The Runners Guide To Heart Rate Training Zones

If you only measure your running intensity by pace or your own perceived exertion levels, know that you’re missing out.

Of course, the faster you run, the harder the session, but there are other ways to help monitor your workout intensity. Of course, it’s not rocket science.

One of these is what’s known as heart rate training. This is, in fact, a great method to guide your training intensity during running and targeting different energy systems.

Would you like to learn more about heart rate training? Then keep on reading

In today’s article, I’ll explain what heart rate training is all about and provide you a simple guide on how to use the various heart rate zones so you can make the most out of your workouts.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started.

What is Heart Rate Training?

To nobody’s surprise, heart rate training relies on your heart, measured in beats per minute (bpm), as it circulates blood through your system.

It’s basically your body’s response to the effort you’re exerting, so the harder you run, the higher your heart rate.

When you train by heart rate, you create certain training zones then exercise at a specific effort for a set period of time. These ranges are expressed as a percentage of the maximum heart rate(HR Max).—this is the maximum number of times your heart beats in one minute.

Each zone corresponds to specific physiological processes occurring inside of your body.

These zones help you to work on specific adaptations, from aiding in recovery to improving endurance with base training.

That’s why a well-planned running plan should involve a mix of hard efforts and easy efforts to make you as fit as possible.

For example, for a 1-hour run, you might shoot to keep your heart rate between 75 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. The rest is just details.

The ideal heart rate ranges are a personal thing. These depend on many factors, such as your age, fitness level, and training goals (more on this later).

How To Find Your Heart Rate Zones

As I explained earlier, heart rate is one of the most reliable measurements of workout intensity.

You’ll definitely improve your performance once you start intentionally targeting one and each of your heart rate training zones.

Here’s the deal.

To start heart rate training, you’ll need (1) to figure out your resting heart rate. Check this one out first thing in the morning when you wake up, before moving around or having that cup of joe. I’d recommend that you do this on three consecutive days, preferably when you’re not sick, experiencing stress, or are overtrained.

Next, average the three days together, and that’s your resting heart rate.

The average resting heart for most people is around 60 to 90. However, expect yours to be as low as 40 if you are in very good shape.

You also have a (2)  maximum heart rate, which is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can manage during intense exercise.

(Somewhere between these lies the various zones that mark your effort.)

There many methods that you can use to estimate your maximum heart rate.

Let’s explain a few.

The Age-Based Formula

Known as the Maffetone method, the age-based form is the most common method used by recreational athletes.

You simply subtract your age from 220—so a 30-year old runner would have a theoretical MHR of 190.


This method might be off-the-mark by 10 to 15 beats per minute in either direction.

But it is a good way to get started with heart rate training zones, and sometimes that’s all you need to get in the direction of your goals.

The Lab Test

Just like VO2 max, the most accurate way to determine your MHR is by a lab test.

Although this is the most expensive option, you will, at least, get an accurate number.

The exam is performed while using a treadmill or bicycle stress test, which is supervised by certified professionals with expensive gear.

The Field Test

If you don’t have the money for a lab test but want something more reliable than the Maffetone formula, a field test is your next best option.

And here’s how to perform it.

Head to the nearest running track, then following a 10 to 15 minutes dynamic warm-up, run a few 400-meters at a challenging speed, then perform the final rep all out.

The maximum number you reach on your heart rate monitor will be close to your maximum heart rate.

Keep in mind that your Max HR may vary from one sport to the other. For example, your running Max HR might be higher than your cycling’s.

This is because maximum heart rate is largely determined by the size of muscle groups used, and running engages the largest muscle groups in your body.

Calculating Your Zones

Once you have figure out your MHR, you can simply calculate your training zones by multiplying your maximum by a percentage.

There are different melds of training zones, but most runners nowadays follow the five zones model created by the heart rate monitor company Polar, based on this research.

Each heart rate training zone has a specific purpose. The five zones include:

  • Very light
  • Light
  • Moderate
  • Hard, and
  • Very hard.

For example, if you just took up running or returning to the sport after a long layoff, you’ll want to spend the first three months in zones 1 and 2 in order to get your body used to log the miles before you start cranking up the pace by taking one interval and harder runs in zones 3 and 4.

If you’re training for a marathon, you’ll spend more than half the time training in zones 1 and 2. This means lots of easy; longer runs often run at a conversation pace.

Of course, I hate to sound like a broken record, but all of this depends on your fitness level, health, performance, training goals, and workout preference.

In case of doubt, consult a professional. Too shy? Feel free to email meat

Let’s break down these heart training zones and see what they are all about

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the zones themselves.

runner trying to Make Running a Habit

Heart Rate Training Zone 1

Or what’s known as the fat-burning zone, this correlates to 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate, which corresponds to very light sessions.

The pace is really comfortable.

The main benefit is that it is good for recovery.

Although training at this intensity doesn’t trigger much muscle and cardiovascular improvement, it may help boost blood flow to the muscles, which helps transport nutrients to muscle tissue as well as remove lactate waste from the muscles. But this is only the case if you keep it easy—or else, you won’t reap the benefits, and instead, you’ll risk overtraining.

It’s also perfect for warm-ups and cooldowns. To improve performance and avoid injury, you will want to start and end every session with some time in zone 1.

Heart Rate Training Zone 2

The next level, or what’s known as the energy-efficient or recovery zone, aligns well with the aerobic threshold. This zone is more challenging than the previous zone, but you still can feel comfortable for an extended time.

This correlates to about 60 to 70 percent of MHR. Running within this zone improves aerobic capacity and basic endurance.

Stick to this intensity on your recovery and easy runs.

Heart Rate Training Zone 3

Or the aerobic zone. This is roughly 70 to 80 percent of MHR.

This is where things start to get a little harder. You cannot keep this for as long as you can as in the previous zones, nor should you try.

By spending time within this zone, you’ll improve your cardiovascular conditioning, especially your body’s ability to transfer oxygen and nutrients to your working muscles, as well as removing CO2.

You can still hold a conversation but can still talk but only in fragments than in full sentences.

Heart Rate Training Zone Zone 4

Runs within this zone are known as threshold sessions, as you are pushing yourself hard throughout the session. In this zone, you shift from aerobic to anaerobic threshold.

This is consists of 80 to 90 percent of MHR.

The pace is comfortably hard, during which you can barely speak. In fact, if you can say unbroken, complete sentences, you’re not doing it right.

During anaerobic training, your body can no longer get rid of the lactic acid from working muscles. Thereby, by spending time within this zone, you’ll help improve your body’s ability to process all of the waste products, which making you a faster and less-fatigue-prone runner in the process.

Heart Rate Training Zone 5

Finally, this the maximum zone. What’s known as the red zone correlates to 90 to 100 percent of MHR. You can only exercise in this zone for short periods of time. You can’t sustain the effort for long.

You can only maintain this zone for a short period of time.

The pace is really, really hard, and you can’t utter any word. Even cussing is not an option.

You should feel completely drained by the end of the zone 5 workouts. Your respiratory and cardiovascular systems are pushed to the max.

This is where you should be performing all of the short, intense, all-out sprints. Pay attention to any warning signs like shortness of breath and chest pain.

Keeping Track Of Your Heart Rate While Running

To properly train using heart rate, you, of course, will need to use a wear a heart rate monitor.

This device is the perfect way to measure your beats per minute. It consists of a transmitter, usually strapped to the chest, and a receiver, usually in the form of a wristwatch.

Although some cardio machines, such as treadmill, may feature a heart rate monitor, these are often not accurate.

When it comes to heart rate monitors, you have two options :

Either (1) a chest strap monitor or (2) a wrist monitor.

The most accurate way is through a chest heart rate monitor. This uses an electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure electrical impulses from your heart. These provide a reliable reading of what your actual beats per minute are.

This method measures your heart rate directly from the chest probe instead of detecting it in arteries, as is the case with the other option as you’re running, then transmits the data to your wristwatch (or app) display.

The most common way is the wrist strap. This often consists of a watch that features an optical sensor that detects blood flow (a technique known as photoplethysmography) then measures your heartbeats from the arterial flow through the skin on the top of the wrist.


Using heart rate training is a great way to measure your workout intensity. Just remember not to push your body to the breaking point when training. Use some moderation. Good athletes are not made in one day.

The truth is, trying to keep your heart rate in the easier zones is easier said than done.

That’s why I’d urge you to train with a running coach to help come up with a personalized and proper workout plan for you.

Before everything else, get the green light from your doctor before you start any form of exercise—especially running.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.