A lot of occasional runners want to improve their performance but don’t know how to train to achieve this. Depending on your goal, gaining endurance or getting faster, you need to train at different intensity levels. Heart rate training can help you learn to run at the perfect pace to get closer to your goal. Also a great thing about measuring your heart rate on the run is training analysis. With the technology and devices available today, it’s easy to have an automatic training log with quite some data to measure your improvements.
There can be different factors that have an impact on how fast your heart beats such as age, temperature, training level, illness or certain medication. But generally your heart rate is the perfect way to check how hard you’re exercising. It’s common sense that the faster you run the faster your heart beats. The question however is, in which heart rate zones your training intensity is ideal for improving. This guide should give you a help to start heart rate training and provide the knowledge needed. I’ll also give you formulas and examples so you know how to calculate your personal heart rate zones.
I need to mention that all calculations might vary from person to person. The formulas give you a hint where your perfect training pulse might be but don’t be too focused on these numbers. Everyone is different and it’s crucial that you get to know your body in order to asses if you are training ideally.
If you are new to running, you might want to read these posts first:
How to start running: Your first week
How to Set Your Next Running Goal
10 Secrets That Help You Prevent Injuries
When you run at an aerobic intensity, where the amount of oxygen is sufficient for your energy metabolism, your heart rate increases linear when going faster. At an anaerobic training intensity it increases exponentially. The pace your heart beats when you exercise at the maximum possible intensity is your maximum heart rate. The maximum heart rate can be a reference to calculate the heart rate zone needed for your training. You can either calculate your heart rate or measure it when running at the max.
Calculating your maximum heart rate might be a bit inaccurate but is a good way to begin heart rate training. Running to the max and measure your current maximum heart rate is very intense and not recommended in your first weeks of running. The easiest and most common way to calculate our maximum heart rate is this formula:
220 – age = HRmax
So if your age is 30 then your maximum heart rate is around 190 beats per minute. Research by Dr. Martha Gulate suggests that this formula is not that accurate for women. The scientists tried to figure out a new formula in a study conducted with over 5,000 women and came up with:
206 – (0.88 x age) = HRmax
Another publication from the University of Missouri-Columbia from 1982 suggests the following formula:
206.3 – (0.711 × Age) = HRmax
There are several other formulas and a tool to calculate your maximum heart rate with the different formulas on this page:
It’s not clear which of the methods is the most accurate, especially because every person is different. Averaging the results of the different formulas might give you a good number to start with.
A bit more experienced runners can also measure their maximum heart rate. The best would be to go to a clinic or fitness center to get a performance test that is supervised by a physician. Otherwise you could try to run at your maximum possible effort. You can go running at an easy pace for an hour and then speed up every 100 meters until you reach your personal limit. Measure your heart rate right at the end of this session. Or review your maximum heart rate in your training App or tool.
There are several ways to divide your heart rate into different zones for training. The ones outlined in this post are those I personally used for training the past couples of years and led to quite some improvement.
In the range of about 60% to 69% of your maximum heart rate you don’t stimulate your muscles and cardiovascular system to improve. This is the zone that has a regeneration effect as it increases blood flow to your muscles, helps remove lactate from your muscles and transports nutrients to your muscle tissue. At this intensity I usually do cross training such as indoor cycling.
To gain endurance and be able to run longer you need to go a bit faster until your heart rate is about 70% up top 84% of your maximum. Usually I divide this range up into two sub-zones: The first being for longer slow runs where I try to stay under 75% of my maximum heart rate. For shorter endurance training runs I also go a bit more intense and run at a heart rate of around 80% of my maximum.
Most of your training effort, about 85%, should be done at an easy intensity. So try to do most runs either in the aerobic capacity zone or in active recovery. Running harder is not only strenuous for your muscles and heart but also for your bones and ligaments. So be careful when you’re really motivated to get faster!
Over 85% up 90% of your maximum you get into the threshold range where the lactate that is produced as a result of the energy metabolism can barely be transported out of your muscles. In this zone you train strength endurance and it is needed when you want to get faster for a race. There are different ways to incorporate running at this intensity into your training. You can do short tempo runs in which you warm up, run a few miles at a steady intense pace and cool down at the end. Science however tells us that it’s even more beneficial when changing the intensities running fast intervals with short recovery periods. You can find more information in these posts:
If you run above your lactate threshold, so over 90% of your maximum heart rate, you train your abilities to run at an intensity where the oxygen you inhale is not longer sufficient for providing the energy needed. You can’t run longer than a few seconds or minutes at this intensity but you can extend this by training for it.
I usually don’t train much at this intensity as it’s needed for let’s say the last few hundred meters of a 5k. I train for much longer distances and don’t think it’s needed to sprint the last two minutes of a Marathon. However HIIT (high intensity interval training) shows to improve your race pace with the least effort, I might do it more in the future.
If you want to work towards a specific goal, you should plan your training accordingly. By training in the heart rate zones described above you can prepare yourself for a specific distance or time you want to achieve at a race. I generally train to improve at two different things: First my endurance to be able to run for longer distances and second to get faster.
To gain endurance you should focus on running at lower intensities. The best way to gain endurance is to do a long run once a week at the low-end of the aerobic capacity heart rate zone. This long run should be extended week over week up to the desired distance. If you’re training for a marathon this long run can be for up to 20 miles (32km).
In addition to that you can do shorter training runs at the upper end of the aerobic capacity zone.
If your goal is to get faster you need to train some amount at a higher heart rate. So you’ll do one training session a week at an intensity that lets your heart beat in the lactate threshold zone. This training can be a Fartlek, interval sessions, tempo runs or hill training. These harder workouts should only make up 10 to 15% of your training volume. If you’re a bit more advanced you can go faster in a second workout in your training week. I often speed up in the last third of my long run.
Be careful when training at a higher pace for the first time. Focus on a proper running form and give yourself enough time to recover.
There are several ways how to measure your progress. If you keep training more specific to your goals and keep going for some weeks you’ll notice your improvements on your training runs. You will be able to run longer distances as in the beginning of your training. Or you can see that you can run faster when staying at a specific heart rate.
You can also check the development of your resting heart rate. The best is to measure your pulse in the morning right after waking up. Keep lying in bed and feel your pulse at your neck or wrist. Count the beats within 15 seconds and multiply it by four to get the beats per minute. Write down you resting heart rate regularly and see how it gets lower over time.
In order to be able to perform an efficient heart rate training you should buy a heart rate monitor. There are tons of devices you can choose from nowadays. There are two different types of devices you can choose from: Traditional heart rate monitors and new wearables like smart watches or simple fitness trackers. I’ll recommend you some of the products in different price ranges:
The traditional heart rate monitor consists of a watch and a breast strap to measure your heart rate. Garmin and Polar have probably been the most successful brands in this department but there are many more:
Polar Ft1 ($35)
Garmin ForeRunner 230 ($180)
Suunto Ambit 3 HR ($217)
DESAY Smart Fitness Tracker ($40)
FitBit Charge 2 ($110)
Apple Watch Nike+ ($466)
Now that I hope I was able to give you some information on how to plan and conduct an efficient heart rate training it’s now your turn. Set your next running goal and start training. Measure your progress and feel good about every improvement you see.
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