We all intuitively know that running increases your heart rate, so running a marathon will require 2-5 hours (or more) of an elevated heart rate, depending on your pace.
But what is the average heart rate for marathon runners during the race? What heart rate zone do most marathon runners race in?
In this article, we discuss the typical average marathon heart rate during a race and the factors that affect a marathon runner’s heart rate.
We will cover:
- Factors that Affect the Average Marathon Heart Rate
- What Is the Typical Heart Rate Zone During a Marathon?
- What Is the Average Heart Rate During a Marathon?
Let’s jump in!
Factors that Affect the Average Marathon Heart Rate
Before we aim to determine the typical heart rate during a marathon, it’s important to discuss the difficulty of this question.
It would be virtually impossible to come up with a typical heart rate for a marathon runner in beats per minute that would be applicable in any practical sense for all marathon runners.
Marathoners are a diverse group of individuals, spanning the gamut in terms of age, ability level, and effort/intensity level during a marathon.
Due to these and other factors, there is quite a lot of variability in marathon runner heart rates during a marathon.
Here are some of the primary factors that will influence the average heart rate of a marathon or during the race:
Maximum heart rate decreases with age in almost a linear fashion, so older runners will typically have a lower marathon heart rate than younger runners when both athletes are running at the same percentage of their maximum heart rate or VO2 max.
#2: Effort Level
Aside from age, the biggest factor that will affect the average heart rate during a marathon between any two different runners is the relative effort level at which the runners are racing.Not every marathon runner enters the race with the goal of running as fast as he or she can.
Some runners take more of a recreational approach and voluntarily choose to run at a more comfortable pace, soaking in the experience rather than trying to be as competitive with themselves or in the race as possible.
For example, a runner who is trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon will likely be running the marathon as fast as he or she can, which likely correlates to the pace at just below the anaerobic threshold (in the 83-90% of max heart rate range).
Another runner who just wants to enjoy the marathon and isn’t focused on time might run the marathon closer to 65% of their maximum heart rate.
Even if these two runners have the exact same maximum heart rate, their average marathon heart rate will be significantly different due to the variations in the intensity they are choosing to race at.
#3: Training Level
With proper training, endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, can increase their anaerobic threshold, or the percentage of your maximum heart rate at which you cross over into the anaerobic zone.
Studies suggest that the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold is typically in the neighborhood of 83-87% of your VO2 max and associated with roughly the same percentage of your maximum heart rate, but training can improve this number to closer to 90% of your max HR, pushing the threshold to higher intensity of exercise.
Therefore, when two runners with the same max heart rate but who have different fitness or training levels each run the marathon at a heart rate that corresponds with the anaerobic threshold, their average marathon heart rates will be different.
Other factors, such as sex and genetics, can affect your own personal maximum heart rate, which can influence your heart rate during a marathon.
What Is the Typical Heart Rate Zone During a Marathon?
One study suggested that most running coaches and exercise physiologists recommend running a marathon between 65 and 80% of your maximal heart rate.
This represents heart rate zones in the “aerobic zone,” well below the anaerobic threshold for most trained runners. However, many runners run closer to the anaerobic threshold.
Results of one study examined various physiological factors during marathon running, including heart rate and percentage of VO2 max in ten male runners of different running ability levels.
Results from the subjects demonstrated that the marathon runners completed the race at an average heart rate that corresponded to 82 to 96% of the runner’s maximum heart rate.
In other words, the subject who ran the race at the lowest relative percent of his maximum heart rate had an average marathon heart rate that corresponded to 82% of his maximum heart rate.
The subject who raced the marathon at the highest percentage of his maximum heart rate had an average marathon heart rate corresponding to 96% of his maximum heart rate.
The maximum heart rate for each runner was tested two weeks prior to the actual race in a laboratory setting, which is much more accurate than using a maximum heart rate estimation formula, such as 220 – age, so the data for these heart rate percentages can be taken to be quite accurate.
Across all 10 marathon runners in the study, the average marathon heart rate was 88.7% of the heart rate max. For the runners in this particular study, this correlated to an average marathon heart rate of 157 bpm.
Another study, with 11 male runners with an average age of 37 years old, found that the average heart rate increased by 10 beats per minute over the duration of the marathon, from 163.9 bpm after completing 10% of the race and finishing the last 10% of the race with an average heart rate of 173.6 bpm.
This represents an increase of nearly 6 percent and is due to a phenomenon termed cardiac drift.
Taking the average heart rate for each 10% chunk of the marathon yields an overall mean heart rate for the race of 168 bpm.
If we use the Fox formula to estimate heart rate maximum, this means that the subjects as a whole had an average maximum heart rate of 220-37 = 183 bpm.
If we use the Tanaka formula, 208-0.7 × age, the maximum heart rate would be 208-25.9 = 182.1 bpm.
These are quite similar, so let’s go with 183. If we use 168 bpm as the average marathon heart rate over the course of the race for the group of participants, the runners were running at approximately 91.8% or 92% of their maximum heart rate.
What Is the Average Heart Rate During a Marathon?
As can be seen, there are quite a number of factors that can affect the average marathon heart rate, but if we try to quantify a typical heart rate, we have to look at who the “average marathoner” is.
According to the International Institute for Race Medicine’s The State of Running 2019 report, the average age of marathon runners is 40 years old.
One study investigated the accuracy of age-based prediction equations of maximal heart rate for marathon runners in particular. The results suggested that the Tanaka formula (208-0.7 × age) is more accurate than the Fox formula (220-age) for men and that both formulas overestimated maximum heart rate in women by about 5 bpm.
If we take the average age of a marathon runner to be 40 years old, the maximum heart rate would be 180 bpm with the Fox formula, which is, interestingly, the exact same estimated maximum heart rate as Tanaka.
One study with nine male, non-elite marathon runners with an average age of 40 years old found that the average heart rate during the marathon was 159 bpm.
If the average maximum heart rate for this age group is 180 bpm, this means the marathoners ran at 88% of their max heart rate. Additionally, since 40 is the mean age for most marathon runners, we can use 159 bpm as the “typical marathon heart rate” for the “average” marathon runner.
Of course, this is far from an exact science since the study only involved male runners, and every runner is unique, but since these were non-elite runners and the average age of marathon runners is 40, it is a decent approximation.
However, if we use the 65-80% of max heart rate range, we can also determine the typical marathon heart rate for this “average marathon runner” to be 117-144 bpm.
Your own heart rate during a marathon will depend on your maximum heart rate and effort level.
To run your next marathon to the best of your ability, check out our marathon training plans!