Marathon Heart Rate: What’s A Typical MHR During The Race?

Plus, which heart rate zone should you run your marathon in?

As runners, we are obsessed with data and love logging our workouts on Apps like Strava and Garmin Connect to see how we stack up among others and can improve ourselves.

Pace, cadence, and distance are all metrics we consider when tracking our progress and adjusting training programs.

One of the most tracked metrics for runners or athletes training for any sport is heart rate data. Resting heart rate, maximum heart rate, heart rate training zones—whatever we can track with a heart rate monitor, we want to know.

Running, triathlons, or any physical activity for that matter, increases your heart rate. Depending on factors such as your fitness level and effort, running a marathon will require two to five hours (or more) of an elevated heart rate.

So, what is the average heart rate for marathon runners during the race? What heart rate zone do most marathon runners race in? Zone 1? Zone 2? Zone 5?

There is no clear-cut answer, as many factors must be considered before determining average marathon heart rates. So, let’s jump in and hash it out.

Marathon Heart Rate: What's A Typical MHR During The Race? 1

What Are The 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 practically for all marathon runners.

Marathoners are a diverse group of individuals, spanning the gamut regarding age, ability level, and effort/intensity level during a marathon.

Due to these and other factors, marathon runners’ heart rates will vary greatly during a marathon race.

Here are some of the primary factors that will influence the average heart rate of a marathon, during the race:

People running a marathon.

#1: Age

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 most significant factor that affects the average heart rate during a marathon between any two 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 trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon will likely be running the marathon as fast as he or she can at a pretty high-intensity. This likely correlates to the pace 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 and take it as more of an easy run effort.

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 at which they are choosing to race.

As you can see, it’s not based on the actual race pace but on the effort level.

An elite runner in a marathon.

#3: Training Level

With proper training, endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, can increase their anaerobic threshold, or the percentage of the 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.

However, training can improve this number to closer to 90% of your max HR, pushing the threshold to higher-intensity exercise.

Therefore, when two runners with the same max heart rate but with different fitness or training levels each run the marathon at a heart rate corresponding to the anaerobic threshold, their average heart rate 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.

A person checking their heart rate.

What Is the Typical Heart Rate Zone On Race Day?

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 study1Billat, V., Palacin, F., Poinsard, L., Edwards, J., & Maron, M. (2022). Heart Rate Does Not Reflect the %VO2max in Recreational Runners during the Marathon. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(19), 12451. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912451 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 HRMAX.

People running a marathon at a fast pace.

The maximum heart rate for each runner was tested two weeks before 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 ten 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,2Gronwald, T., Rogers, B., Hottenrott, L., Hoos, O., & Hottenrott, K. (2021). Correlation Properties of Heart Rate Variability during a Marathon Race in Recreational Runners: Potential Biomarker of Complex Regulation during Endurance Exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 557–563. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.557 with 11 male runners with an average age of 37, found that the average heart rate increased by ten heart 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 runners, they were running at approximately 91.8% or 92% of their maximum heart rate.

People running a marathon.

What Is the Average Heart Rate During a Marathon?

As can be seen, quite a number of factors can affect the average marathon heart rate, but if we try to quantify a typical heart rate, we have to consider 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.

One study3Nikolaidis, P. T., Rosemann, T., & Knechtle, B. (2018). Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate in Recreational Marathon Runners: A Cross-Sectional Study on Fox’s and Tanaka’s Equations. Frontiers in Physiology9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00226 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 five bpm.

If we take the average age of a marathon runner to be 40, the maximum heart rate with the Fox formula would be 180 bpm, which is, interestingly, the exact same estimated maximum heart rate as Tanaka.

People running a marathon.

A study with nine male, non-elite marathon runners with an average age of 40 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 half marathon or marathon to the best of your ability, avoid overtraining and reduce your risk of injury, check out our database of training plans:

References

  • 1
    Billat, V., Palacin, F., Poinsard, L., Edwards, J., & Maron, M. (2022). Heart Rate Does Not Reflect the %VO2max in Recreational Runners during the Marathon. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(19), 12451. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191912451
  • 2
    Gronwald, T., Rogers, B., Hottenrott, L., Hoos, O., & Hottenrott, K. (2021). Correlation Properties of Heart Rate Variability during a Marathon Race in Recreational Runners: Potential Biomarker of Complex Regulation during Endurance Exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 557–563. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.557
  • 3
    Nikolaidis, P. T., Rosemann, T., & Knechtle, B. (2018). Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate in Recreational Marathon Runners: A Cross-Sectional Study on Fox’s and Tanaka’s Equations. Frontiers in Physiology9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00226
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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.

1 thought on “Marathon Heart Rate: What’s A Typical MHR During The Race?”

  1. I am 61 this year and have been running for 8 years. I did a Marathon in 2022, and my heart rate over the line was 185. I was in the 170s throughout the race. ( 4 hours 35)

    I plan to do another this years and looking for something like 4.15 I will pick a race with less big hills.

    My resting rate in sleep is 62, but running climbs pretty quickly. I was running hills yesterday, and my top was 178, and during the recovery, it was 163.

    I used to worry about my high heart rate now I realise it is just how I am made.

    There is no definitive answer, it is just who we are, the big tip is if you feel ill stop.

    Reply

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