How To Calculate Heart Rate Zones For Efficient Run Training

A How To Guide To Defining Your Training Zones

With the increased availability of accurate heart rate monitors for athletes, heart rate training has become a popular approach to training for runners, cyclists, triathletes, and everyday athletes.

Heart rate training uses different heart rate zones based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate to guide training intensity for a given workout.

In this guide, we discuss how to calculate heart rate zones and what types of workouts take place in each of the different heart rate zones.

A runner wearing a heart rate monitor.

What Is Heart Rate Training for Runners?

Heart rate training involves programming your cardiovascular workouts based on target heart rate ranges rather than a certain running pace or speed. 

Heart rate training is commonly used by endurance athletes because it is a fairly accurate way to quantitatively assess the intensity level of your workout in real time using a heart rate monitor and to structure training plans based on the intended goals.

Although most exercise physiologists would say that the best assessment of the intensity level of exercise is the percentage of VO2 max (a measure of your aerobic capacity), you can’t practically measure the percent of your VO2 max outside of an exercise physiology or sports medicine lab, making is not a useful biometric for day-to-day training.

Research demonstrates that heart rate is a viable, practical, and reasonable substitution to VO2 data for measuring intensity because heart rate during exercise trends linearly with intensity and correlates to increases in percentage of VO2 max.1Cunha, F. A., Midgley, A. W., Monteiro, W. D., Campos, F. K., & Farinatti, P. T. V. (2011). The relationship between oxygen uptake reserve and heart rate reserve is affected by intensity and duration during aerobic exercise at constant work rate. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism36(6), 839–847. https://doi.org/10.1139/h11-100

‌Though rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can also be used to assess effort level, this metric is subjective, and heart rate data tends to be a more accurate assessment of percentage of maximal aerobic capacity, according to research.2Habibi, E., Dehghan, H., Moghiseh, M., & Hasanzadeh, A. (2014). Study of the relationship between the aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and the rating of perceived exertion based on the measurement of heart beat in the metal industries Esfahan. Journal of Education and Health Promotion3(55), 55.

‌Thus, HR training is more practical than training by percentage of VO2 max and more accurate than training by rate of perceived effort.

A person looking at their watch while running.

What Are Heart Rate Zones for Running or Other Cardio Exercise?

Heart rate zones are intensity levels that are determined by specific percentages of your maximum heart rate

The most common heart rate training model uses five heart rate zones:

Heart Rate ZonePercentage of Maximum Heart RateFeels LikeTraining Goals and Uses
Zone 150-60%Very easy recovery, barely joggingComplete recovery, getting the body moving without stressing it
Zone 260-70%Easy recovery jogging, conversational paceRecovery runs, long runs, aerobic cross training, building endurance 
Zone 370-80%Moderate intensity sustainable for longer distance races (10k-marathon)Tempo runs, race pace work for longer races
Zone 480-90%Uncomfortable; around 84% of your max heart rate, you hit your ventilatory threshold, so your body starts relying on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy Interval training, shorter races, boosting performance, upper end of tempo runs, 
Zone 590-100%All-out effort, usually only sustainable for 30-60 seconds Increasing speed, strides, finishing kick, short intervals, hill repeats, plyometrics

Cardio machines may refer to a “fat burning zone,” which is usually the upper end of Zone 2 where you are burning more fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.

One study determined that maximal fat oxidation occurred at 54.2 percent of VO2 max, which corresponds to about 71 percent maximum heart rate.3Carey, D. G. (2009). Quantifying Differences in the “Fat Burning” Zone and the Aerobic Zone: Implications For Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23(7), 2090–2095. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bac5c5

‌The “cardio zone“ is also a bit loose in terms of definition, but it’s usually somewhere between 70-87% of your max HR, so it is the aerobic zone before you cross the anaerobic threshold.

A watch reading heart rate zones

How To Calculate Heart Rate Zones

Many running and triathlon training plans use target heart rate to establish the appropriate intensity level. To actually follow a heart rate training exercise program, you have to calculate your heart rate zones.

The first step is determining your maximum heart rate. This can be done through an actual max heart rate test or a max heart rate formula.

Of course, the more accurate you can determine your true maximum heart rate, the more precise and accurate your heart rate zones will be for your workouts. 

Therefore, if possible, it is best to try and do a maximum heart rate test as long as you have a decent fitness level and no contraindications to high-intensity, anaerobic exercise at maximum effort. You will also need an accurate heart rate monitor.

There are different ways to measure your max heart rate, including a graded exercise test, but this type of protocol requires working with an exercise physiologist or cardiologist at a lab.

How do you measure your maximum heart rate running?

Here is a simple field test you can do to measure max heart rate:

  1. Warm up by running 1-3 miles at an easy pace.
  2. Run one mile on a track at tempo run pace, but with 400 meters to go, ramp up to an all-out effort. 
  3. Sprint the last 100 meters as fast as possible.
  4. Review your heart rate data from the last 400 meters, and the highest number recorded is your maximum heart rate.

Remember, it is advisable to speak with your healthcare provider prior to doing a maximal effort exertion if you are over the age of 40 and/or have any underlying medical conditions before doing this maximum heart rate measurement protocol.

A person checking their pulse.

How do you calculate your maximum heart rate for exercise?

You can also use various formulas to estimate your age-predicted maximum heart rate given the fact that max heart rate tends to decline fairly linearly with age. However, the accuracy of these MHR calculations varies.

According to researchers, a fairly accurate estimated maximum heart rate can be found through the following formulas:4Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/

  • Maximum Heart Rate for Males = 208.609-0.716 x age 
  • Maximum Heart Rate for Females = 209.273-0.804 x age

For example, if you’re a 36-year old male: 208.609-0.716 x 36 = 183 bpm. 

If you’re a 36-year old female: 209.273-0.804 x 36 = 180 bpm.

Once you know your age-predicted max heart rate or true maximum heart rate, you calculate your target heart rate zones using the percentages of max HR.

For example, if we use 180 bpm as the maximum heart rate, here are the target heart rate zones:

  • Zone 1: 50-60% = 90-108 bpm 
  • Zone 2: 60-70% = 108-126 bpm 
  • Zone 3: 70-80% = 126-144 bpm 
  • Zone 4: 80-90% = 144-162 bpm 
  • Zone 5: 90-100% = 162-180 bpm 
A heart rate app open on a phone.

How Do I Determine My Heart Rate Training Zones Using the Karvonen Formula?

Some exercise physiologists suggest that using heart rate reserve (HRR) increases the accuracy of target heart rate zone calculations, especially for aerobically fit individuals. 

Heart rate reserve refers to the difference between your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate (your lowest heart rate). 

To measure your resting heart rate, you will either need a heart rate monitor or fitness watch, or you can manually take your pulse.

You should measure your resting heart rate first thing in the morning while lying quietly in bed.

If we return to our subject with a maximum heart rate of 180 bpm, if she measures her resting heart rate to be 60 bpm, we would calculate her heart rate reserve (HRR) = 180 – 60 = 120 bpm.

A person looking at their heart rate on a gps watch. How to calculate heart rate zones.

Then, calculating your target heart rate zones is slightly more complicated. You would use the Karvonen formula:

  • Lower end of each heart rate range = Lower rate zone percentage x HRR + resting heart rate
  • Upper end of each heart rate range = Upper rate zone percentage x HRR + resting heart rate

Let’s run through how to calculate the Zone 1 heart rate range with our 36-year old female:

  • Lower end of the heart rate range = 0.50 x 120 + 60 = 120 bpm
  • Upper end of the heart rate range = 0.60 x 120 + 60 = 132 bpm

So, Zone 1 is 120-132 bpm.

Continuing the Karvonen formula exercise intensity calculations, we would find that the heart rate zones are as follows:

  • Zone 1 is 120-132 bpm
  • Zone 2 is 132-144 bpm
  • Zone 3 is 144-156 bpm
  • Zone 4 is 156-168 bpm
  • Zone 5 is 168-180 bpm
A person looking at their running watch while sitting on a gym floor.

You’ll notice that these target HR zones are slightly different than those calculated with just maximum heart rate, especially at the easy aerobic zones like zone 1 and zone 2.

When using the heart rate recovery method for determining HR zones, you will want to periodically re-calculate your target heart rate for each zone as your fitness level improves.

While maximal heart rate doesn’t change appreciably with aerobic or anaerobic training, resting HR should decrease as your cardiovascular fitness improves.

Various adaptations to the cardiovascular system, such as increased stroke volume, increased blood plasma level, increased efficiency of the entire cardiovascular system, improved VO2 max, and a stronger heart muscle, can all cause your resting heart rate to decrease over time.

Finally, to implement heart rate training, you will need a premium heart rate monitor or running watch that can accurately measure your heart rate as you run.

I love the Polar Vantage V3 for running by heart rate due to its accuracy and the other biometric data I get.

Take a look at our guide to heart rate monitors to see which is best for you:

References

  • 1
    Cunha, F. A., Midgley, A. W., Monteiro, W. D., Campos, F. K., & Farinatti, P. T. V. (2011). The relationship between oxygen uptake reserve and heart rate reserve is affected by intensity and duration during aerobic exercise at constant work rate. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism36(6), 839–847. https://doi.org/10.1139/h11-100
  • 2
    Habibi, E., Dehghan, H., Moghiseh, M., & Hasanzadeh, A. (2014). Study of the relationship between the aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and the rating of perceived exertion based on the measurement of heart beat in the metal industries Esfahan. Journal of Education and Health Promotion3(55), 55.
  • 3
    Carey, D. G. (2009). Quantifying Differences in the “Fat Burning” Zone and the Aerobic Zone: Implications For Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23(7), 2090–2095. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bac5c5
  • 4
    Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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