RRCA Running Coach and USAT Level I Triathlon Coach. This is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be training advice. Please consult a physician prior to beginning any new exercise program.
What is heart rate training?
Heart rate training refers to following a workout plan that assigns particular heart rate ranges for your runs.
Most heart rate training plans prescribe one of two different types of guidelines:
- Working at a particular percentage of your “maximum heart rate” or “MHR.”
- Working at a particular percentage of your “lactate threshold heart rate” or “THR”.
Sometimes these different percentages are labeled as zones (i.e. zone 2, zone 3, etc.), other times they may be labeled by type of running workout (i.e. recovery run, tempo run, etc). We’ll dive into each of these in a second.
For any of these, though, you’ll need to wear a heart rate monitor when exercising to ensure you’re working at the right intensity during your workouts.
Pros and cons of heart rate training
The main benefit of heart rate training is that it encourages you to run at a particular intensity level, which improves your cardiorespiratory fitness over time. It also reduces the risk of excessive fatigue and overtraining.
While many runners report that it feels unnatural to run slow enough to achieve lower heart rates, this type of training can help you gradually progress to farther and faster workouts over the long run.
The downside to heart rate training is that your heart rate can vary considerably during a workout based on several factors – like hot weather, hydration status, caffeine intake, sleep status, and more.
Sometimes these factors may cause your heart rate to not line up properly with perceived exertion at a particular pace.
Another con is that heart rate monitors may not always properly track data. This tends to happen frequently with lower-quality optical heart rate monitors, like those built into arm bands or wrist watches. You may notice that your optical monitor will intermittently pick up on pace, rather than your actual heart rate.
Chest strap monitors tend to be a bit more consistent, but even those can sometimes drop for a bit with tracking.
As such, heart rate training can be a valuable addition to a running program, but you should also consider how you feel during a workout too.
Workouts based on max heart rate
Referring to your maximum heart rate is probably the simplest way to structure a heart rate training program, but it has some flaws that hamper its effectiveness when used as the main guideline for your runs.
Many people calculate max heart rate based on a simple formula of 220 minus your age.
For example, following this formula, if you’re 30-years old, then your MHR = 220-30 = 190 beats per minute (bpm).
If you were following a heart rate training plan that prescribed a workout at 70 percent of MHR, this would equal 133 bpm. That means you’d keep your run at a pace where you didn’t exceed around that heart rate.
There are other slightly different calculations that can also be used for max heart rate that vary slightly from the 220 minus age formula: the Gelish equation calls for 207 minus (0.7 x age), or the Tanaka equation calls for 208 minus (0.7 x age).
The problem with all these calculations is that they don’t account for genetic differences in someone’s true maximum heart rate. Generally, this can range about 10-20 beats in either direction.
In the example above, then that individual could have a true max heart rate of about 210. Training at percentages based off of the calculated max might not be as effective because of this.
The age-based calculation may be useful as a starting point, but you should also consider how you feel during workouts when using heart rate training based on this. (As a heads up, you can get a true estimate of max heart rate with a graded exercise test in a lab, but this is not necessary nor appropriate for beginner runners, as it is quite exhausting and stressful.)
Here are examples of heart rate training zones based on max heart rate:
- Recovery runs – around 60-65% of max heart rate, RPE = 4 to 5
- Aerobic base runs – around 65-75% of max heart rate, RPE = 6
- Tempo runs – around 80-90% of max heart rate, RPE = 7 to 8
- Interval work – greater than 90% max heart rate, RPE = 9 to 10
Workouts based on lactate threshold heart rate
Because of the issues with max heart rate, some coaches prefer to base heart rate training on a percentage of the lactate threshold heart rate.
Your lactate threshold heart rate is the heart rate that you hit during exercise when you start to see blood lactate rise at an increasing rate. It’s not when the body starts to produce lactate, but rather when the body can no longer keep up with clearing it and there starts to be an upward rate of accumulation in the blood.
This is most accurately measured in a lab exercise test, but the good news is that it can be estimated quite well through a simple lactate threshold field test. Research suggests this field test correlates well with lab values.
To do the field test, you’ll warm up at a comfortable pace for 10-20 minutes. Then, run for 30 minutes at the best speed you can maintain consistently for all 30 minutes. You don’t want to start out fast and slow down. Pace yourself with a speed you can maintain.
You’ll wear your heart rate monitor during that run, and take the average heart rate from minute 10 to minute 30 (ignoring the first 10 minutes of data). This is your approximate lactate threshold heart rate.
Different coaches may prescribe different zones based on lactate threshold. Here’s one such example (RPE = rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1 to 10):
- Recovery runs – around 67-76% threshold heart rate, RPE = 4 to 5
- Aerobic base runs – around 80-88% of threshold heart rate, RPE = 6
- Tempo runs – around 90-98% of threshold heart rate, RPE = 7 to 8
- Interval Work – greater than 100% threshold heart rate, RPE = 9 to 10
Example Heart Rate Plans
Let’s say there is an athlete whose max heart rate is 190, and threshold heart rate is 170.
Here are the heart rate zones based on max heart rate:
- Recovery runs (60-65% max) = 114 to 124 bpm
- Aerobic base runs (65-75% max) = 124 to 143 bpm
- Tempo runs (80-90% max) = 152 to 169 bpm
- Interval work (>90% max heart rate) = >170 bpm
Here are the heart rate zones based on lactate threshold heart rate (THR):
- Recovery runs (67-76% THR) = 114 bpm to 129 bpm
- Aerobic base runs (80-88% THR) = 136 bpm to 149 bpm
- Tempo runs (90-98% THR) = 153 bpm to 167 bpm
- Interval Work (>100% threshold heart rate) = >170 bpm
You can see that in this case, both ranges line up very closely to each other.
If this was a beginner runner with a few months of running experience, their weekly plan might look like this:
- Monday – 30 min aerobic base run
- Tuesday – 40 min aerobic base run
- Wednesday – Rest
- Thursday – Tempo run – 10 min @ aerobic HR, 15 min @ tempo HR, 20 min @ aerobic HR
- Friday – Rest
- Saturday – 50 min aerobic base run
- Sunday – 25 min recovery run or rest
If this was an experienced athlete who had a history of consistent running experience, their weekly plan might look something like this:
- Monday – 60 min aerobic base run
- Tuesday – Interval work – 15 min @ aerobic HR warm up, 6×1200 m @ interval HR with 600 m recovery walk/jog, 15 min @ aerobic HR cool down
- Wednesday – 45 min aerobic base run
- Thursday – Tempo run – 15 min @ aerobic HR, 20 min @ tempo HR, 20 min @ aerobic HR
- Friday – Rest
- Saturday – 2 ½ hour aerobic base run
- Sunday – 45 min recovery run
FAQs about heart rate training for runners
Here are some common questions that may come up as you start this type of training:
If you feel comfortable completing a lactate threshold field test, that will give you more accurate real-world data to implement in your plan. However, if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, feel free to stick with a percentage of your age-calculated max heart rate. Just know it may not be completely accurate, and defer to perceived effort if needed.
You can use heart rate training for all of your weekly running workouts if you’d like, though some people may prefer not having to pay attention to data during some of their runs. If you’re a beginner just getting started with running, 3 comfortable runs per week is a good initial goal to aim for – regardless of whether you use heart rate training or not.
It varies depending on how the workout is structured. Most beginner heart rate training workouts will are steady state aerobic runs done at one zone for the entire workout. For more experienced athletes adding in speedwork, you may have intervals that utilize a higher heart rate percentage, with recovery periods where the heart rate is allowed to drop back down to a lower zone.
You can use heart rate training as a tool to vary your workouts, but don’t get too caught up in specific numbers. They’re meant as a guideline, not something that you must reach or surpass each time you train. The main goal is to stay consistent with your workouts and gradually progress over time. If running today at your aerobic base heart rate feels comfortable, that’s great. But if you’re feeling sluggish or like you need to slow down a little, it’s good to heed what your body’s telling you.
Hopefully this post helps you if you’re consider incorporating heart rate training into your workout routine!
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