Heart Rate Training: Why And How To Train In The Zone

Updated

Running training can be done on feeling, especially at the beginning of your running “career.” However, you’ll soon realize that you need some metrics to help you measure your progress and the amount of effort you put in. Especially if you’re looking to train for specific races, knowing your maximum heart rate and using heart rate zones in your training plan can be extremely beneficial.

So, what is heart rate training and how can you do it? Training with heart rate involves calculating your maximum beats per minute (BPM) and using this to set zones that represent a percentage of your max. These will then guide your training, from the type of session you do to the efforts within those runs.

This guide will teach you:

  • What heart rate training is
  • What are the benefits of training with heart rate
  • How to find out your zones and their characteristics 
  • How to add heart rate training to your running plan.

What Is Heart Rate Training?

Using heart rate readings to monitor athletes’ effort levels is a popular way to train for both professional and amateur runners. Essentially, heart rate training means taking regular readings of your beats per minute, usually through a heart rate monitor mounted on a chest strap that communicates with your watch.

Some runners prefer to use wrist-based readings, which most smartwatches now offer as standard. However, it’s worth highlighting that chest straps are much better at capturing your actual bpm. This is both thanks to their fitted position against your body and to more adapted sensors (you’ll normally find that heart rate monitor straps are designed specifically for runners or cyclists).

Using the readings from your monitor, you can then ensure that your cardiovascular system is working at specific levels of effort the entire time you’re running. This can be analyzed afterward, based on the average heart rate during a workout, or by looking at how you perform during interval training. 

The Benefits of Training With Heart Rate

Knowing your heart rate when running can help in two very different ways, depending on the fitness program you’re following. On the one hand, awareness of your heart rate prevents you from going too hard when you should be doing easier runs, and it can be useful for those needing to keep their heart rate in check for health reasons. On the other hand, setting a target heart rate zone for a longer run, or incorporating your zones in HIIT training will ensure that you push your cardiovascular system enough to generate adaptations that help you burn more calories and get faster and fitter.

Avoid overtraining

Supervising your heart rate and how you react to fatigue and increased training loads is important to prevent overdoing your training. Many enthusiastic runners put themselves at risk of overtraining when they pack their weeks with too much running volume or too many tough sessions. 

Before you end up too fatigued to perform well, heart rate training will draw the alarm for you. For example, if you’re running at your usual “easy pace” and your watch is recording above-average readings, this can be an indication that you’re fatigued and should rest more. 

Add high-intensity intervals to boost speed

Using heart rate training zones for your speed sessions is very useful to ensure you hit the right intensity and maximize your efforts. Training at 80-90% of your max heart rate (more on that below) ensures that you develop your lactic acid system, as you use the glycogen in your muscles and build up lactic acid in your legs.

The point at which your body can no longer eliminate the lactic acid from your muscles is called the anaerobic threshold: the more you can delay this, the better. And the best way to improve your anaerobic threshold is by challenging yourself to push through these hard efforts. 

In turn, you will be able to sustain high intensity for longer, getting faster for shorter races especially. Check out more tips about how to use interval training to increase your running speed in our guide here.

Get more specific with your training

Like using a high target heart rate to ensure your high-intensity sessions are performed at the right levels, heart rate training can ensure you include a good mix of workouts in your training plan. Moreover, using heart rate to guide your runs means you’re more likely to have enough diversity in your running.

Very often, especially less experienced runners end up going into full effort for all their runs, not getting any benefit from sessions designed to increase lactate threshold and recovery sessions meant to help muscles and the cardiovascular system recover properly. This quickly ends up in a plateau, whereby runners stop progressing in speed, endurance, and even fat burning and weight loss.

This is why having heart rate specific training keeps your workout regime diverse, targeted to your goals, and more fun, too.

How To Set Your Heart Rate Zones

To determine a target heart rate zone for each type of run or for your heart rate training plans, you have to first start by determining your maximum heart rate (Max HR).  

Maximum HR is the maximum number of beats per minute (BPM) your heart can produce, and often this number will decline with age.

A common formula to calculate your maximum HR is: 220 – age. For example, if you are 40 years old, then 220 – 40 = 180bpm is your max HR.

This is just one of many formulas. Some others include:

206.3 – (0.711 x Age)

217 – (0.85 x Age)

or

206.9 – (0.67 x Age)

However, the formula approach is often not reliable. In these examples, for a 40-year old, they would have 180, 178, 183 or 180 again depending on each formula chosen, so there is an important possible spread. 

So to determine one’s max heart rate, it is best to do a test where you go flat out to determine it – rather than relying on any formulas, especially as each person is different. There are a number of different testing protocols to achieve this, but one of the most straightforward is running a 5k or even 10k race at the upper limit of your effort levels, then seeing what the maximum reading you achieved was. Of course, you can always adjust this in the future.

Once you know your max HR, you’re ready to begin heart rate-based training by determining your training zones. Here is an overview to guide you through heart rate monitoring:

Zone 1 – Recovery (0 to c. 60-70% of your Max HR)

Zone 1 is your recovery pace – the level at which training intensity begins to play a role in improving your aerobic fitness. This is essential for recovery from your more demanding high-intensity sessions, so you should not neglect your Zone 1 runs.

Some athletes choose to cross-train for their Zone 1 recovery, which can also be very beneficial to your joints or if you’re recovering from especially painful muscle strain. For example, a Zone 1 recovery session could be a swim or a brisk walk for 30 minutes (anywhere up to 60 minutes). The key is to let your body recover from your harder sessions done previously.

Zone 2 – Aerobic Development (70-80% of Max HR)

This is the key zone to work on your aerobic conditioning. Your long sessions in Zone 2 build up your foundation to then push into the high-intensity development sessions. By training in Zone 2, adaptations include an increase in blood volume, mitochondrial mass, and capillary density and aerobic enzymes in the working muscles, all of which lead to an improvement in your aerobic metabolism. Furthermore, long workouts in Zone 2 will also improve your fat metabolism.

When you’re just starting a training program, the added benefit of Zone 2 training is that it prepares you for the increased load in training which will follow. This can, in turn, help prevent injuries in the long run.

To get the most out of a Zone 2 session, you should be training for a minimum of 30 minutes at this intensity, but you can go on for several hours (your long runs and rides). In these sessions, you can work on your technique and economy/efficiency, you can practice your race hydration and nutrition strategies, and test out kit, thus taking advantage of your sessions for more than just aerobic development.

Zone 3 – Aerobic Capacity (80-85% of Max HR)

When you go into Zone 3, you’re drawing on the maximum output of the fat/oxidative (aerobic) metabolism.

The benefits of Zone 3 are similar to Zone 2 except that they accrue to a larger pool of muscle fibers due to the increased power output and hence greater muscle-fiber recruitment.

If you are just starting aerobic training, you can do almost all your base training in Zone 3 because your pace at this intensity is going to be slow enough that your muscles will develop without suffering too much. However, if you have a higher aerobic threshold and run at a fast pace in Zone 3, you might risk overtraining from doing too much in this zone while not getting the adaptations from interval training in Zone 4 and 5. This is when you should be looking for recovery in Zones 1 and 2 and then Zones 4 and 5 for intervals of high-intensity work.

Zone 4 – Endurance (85-90% of Max HR)

While this Zone is considered aerobic training, it is slightly different from your workouts in Zones 2 and 3. The increase in speed to get to this intensity means that the muscles need to increase their ATP turnover – adenosine triphosphate, which is the biochemical way to store and use energy. At Zone 4 pace, glycolysis becomes the main source of ATP both in slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers, as more of the latter get recruited. With the increase in pace, your lactate levels will increase too, and levels should be sustainable for up to an hour if you have built up a strong base of training and are on fresh muscles.

Because of the high energy demands to keep up the speed and duration that you can sustain at this intensity, you will be causing your aerobic and glycolytic systems to work harder and therefore get a strong training stimulus. As a result, your muscular endurance will grow because the limit to this endurance is imposed by the aerobic capacity of the fast-twitch muscle fibers needed to sustain this output.

The lactate threshold sits just above the top end of Zone 4 – this is the speed above which lactate begins to build up faster than it can be removed. So, you will be training at your limit.

While Zone 4 is great for intervals and will give you a boost, this intensity should make up a maximum of 10% of your total training volume – i.e. tempos of 10-20 minutes long. This will keep pushing your adaptations without overly fatiguing you and being detrimental to your performance.

Zone 5 – Aerobic Power (90% of Max HR and up)

Zone 5 uses both your aerobic and glycolytic metabolisms to the maximum, as well as lactate removal mechanisms. Most of the adaptations from time in this zone accrue quickly so you will feel noticeably fitter from workout to workout.

Sessions in Zone 5 are made up of short intervals, from 30 seconds to 8 minutes. You should feel you are maxing out your effort but still able to sustain it for the time required. As far as gains are concerned, Zone 5 will improve your maximal aerobic power, your strength and speed endurance, and your running economy – hence why you will feel and be fitter after these workouts.

One of the key challenges, however, is to balance your muscular endurance with your aerobic capacity in Zone 5. For example, if your muscles are not as well-trained, you may find that while your heart rate is still in Zone 4, you cannot push any harder. In these instances, you may be doing the session but you won’t be getting the benefit of being in Zone 5. So, you need to ensure your muscles are trained to the right levels to support your heart rate and pace (this is where Strength & Conditioning sessions play a key role).

Are there more?

Beyond Zone 5 are flat-out sprints where you are relying on neuro-muscular power (your brain recruits the bulk of the pool of available motor units available for the effort). This is basically effort you can only sustain for less than 60 seconds and due to the lag in cardiac response, you won’t be able to use heart rate to measure this. At this intensity, you are pushing your glycolytic metabolic system and the neuro-muscular system and providing a very important stimulus to improve strength and technique. It is also the best way to develop anaerobic power endurance which would be critical for short races.

These intervals are the very short ones: 10-second hill sprints up a steep hill or sprints on a flat track. If you’re training for a long race, these sessions need to be done at the start of your training plan, rather than later on when you need to be focusing on longer tempos.

Each of these intensity zones plays a specific role in the overall development for any endurance sport. Both Aerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold are very trainable variables, and as a result, you can expect your zones to shift during a training program and should review them as you get fitter and faster. By basing your training on these zones, which are tailored to your fitness levels, you will always have a personalized approach to training and target the most essential areas for development to you.

Adding Heart Rate to Your Running Training Plan

So, how do you add all this information into a running training plan and ensure you’re using the optimal heart rate zone for each of your workouts?

Our tips are:

  • Make sure you include at least one Zone 1 recovery run per week, to allow your muscles to keep moving while your cardiovascular system is recovering. This helps you avoid getting too sore from big workouts, without pushing too hard.
  • Target Zone 4 and above on your short interval training sessions and make sure you add at least one or two of these every week, but making them specific to the race you’re training for. You can use more tips on how to build a training plan from our guide here.
  • Do your long runs in Zones 1 and 2. Don’t push too hard, but focus on a steady pace and the time on feet that you need to achieve, incrementally adding to it every week before your goal race. 
  • When performing HIIT workouts, use your heart rate zones as an indicator of how well you’re recovering in between sets and during your cool-down. You want to finish off your interval session in Zone 1. 

Setting HR zones on your watch is a quick visual help that you can use to follow any type of run training plan, but make sure you are updating these every now and again as your fitness level increases. This way, you’ll ensure you keep working at the right intensity, pushing yourself and continuing to see progress. 

Training With Heart Rate to Maximize the Results of Your Sessions

There are many ways to use heart rate readings to monitor your progress and ensure your highest intensity workouts are performed at the right levels, that you’re recovering well, and that you approach each run at the correct intensity. Moreover, there are also multiple ways to take heart rate information further, such as by looking at heart rate reserve (the difference between Max HR and your resting heart rate) to determine relative intensity levels.

Time spent training in the right zones ensures you develop the correct adaptations and will be the best prepared runner on the start line of your next race. It also means that you are optimizing your fat burning, weight loss, or any other fitness goal you might have. So, next time you do a run, go flat out for 20-30 minutes and find your Max HR, then start setting your zones so you know how hard you need to go, for every run. 

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