Heart Rate Training for Runners: The Basics

I’ve dabbled into heart rate training back in 2013 as I prepared for the Buffalo Half Marathon, but didn’t make a conscious effort to actively use it.  There was so much to learn when I got my first heart rate monitor.  I wore the chest strap for the data and then just let it sit there, not really knowing what to do with it anyways.  Finally, I decided to really take the plunge and make the effort to use my heart rate as a tool to get better.  There is a ton of information out there regarding your heart rate training, so here’s a brief (and very basic run down) to get you started. [Side note: affiliate links are included in this post and if a purchase is made through using the link, a profit may be made.]

For the purposes of this post, a focus is on your maximum and resting heart rates.  Here are just FOUR you need to know before starting your endeavor:

  1. The difference between resting heart rate and maximum heart rate.
    • Resting heart rate changes based on fitness.  As you get more fit, your resting heart rate decreases.
    • Maximum heart rate will decrease as you get older.
  2. Your maximum heart rate is sport specific.
    • Your running heart rate is completely different than your cycling heart rate than your swimming heart rate, etc.  You cannot use the same zones for running as you would for any other activity and visa versa.
  3. How to calculate your resting heart rate.
    • Take your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning for a week (count for :15 and multiply by 4).
    • Use the average to get your baseline.
  4. How to calculate your maximum heart rate.
    • If you can’t take 30 minutes to do your own fitness test right now but want an estimate, head over to this website and enter your age, weight, sex, and resting heart rate.  Alternatively, here are some more calculations that use your age and experience.
    • If you can do your own test, warm-up for 15 minutes, run for 3 minutes as hard as you can at an even pace, jog for 5 minutes to recover, and then run for 3 more minutes again as hard as you can at an even pace.  You should achieve your maximum in that 2nd set of 3 minutes.  If you don’t have a watch that will provide your maximum heart rate at any point during an activity after the fact, be sure to glance at your watch frequently during that 2nd set.

Since we have our heart rate maximum and resting heart rate, we can get a slightly more accurate target heart rate zone by using the Karvonen method:

Target HR = ((MHR-RHR) x %Intensity) + RHR

The hard part comes in now where you have to figure out the different heart rate zones to train in, which is where you get that “% Intensity” number.  Since I’m using my heart rate to train for easy runs, we’ll use that as an example.  A quick Google search on heart rate zones for “easy” runs is well, not easy.  You’ll find the various ways to calculate your heart rate zones aside from the above, including lactate threshold (which is certainly more accurate, but something I haven’t delved into at the current time), and you’ll find (most often) the below five zones of training.  Here’s a nice article explaining each in more detail, which I find helpful, as always, don’t let the first article be the only article you read on the subject.

Zone 1: 50-60% – Super easy, could do this all day.
Zone 2: 60-70% – Still easy, but able to carry on conversations in sentences.
Zone 3: 70-80% – Moderate effort, can speak a few words at a time.
Zone 4: 80-90% – Race pace, can’t do this for more than an hour.
Zone 5: 90-100% – High intensity, save it for a short bursts (less than 5 minutes)

For example, my resting heart rate right now is 58 beats per minute and my maximum heart rate is 200.  My lowest target heart rate for zone 2, or easy and recovery runs would be:

((200-58) x 60%)+58 = 143 beats and ((200-58) x 70%)+58 = 157 beats.

I found that this works pretty well for me when based off of my RHR and MHR.  When I was just simply using my Garmin to calculate based off of solely MHR, I’d be in high zone 1 after a brisk walk with the dog!  That’s one example of a pitfall of heart rate training.

Since I’m using a plan I made based off of McMillan’s book “You (Only Faster)“, I decided to go mostly off his target ranges for my runs.  Head over to his website, go to the calculator, input a recent race time and your goal time for a race, and click on “training paces” to get an idea of where you’re supposed to be.


I set up my actual heart rate zones in Garmin based on my beats per minute, since they don’t let you put in your zones based off heart rate reserve like we calculated earlier.  As a side note, Garmin does calculate your lactate threshold heart rate during runs and can alter your zones based on this.  I opted to not do that.

Here’s what my zones look like, based on the self-calculated beats per minute off my HRR.


Zone 1 would be “recovery”, or 55-65% of my HRR.
Zone 2 is 65-78% of HRR.  Zone 3 is up to 85% HRR.  So if you’re keeping track, my first three zones are all recovery, easy, or long runs.  Then Zone 4 is up to 92% HRR, and finally Zone 5 up to 100% HHR.

In general, when I’m in the middle of an easy run, the only thing my watch will show is my heart rate as a percentage of my maximum.  I strive to be under 75% for the majority of the run, with exceptions of hills and times I need to run quickly across the street, etc. but once I see 80% on there, I dial it back in.  My paces have slowed considerably and I know it’s working because I’m not feeling the fatigue I used to during training.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout researching and paying attention to my heart rate, there’s no one “good” answer for everyone.  Could I just plan to stay over 10:00/mile pace on my easy and recovery days?  Sure.  But I know that I’m not good at that sort of thing.  Plus, I like to see the type of progress I’m making and to me, heart rate training is a little more tangible.  If I run a route at 75% of my max heart rate right now, I hope than in a month my paces will pick up and I’ll be able to keep the same heart rate.  Who knows, maybe the next six months will pass and I’ll realize that heart rate training simply isn’t for me.  But without giving it a solid go, I’ll never know


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Just a 20-something homegrown Buffalo sports loving, distance running, gin drinking kind of girl.

16 thoughts on “Heart Rate Training for Runners: The Basics”

  1. Good information! I’m pretty much in the dark about heart rate training because I don’t have anything that would help me measure my heart rate. I didn’t realize that my max heart rate is different depending on the sport. Being a triathlete, that’s really good information for me should I ever bite the bullet and get a Garmin/heart rate monitor! 🙂


    1. There are some pretty cheap watches out there now, I got one for like $40 from Puma or something like that. It wasn’t GPS but I used it for heart rate during spinning. Plus there’s free apps and you can take your heart rate on your phone now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting. Do you still wear a HR chest strap or does your watch get your HR from the wrist? If you wear a chest strap, do you find it’s uncomfortable or gets in the way of a sports bra?


    1. I have a strap, my watch doesn’t have the wrist sensor (but I read the new model will!) I don’t notice the strap much anymore, but I also have a small chest whereas I’ve heard it can be a problem for women that are larger. The only problem I notice is sometimes when I exhale it starts to slip so I’ve made sure to tuck it partially under my bra so it stays. A friend said she felt like it was right and restrictive to her breathing, not because it was but because of the sensation. I guess I’ve just gotten so used to it! I find the Garmin bands are comfortable as opposed to cheap bands I’ve had in the past, though.


  3. Thanks! I may have to dig my HR strap out and trying tucking it under my sports bra. When I ran with it in the past it was constantly slipping and I gave up on it. A lot of good info in this post!


  4. I’ve never used heart rate training but I know so many people swear by it. I think the guy to consult for this is Maffletone (sp?) – he has a lot of information about the subject. I know of a coach locally that only uses heart rate training. From what I understand, really following this is extremely beneficial. I’m excited to follow you through the process!


    1. Yeah he’s pretty much the guru!! I tried his version about 2 years ago and was all gung ho about it for like… 3 weeks. It was too hard in the winter, with his HR I had to be at like 14:00 page in the snow. I did not have patience for that. Plus you can’t do any weights or anaerobic activity which isn’t something I can handle — I’m way too injury prone! But he’s definitely the guy that I feel like broke the mold for HR training.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love this post. Heart rate training is so helpful for me…my effort levels can be so day-to-day, if that makes sense! It’s easy to tell when I need an easier day because my heart rate will be a little higher while resting. Sometimes I’m so surprised when I’m running a super easy pace, but my heart rate ends up being higher than I’d think (because my body’s saying it needs to take it easier, I guess!) I love heart rate training, it’s such a good reminder that you have to listen to your body, as cliche as that sounds!


    1. I totally agree! I have to start paying more attention to my resting HR and HRV since my watch can track it now, I just never remember to do it when I wake up. I also (on the flip side) love when I’m running in my recovery or easy HR and I check my pace when I get home and see it’s way faster than it has been!


  6. Great post. I’ve monitored my HR for years and use it to base my running pace for the day. I’m 59 years old but I can have short spurts of over 170 BPM during my runs. I’ve worried about letting it get so high but I can find nothing that says I shouldn’t do it. On most days I run in the 130-140 BPM range but sometimes it will spike to the 150 BPM range on hills.


    1. That’s really interesting to me — have you noticed changes from when you first started versus now? I’m not a medical professional but I’d imagine if you’re healthy it’s probably fine to get your heart pumping occasionally, or even good!


      1. I never worried or paid much attention to hitting my maximum HR until I got older. The only changes I’ve noticed is when my fitness level changes. I’ve been an on again off again unner and cyclist for almost 30 years. A few years ago I took a heart stress test and when I got up to 100% HR for my age I asked the doctor if I would get extra credit for going longer? He said no, so I told him to go ahead and stop the treadmill. Maybe I don’t follow the norm when it comes to HR. Unfortunately, this trait doesn’t make me faster.


      2. Good question. I can’t seem to find anyone that knows. I think all the formulas for calculating THR are nothing more than guidelines. Individual results will vary. I just try to listen to my body.

        Liked by 1 person

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