How And Why To Use Your Heart Rate When Running

EV Sports | Injury Prevention for Runners

Why heart rate training is important for runners

It is important (or at the very least, useful) to know how to measure your own heart rate (HR) and how to correctly reflect this in the different zones for a number of reasons:

  • The average heart rate is between 60-80 beats per minute (bpm)
  • The average female HR is 8-10 bpm higher than the average male
  • Fitter individuals typically find their resting HR is and lower than average and their maximum HR is higher than average
  • HR can be higher in people who are anxious, perimenopausal, menopausal and/or autistic, especially when undiagnosed and/or untreated, as well as other medical conditions
  • Generic software is calculated using the average heart rates of people

So, you can see that with just these few variables, the different ‘text book’ heart rate training zones can be out by 10-20+ bpm either way.

If your HR is lower than average then you could be over training.

If your heart rate is higher than average, then it will be very disheartening to see that you appear to be training really hard without making progress, or you ignore it completely and still risk over/under training.

Both cases often lead to runners stopping running either through injury or losing motivation.

The standard heart rate training zones

The heart rate training zones will differ depending on what software you use and what source or article you read.

However, given this is for running purposes and the majority of runners use Garmin, I will focus this article on the Garmin zones and software.

Zone 1 (Warm Up)
This is 50-60% of your maximum HR or Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and is a brisk walk or warm up jog, depending on your fitness levels.

Zone 2 (Easy)
This is 60-70% of your maximum HR or Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and is an easy run at a conversational pace. The majority of run training should be in this zone.

Zone 3 (Aerobic)
This is 70-80% of your maximum HR or Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and is like a tempo run where conversation is difficult.

Zone 4 (Threshold)
This is 80-90% of your maximum HR or Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and is like a hard parkrun or 5k race.

Zone 5 (Maximum)
This is 90-100% of your maximum HR or Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and is where your HR will be at the end of a hard parkrun or 5k race.

What zones to train in

Improving runners who have been consistently running (3-4 sessions a week) for at least two months should look to adopt the 80/20 rule when training to heart rate.

This means that 80% of their running should be in zone 2 and the remaining 20% in mainly zones 3 and 4 in the form of tempo, fartlek, interval or hill sessions.

Everyone else (beginner, returning or post injury runners) should aim to stay in zone 2 for ALL of their sessions for at least 8 weeks of consistent training.

How to measure your resting and maximum heart rates

There are a few different ways to measure and your resting and maximum heart rates and a few different ways to use these to calculate your heart rate zones.

Measuring resting heart rate

Theoretically, the best time to measure your resting heart rate is upon waking naturally in the morning, using a watch that has a second hand combined with your finger on your pulse and count the beats of your pulse for 60 seconds.

However, if you have children and/or use an alarm clock, then your heart rate may well be more elevated as soon as you are woken!

So, the next best thing is to use the same method before you go to sleep and have been laying in bed for 10-20 minutes relaxing, or at least attempting to be relaxed, i.e. on your own, eyes closed and no screens.

You can also wear a smart watch with an inbuilt heart rate monitor all the time, including when sleeping/at night, for a -week and take your 7-day average resting heart rate.

Unless you are an Olympic athlete, any of these methods will be more than adequate for the purposes of calculating your training zones.

Measuring maximum heart rate

As with resting heart rate, there are a number of ways to measure your maximum heart rate.

The easiest way is to subtract your age from 220, e.g. 220-42 years old = 178 maximum heart rate. This is probably the least accurate, BUT, if you are new or returning to running, then this is arguably the better option to running hard (see below).

If you are returning to running from an injury, or have recorded hard runs within the last year or so, then you can locate the last hard 5k, parkrun or mile/km you ran and see what your maximum heart rate was for that run.

If you have been running consistently for at least 8 weeks and are ready to run a hard 5k, mile or for 8 minutes, then the most accurate way to calculate your maximum heart rate is to count your pulse for 60 seconds as soon as possible after you finish your hard run.

If you are sure that any heart rate monitors you use are accurate enough, then feel free to use the data from your watch once you’ve recovered. (You don’t really want to be repeating this run within a week if you don’t get a usable reading!).

Calculating heart rate reserve

How to use Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) to calculate your training zones

Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) is my favourite reading to use for calculating heart rate training zones as it takes into account the resting heart rate, especially if this is higher or lower than average.

Your HRR is your Maximum HR (MHR) minus your Resting HR (RHR).

The calculation to then find your training zones using HRR is as follows:

((MHR – RHR) x %)+RHR

So, if your MHR is 178 bpm and your RHR is 60 bpm, then your HRR training zones will look like this

Zone 1: 119 – 130 bpm
((178-60)*0.5)+60 = 119
((178-60)*0.6)+60 = 130.8

Zone 2: 131 – 142 bpm
((178-60)*0.6)+60 = 130.8
((178-60)*0.7)+60 = 142.6

Zone 3: 143 – 154 bpm
((178-60)*0.7)+60 = 142.6
((178-60)*0.8)+60 = 154.4

Zone 4: 155 – 166 bpm
((178-60)*0.8)+60 = 154.4
((178-60)*0.9)+60 = 166.2

Zone 5: 166 – 178 bpm

You can, of course, work out the relevant percentages of your maximum heart rate, i.e. 178 x 0.6 and 178 x 0.7 to get a zone 2 training zone of 107 – 124bpm but, as you can see, this might not give you the most advantage range to work within.

Amending Garmin software so zones read and notify correctly on your watch

The final part is making sure your Garmin software accurately reflects these calculations so your training shows in the correct zones on Garmin Connect and so that your watch is updated for any alerts you use.

Instructions to update Garmin Connect

  • Log into the desktop version and click on the ‘Devices & Sync Status’ in the top right hand corner of the screen to the left of your profile picture (the watch icon).
  • Click on ‘Device Settings’ and then ‘User Settings’
  • Scroll down to ‘Heart Rate Zones’, click on ‘Based on…’, select ‘Percent of Heart Rate Reserve’ and click ‘Calculate’
  • Input your relevant readings into the Resting Heart Rate (bpm) and Max Heart Rate boxes and your zones will automatically update
  • Scroll down and click ‘Save Settings’
  • Go to your watch and sync so that these new calculations are transferred before your next run

Ta da!

I appreciate this is a LOT of information to take in, which is why I recommend taking your time with getting your head around it all.

If you are new to HR training, and especially if you are new or returning to running, it’s also worth taking a few weeks to get yourself used to how running in zone 2 feels.

Start by setting an alert on your watch to notify you when you go over zone 2 and adjust your running to try and bring your HR back down to the desired zone.

If it stays in zone 3, and especially if it keeps increasing, then walk until your HR drops back down to the top of zone 1 and repeat this for the duration of your run.

If you get really stuck, book a Planning & Mentoring Session with me to discuss your training, and where I can also help you with the calculations and transferring them into your Garmin Connect.

Next steps

If you get stuck or are confused by what you should be doing, book a Planning & Mentoring Session with me to discuss your running. 

We can discuss your goals, what is realistic, what you are feeling when you are running, as well as reviewing your runs to date and analysing the data to ensure you are choosing the right sessions for you.

If you are experiencing any pain when running, the advice is to get it checked out by a sports therapy professional who has a good understanding of running injuries, postural alignment and muscle activation.

If you are local to Fareham, Hampshire then you can book a Sports Massage with me where I can assess what is going on and provide an appropriate treatment and rehabilitation plan to get you back running again.

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