How to Use Your Heart Rate to Hack Your Training

Two runners cross the street at an intersection.

Whether you’re picking up running for the first time or training for your next marathon, you may have wondered if you’re really making progress towards your health goals. Heart-rate training can be a great tool to understand if your hard work is paying off.

What is Heart Rate Training?

Heart Rate Training is an approach that focuses on keeping your heart rate or beats per minute (BPM) in a specific range throughout the duration of a workout. This method uses both your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate (HRM) to determine a number of set heart rate zones.

In general, heart rate training uses four to five different training zones that each correlate to a different level of exercise intensity. Different physical benefits will be achieved by working out in each zone.

Zone 1: 50-60 percent of HRM

Zone 1 refers to the “easy” zone of training. In general, you will only be in Zone 1 at the beginning of a run or during your warm-up. Work performed in Zone 1 is generally considered to be light exercise. A brisk walk, climbing stairs, or a very easy recovery jog may result in a Zone 1 heart rate.

Zone 2: 60-70 percent of HRM

Zone 2 is likely where you will spend the most of your time as a runner. At 60 to 70 percent of your HRM, Zone 2 heart rates correlate with a level of exercise or speed of running that can be maintained for a longer period of time (think 60 minutes and up). This is a common zone for both easy runs and long runs.

Zone 3: 70-80 percent of HRM

Zone 3 runs tend to be moderately challenging and require longer recovery. This zone is sometimes referred to as the “threshold zone” because, when executed properly, your heart rate will ideally remain in Zone 3 while completing a threshold style run. Threshold, or tempo runs, are runs completed at a specific pace for a specific distance. The goal of a tempo run is to improve your lactate threshold, or your body's ability to maintain a quick pace for an extended period of time. Tempo runs do not typically last longer than 20 to 30 minutes, and similarly, any runs that result in more than 20 minutes spent in Zone 3 will require extra recovery.

Zone 4: 80-90 percent of HRM

Zone 4 generally correlates with a hard perceived effort. When you are running in Zone 4, you may be sweating, breathing heavily and feeling some level of discomfort. In general, speeds that result in Zone 4 heart rates should be difficult to maintain for longer than five minutes. Interval workouts are a great example of Zone 4 training.

Zone 5: 90 - 100 percent of MHR

Many athletes find it difficult to reach Zone 5 - and that’s okay. Zone 5 heart rates are often associated with speed training, racing or any attempt to push your body to perform in a way it hasn’t before. However, heart rates in this zone can also occur when you are pushing too much or running too hard for too long. When this happens, running becomes counterproductive and it is important to take extra recovery time. Make sure you have established the goal of your run before attempting to reach Zone 5.

A woman runs while checking her Garmin watch.

What Are the Benefits of Heart Rate Training?

Heart Rate Training helps you assess the benefits of each run and tailor your training for specific goals or races. Different race distances demand varied training approaches, and utilizing heart rate zones as a guide can help you stay on track.

For example, Zone 2 training is a common approach to preparing for marathons and other long race distances. Time spent in Zone 2 helps to improve overall cardiovascular fitness, which is crucial to developing the endurance needed for events like half-marathons, marathons and ultra-marathons.

On the other hand, runners training for a mile or 5K race may spend more time in Zone 4. Zone 4 workouts have anaerobic benefits such as building muscle strength and developing speed. Intervals (periods of running that generally last five minutes or less) are a classic Zone 4 style workout and common for runners preparing for shorter races.

All runners need a combination of work in different zones, but the distance you are preparing for may mean that it is beneficial for you to spend more time in one zone versus another.

Additionally, heart rate training offers insights into your body’s actual effort versus perceived exertion, allowing you to become familiar with your typical heart rate zones for different types of runs. This knowledge is important for recognizing when your body requires extra recovery. If your heart rate is unexpectedly high during an easy-pace run, it might indicate fatigue and a need for extra rest.

A runner runs along a paved sidewalk.

How to Start Heart Rate Training

Before beginning any new training regimen, you should always consult your physician. If possible, working with a coach or other fitness professional can be helpful in guiding you through the following steps.

Find Your Resting Heart Rate and Heart Rate Max

In order to establish your heart rate zones, you need to identify your resting heart rate and heart rate max. The most accurate method to find these values is by undergoing either a stress test or blood-lactate test in a lab, however these can be expensive and difficult to access.

An easier way to find these values is by using a wearable heart rate monitor. Garmin smartwatches, for example, continuously measure your heart rate anytime the watch is worn. You can view your resting heart rate and heart rate max values both on your Garmin watch and through the Garmin Connect app.

If you do not have access to a heart rate monitor or smart watch, you can find your resting heart rate by finding your pulse on your wrist, counting the number of beats that occur in 15 seconds, and multiplying this value by four. To estimate your maximum heart rate, simply subtract your age from 220. Although neither of these methods is perfectly accurate, they are good starting places to begin understanding your heart rate.

Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones

Next, you will need to calculate 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. For example, to calculate 50 percent of your HRM, take .5 and multiply it by your maximum heart rate. To find 60 percent of your HRM, you will take 0.6, multiply it by your heart rate and so on. Below are some sample heart rate zones for a 30-year old with a maximum heart rate of 190:

Zone 1: 95 - 114 BPM

Zone 2: 114 - 133 BPM

Zone 3: 133 - 152 BPM

Zone 4: 152 - 171 BPM

Zone 5: 171 - 190 BPM

Get to Running

Now that you have established your heart rate zones, you can begin experimenting with different distances, paces, and workouts. Start by establishing a goal for yourself and thinking about what work it might take to reach that goal.

If you are looking to improve your endurance, focus on completing longer runs that allow you to spend more time in Zones 2 and 3 throughout the week. If your goal is to develop your speed, try incorporating intervals and shorter reps in Zones 4 and 5.

Using your Garmin to Help With Your Heart Rate Training

A runner looks down at his Garmin watch.

In the world of wearables, Garmin watches and monitors can be a great option for runners looking to explore heart rate training.

Garmin uses a simple five zone method to help you understand the intensity of your exercise session: Zone 1 (Warm-up), Zone 2 (Easy), Zone 3 (Aerobic), Zone 4 (Threshold), Zone 5 (Maximum). Using the user information inputted during set-up, Garmin watches determine your heart rate zones, and will continue to adjust the zones as more data is collected over time.

By navigating to your settings on your watch or in Garmin Connect, you can include Heart Rate as one of the data screens available during a workout. While running, you can scroll to this page to see your current heart rate and zone.

As with all running, listening to your body is key to getting the most out of every run. Heart rate training can be a valuable tool to help you connect with your body, achieve a balanced running routine and get in the zone.

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