Heart Rate Training Zones for Runners: Complete Guide

With all of the training methods out there it can become overwhelming trying to figure out which one to use: pace training, rate of perceived exertion, heart rate training. What’s the right method? That’s the million dollar question right there. 

Your coach will ultimately decide which method is appropriate for your current goal, and apply it to your training plan. 

If you aren’t familiar with heart rate zone training, this guide is a perfect starter for you.

Let’s jump in!

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

What is Heart Rate Training?

Heart rate training uses your heart rate, or beats per minute (bpm), to monitor your effort while running. This can be a very effective training method to help runners stick to certain intensities and effort levels without overdoing it, which in turn, can help us reach our training goals more efficiently.

What Equipment Do I Need to Heart Rate Train?

If you have been training for a while, you probably already have a running watch to measure pace, distance and time. Most training watches have the option to connect to a heart rate monitor and many of the newer models have one built right into the watch itself. 

If your watch already has a monitor built in, the reading will be taken from your wrist. If it doesn’t have one, you can purchase a separate heart rate monitor (chest, arm or ear) that will measure and transmit the information directly to your watch so you can monitor your beats per minute while training. 

Be sure the monitor is set firmly in place so you get the most accurate reading possible. If the monitor is too loose and wiggling around, you might get an inaccurate reading.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Who Should Use Heart Rate Training?

The majority of runners who have at least some experience can benefit greatly from heart rate training. However, a complete beginner should think about using perceived effort to start. When a runner is just starting out, their heart rate tends to rise quickly. This can become frustrating as it feels as though the only way to lower it would be to slow down to a walk, or even a complete stop. 

After a solid base of consistent running has been established, heart rate training can make its way into a runner’s plan with more success.

What are the Benefits of Heart Rate Training?

Heart rate training is a more personalized way to work out as each person’s resting and maximum heart rates vary. Each runner calculates their own zones using data taken from a couple of tests. These are your zones and are specific to your training needs.  

Having established heart rate zones makes it easier to stay at our desired effort levels during a training session. It can prevent us from unnecessarily draining our energy by pushing too hard or pull us out of a lazy moment and make sure we are pushing hard enough. 

Most of us tend to push harder than required during our training, so sticking to our pre-established zones allows us to pull back when necessary. 

After you have calculated your personal heart rate training zones, you can adjust the settings in your watch so it not only shows you the beats per minute sent by your monitor but it will also indicate the zone you are in throughout the duration of your training. This makes it even easier because you won’t need to memorize the ranges of each zone, your watch will do that for you

As you follow your specific instructions for each session, you can consult your watch, check your current zone, and adjust accordingly throughout your run. You can even set up alarms to alert you when you have strayed from a specific zone. 

Using a heart rate method can help prevent overtraining, and lower the risk of injury as we are more likely to stay in our desired zones. Running at the correct intensity also helps us keep on track and work towards our training goals more efficiently.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Factors that Can Affect Heart Rate Data

There are certain variables that can raise your heart rate which you need to take into consideration. Some argue that this makes heart rate training unreliable, but if your heart rate is rising, your body is sending you a message.

These factors can include:

  • Elevation 
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Cardiac drift (when your heart rate rises after an extended period of time training)
  • Medications
  • Caffeine

Now that we have the gist of what heart rate training is, let’s calculate our zones!

How do I Calculate My Heart Rate Zones?

Heart rate zones are often calculated by using your maximum heart rate value. There are also some calculations that take into account your resting heart rate value as well. These two pieces of data can be used to define each one of your 5 heart rate training zones.

Resting and maximum heart rate values vary from person to person. A number of considerations must also be taken into account such as age, fitness level, and even daily medications.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Resting Heart Rate

Your resting heart rate is your beats per minute when you are not doing any physical activity and are simply resting. The best time to take your resting heart rate is right after you wake up in the morning. As you are still lying in bed, measure your heart rate and take note of the beats per minute. 

This piece of data can range anywhere from 40 bpm for a seasoned athlete, to 80 bpm for someone who is less trained.  

After a while of consistent training, you will most likely need to take your resting heart rate again to adjust your zones. As your fitness level increases, your resting heart rate will lower.

Maximum Heart Rate

Your maximum heart rate is your beats per minute when your heart is working at capacity. Similar to your resting heart rate, max heart rate values will also depend on a number of factors such as your body’s particular physiology, genetics and age.

How Can I Calculate My Maximum Heart Rate?

We will take a look at three different approaches to calculating your maximum heart rate.

The Equation

The most common method is to simply plug in your age to a predetermined equation. This equation has been developed over time with the goal of becoming more and more accurate. 

The most recent, most accurate one yet is:

211 – (.64 x age)

For example,, if you’re 40 years old, your max heart rate would be calculated like this: 

211 – (.64 x 40) 

211 – 25.6 = 185.4 

185.4 = Max heart rate

This is a quick and easy way to come up with an estimate but there are more precise ways to get this important piece of data.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Stress Test

A stress test, also known as a VO2 Max test, is performed in a lab under the supervision of a cardiologist or medical professional. This makes it the safest and most accurate option. 

During the test, you run on a treadmill and as you advance, the speed or incline increases until you’ve reached your limit. Other data is also collected such as your rate of lactate build up in your muscles and oxygen intake. 

Not only will this test provide your maximum heart rate data, but also your lactate threshold, and aerobic and anaerobic zones.

Field Test

If you don’t have access to a stress test, this could be an option for you. However, as this test is done on your own, and requires you to push close to your maximum effort level, it should only be done if you are an experienced athlete and in excellent health. 

In addition to being strong in body, you must also be strong in mind. There is a mental factor to this test, gauging how hard you can actually push, that only a more experienced athlete is likely to sucessfully execute. 

If you are unable to complete the test correctly, it may affect your results. This will in turn, impact your zones and have you training at incorrect effort levels.

Getting the go ahead from your doctor and being properly prepared is imperative to do this test safely. If there is any doubt, choose the equation or lab test options.

Field Test Procedure

  1. Treat this test like a race. You want to run on rested legs, so rest up the night before and eat well. 
  2. Warm up for 15 minutes with a few 20 second strides at the end to get your legs moving.
  3. Run 3 minutes, fast.
  4. Rest for 2 minutes.
  5. Run 3 minutes as fast as you can
  6. As you reach your maximum effort level and can’t push any harder, check your watch reading and take note of your highest bpm.

This reading is your maximum heart rate.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Now that you have your minimum and maximum heart rate data, you can calculate your personalized zones! 

The Zones Explained

Zone 1

Zone 1 is used primarily for:

  • Resting between intervals

Zone 1 should feel almost effortless. It is a very easy, comfortable pace that you should ultimately be able to maintain for hours and hours at a time. You should be able to carry on a full-blown conversation with a fellow runner and breathe comfortably through your nose.

Benefits of Training in Zone 1

Training in zone 1 is used to get you warmed up and moving with little to no stress on the body. It also allows you to recover between intervals, lower your heart rate, and prepare yourself to train in higher intensity zones.

Workout Examples in Zone 1

  • 15-minute warm up or cool down before and after main training sessions 
  • 40-minute recovery run after a previous day of intense training
HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Zone 2

Zone 2 is used primarily for:

  • Long Runs
  • Endurance 
  • Base Training

Zone 2 is a small step up from Zone 1 as it should still feel comfortable and you should be able to carry on a conversation with someone running alongside you. This is a zone you are able to sustain for hours at a time as well. It is predominantly used for long runs and base training sessions as it works your aerobic energy system.

Benefits of Training in Zone 2

Zone 2 focuses on improving your basic cardiovascular training and overall endurance. Working at this low intensity will ultimately result in being able to run faster, at the same effort level. Your muscle endurance will improve and your body will become a fat-burning machine.

This is truly the zone for endurance athletes to focus on. In your training plans, you will notice that about 70-80% of your training is in zones 1 & 2.

Workout Examples in Zone 2

  • 2 hour consistent long run
  • 45 minute recovery run

Zone 3

Zone 3 is used primarily for:

  • Improving aerobic conditioning 
  • Marathon effort training 
  • Steady state runs

Zone 3 is where training becomes slightly uncomfortable due to the fact that lactic acid is beginning to build up. It’s a strange in-between, not too easy yet not too hard. Even though it’s a bit uncomfortable, it’s an effort level you should be able to maintain for an hour!

Conversation in zone 3 is now reduced to incomplete sentences before a breath is needed.

Benefits of Training in Zone 3

In zone 3, we improve our speed, strength, efficiency, and running economy. After working this zone, harder sustained efforts will begin to feel less taxing and result in less fatigue.

Workout Examples in Zone 3

  • 3 x 15 min zone 3 with 3 min zone 1 recovery between sets 
  • 25 – 60 min bouts in zone 3
HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Zone 4

Zone 4 is used primarily for:

  • Long intervals
  • Threshold training

We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto…

Here is where training gets tough, real tough. Conversation has become a thing of the past, your breathing becomes heavy and labored, and you are just trying to push through these intervals. 

Why does this zone feel so hard? 

Because your body is switching from its aerobic to anaerobic energy system, arriving at the infamous lactate threshold. This is when lactic acid builds up in your muscles faster than your body can process it, which in turn makes your legs begin to burn.

Benefits of Training in Zone 4

Now that we are crossing over into long interval training, we will Improve our power output, speed and leg turnover. We will also develop running efficiency and tolerance of moving at a harder pace for a more extended period of time.

Workout Examples in Zone 4

  • 8 x 1 km zone 4 with 2-3 min zone 1 in between
  • 4 x 8 min zone 4 with 2 min zone 1 in between

Zone 5

Zone 5 is used primarily for:

  • Sprinting
  • Short intervals
  • Max speed

Zone 5 is where you are running at your absolute maximum effort! This means you will be unable to work at this intensity for more than a few minutes. Your heart will be pumping close to capacity, and you will be building up lactic acid so fast that your body will not be able process it. 

Benefits of Training in Zone 5

In zone 5, you are working on improving your running economy including your form, turnover, max speed, reaction time, and power.

Workout Examples in Zone 5

  • 6 x 400 meters zone 5 with 3-4 min complete rest in between
  • 5 x 2 min zone 5 with 3 min walk in between
HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Which Zones Should I Train In?

Depending on your specific training goals, your coach will give you a variety of different types of workouts. It should be clear, however, that just because you want to run faster, you should NOT only run in zone 4. Your overall plan should always include most of your training in the low-intensity zones of 1 and 2.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

Rate of Perceived Exertion

Rate of Perceived Exertion is a training tool of a numbered scale that measures the intensity of your effort while running. To use this scale, you don’t need any gear, data, or worry about uncontrollable variables that can affect your paces or heart rate, you just go on how you feel

The classic 15-point Borg scale was made to correspond directly to heart rate data. The scale begins at 6, representing 60 bpm as a “resting’ heart rate, and ends at 20, which represents a max of 200 bpm. You just add a zero to each number on the scale to get the heart rate value which was meant to correlate directly to the corresponding intensity level. 

As we’ve mentioned, everyone’s heart rate data varies, so this is simply a rough estimate which doesn’t take into account other factors.

The revised Borg scale is now based on 1-10 and focuses on the feel of the intensity level instead of heart rate. 

Below is a quick reference guide for your convenience! Remember, each of us has different heart rate ranges, fitness levels and goals, so this information may vary from person to person.

HEART RATE ZONE TRAINING

I hope this guide has given you a better idea on what heart rate training is, and how it is used. Talk to your coach to see if he or she thinks it’s right for you and let’s get training! 

Katelyn Tocci

Katelyn Tocci

Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community she is known for her ear to ear smile even under the toughest race conditions. She loves sharing her knowledge and experience with everyone and has a great desire to motivate others to hit the trails alongside her. Run for fun!

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