Heart Rate Training

Monitoring your heart rate during training can be a useful means of ensuring you are achieving the correct intensities. It's not for everybody, but many athletes find understanding and using heart rate zones invaluable.

Heart Rate Zones

Heart rate zones are simply a way of identifying different intensities. It can be useful to train within certain zones to achieve a desired stimulus.

There are two methods of determining heart rate zones:

  1. By using percentages of your maximum heart rate. The upper and lower bounds of each zone correspond to a percentage of your maximum heart rate.
  2. By using percentages of your heart rate reserve, which can be calculated from your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate. The upper and lower bounds of each zone correspond to a percentage of your heart rate reserve.

See below for how to determine your resting heart rate, maximum heart rate and heart rate reserve. When you have them, you can use our heart rate zones calculator to quickly find your personal zones.

Determining Your Resting Heart Rate

You'll need to find out your resting heart rate so that you can work out your heart rate reserve.

You should also take your resting heart rate regularly. As your fitness improves (part of which is your heart getting bigger, stronger and more efficient) your resting heart rate should decrease.

This should be done as soon as you wake in the morning, while still in bed and ideally before you have moved from your sleeping position. Have a stopwatch ready by the bed before you go to sleep. When you wake up count your pulse for one minute. You now have your resting heart rate.

An alternative to doing this first thing in the morning is to simply lie down and relax for 15-20 minutes before taking the measurement. Although in practice it may be slightly higher than it is in the morning when fully rested.

It's worth doing this for a few mornings in a row to get an average. Various factors can affect your resting heart rate, including fatigue, training load, dehydration, heat, food, altitude, alcohol and general stress.

Determining Your Maximum Heart Rate

There are several formulas available for estimating maximum heart rate based on your age and sex. However, although as a general rule your maximum heart rate will decrease as you age, it varies wildly within the population and none of these formulas is reliable. If you use a formula to determine your maximum heart rate there is a strong possibility that you will end up training in the wrong zones.

For interest's sake you may wish to compare your true maximum heart rate with what the most popular formulas predict.

The best way to determine your maximum heart rate is to do a maximum heart rate test. Before you do carry out such a test, ensure the following:

  1. You are not suffering from any illnesses
  2. You are well rested (the heart will refuse to work hard if you're tired)
  3. You are mentally prepared for a respectable effort

Also be wary of the data from any heart rate monitors you are using. The latest models are quite good, but can occasionally suffer from spiking. That is, they will occasionally report heart rates that did not actually occur. It should however be easy to determine where these spikes have taken place by examining the data post-run.

If you do not own a heart rate monitor, then you can simply count your pulse for 15 seconds immediately following the effort and multiply the result by four to get your beats per minute.

Method 1 - The Race

Your first option is to wear your heart rate monitor during a race.

This is probably best if the distance being raced is between 2k and 5k. Any shorter and it's possible your heart rate will not have a chance to reach its max; any longer and the effort will be unlikely to be intense enough.

Method 2 - The Track

This doesn't have to take place on a track, but it may be useful to help determine distances and may be suitable for athletes used to a track environment. The focus here is on the distance you're running.

  1. 2-3 mile warm up. Start at jogging pace and finish at a moderately hard intensity
  2. Three sets of 100m strides (90% of maximum speed) with walk back recovery
  3. 1200 metres at between 5k and 3k pace
  4. Directly following the 1200 metres, and without stopping, run 400m flat out

Method 3 - The Hill

A hill is not essential, but may help you really push yourself. The focus here is on the amount of time for which you're running.

  1. 20 minute warm up. Start at jogging pace and finish at a moderately hard intensity
  2. Three sets of 20 second strides (90% of maximum speed) with walk back recovery
  3. Run four minutes hard - at close to the maximum you can sustain for this time
  4. Directly following the four-minute effort, and without stopping, run for one minute as hard as you can

Any of these methods should get you pretty close to your maximum. For training purposes the odd beat or two is not going to make a significant difference, so don't be overly concerned about measuring a precise maximum.

Determining Your Heart Rate Reserve

Your heart rate reserve, sometimes referred to as working heart rate, is simply the range throughout which your heart actually beats. I.e. from your resting heart rate up to your maximum heart rate.

Heart Rate Reserve = Maximum Heart Rate - Resting Heart Rate

Taking your heart rate reserve into consideration when determining heart rate zones can be a better method than simply considering maximum heart rate. This is because your resting heart rate will vary according to level of conditioning, decreasing as your fitness improves. So as you grow fitter your heart rate capacity grows. Runners with the same maximum heart rate but different resting heart rates, and therefore different heart rate reserves, will have different sets of ideal training zones.

When calculating heart rate zones using the heart rate reserve method, the reserve is multiplied by a percentage value and the resting heart rate is then added to this result:

Heart Rate Zone = Heart Rate Reserve × Percentage + Resting Heart Rate

But you can save yourself the bother of manual calculations by using our heart rate zones calculator.

The Zones

These are the zones that we've determined are the most useful for achieving various intensities.

Zone 1/Recovery
68 - 82% MHR
60 - 76% HRR
Zone 1/Recovery
68 - 82% MHR
60 - 76% HRR
This zone is good for general aerobic conditioning and improving endurance. It's sometimes called the "fat burning" zone since you will burn fat most efficiently when running within this range of intensities. Short runs within this zone are perfect for recovery and it's also ideal for longer runs.
Zone 2/Aerobic
82 - 87% MHR
76 - 84% HRR
Zone 2/Aerobic
82 - 87% MHR
76 - 84% HRR
This zone is where the majority of the distance runner's training should take place. It improves and strengthens the cardiovascular and peripheral systems.
Zone 3/Anaerobic
87 - 94% MHR
84 - 92% HRR
Zone 3/Anaerobic
87 - 94% MHR
84 - 92% HRR
This zone covers intensities from just below to just above your anaerobic threshold (the middle of this zone is roughly the intensity you could maintain for an hour in a race situation). Training in this zone can help raise your anaerobic threshold meaning you can run harder and faster at both this and other intensities.
Zone 4/Red Line
94 - 100% MHR
92 - 100% HRR
Zone 4/Red Line
94 - 100% MHR
92 - 100% HRR
This is the zone that is used for interval training. Training in this zone will help train your fast twitch muscle fibres and raise your VO2 Max. This type of training should be limited.

Heart Rate Sessions

Now that you're equipped with the necessary knowledge, why not try a couple of training sessions that make use of your heart rate? The first involves using heart rate to pace yourself on a hilly run and the second involves progressively increasing the intensity of a run by by monitoring heart rate.

Heart Rate Monitors

Traditionally, heart rate monitors have required use of a chest strap. However, GPS watches with built-in optical heart rate sensors, such as those from Garmin and Polar, are becoming more and more popular.


While it can be useful to analyse heart rate during and after sessions, it's important to always consider perceived effort, especially since heart rate on a given day can vary quite considerably according to several factors.

As you become more experienced with heart rate training you will likely determine the zones that are most useful for you. You'll get to know what your heart rate should be for various efforts and be able to use your heart rate to gauge your fitness quite accurately.