As a certified running coach, I use various run training methods with my athletes, such as RPE (your rate of perceived exertion), specific paces in minutes per kilometer or mile (calculated after a speed test like a 3k or 5k), power, or heart rate.
Each method has pros and cons, and choosing which to use will depend on each individual athlete’s current specific training phase or goal.
In this guide, we will dig deep into using your heart rate as a run training method, how to calculate your running heart rate zones and the factors that can affect your heart rate so you can decide if it’s the correct training method for you.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
What Is Running Heart Rate Training?
Instead of running based on your rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1-10 or following a specific pace for a workout, running heart rate training using your heart rate or the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm) to monitor and dictate your effort level.
To track your heart rate while running, you must have a heart rate monitor and an apparatus that projects that information to you in real-time such as a running watch.
There are different options for heart rate monitors, such as a chest, arm, ear, or wrist monitor. The newer running watches have a heart rate monitor built right into them and read your bpm on your wrist.
Ensure that no matter where you have the monitor placed, it is tight and taught against your body so the results are as accurate as possible and don’t become askew by any unwanted movement.
When running heart rate training, your specific workout will indicate in which heart rate zone you should be running. This will depend on the type of workout or different intervals within each run.Depending on your training method, there are different heart rate zone percentages, ranges, and tables. For our purposes, we will use the Garmin heart rate ranges, which are quite popular for those who use Garmin devices.
What Are The Running Heart Rate Zones?
The following is a description of each running heart rate zone, the percentage of your maximum heart rate that it corresponds to, and the specific training objective of running in that zone.
- Heart Rate Percentage: 50-60% of your maximum heart rate.
- Perceived Exertion: An easy, relaxed, effortless recovery pace that you could easily hold for hours.
- Training Objective: Used for warming up, cooling down, and recovery: aerobic training.
- Heart Rate Percentage: 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.
- Perceived Exertion: Comfortable, but breathing slightly deeper than Zone 1. You can still hold a conversation at all times.
- Training Objective: Used for cardiovascular training, base-building, and long runs.
- Heart Rate Percentage: 70-80% of your maximum heart rate.
- Perceived Exertion: Moderate pace where breathing can become a bit labored, making it more challenging to hold a conversation.
- Training Objective: Used to improve aerobic capacity.
- Heart Rate Percentage: 80-90% of your maximum heart rate.
- Perceived Exertion: Breathing becomes forceful and more uncomfortable, and you will be unable to speak.
- Training Objective: Used to improve speed, anaerobic capacity, running efficiency, and hard-pace tolerance: threshold runs and long intervals.
- Heart Rate Percentage: 90-100% of your maximum heart rate.
- Perceived Exertion: This maximum pace is very uncomfortable and unsustainable for long periods. Breathing is now very labored.
- Training Objective: Used to increase power and anaerobic and muscular endurance, reaction time, and top speed: sprinting and short speed intervals.
How To Calculate Your Running Heart Rate Zones
To calculate your running heart rate zones, you need two pieces of specific information: your maximum and resting heart rates.
These two pieces of data can then determine your heart rate range for each zone according to the percentages above.
Let’s look at each piece of data separately.
How To Calculate Your Resting Heart Rate
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute while you are not doing any physical activity and are at rest.
The best time to measure your resting heart rate is immediately after you wake up in the morning and have not gotten out of bed yet.
While still lying in bed, measure your heart rate, whether it’s by using the heart rate monitor on your watch or manually taking your heart rate by counting the beats per minute in 15 seconds and then multiplying that number by 4 for 60 seconds.
If you consistently wear your running watch while you sleep, you most likely have this data already calculated for you.
As everyone’s heart rate is different, this piece of data can range from the 30s for a seasoned, fit athlete to 60 or even 100 bpm for untrained individuals. This data will depend on factors such as your age, genetics, health, and fitness level.
How To Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate
You can calculate your maximum heart rate in various ways, ranging from less invasive and non-taxing to very intense!
Your maximum heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute at capacity.
#1: Use A Heart Rate Formula
The following formula is where you plug in your age to get an estimate of your max heart rate. This is not the most accurate as many of us do not fall under “average” heart rates. However, it is a quick and easy way to get data.
211 – (.64 x age) = Maximum heart rate
For example, if you are 41 years old: 211- (.64 x 41) = 185 max heart rate
#2: Lab Test
Calculating your max heart rate from a supervised lab test, such as a stress test or a Vo2 Max test, is the safest, most precise way. However, they can be pricey and not a possible option for everyone.
During this test, you run on a treadmill, gradually increasing your speed, as the physician monitors your heart rate and other data, such as oxygen intake and the rate at which your blood lactate builds up.
After the test, you will have your max heart rate, lactate threshold, and other important information for your training.
#3: Field Test
Before performing a max heart rate field test, you want to have permission from your healthcare provider that you are in good health and that it is safe to do so.
Field Test Procedure
- Treat this test like a race. You want to run on rested legs, so rest up the night before and eat well.
- Warm up for 15 minutes with a few 20-second strides at the end to get your legs moving.
- Run 3 minutes fast.
- Rest for 2 minutes.
- Run 3 minutes as fast as you can.
- As you reach your maximum effort level and can’t push harder, check your watch reading and note your highest bpm. This reading is your maximum heart rate.
Whichever option you choose, you can now calculate your running heart rate zones for training. So, what should my heart rate be while running?
What Should My Average Heart Rate While Running Be?
Your average heart rate while running will be determined by the type of workout you are doing on a particular day.
If you are warming up, your average heart rate will be between 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. If you are running a long run or a recovery run, it will be in the 60-70% range.
You will be within the 70-80% range for a steady-state run or marathon-pace training.
Tempos and thresholds will be more in the 80-85% of your max, while longer intervals will range from 85-95% of your max, and shorter sprints up to 100%.
For a complete guide on different running workouts, click here.
So, depending on your specific training objective and workout, your average heart rate will vary.
Factors That Can Affect Running Heart Rate Training
As with every training method, there are pros and cons. With heart rate training, a wide variety of factors can raise your heart rate beyond what it would typically be in ideal running conditions.
Therefore, when deciding if running heart rate training is suitable for you and your running goal, consider the following factors to see just how much they may affect your data and, in turn, your training:
- Cardiac Drift: Heart rate rises gradually by the end of a workout, even though you are running at the same “perceived effort level.”
- Heat and humidity: The heat and humidity can raise your heart rate and decrease time to exhaustion.
- Elevation: Heart rate can increase significantly when running at altitude unless you are acclimatized.
- Medications: Certain medications have the side effect of raising your heart rate. Check with your healthcare provider for more information if you take medication.
- Caffeine: Consuming caffeine before or during a run could also increase heart rate.
- Other: Stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, and dehydration can also contribute to higher heart rate while training.
As you can see, there are plenty of factors to take into consideration when training by heart rate. Suppose your heart rate is elevated for reasons other than effort level.
In that case, it may hold you back as you try to stick within each workout’s heart rate percentage range.
If you feel you may be negatively affected by running heart rate training, check out our guide on the rate of perceived exertion to test out another training method!