Essential Heart Rate Training for Runners in 2024

heart rate training for runners

If you’re an athlete aiming to improve your performance, keep away from injuries, and improve your times, then heart rate training should be part of your workouts.

Heart rate training for runners is key to getting faster and improving running endurance, while also helping you avoid overtraining and injury.

Key Takeaways

  • Heart rate training is a useful method of monitoring effort while running.
  • A heart rate monitor is needed to remain within your personalized heart rate zones.
  • A heart rate training plan based on heart rate zones can offer increased endurance, efficient training, and race pacing.
  • A running coach can help optimize heart rate training and create a comprehensive program for achieving specific objectives.

The Basics of Heart Rate Training For Runners

Checking your heart rate is easy on a  smartwatch while performing heart rate training for runners

Heart rate training for runners yields several benefits such as lower stress levels and improved mental clarity since your own data helps you to improve and not overtrain.

This approach is rooted in the aerobic energy system which is about measuring beats per minute (bpm) during exercise to track your effort level accurately.

To ensure that you remain within pre-defined heart rate metrics based on your training zones, you must be able to view your current heart rate while running. You will need a heart rate monitor – preferably a GPS running watch – to be able to do this.

Unless someone has been diagnosed with major illnesses or other contraindications, they should be able to utilize this form of measurement for the best results with their goals.

The Science Behind Heart Rate Training Zones

Each heart rate training zone corresponds to a different intensity and level of physiological response, all focusing on targeting the cardiovascular system.

There are five distinct heart rate training zones within this type of training:

ZonePerceived Effort LevelHR level
Zone 1Very Easy – feels almost too simple55% – 65% Max HR
Zone 2Aerobic Base – conversation is possible65% – 75% Max HR
Zone 3Tempo – challenging75% – 85% Max HR
Zone 4Lactate Threshold – high intensity85% – 88% Max HR
Zone 5Anaerobic – absolute peak effort near capacity88% + Max HR

To establish a personalized program, you must first calculate your maximum heart rate or “Max HR” via field tests or formula-based methods (outlined further down below). These methods take age and fitness level into account.

Essential Gear: Choosing a Reliable Heart Rate Monitor

A quality running watch will display your heart rate in beats per minute, or as a percent of one’s maximum heart rate, target zone features, easy viewing capabilities, and convenience are important factors for consideration while choosing such devices.

A chest strap was the gold standard in the past for heart rate monitoring, but today most running watches are nearly equal with wrist-based monitoring.

Take these things into account when selecting the right equipment. Read reviews on running gear and especially GPS running watches so you can make wise decisions.

Calculating Your Max Heart

There are multiple ways to calculate your Max HR and help you start your heart rate training. Here are a few of them.

The Traditional Formula: 220 – Age

The most common method for estimating Max HR is the age-based formula of 220 minus your age. While it provides a quick and easy starting point, it has limitations. Individual variations in fitness levels, genetics, and overall health are not considered, potentially leading to inaccuracies. Despite its simplicity, this formula can serve as a baseline for those new to heart rate training.

There is actually an update to this formula: 208 – (your age x .7).

This equation while statistically better, is also based on a large group of people, so any personalization (such as current fitness level and genetics) is ignored.

If you use a Garmin running watch, Garmin Connect actually uses this formula when calculating max heart rate.

Field Tests and Real-world Assessment

For those who prefer a more hands-on approach, field tests provide an opportunity to gauge your Max HR through an intense running activity.

The Field Test Approach, also called the stress test, is an option for assessing one’s heart rate zones. This is a strenuous test, so make sure you have clearance from your doctor before beginning the field test approach.

1. Warm-Up

Start with a dynamic warm-up tailored for runners. Include exercises like leg swings, high knees, and lunges to get your muscles ready for action. Follow this up with a light jog with for 10-15 minutes to gradually elevate your heart rate. You should be thoroughly warmed up and ready to give a very intense effort.

2. Choose a Runner-Friendly Route

Select a flat and runner-friendly route to conduct your field test. Ideally, choose a location with minimal traffic and obstructions, allowing you to focus solely on your run.

3. All-Out Effort

Begin the test with an all-out effort, aiming for a pace that you can sustain for approximately 3 minutes. This could be a fast sprint or an aggressive pace, depending on your fitness level.

4. Monitor Your Heart Rate

During the test, keep a close eye on your heart rate. Utilize a reliable heart rate monitor or a running watch to ensure accurate readings. Your maximum heart rate is likely to peak towards the end of the test, so pay attention to the highest recorded value.

5. Cool Down

After completing the all-out effort, initiate a gentle cool-down by gradually reducing your pace. Allow your heart rate to return to its resting state.

6. Analyze Your Data

Examine the highest heart rate recorded during the test. This value is a solid estimate of your Maximum HR for running. Keep in mind that factors like fatigue and environmental conditions (heat) can influence results, so consider repeating the test for a more accurate average.

7. Repeat for Accuracy

For a more precise measurement, consider repeating the Max Heart Rate Field Test after a few days of recovery. This can help eliminate any outliers and provide a more reliable Maximum HR estimate for your running endeavors.

Calculating Your Personal Heart Rate Training Zones

Athlete performing field test to determine heart rate zones

To gain a deeper understanding of your aerobic capabilities, the Field Test Approach and Formula Method can be used to determine individualized heart rate zones. These zones will allow for the creation of personalized workouts tailored specifically to your needs.

The Heart Rate Zone Calculator

This calculator can help you define your heart rate zones for future training. Your heart rate zones are unique to you and are based on your max heart rate entered.

Enter your max heart rate:

HR Range
Your Heart Rate Range
Zone 1
55% – 65% Max HR
Enter your max heart rate above
Zone 2
65% – 75% Max HR

Zone 3
75% – 85% Max HR

Zone 4
85% – 88% Max HR

Zone 5
88% + Max HR

Crafting Your Perfect Running Training Plan

Create a personalized training plan based on heart rate zones - heart rate training for runners

Heart rate training provides benefits such as personalized instruction, improved stamina, and an increase in race pace while reducing the risk of overtraining.

ZonePerceived Effort LevelTraining Time
Zone 1Very Easy – feels almost too simple30% – 40%
Zone 2Aerobic Training Base – conversation is possible40% – 50%
Zone 3Tempo – challenging10% – 15%
Zone 4Lactate Threshold – high intensity5% – 10%
Zone 5Anaerobic – absolute peak effort near capacity < 5%

It is suggested to allocate about 30-40% in Zone 1 for building up an aerobic foundation. 40-50%, Zone 2, which should be your most used intensity level. 10-15% in Zone 3 with its higher intensities seen during intervals or hill workouts. 5%-10% of time is spent on moderate efforts at Zone 4 levels and finally, only 5% should be within the Zone 5 range.

Following this distribution breakdown, incorporating other cross-training activities like swimming, cycling or yoga will help elevate overall physical wellbeing while protecting against injuries sustained from running day after day!

The MAF Method Explored

The MAF Method is a heart rate training approach that focuses on optimizing maximum aerobic function and fat burning during exercise. This method, based on exercising with a lower heart rate to improve aerobic fitness without overtraining, utilizes the MAF 180 Formula for calculating an individual’s optimal top cardio threshold.

Working at or below this target in your running program consists of consistently maintaining your heartbeat below its stated upper limit – by knowing one’s Maximum Aerobic Function Heart Rate (MAF) – as you’re participating in any form of endurance activity such as running or cycling. Staying within these boundaries while using this low heart rate training method enables increased oxygen intake along with enhanced health benefits associated with only higher intensity work-outs like sprints/HIIT sessions etc.

Implementing Low Heart Rate Training

Runner practicing low heart rate training for improved endurance

Now that you know your individual heart rate training zones, let’s go over Zone 1 where you should be spending approximately 30% to 40% of your time.

Phil Maffetone’s low heart rate training is an invaluable tool for optimizing such a workout routine. This type of routine keeps the beats per minute lower than in regular workouts and has been found to bring numerous benefits such as improved endurance, fewer injuries, better mental clarity, and faster recovery times.

According to Maffetone, 80% of your session should be undertaken at intensity levels 1 or 2, and you will maximize all potential gains associated with this method. Those who try outpacing their runs using low heart rate approaches tend to increase pace slowly but reliably while keeping that same initial level again after every break they take between sessions/runs. Consequently, enhanced endurance can result due to its effects on mitochondria efficiency which increases along with higher quantities of those organelles being produced by working out like this.

Maximizing Performance with High-Intensity Training

Athlete engaging in high-intensity training within heart rate zones

Of course, you can’t spend all of your time in Zone 1. You need to add intensity to get your heart rate up. This will improve aerobic capacity and increase sprinting ability while also improving insulin sensitivity and brain function. 5% to 10% of your sessions should be in Zone 4.

It’s important to warm up sufficiently beforehand for any Zone 4 workout. Gradual increases in effort combined with interval bursts will bring good results over time. HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) workouts are designed around specific goals set by yourself or a coach.

HIIT workouts allow greater oxygen utilization resulting in overall faster times and increased stamina.

Monitoring Progress and Adjusting Intensity

Comparing your heart rate trends over time shows how you’re doing. If there are improvements to be made in running pace, distance traveled and duration of workout, it’s likely that an increase in conditioning has been achieved as well as lower resting HR levels.

Data doesn’t lie. It’s important to routinely review your data and adjust your training volume or pattern to maximize each workout’s effectiveness.

Remember that factors such as activity type, temperature/altitude change hydration needs & timeframe should all be taken into consideration first though.

Be sure to check your resting heart rate on occasion as well. An increase in resting heart rate can be a signal of overtraining.

Cross Training and Recovery Insights

I have found that incorporating cross-training into my running training program helps reduce the chances of getting injured. It helps to improve my overall fitness levels and endurance while also strengthening muscles that would otherwise not be active when running.

Examples of these include biking, yoga, rowing (on a machine), strength exercises, and swimming. Athletes over 40 should definitely include strength exercise sessions since it becomes more difficult to retain muscle as we age.

Preparing for Race Day

When running a marathon (especially a bucket list marathon), racing based on my heart rate training is key to performing well.

Pre-race nutrition should focus on clean eating and ample rest. Tapering off your exercise regime (amount of time, not intensity) two weeks before the competition date will allow for maximum readiness for the big day.

Also, staying away from heat sessions at least 7 days ahead is important to make sure all internal stress systems are rested.

On the big day itself, many runners target zone 3 (80% MHR) as a common pace that can be maintained for the majority of the race. This should leave you ample energy in the last kilometers to increase your pace (if desired).

Expert Advice: When to Consult a Running Coach

Coaches can take any confusion out of workouts and provide advice on low heart rate training (and the utilization of various heart rate zones for specific intensities).

A good coach can craft an individualized plan based on maximum hearing rate, HR zones, and monitoring efforts while running. They’ll also help manage recovery time after intense workouts. A coach can instruct in how best to analyze data from such measurements of one’s heartbeat during exercise routines.

Other areas a coach can be helpful:

  • Being relied upon when it comes to understanding proper pacing
  • Staying accountable(not skipping workouts)
  • Make sure that hard runs don’t get confused with easy ones
  • Recognizing fatigue symptoms associated with overtraining

A qualified coach can not only help formulate ideal benchmarks for your sessions but also offer you tips and advice so that you can improve with the least barriers.


The best coach for you is not necessarily the best coach for everyone. Spend time researching and speaking with different coaches to find the one for you.


Taking advantage of heart rate training can help runners improve their performance, avoid injuries, and break personal records. Knowing the science behind different zones as well as setting up a tailored workout regimen is fundamental to maximizing your running experience.

It is possible to reach optimal results if you correctly apply all elements with the proper tools and guidance available.

Any runner who follows heart rate training properly can improve greatly while avoiding overtraining and injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a good heart rate for running training?

For efficient running training, try to maintain your heart rate between 50-85% of the maximum value attainable. This can be computed by subtracting one’s age from 220. For instance, runners in their twenties up to mid-forties should aim for a target heart rate ranging from 100-160 beats per minute (bpm).

How can I improve my heart rate when running?

To keep your heart rate steady when running, adopt a slower pace or lower intensity. Interval running with run-walk breaks is useful for longer distances and training purposes. To get comfortable breathing deeply during runs, focus on cadence. Also include strength exercises in the routine and ensure regularity of exercise sessions for best results. In short, routinely running at a slower pace will help you develop a lower heart rate.

Which heart rate zone should I train in?

For those interested in improving their aerobic fitness level and developing lean muscle, a workout between 65-75% of the maximum heart rate (Zone 2) is recommended. This intensity offers the greatest benefits for both overall cardiac health and weight loss goals. Keeping your heart rate at this optimal zone can help to make exercise more efficient as well as allow you greater progress towards achieving desired outcomes.

Is 170 bpm bad when running?

For a 40-year-old, 170 bpm while running would be at approximately 94% of their maximum heart rate and their body would be working at maximum capacity. Though it is generally safe for very short amounts of time, it is not ideal for daily workouts and long-term improvement.

What is the MAF method and how does it relate to heart rate training?

The MAF method is a heart rate training approach that encourages maximizing fat burning for energy by exercising at a heart rate below the Maximum Aerobic Function threshold, as calculated with the MAF 180 Formula.

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