As runners, we love our numbers and metrics. From mileage to splits, it’s fun to geek out over your stats as a runner. Certain physiological metrics from running can also be helpful and useful for informing your training.
For example, heart rate data can be used to gauge the intensity of your workout, and training within certain heart rate zones can provide specific fitness benefits.
You don’t have to have expensive laboratory tests or other digital technology to calculate your heart rate zones. With a few simple calculations, you can determine your heart rate range for each zone.
From there, a simple heart rate monitor or even just your fingers and a stopwatch to measure your pulse can guide your effort level during runs and bring a more scientific approach to your training.
If you’re new to heart rate training and want to learn how to calculate your heart rate zones, keep reading for easy, actionable advice to start heart rate training.
In this guide, we’re going to look at:
- What Is Heart Rate Training for Runners?
- What Are the Benefits of Heart Rate Training for Runners?
- What Are Heart Rate Zones?
- How To Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones
- Heart Rate Reserve
Let’s jump in!
What Is Heart Rate Training for Runners?
Heart rate training involves programming your workouts based on target heart rates. Each workout is ascribed a target heart rate zone, which correlates to a heart rate range based on effort level or intensity.
For example, an easy run might be run in Zone 2, which would correlate to a heart rate range of about 60-70% of the runner’s maximum heart rate. A threshold run, on the other hand, might have intervals in Zone 4, which is much more intense, with a heart rate range around 80-90% of your maximum heart rate.
What Is the Benefit of Heart Rate Training for Runners?
Heart rate training is an effective way to gauge the effort level and intensity of a workout.
Most exercise physiologists agree that the best assessment of the intensity level of exercise is the percentage of VO2 max (a measure of your aerobic capacity), but this metric is impossible to measure out in the field without being hooked up to a metabolic cart and expensive laboratory equipment.
Research demonstrates that heart rate is a viable, practical, and reasonable substitution to VO2 data for measuring intensity. Heart rate during exercise generally trends linearly with intensity and correlates to increases in percentage of VO2 max.
Therefore, using heart rate while running can provide a relatively accurate measure of effort level.
Though rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can also be used to assess effort level, this metric is subjective. Heart rate data tends to be a more accurate assessment of the percentage of maximal aerobic capacity, according to research.
Therefore, training by heart rate is more practical than training by percentage of VO2 max or rate of perceived effort.
What Are Heart Rate Zones?
Heart rate zones are intensity levels characterized by specific percentages of maximum heart rate. Different fitness organizations and running coaches may vary in the number of heart rate zones used, typically ranging from 3-7 zones, but most runners use a model with the following five heart rate zones:
Percentage of maximum heart rate: 50-60%
Feels like: Very easy recovery, barely jogging
Training goals and uses: Complete recovery, getting the body moving without stressing it
Percentage of maximum heart rate: 60-70%
Feels like: Easy recovery jogging, conversation pace
Training goals and uses: Recovery runs, long runs, aerobic cross-training, building endurance
Percentage of maximum heart rate: 70-80%
Feels like: Challenging, but doable, sustainable for longer distance races (10k-marathon)
Training goals and uses: Building aerobic fitness, getting a challenging aerobic workout
Percentage of maximum heart rate: 80-90%
Feels like: Uncomfortable; around 84% of your max heart rate, you hit your ventilatory threshold, so your body starts relying on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy
Training goals and uses: Tempo runs, interval training, shorter races, boosting performance
Percentage of maximum heart rate: 90-100%
Feels like: All-out effort, usually only sustainable for 30-60 seconds
How to Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones
Once you know the heart rate zones, it’s time to make it personal and learn how to calculate your heart rate zones!
The first step is calculating your maximum heart rate. This can be done either through an actual measurement or a theoretical calculation.
Measuring Your Maximal Heart Rate
If you have a heart rate monitor and the motivation and health clearance to run an all-out effort, you can actually assess your true maximal heart rate. However, 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.
There are various maximum heart rate protocols for runners, but here is a simple assessment. You’ll need a heart rate monitor.
- Warm up by running 1-3 miles.
- Run one mile on a track at tempo pace, but with 400 meters to go, ramp up to an all-out effort.
- Sprint the last 100 meters as fast as possible.
- Review your heart rate data from the last 400 meters and the highest number recorded is your maximum heart rate.
Calculating Your Theoretical Maximum Heart Rate
Because it’s difficult to truly achieve your maximum heart rate, most runners use one of two methods to estimate their maximum heart rate.
The simplest method to calculate your theoretical maximum heart rate is simply subtracting your age in years from 220:
- Maximum Heart Rate = 220 – age
- For example, if you’re 36 years old: 220-36 = 184 bpm is your theoretical maximal heart rate
According to researchers, a more accurate estimation can be found through the following formulas:
- Maximum Heart Rate for Males = 208.609-0.716 x age
- For example, if you’re a 36-year old male: 208.609-0.716 x 36 = 183 bpm is your theoretical maximal heart rate
- Maximum Heart Rate for Females = 209.273-0.804 x age
- For example, if you’re a 36-year old female: 209.273-0.804 x 36 = 180 bpm is your theoretical maximal heart rate
Once you know your actual or theoretical maximum heart rate, you can simply plug the number in to calculate your heart rate zones.
For example, if we use 180 bpm as the maximum heart rate, here are the 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
How To Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones from Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)
While you can use your maximum heart rate alone to calculate your heart rate zones, the heart rate reserve (HRR) method can increase the accuracy of your calculations for your target heart rate zones.
Heart rate reserve is essentially a measure of the difference between your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate (your minimum heart rate).
To measure your resting heart rate, take your pulse first thing in the morning while you are still lying quietly in bed.
- Heart Rate Reserve (HRR – maximum heart rate – resting heart rate)
- For example, let’s go back to our female 36-year old with a maximum heart rate of 180. Let’s say she calculates her resting heart rate at 60 bpm. Therefore, her heart rate reserve (HRR) = 180 – 60 = 120 bpm.
Once you have calculated your heart rate reserve, you can calculate your target heart rate zones by using the following formulas:
- 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 an example 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
- Lower end of the heart rate range = 0.60 x 120 + 60 = 132 bpm
- Upper end of the heart rate range = 0.70 x 120 + 60 = 144 bpm
So, Zone 2 is 132-144 bpm
- Lower end of the heart rate range =0.70 x 120 + 60 = 144 bpm
- Upper end of the heart rate range = 0.80 x 120 + 60 = 156 bpm
So, Zone 3 is 144-156 bpm
- Lower end of the heart rate range = 0.80 x 120 + 60 = 156 bpm
- Upper end of the heart rate range = 0.90 x 120 + 60 = 168 bpm
So, Zone 4 is 156-168 bpm
- Lower end of the heart rate range = 0.90 x 120 + 60 = 168 bpm
- Upper end of the heart rate range = 1 x 120 + 60 = 180 bpm
So, Zone 5 is 168-180 bpm
You’ll notice that these target zones are a little different than those calculated with just maximum heart rate, particularly the lower zones. However, this HRR method is thought to be more accurate, especially for fit individuals.
Now that you know how to calculate your heart rate zones, choose the method that’s best for you and get to it!
If you would like to go into more depth about heart rate training check out our Heart Rate Training Zones For Runners: Complete Guide.