What to Know About Heart Rate Training

Jason Saltmarsh
by Jason Saltmarsh
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What to Know About Heart Rate Training

If you’re ready to get more out of every training run, heart rate training could help. A heart rate monitor provides real-time biofeedback during your workouts to help you stay in the optimal training zone, whether you’re trying to lose weight or improve your cardiovascular endurance.

Your heart rate is a key indicator of how hard you’re working at any given time, but there are distinctions between various heart rate zones — and when to stay within each.


To find your target heart rate zone, you’ll need to know your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate. Your maximum heart rate (MHR) is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity, while your resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of heartbeats per minute while you’re at rest. Using some simple calculations, you can determine several training zones between those two extreme values to help target specific intensity levels to get the most out of every workout.

The American Heart Association recommends subtracting your age from 220 for identifying your maximum heart rate. For example, if you are 30 years old, your maximum heart rate is 190 beats per minute (220 – 30 = 190).

However, Matt Fitzgerald, author of “The Endurance Diet,” disagrees with this recommendation, warning of relying on such a simple equation.

“Formulas such as 220 minus your age for max heart rate are accurate only for a fraction of runners. To get customized heart rate training zones that reflect your current fitness level, you need to determine your lactate threshold heart rate through testing,” he says. “A scientifically validated protocol is running a 30-minute time trial and taking your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes as your lactate threshold heart rate.”

Various facilities around the country perform professional lactate threshold tests for a fee, but a simple Google search will display numerous DIY tests to perform on your own with a treadmill, heart rate monitor and sports watch.



Your lactate threshold heart rate is typically 90% of your MHR. Using the example from above, with an MHR of 190 and an RHR of 65, here are the results:

Zone 1: Low-intensity zone (5060% of MHR): 125138 beats per minute (BPM)

Zone 2: Weight-control zone (6070% of MHR): 138151 BPM

Zone 3: Aerobic zone (7080% of MHR): 151164 BPM

Zone 4: Anaerobic zone (8090% of MHR): 164177 BPM

Zone 5: Maximal zone (90100% of MHR): 177190 BPM

So how do you know what zone is best for you? Well, that depends on your training goal. According to Mammoth Track Club Head Coach Andrew Kastor, “zone 1 and 2 is basically watching TV on the couch to running 60-75 seconds slower than a marathon race pace.”

While you might think you want to avoid zones 1 and 2 during exercise, amazing things can happen even at this pace. “When you are training at a low intensity, your body is able to convert fat to carbohydrates (CHOs) during a process called gluconeogenesis. CHOs make our muscle fibers contract, in this case, for the action of running.”

In a nutshell, you don’t have to run fast to burn body fat. You just have to move.

As the intensity increases, runners hit zones 3 and 4. These are the zones where we see a lot of performance growth. Shorter distance runners usually spend more time in zone 4 than longer distance runners.

As you would imagine, zone 5 is the max. Kastor warns runners against spending too much time here. “You’re not just training the heart rate zones [cardiovascular system] but the muscles as well. When you crank up your training intensity to zone 5, you are having to contract your legs muscles, as well as engaging your shoulders.”


Your training plans should be based on your desired outcomes. If your goal is to lose weight while building up base miles, you’ll probably want to stay in zones 2 and 3. If you are training for a race, you will likely end up training in zones 3, 4 and 5. If you just ran a marathon, you are likely recovering and it’s wise to spend time in zone 1.

The advantage to heart rate training is that it’s based solely on your own biofeedback. External measures, such as pace, do not interfere with your results. For example, if you run a flat six miles on a cool evening at an 8-minute pace, it may be easier on your heart than running six hilly miles on a hot day at an 8:30 pace. Using only pace per mile training methods would be misleading in terms of effort and intensity.

Luckily for today’s runner’s, capturing heart rate data has never been easier. Just a few years ago, it was common to see runners wearing uncomfortable chest straps under their shirts. Now, most GPS watches offer models with wrist-based heart rate monitor (HRM) technology. Many runners will wear their watches all day and night to capture RHR data and make informed choices based on their overall energy levels.


Training principles remain the same no matter what method you use. A blend of long and short, easy and hard, fast and slow, and plenty of rest will keep you fit and healthy. Heart rate training offers you an exact measure of effort and gives you the certainty of knowing you are training at your intended level of exertion.

However, technology doesn’t always work as intended, and athletes should use good judgement. Never rely solely on HRM feedback. Instead, use it as one of the many indicators to inform your approach to training and staying fit.

Of course, you will also want to monitor your progress. “When a runner progresses through their training season, their target heart rate zones shift … hopefully for the better,” says Kastor. “Retesting every 35 weeks is essential.”

About the Author

Jason Saltmarsh
Jason Saltmarsh

Jason is a competitive masters runner and freelance writer who covers sports, fitness and healthy living topics for several national magazines and websites.


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