Understanding your running heart rate zones, before, during, and at peak exercise will help you become a better runner. It’s why you see more and more running watches incorporating this feature even in the base models.
Heart rate training prevents you from running too hard or too easy, allowing you to recover better, enhance performance, and reduce the risk of overtraining.
Step 1 is understanding YOUR personal heart rate zones for training and then more importantly how to effectively use them. Because running data without a purpose is just another number to fret over.
What are Heart Rate Zones for Running?
In between our resting and max heart rates lies a range of 5 heart rate zones that correspond to workouts of varying intensities that range from very light to very hard.
The MOST accurate way to find your zones is to do a VO2 Max test, but that’s not often accessible for many so instead we try to generalize either with an rate of perceived exertion or through running heart rate.
Below is an example of a test I did…wayyyy back in 2010 when I was super sick. My HR was quite a bit higher than it is now when I run in those zones, which is one of the ways that HR training can help you monitor fitness.
As your fitness improves, you’ll be able to run the same paces at a lower HR, which means your body has become more efficient.
Most training plans include a variety of workouts targeted at the different zones, like easy days, tempo runs, speed work, and long slow distance.
Incorporating workouts of varying difficulties teaches your body to more efficiently use its aerobic and anaerobic systems.
There are five training zones that can help you dictate your exertion level based on your BPM (beats per minute).
Rather than training at a pace that feels hard or easy, you let your heart rate determine the speed and the quality of the workout. Your body knows when it’s working hard, even if you think the pace means it’s not.
What are HR Zones?
Following is a overview of each zone and examples of how it might be used. Please note that none of these apply if you are doing Low Heart Rate training, that is 1 max HR and no zones.
Zone 1: Very Light – 50 to 60 percent of MHR
Zone 1 should feel effortless. This is the zone we categorize as ‘very easy’ training and in terms of running this will entail a comfortable pace.
Reserve Zone 1 for your warm up and recovery runs where low intensity is the goal.
This training zone can help the body become more efficient at transporting oxygen to the muscles and lactic acid away from the muscles. In the long run, this alleviates the painful effects of lactic acid buildup while running, allowing you to train harder and for longer periods of time.
Running in this zone feels like you could keep going for hours and is excellent when we start running and are building a base. It’s a great way to build stamina, allowing you to exercise multiple days without accumulating a lot of fatigue. Realistically this is where you should find your average HR while running.
Uses: Warm up, recovery runs, resting between intervals
Benefits: Recovery runs, help lower heart rate, prepare to train at higher intensities.
Zone 2: Light – 60 to 70 percent of MHR
Most of your long runs and easy runs should fall in Zone 2. As in the 80% of the 80/20 rule of running! Keep it easy.
Zone 2 training has been demonstrated to raise VO2Max, which is how much oxygen your body can utilize, in addition to lowering the risk of injury and improving insulin resistance. In practice, this implies that you become less exhausted while performing the same forms of activity.
These runs aren’t as easy as Zone 1, but you can still maintain a conversation and should not finish the run feeling completely wiped out. It’s also the zone you’ll use for most of your base training sessions since it works your aerobic energy system.
This is the hardest zone for many endurance athletes because they may often feel the pace is too slow, but it’s exactly what the body needs to build endurance.
Your marathon pace will likely start in Zone 2 and move in to Zone 3 or 4 by the end of the race.
Uses: Long runs, endurance training, base training
Benefits: Improving overall cardiovascular training, building endurance, increase fat metabolism.
Zone 3: Moderate – 70 to 80 percent of MHR
This is your tempo run pace, used to develop speed and strength and provide the most cardiovascular benefit.
Zone 3 is where a runner can improve their aerobic fitness and build up their aerobic strength. It can also enhance anaerobic threshold, which means that the more you train in Zone 3, the higher the intensity you can sustain for a longer amount of time.
Runs in Zone 3 should last about 30-45 minutes. The pace is comfortably hard; conversations are limited to a word or two at a time. It’s a portion of your long run where you hit tempo or specifically plan to practice marathon goal pace running.
This is the Zone that too many runners do their easy runs in, which results in overtraining.
Uses: Tempo runs, marathon effort training, steady state runs
Benefits: Build strength, increase running economy, enhances aerobic powder, improves blood circulation.
Read more about why we call Zone 3 Gray Zone training. Stop doing your easy runs in this zone!
Zone 4: Intervals or Fartleks, 80 to 90 percent of MHR
Zone 4 teaches your body to run at its lactate threshold. You should be working on fast twitch muscles and find this is a hard effort you could only hold for up to a 5K or for mile repeats depending on intensity.
This is the effort where your body relies on carbs for quick energy. And this is the zone when you push your workout threshold to its limits and progressively improve your aerobic capacity.
Uses: Long intervals, fartleks, threshold training
Benefits: Improves power output, increases anaerobic tolerance, improves high speed endurance
Zone 5: 400 repeats or finishing a race, 90 to 100 percent of MHR
This is your maximum effort and should last under five minutes per session. You would use this pace as you near the finish line of a race or during shorter speed workouts, like 200- and 400-meter repeats.
Training in this zone can boost your power and speed, build your muscles, and improve your ability to run and workout at high intensities.
Yes even marathon runners will benefit from sprint workouts!
Uses: Sprinting, short intervals, maximum speed
Benefits: Increases maximum sprinting speed, works on reaction time, and power.
This HR Zone Chart gives you a good breakdown of the above listed zones.
What is a Good Running Heart Rate?
The average heart rate varies from person to person and is based on a number of factors, including:
- Fitness level
- Stress levels
- Caffeine intake
Research has also shown that dehydration, temperature, altitude, and even time of day can affect heart rate by up to 20 percent.
What that means is that heart rate can change from one day to the next, so take an average of your heart rate in the beginning so you can learn more about how your body reacts to different stress.
This can also make HR training frustrating for many runners because they are suddenly doing easy runs at a much slower pace, but in return the body is recovering faster and ensuring you have energy to go hard on speed work days.
How to Calculate Heart Rate Zones
Heart rate zones are frequently calculated using your maximum heart rate. Some calculations also take your resting heart rate into account. You can use these two types of data to figure out each of your five heart rate training zones.
Each individual has a unique maximum and resting heart rate. There are also other things to think about, like age, fitness level, and even daily medications.
Resting Heart Rate
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you are inactive and at rest. Right after you wake up in the morning is the ideal time to measure your resting heart rate. While you are still in bed, measure and record your heart rate in beats per minute.
This number can be anywhere from 40 bpm for a well-trained athlete to 80 bpm for a less-trained person.
After a period of regular training, it is likely that you will need to remeasure your resting heart rate to alter your training zones. Your resting heart rate will decrease as your fitness level improves.
Checkout this post on low resting heart rate in runners >>
Maximum Heart Rate
Maximum heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute when it is performing at full capacity. Max heart rate readings are influenced by a variety of variables, including your body’s unique physiology, genetics, and age, much like your resting heart rate.
How to Find Your Max Heart Rate
Everyone has both a maximum and resting heart rate. Knowing both will help you get the most from your training by targeting heart rates that fall in between your minimum and maximum heart rate.
1. Maximum Heart Rate Equations
Now that you know your resting heart rate, it’s time to calculate your maximum heart rate.
There are a few different calculations you can use.
For the math, we’ll use a 40-year-old woman as an example.
Fox formula: 220 – age = 180
Tanaka formula: 208 – (age x 0.7) = 180
Gulati formula: 206 – (age x .88) = 170.8
**Women may find more accurate results using the Gulati formula. Other formulas are derived from research on men, and seem to overestimate the max heart rate for women.
These calculations are great for getting estimates, but what if you do a sprint workout and exceed that maximum?
This doesn’t mean that your heart is going to burst out of your chest, rather it means that the calculated number isn’t your true maximum heart rate.
There are a few different ways to test for your absolutely MHR, so that you can then better use the running heart rate training zones. If you don’t have that top number correct it’s going to skew everything.
Many of you who ask me about running with a high heart rate, are going to want to do this test to find your true max.
2. Lab Test
The best way to find out your max heart rate is on a treadmill at a lab through a VO2Max Test. This is expensive and a little nauseating, but honestly I love these kinds of tests and all the data. So I was happy to submit myself to it!
For that test, you are placed on a treadmill with a mask over your face to measure your expiration.
3. Track Test
- Start with a one to two-mile warm up
- Run a mile at tempo pace
- Run 400m faster
- Run 400m as fast as you can go.
- The highest recorded number is your max heart rate.
3. Track Test
Another way to find out your max heart rate is to run a 5k all out. Go as fast as you can sustain over the course. Your highest reading, likely toward the end of the race, will be your max.
This is probably my preferred method for most runners because it’s the easiest way to really push yourself and you’ll also set a good baseline for your running paces.
How to Use Heart Rate for Training Training
There are two main methods of training according to your heart rate: the Maffetone Method and Heart Rate Zones.
Both will help train your body to run more efficiently, but in very different ways.
Low Heart Rate Training/The Maffetone Method
My preferred method of training because it forces people to build a base for running is LHR.
- This method trains your body to burn more stored fat for energy and perform endurance activities faster over time while remaining at the same heart rate.
- The goal during training is to never exceed that heart rate.
- In the beginning, running may feel excruciatingly slow, but trust that you will get faster over time.
- After you build a solid base and are no longer progressing using just your MAX hr, you can start to add in speed work again for 20% of your weekly run time.
To calculate your maximum heart rate for low heart rate training, use his 180 formula:
180 – age = maximum HR for all workouts
There are nuances after that, but that’s the overall basic formula.
I’ve written many articles about low heart rate training. Start here to get a full understanding of how and why it works.
Target Heart Rate Zones For Training
As described above you can use Zone training to run your best race.
It’s going to involve finding a training plan that lists your workouts in Zones or understanding that 80% of your runs should be easy which means Zone 1 and 2.
That final 20% is where you work through the upper zones in those hard speed work days.
Because understanding Zone 2 or easy running is so hard for many, I want to share this more in-depth podcast! Coach Laura Norris and I decided it was a must for one of our first episodes of Tread Lightly. Therefore I’m sure there are audio kinks, but we learn!
Resting Heart Rate for Runners?
Besides knowing your Max HR for running, it’s also important to know your resting HR as a runner.
This is quite literally your average heart rate while at rest.
- The most accurate measurement is first thing in the morning just after you have woken up and before you get out of bed.
- Many phones have a built in app that will record your heart rate using the fingerprint sensor, otherwise, you can go old school and use your fingers and a timer.
- With the first two index fingers, find the pulse on your wrist or your carotid artery on your neck and count the number of heart beats over 10 seconds. Multiply that number by 6 to get your resting heart rate.
For the average person, resting heart rate ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).
Seasoned runners and elite athletes tend to have lower heart rates, sometimes as low as 40 bpm. This is because their muscles are in top condition and the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood to the body.
Most marathon runners will find their Avg resting HR between 45-65.
What’s truly important is to monitor your resting HR over time.
- If your resting HR is increasing it’s a sign of overtraining or illness
- If your resting HR is decreasing it’s a sign of improved fitness
- HOWEVER, if it just keeps dropping say you’re hitting 40 and you aren’t feeling well it’s also a sign of overtraining
What Happens When Your Heart Rate is Too High?
Exceeding your maximum heart rate for long periods of time can cause health problems such as:
- Chest pain
- Over training
- Discomfort (leading to not consistently running)
Furthermore, it will only hinder, not help, your running. Training consistently at a high heart rate won’t teach your body to burn fat for energy over long periods of time.
More importantly training at 75% of your MHR or higher won’t allow your body to recover or train the lactic threshold system.
Overtraining will likely lead to injury, burnout, and plateau during races.
Signs that your heart rate is too high include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Inability to talk
- Cannot catch breath
If you find yourself pushing too hard during a training run or race, slow down, walking if necessary, and focus on your breathing until your heart has reached a slower rate.
Slowing down may feel counter intuitive, but remember, there’s a benefit to going hard on hard days and taking your recovery days easy peasy.
Measuring Your BPM with a Heart Rate Monitor
A heart rate monitor is a wearable device that measures and displays your bpm to another device such as a watch or phone. Most importantly, they give you actionable data to learn if you’re pushing too hard, or not enough during your training.
Do you really need one to train? No. Do you really need one to train with accuracy in order to achieve your running goals? Probably.
Click here for Part 2: Looking at the Best Heart Rate Monitor for Running – Comparing straps, watches and more.
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Most runners overlook the importance of heart rate zones in training, until they get frustrated that they aren’t making progress. The reality is, if you’re frustrated, you’re probably running too fast, too often with your heart rate in “no man’s land” in a zone that does you no good. When I started training using Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 method, I noticed HUGE gains in my fitness: https://runningmybestlife.com/80-20-running/. I’m guilty of creeping my speed too high as well, and after getting my VO2 Max tested this week, I’m refocusing on hitting the right zones in marathon training!
Thank you so much for sharing such quality content. The info you provide is remarkable. I’m so happy I discovered your fantastic blog a couple months ago. I’ll be coming around often.
OH thanks Ann, that’s so kind!!
I find it challenging to stay in zone 2 for easy runs on routes with hills and if the weather isn’t great (windy, snow, etc.). I try to slow down even more when climbing hills but my heart rate still spikes, then drops dramatically as I start going downhill. Should I be aiming for my overall average heart rate to be in zone 2 or should it stay in that range the entire run? My average is in zone 2 but can creep into zone 3 during an easy run as much as 40% of it.
Great question. Ideally we want to stay in zone 2, not just average. If you’re in zone 3 for 40% of the run that’s too much. I often take short walk breaks on hills to keep HR down and ensure the effort stays where I want it. I also notice if I do that, over time I run more and more of the hill before my HR creeps up.