The Benefits to Heart Rate Training for Runners
by Tyler Guymon, DPT
AzOPT Buckeye Clinic Manager
Over the years, my wife and I have turned to running for the majority of our physical fitness. We enjoy the simplicity of running. You really only need a decent pair of running shoes and you are ready to go!
Throughout our training, we have had some good training runs and some pretty tough ones. Some days, it feels like we could run forever. Other days, it feels like we are running through quicksand. As I was researching different training strategies to complement our efforts, I learned more about heart rate training and the importance it plays on improving outcomes. Since there’s never been a better time to get out and run, I thought I would share all that I have learned:
What is heart rate training?
Heart rate training is a way to use your heart rate (HR), measured in beats per minute (bpm), to train at a specific intensity level. Instead of using pace to measure our effort, we use our heart rate to see how much stress we place on our cardiovascular system.
In the past, this was a more difficult way to measure training intensity because it required expensive equipment for more accurate measurements. Today, heart rate monitors are much more affordable, and even most smart watches people wear on a daily basis are equipped with a built-in heart rate sensor.
How do I calculate the various heart rate training zones?
Your first step is to calculate your maximum heart rate. While there are a couple ways to accomplish this, the gold standard is by completing a treadmill stress test in a lab. Since this is not convenient for most of us, the next best way is to calculate your max heart rate by running on a track with your own heart rate monitor.
First, run a mile or two to warm up, following by a comfortably hard mile run. At the 800-meter mark (half mile), begin to increase your pace. Then, run as hard as you can for the final 400 meters. The highest number on your HR monitor will be your theoretical max HR to calculate your training zones.
This test may be difficult for many of us to measure, so here is a simpler approach. Please note, this is not nearly as accurate and does not account for any underlying health conditions that may affect your cardiovascular fitness. Simply subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 40 years old, your max heart rate is 180 bpm (220-40=180).
Now that we have this information, we use it to calculate our heart rate training zones.
Heart Rate Training Zones
There are four zones. Each zone is represented by a range calculated based on our max HR.
For our purposes, let’s use a 40 year-old individual to calculate each zone.
Zone 1: 60-70 percent (108-126 bpm)
A very comfortable pace used for most warm ups and cool downs.
Zone 2: 70-80 percent (126-144 bpm)
Used for the bulk or training, especially for long distances. This zone constitutes a comfortable effort in which you are able to maintain a conversation with someone.
Zone 3: 80-93 percent (144-167 bpm)
This zone is more of a comfortably hard effort in which most conversations are in short, broken sentences.
Zone 4: 94-100 percent (167-180 bpm)
Think all-out effort that can be maintained for a 5K pace in which you can speak only a few words at a time.
Some training plans found online will refer to these specific training zones. The ability to calculate your own max HR as well as your different zones will allow you to train in the right zone. Most marathon training will use zones 2-3 (long, easy runs). Shorter distances, like a 5K, may require more interval training in zones 3-4. Also, knowing these zones will make sure that you cool down and warm up properly and not overdo it to put yourself at risk of injury.
Here are some examples of sessions that focus on zone training.
- 60%Recovery run – dead slow. It may feel biomechanically odd at first, but it’s important. 30-40 minutes.
- 60-70%Long, slow runs – up to 65% the body is teaching itself to burn fat as fuel (useful for marathons). Anything from 1-3hrs.
- 70-85%Fartlek – speed play (moderate-paced runs with random fast bursts). 30-60 minutes.
- 70-85%Undulating route – peak at 85% on the climbs. 30-90 minutes.
- 85%Anaerobic threshold run (or ‘tempo run’) – this teaches your body to run hard for long periods. Approximately 10-mile to half-marathon race pace. Sample session: 1.5 miles at 60%, then 15-20 mins at exactly 85%, then 1.5 miles at 60%.
- 85-90%Approx 5K-10K pace. Sample sessions: 6 x 800m peaking at 90% in each rep; 5 x 2000m peaking at 85% in each rep.
- 95%Peak heart rate at 400m rep pace (not full-out race pace). Sample session: 12 x 400m with 200m jog recoveries, making sure recovery heart rate drops to at least 70%.
What are the benefits to heart rate zone training?
The main benefit to heart rate zone training is that it allows you to really understand how hard you are pushing yourself in your training program. This can allow you to train at a higher intensity level but will also make sure that you are properly cooling down or doing your recovery runs properly to allow your body to recover.
Another benefit is that it helps us moderate the effect of external factors, such as heat and humidity, that can have an effect on our heart rate as we train.
The most important part though, as with all activity, is to listen to your body, especially your heart, and it will always let you know how hard you are pushing yourself.