Running by heart rate is a popular training approach to gauge 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.
Although transitioning to running at low heart rate levels after regular training can be a tough transition for the ego, many runners find the switch to be the missing key they’ve been searching for to finally make some progress in their fitness.
In this guide, we will discuss how low HR running works and how to start low heart rate running.
We will cover:
- What Is Low Heart Rate Running?
- How Do You Do Low Heart Rate Running?
- How to Transition to Low Heart Rate Training
- 5 Tips for Low Heart Rate Running
Let’s dive in!
What Is Low Heart Rate Running?
As the name describes, low heart rate running, also referred to as low HR running, involves deliberately aiming to keep your heart rate low while running and using your heart rate to guide how fast or hard you can run.
The low heart rate running training method is based on the seemingly paradoxical principle that you need to run slow to become a faster runner.
How Do You Do Low Heart Rate Running?
So, how low is “low” when it comes to low HR running?
To determine the appropriate 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, or a beginner or just getting back into training, 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 training 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.
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 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 lower than your calculated MAF heart rate.
Let’s consider the example of a 36-year-old male runner who has been very healthy and running consistently for two years.
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, 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.
How to Transition to Low Heart Rate Training
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 per the number you calculate with the 180 Method.
Most runners have to run significantly slower than they are accustomed to or are physically and mentally comfortable with, which can be difficult for the ego and sometimes even physically challenging.
You may find yourself needing to walk up hills or slow down to almost a plodding pace.
The good news is that your body adjusts, and the whole purpose of the 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 compare to a baseline test after you decide you want to start low HR running.
Here is how to do a MAF test:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
5 Tips for Low Heart Rate Running
Low heart rate training could be a very effective training approach for many runners, 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 training run 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.
#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 have to run during your low heart rate training runs in order to keep your pulse below your maximum.
Try to be mindful of your overall health and stress levels to keep your heart rate as low as possible.
#4: Increase Your Cadence
When you first start low heart rate running, because you have to run so much slower, your running form might feel awkward. 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 pace appropriate while also improving your running economy and reducing your injury risk 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.