What is Heart-Rate Training? A Simple Guide

What is the reason that you run? Is it to have better overall health?

Or do you enjoy competition and pushing yourself to do better?

Maybe you just run to complement the training you do in other activities?

There are many reasons we choose to run, each of them personal. I’m here to tell you that heart-rate training can benefit your running, no matter your goal.

Through my own trial and error (mostly error), I found my way to heart-rate training.

While it required me to run painfully slow at first, I began to notice the transformations occurring.

My heart rate was staying low, but my pace was quickening. And I noticed that my legs felt fresher, meaning I could run more often!

Since then, I’ve continued to follow my own version of heart-rate training.

And, if you’ve spoken to me about running at all, I’ve probably sounded like a Jehovah’s Witness asking if you had a moment to spare for the teachings of heart-rate training.

This will be a series of posts to tie together how I think heart-rate training can help runners – competitive or non-competitive.

With this introduction, I want to help others in their training so that they can reach their goals, but in an injury-free and safe way. I hope it helps.

Heart-rate training explained

First, let’s talk about what heart-rate training is before we dive any deeper.

Heart-rate training is the training method where — you guessed it — your heart rate is the primary measurement.

Using your maximum heart rate, you determine the ‘zones’ you will be running in—more on this in a bit. First, let’s discuss the idea behind it.

By using your heart rate to determine how hard you run, you allow yourself to exercise the aerobic system without overtaxing your other systems – like your skeletal and muscular.

This type of training leads to increased training opportunities, which leads to overall advances in fitness.

Most of the time spent heart-rate training will involve a runner running in their lower heart rate zones, around an effort level of 3-5 on a scale of ten.

This idea may sound counterintuitive, but it has its benefits.

Keeping your heart rate at a manageable level is critical to heart-rate training.
Keeping your heart rate at a manageable level can lead to fitness gains without injury risk.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Let’s look at an analogy to help explain the point.

When you’re lifting weights, you don’t choose your maximum every time. You choose a weight that is manageable for the required number of reps. We’ll call this your ‘baseline.’

You continue to use this weight for some time until your muscles have adapted, and you increase the weight slightly.

However, you’re not only building your baseline, but you’re building your maximum as well. Raise your bottom, and your top will increase with it.

This is the idea behind heart-rate training. If you train at a level that focuses on minor, gradual improvements, you will train more consistently and injury-free.

After all, the more consistent a runner is, the more mileage they can cover. And when it comes to running success, mileage matters most.

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Heart-rate training benefits

  • Improved VO2 max
  • Faster recovery
  • Increased aerobic endurance
  • Increased training opportunities

Find your maximum heart rate

There are a few ways to find your max heart rate (MHR).

These can be simple formulas, which may be less accurate but are more accessible. Or they may be more challenging and cost money, but will be more accurate.

Heart rate training formula

This method is going to be the easiest way but the least accurate. If you’re a beginning runner or someone with a health condition, this will be an excellent choice to avoid injury and get you started safely.

  • Standard formula
    • 220 – age
    • This formula is used the most and will be close to your MHR
  • Gelish formula
    • 191.5 – (0.70 x age)
  • Hunt formula
    • 211 – (0.64 x age)

However, this isn’t the best method to use because it is just an estimate. For instance, let’s calculate the numbers for each of these formulas using a 35-year-old man.

  • Standard
    • 220 – 35 = 185 MHR
  • Gelish
    • 207 – (0.70 x 35) = 183 MHR
  • Hunt
    • 211 – (0.64 x 35) = 187 MHR

There’s not a significant amount of variation here. Let’s now look at a man that is 55-years old.

  • Standard
    • 220-55 = 165 MHR
  • Gelish
    • 207 – (0.70 x 55) = 169 MHR
  • Hunt
    • 211 – (0.64 x 55) = 176 MHR

Here we see a more significant difference between the standard measurement (165 MHR) and the Hunt measurement (176 MHR). This difference could be enough to influence the zones that you’re running in.

However, if you’re beginning or returning to running, then these numbers will be close enough to still benefit you without hurting yourself.

If you have some endurance training experience or are fit enough, you can get a more accurate measurement using the next test.

Heart rate field test

Next, there are a couple of different field tests you could do to determine your maximum heart rate.

One will be at a continuous, hard effort for around 40 minutes. The second is a set of intervals, with brief rests in between.

If you have any health conditions or injuries, I recommend visiting a doctor and getting their recommendation before trying a field test.

A chest heart-rate monitor is recommended for these tests because they will provide the most accurate readings.

If you cannot use a chest monitor, then a heart-rate monitor worn on the wrist will suffice.

Heart-rate training using a watch is a great way to keep track of your heart rate
If you can’t get a chest heart-rate monitor, a watch will still do the job.

Photo by Artur Łuczka on Unsplash

40-minute heart rate test

Use the first ten minutes as a warm-up. Use this to build your pace up to your average running pace gradually.

At the end of the ten minutes, begin increasing your speed to a maximal effort. This effort should be challenging and at a level you can’t sustain for longer than 20-30 minutes.

If someone were to ask you a series of questions while running this hard, the only words you should manage are, “F*ck off.”

Maintain that effort level for 20 minutes.

This experience will be mentally challenging, but it’s supposed to be. Just know that it will end, and you will live past this run — despite how it will seem in that moment.

When the 20 minutes end, slowly start decreasing your speed, allowing your heart rate to come down gradually.

There will be an urge to stop when the watch beeps for the end, but it will be safer to decrease your effort level gradually — similar to how you increased your effort for your warm-up.

After completing the cooldown, you can look at your heart rate information. Your highest heart rate logged will be close to your maximum. You can then use this to configure your heart rate zones.

4×2 Intervals

If you have never done intervals before, then let me give a quick explanation.

Intervals are a series of repeated efforts. Usually, this will consist of time or distance spent running at a more strenuous pace, followed by a cooldown time/distance. This cycle will repeat several times.

For example:

  • 4×1
    • This workout could be a one-minute hard effort, followed by a one-minute cooldown. Runners would repeat this cycle four times.
    • It could be one mile/kilometer hard, then a one mile/kilometer cool down. Again, runners would repeat this four times.
    • The varieties are endless, and you can get creative with these.

For our purposes, we will follow a 4×2, which is two minutes at a maximal effort, followed by a one-minute cooldown. Runners will repeat this four times.

Before doing this, I recommend a similar warm-up and cool down to the one suggested in the 40-minute heart rate test.

Doing a warm-up and cooldown allows your heart rate to increase and decrease gradually and allows your body to ease itself into and out of the workout.

The four minutes hard should be an effort that you cannot sustain for long. Think sub-5k pace.

The minute rest will give you some time to recover but will keep your heart working so that you can get the most accurate result.

After the test, view your data, and the highest heart rate — probably in the 2nd or 3rd interval — will be close to your maximum heart rate.

However, both of these tests are still only close to your maximum heart rate. If you want the most accurate result possible, then the next test is for you.

VO2 Max lab test

This test will appeal to athletes who are taking their training seriously and are generally looking to compete. It’s also for the athletes who are willing to pay to get the best data they can.

This test will be the most accurate, and you’ll get other data points that will help runners in their training, like your VO2 max.

Your VO2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen that your body can use during exercise.

This number can tell you a lot about your body’s aerobic system, and you can tailor your training to get the maximum benefits.

Getting your max heart rate for heart-rate training from a VO2 max test will be the most accurate
A VO2 Max test is going to give you the most accurate max heart rate.

Photo from Shutterstock

A lab test is going to be pretty straightforward. Usually, a runner will have a mask that they will wear while running, which will gather data. The runner will begin running on a treadmill.

This treadmill is going to gradually increase in speed, pushing the runner to exhaustion before stopping.

This test will provide you with your maximum heart rate, as well as your VO2 max, lactate levels, etc.

You will have to pay for this, though. And it usually isn’t cheap.

So, it is up to you to decide if this is a good investment for you. In addition, this will be a stressful test, so you should make sure you’re in good shape before attempting this test.

Heart rate training zones

Once you have your maximum heart rate, you can now configure your training zones. They should follow this format.

  • Zone 1
    • 50-60% of MHR
      • This zone is going to be considered very light on the intensity scale. This is an effort that you could carry on for a day or more.
      • Training in this zone will help recovery.
  • Zone 2
    • 60-70% of MHR
      • This zone will be slightly more challenging than zone one. This is still an effort that you could carry on for an extended time. You should be able to breathe through your nose and have a conversation comfortably.
      • The body will become more efficient at using fat for fuel
      • Zone two and zone three are where a runners should spend most of their training time.
  • Zone 3
    • 70-80% of MHR
      • Zone three is moderate intensity. The upper part of zone three will be closer to your race pace effort for long-distance events. You should be able only to say short sentences.
      • This is the zone where lactate starts to build, and your legs will feel the beginnings of fatigue. Great to improve endurance at moderate efforts.
  • Zone 4
    • 80-90% of MHR
      • This zone is going to be a more challenging intensity. This zone will be great for speed training. At these effort levels, you can build leg power to drive you forward. In addition, there is always a mental endurance aspect to running at faster speeds. The more you train it, the stronger it gets also.
      • Training at this zone will be tough. You could only manage one or two words if someone asked you a question.
  • Zone 5
    • 90-100% of MHR
      • This zone is going to be your maximum effort zone. Training in this zone should only be in short intervals.
      • This zone is an all-out effort.
      • This effort can benefit maximum speed.


Next, let’s look at this using an example. We will look at a 33-year old female who has a maximum heart rate of 200.

  • Zone 1
    • 100 – 120bpm
  • Zone 2
    • 120 – 140bpm
  • Zone 3
    • 140 – 160bpm
  • Zone 4
    • 160 – 180bpm
  • Zone 5
    • 180 – 200bpm

Most of this woman’s training would be spent in zones two and three. This would mean her average heart rate should be between 120-160bpm on most runs.

However, lower zone three is better, so ideally, her heart rate would be in the 120-145bpm range.

Who can use heart-rate training?

Everyone can benefit from heart-rate training
Everyone can benefit from heart-rate training!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Lastly, you may be asking, who is this good for? Ultimately, it depends on what your goals are. Every person runs for their own reasons. However, heart-rate training will benefit almost everyone’s goals.

Training for health

Choosing this method will be an excellent choice for runners who want to improve their overall health. Runners will spend most of their time in the lower zones (zone 1-3), keeping their effort level in check.

Keeping the intensity down avoids overtraining and potential injury. Runners will have the ability to exercise more often, which gives the body the exercise it needs, primarily if you work a sedentary job.

Zones 1-3 are also where most fat-burning occurs. As your heart rate increases, your body uses less fat for fuel.

So, keeping your heart rate low will help burn fat and give your body the consistent cardio it needs to stay healthy.

Training for competition

Similarly, for runners who focus on the performance side of things, heart-rate training will provide significant benefits.

The elements of using the health training apply here also.

However, the focus is on burning fat.

For endurance runners, this is key to improving performance. Fat will be a better fuel to burn during long-distance efforts because the energy output is higher.

Designing a training plan that focuses on keeping the heart rate toward zone 2 and the lower end of zone 3 will help runners facilitate this process.

Running in these zones will help your body become more efficient at converting fat to energy. The better your body gets at this process, the higher your energy levels and performance will be.

Training for cross-training

People who are runners simply as a means of cross-training can benefit from this approach also!

If cross-training is your focus, the running workouts will often be light and easy or quick, interval types. Either way, knowing your heart rate zones will help you get the most from your activities.

Ultimately, the goal of a cross-training session is not to get injured or to hinder your primary sport/activity in any way.

If you know what level to keep your easy workouts at, then you avoid the risk of overdoing it on recovery days.

Similarly, learning to keep your fast workouts at a controlled level helps avoid overstraining your body while maximizing your benefits.


Hopefully, this introduction will shed some light on heart-rate training and how it can help you!

Continue to do research and see if it is right for you and your goals. If not, that’s great, too! We’re all different, and it’s a constant search to find what is right for us.

However, the most important thing — no matter the training method — is consistency.

Consistency is key.

Keep an eye out for future posts in this series. In the next post, I will dive more into how you can use these zones in your training, as well as how I use heart-rate training in my own workouts and training plans.

Heart-rate training pinterest

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