Heart Rate Training 101

This will be updated with the latest information as the training plans have been tweaked since I last wrote this article.

How I Got Into Heart Rate Training

I’ve been using HR training while running for six years and been giving brief info talks on the subject to the running club. As a training tool, it may be useful for some. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information to go with the HR straps, but today with smartphones and web sites- the information is easier to find.

I’ll add the technical mumbo jumbo below, but heart rate training is really about conditioning your cardio fitness in order to push your fatigue level (the wall) towards the end of your run or beyond it.

Two things happen when we get tired (fatigued), 1. heart rate goes up and 2. pace goes down.

Overtraining and overtraining related injuries happen here. So HR training is a good way to avoid or reduce overtraining by getting quality vs quantity. Now wonder we say here locally a number of sports performance locations opening up where their cornerstone is Heart Rate Zone training; it works!

The secret is to simply map your effort (ie- your heart rate) to the run your are doing in your program. Each day will be different so your effort is different based on environment (heat, humidity, terrain) or your body (sick, tired, hungover, injured).

We look at the three areas of a typical running program: 1. Endurance, 2. Strength & 3. Speed

1. Endurance


The best way to reach your distance goals is to do the long run nice & slow.

Think if this as working on your gas tank (your energy, fuel reserve), you are training your body to have enough energy to complete the long distance. The slower you run it, the more likely you will have fuel in the tank to complete this.

This covers the Sunday long run & mid week steady run. The goal is to be in the low end (68-78% or Garmin Zone 2). You will here a lot of Zone 2 talk by those who run HR training. Since base or foundation running is within this HR range, we spend 2/3 of our time running in Zone 2; so might as well love it!

2. Strength

Now that we have increased fuel tank capacity, now to work on efficiency. Hill training or running hilly routes help this. You learn how to be economical going up & down the hill. Working on your breathing will help keep the HR down.

This covers hill training. The goal is to be at the line (88-89% or Garmin zone 4.8-4.9). You want to have an easy warm up, then go up the hill at whatever effort that will allow you to stay under Zone 5 (90%). If that means slowing down, or walking before you reach the top of the hill, so be it. You are at the top in HR zone already, pushing yourself won’t do you any good. Go down the hill easy zone 2 (68-78%).

What will happen is that each uphill will be more and more consistent (ie – pace will become steady)

Your best finish times are those when your pace is consistent from start to finish.

3. Speed

We got capacity, efficiency and now onto speed. You can do any number of speed workouts, but a good one is the very simple negative splits. For example you have a 6km run. You break that out into km laps and do 5km in zone 2 and the last km in zone 4. Then next week, you run 4/2, then 3/3 until you reach 1/5. At that point you can start to add an extra km up to 8km (1/7).

Just like hills, we’re trying to get out body used to run fast over a distance. And just like the other runs, the goal is to stay within the zones. So if you need to slow down to stay within that zone, then do it.

Over time, your pace will stabalize and the effort required will start to go down (ie you run faster with less effort).

With that, your Race Pace will be somewhere between 80-85% (zone 4 – 4.5) of your heart rate. This is the sweet spot where you can run the entire distance at the same effort without getting fatigued.


Why Heart Rate Training?


  • Smart training prevents injury & illness
  • Builds a solid base of aerobic fitness upon which to build performance
  • Using a HRM, ensures that training is kept in intended zones

Your heart rate monitor tells you how hard your heart is working in beats per minute which gives you a precise view of what’s happening inside your body.

*Too hard* = injury, burnout, muscle soreness, excess fatigue = can’t finish workout

*Too easy* = no improvement or results = will not reach fitness goals.

Your heart is the most important muscle in your body and, like all muscles, must be exercised regularly to remain strong and efficient. According to fitness experts, exercise is more effective when you work out in a specific heart rate range or zone. This is referred to as your *Target Heart Rate Zone (TZ)*. This zone can vary greatly depending on your age, fitness level and various other factors.

Max HR is a critical piece of information, since you design your entire Heart Zone Training program around it. It serves as a marker for exercise intensity. There are a number of different approaches to capturing this number.

*How To Find Your Maximum Heart Rate*


A heart rate monitor can help to ensure that you don’t work too hard – or take it too easy! – in training sessions. Depending on the session, your target heart rate will be anywhere between 60 and 95% of your maximum.

To know your target heart rate though, you’ll need to know your maximum, use the very approximate formula of 214-(0.8 x age) for men and 209-(0.9 x age) for women to estimate your maximum or 220 minus age. For 5-10 per cent of the population this figure can be wrong by up to 24 beats per minute.

*What Heart Rate Zone To Train At*

There are three broad training zones:
60-75% – easy (Sunday LSD, Recovery runs)
75-85% – moderate (Steady, race pace)
85-95% – hard (tempo, speed, hills)

But… don’t fall foul to a common misconception: these aren’t percentages of your overall maximum heart rate – they’re percentages based on your working heart rate. It makes a big practical difference to a regular runner.

Find Your Training Zone Like This (Karvonen Formula):


Find your maximum heart rate (see above) eg 206

Find your resting heart rate (laying still, soon after you wake up. Ideally take an average over a few days). eg 56

Subtract the resting rate from the maximum. This figure is your working heart rate. eg 206-56=150

Take whatever percentage of your working heart rate that you’re aiming for (eg 60% for an easy run eg 150×0.60=90), and add it to your resting heart rate eg 90+56=146. The final figure is your personal target heart rate.

*Sample Sessions:*


Zone 2 Long, slow runs & Recovery run  – up to 65% the body is teaching itself to burn fat as fuel (useful for marathons).

Zone 4 Intervals Fartlek – speedplay (moderate-paced runs with random fast bursts).

Zone 4 Threshold Anaerobic threshold run (or ‘tempo run’) – this teaches your body to run hard for long periods. Approximately 10-mile to half-marathon race pace.

Zone 4 High End Approx 5K-10K pace. Sample sessions: 6 x 800m peaking at 90% in each rep; 5 x 2000m peaking at 85% in each rep.

If The Target Pace Seems Way Too Slow…
You may not be using an accurate maximum heart rate (if you’ve estimated it). Add 12 beats your theoretical maximum and try the calculations again.or…

You may be using percentages of your maximum heart rate rather than your working heart rate (see above).

Training Zone Cheat Sheet

Resting Heart Rate = (a)
Max HR = (b)
Working Heart Rate = b-a

60% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.60) +(a)
70% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.70) +(a)
75% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.75) +(a)
80% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.80) +(a)
85% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.85) +(a)
90% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.90) +(a)
95% HR Zone = ((Working Heart Rate)x0.95) +(a)

Jim’s example
Resting HR = 64
Max HR = 185
Working HR = 121

60% HR Zone = ((121)x0.60) +(64) = 137
70% HR Zone = ((121)x0.70) +(64) = 148
75% HR Zone = ((121)x0.75) +(64) = 155
80% HR Zone = ((121)x0.80) +(64) = 161
85% HR Zone = ((121)x0.85) +(64) = 167
90% HR Zone = ((121)x0.90) +(64) = 173
95% HR Zone = ((121)x0.95) +(64) = 179

*How to setup your Garmin using Heart Rates*


  • zone 2 = 60% to 70%
  • zone 3 = 70% to 81 %
  • zone 4 = 81% to 90%
  • zone 5 up to 93% (we never train to 100%, think of this range as the overflow buffer)

Based on a typical running program, we need to spend 2/3 of our time in zone 2 and 1/3 in zone 4. This will allow you to get the maximum effect & benefit for each run without over training.

Once setup, you will most likely end up with the following workouts:

*Sunday slow run* – start with 20min @ zone 2 with 5 min walk at the end, build every week by 15 min.
*Steady run* -zone 2 at the high end.
*Tempo run* – multitude of options, but do a warm up in zone 2, but do reps like 3 min @ zone 4 with 1 min @ zone 2
*Hills* – Up Hill (zone 4 until you hit the Lap button), then Down Hill (zone 3 until you hit the lap button). I’m a fan of 10 sec hills.

What’s Up with Zone 3?


For the last two years, we see less of zone 3 workouts, and more zone 2. Reasoning is that you get more benefit in zone 2. However, You can use zone 3 are a buffer zone, but lately we don’t see training plans mentioning zone 3 that much.



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