How to Do Low Heart Rate Running + 5 Tips To Get It Right

Our running coach explains how running easy can help you get faster.

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Running by heart rate is a popular training approach to assess the intensity of your workouts, but many runners find they make little progress in terms of being able to run faster at lower heart rates.

Low heart rate running is a method of training that aims to improve the efficiency of your heart and aerobic system at large so that you can run faster and longer at lower effort levels.

In this guide, we will discuss how low HR running works and how to start low heart rate training.

A person running at a low heart rate.

What Is Low Heart Rate Running?

As the name describes, low heart rate running, also referred to as low HR running, involves purposely keeping your heart rate while running from getting into higher intensity training zones.

Typically, low heart rate running is done in zone 2 or HR training.

Zone 2 correlates to 60-70% of your max HR, so this is a lower intensity effort level ideal for easy runs that build your aerobic base.

The low heart rate running training method is based on the seemingly paradoxical principle that you need to run at a slower running pace to become a faster runner.

Running slow or this low intensity running approach was popularized by Dr. Phil Maffetone, so you may also hear low heart rate training referred to as MAF training, which Dr. Phil Maffetone says means Maximum Aerobic Function training.

How Do You Do Low Heart Rate Running?

So, how low is “low” when it comes to low HR running?

To determine the appropriate average heart rate for low heart rate training, you need to use Maffetone’s 180 Formula.

First, subtract your age in years from 180.

Then, there are various factors that can necessitate modifying your target heart rate:

  • Subtract 10 if you currently have or are recovering from a major illness or surgery, or are in cardiac rehabilitation, taking any regular medication, or are in the burnout stage of overtraining (chronic overtraining).
  • Subtract 5 if you are currently injured, are overweight, get frequent illnesses (2 or more colds or infections per year), have seasonal allergies or asthma, have a low aerobic fitness level, are a beginner who is just getting back into a training plan, run inconsistently, have not been improving recently, or are in the early stages of overtraining syndrome.
  • Do not modify your number, simply use 180 minus your age if you have been following a training program consistently at least four times per week for two years without issue.
  • Add five to your number if you have been training for more than two years without any problems and have been continually progressing and feeling good.
A person jogging.

For runners over the age of 65, the 180 Method may not work well, so you may need to experiment and see what feels right based on your effort level.

For runners under the age of 16, a MAF HR of 165 bpm is typically used.

Whatever number you end up with is considered your MAF heart rate. 

This figure is the max heart rate you should hit for all of your low heart rate training runs. 

Furthermore, the first mile of all of your low heart rate training runs should be run at 10 beats per minute lower than your calculated MAF heart rate.

Let’s consider the example of a 36-year-old male runner who has been very healthy. running consistently for two years, and training for a half marathon and a local Olympic triathlon.

Using the Maffetone 180 Method, his maximum heart rate for low HR running would be: 180 – 36 = 144 bpm, with the first mile of every run not exceeding 134 bpm.

If the same runner had been running consistently for more than two years, he would be able to bump this up to 149 bpm for all training runs, with the first mile at 139 bpm.

Most runners typically fall into the second modification category, in that they have one factor that compromises their “haleness” as a runner, whether that’s from carrying excess weight, getting frequent colds, training inconsistently, having a lower cardio fitness level, or otherwise.

For that reason, the majority of runners typically subtract five from their baseline 180 – age number. 

Our example 36-year-old would have a max training heart rate of 141 bpm if any of those conditions applied to him.

People jogging.

How Do You Do a MAF Test for Low Heart Rate Training?

Here is how to do a MAF test:

  1. Warm up by running one mile or 10 to 15 minutes at a pace that keeps your heart rate at least 10 bpm below your target max heart rate using the 180 MAF Method.
  2. Choose a 5-mile (8k) route that you will be able to use for your test and all future re-tests. If your current long run is less than 60 minutes, choose a route that is only 3 miles (5km).
  3. Set out on your selective course, running as close to your target max heart rate as possible for the entire distance. Note that it is normal that your pace will need to slow down each mile because your heart rate will naturally trend upward due to cardiac drift, especially if it is hot out.
  4. At the end of your test, you will be able to see how long it took you to run the 5-mile distance while maintaining but not exceeding, your target heart rate.

You should aim to repeat the test every month during your first couple of months of transitioning to low heart rate training and every eight weeks after 3 to 4 months.

What you should notice is that over time, you are able to complete your selected run at a much faster pace without exceeding your maximum target heart rate. 

This is indicative of the cardiovascular adaptations you are striving for, notably the increased efficiency of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and the improved ability of the muscles to extract and utilize that oxygen to generate energy to do work.

On the other hand, if you notice that your times are slowing down, it’s indicative that you are pushing the pace too hard during your training runs, not sleeping or fueling well, or are dealing with external stresses that are causing you to recover poorly.

A person jogging on the beach.

How Do You Start Low Heart Rate Training?

As I certified running coach, I find that for most runners, transitioning to low heart rate training is surprisingly difficult.

It sounds like it will be easy—running slower should feel physiologically easier— but it’s actually quite challenging to keep your heart rate low enough based on your MAF heart rate calculation.

Most runners have to run significantly slower than they are accustomed to or are physically and mentally comfortable with, possibly even taking walk breaks up hills to prevent a high heart rate.

This can be difficult for the ego and sometimes even physically challenging, especially if you are used to running at a high intensity or in zone 3 for your “easy runs.” (Note that zone 3 isn’t really an easy run zone, but many runners mistakenly run their everyday runs in this grey zone.)

The good news is that your body adjusts, one of the main benefits of low heart rate training and the Maffetone Method is to recondition or retrain your cardiovascular system to operate far more efficiently.

As this process occurs, your heart rate drops at the various submaximal workloads and paces, enabling you to increase your pace while still keeping your heart rate at or below your target low heart rate running number.

To assess your progress over time, it’s recommended that you periodically complete Maximum Aerobic Function tests (MAF tests), which you can then compare to a baseline test after you decide you want to start low HR running.

A person running on a path.

5 Tips for Low Heart Rate Running

Low heart rate training can be a very effective training approach for many runners.

The benefits of low heart rate training include reducing the risk of injury, preventing overtraining, and improving aerobic capacity. 

However, transitioning from running at higher heart rates to low HR running can be a frustrating and difficult process.

Here are a few tips for trying to run at low heart rate levels:

#1: Put Speedwork On Hold

When you first start low heart rate training, you’re supposed to stop all speed workouts because every single workout is supposed to be performed at or below your target maximum heart rate.

After a couple of months, as long as you are progressing and improving on your MAF tests, you can re-introduce speed workouts using the 80/20 rule. 

The 80/20 rule of running states that 80% of your runs should be kept in this easy, low heart rate zone, and 20% can be high-quality, high-effort runs such as track workouts and intervals.

A person wearing a heart rate monitor.

#2: Wear a Chest Strap Heart Rate Monitor 

Most GPS running watches these days have optical heart rate monitoring on the wrist, but a chest strap heart rate monitor is typically more accurate.

If you are going to be embracing low HR running, it’s usually a great investment to get a chest strap heart rate monitor to improve the accuracy and reliability of your heart rate readings. 

There are already so many factors that can influence your heart rate from day to day, so having the most accurate reading on your pulse will ensure that you can follow low heart rate running to a T.

#3: Keep Stress Down

Lots of factors can affect your heart rate, but stress, dehydration, poor sleep, excess caffeine, etc., can all elevate your heart rate. 

The higher your resting heart rate, the slower you are going to be able to run during your low heart rate training runs because you won’t have much range between your elevated resting heart rate and your MAF method heart rate.

So, you want to be mindful of your overall health and stress levels to keep your heart rate as low as possible.

People jogging on the beach.

#4: Increase Your Cadence

When you first start low heart rate running, your running form might feel awkward because you have to run slowly relative to your normal running pace.

Do your best to run with proper form, keeping your core tight and spine neutral and erect.

One of the best things you can do is shorten your stride and increase your cadence

This will help you keep your running pace slow enough for low-intensity running while also improving your running economy and reducing your injury risk1Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4 down the line. These benefits should transfer to a faster cadence once you are able to run at faster speeds as well.

#5: Be Patient

It is going to take time for your cardiovascular system to adapt to the low HR running method, but if you want it to work, you need to be consistent and stick with it every day rather than only trying it once or twice a week.

Your average training pace is going to slow dramatically; try to get comfortable with that fact and let your ego take a vacation as your body adapts.

Over time, you will find that your pace starts to creep back up to your prior training pace, and your heart rate will be much lower at that same pace, which is exactly what you are striving for. 

You are conditioning or reconditioning your aerobic system to be much more efficient. Ultimately, this will allow you to run much faster at lower effort levels—the recipe for improved performance.

When you are ready to introduce speedwork back into your training after you have mastered low heart rate running and seen results, do so by using the 80/20% rule.

Check out our guide for a complete explanation of what the 80/20 method entails.

A person running.


  • 1
    Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4
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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.

2 thoughts on “How to Do Low Heart Rate Running + 5 Tips To Get It Right”

  1. Thanks for this article – really helpful and informative. I’ve recently started low HR training and I’m finding it really hard to keep my HR below 140 (and as I’m 48 I should actually aim for 132!). Going to stick with it though and so appreciate your encouraging words.

  2. THE best article about how to train by HR I’ve found so far. I find the article comforting because I’ve had to slow to almost a walk to prevent my HR from going over the limit (around 132 as I’m a 54 YO male). My last 5K was 20:57 BUT it was hard. I want to drop to the 19’s and I’m thinking this training method is the ticket. Thank you very much for the comments that reassure us that it’s “normal” to have to slow down considerably to maintain a lower heart rate. I SO look forward to the days I can run more efficiently at a “fun” pace (like 7:30 mile).


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