Replay Episode: How Heart Rate Training Works

Heart Rate Training *[Audio Content Available For Members Only. Click Here to Join Now]

Today we bring you a special replay of one of our most popular episodes from 2013. It’s a nuts and bolts kind of topic so get ready to learn a lot!

Maybe you have a heart rate monitor (HRM) that you never use or use a heart rate monitor and get frustrated because you don’t fully understand how to go about using this training method.

In this post I want to cut through the clutter and tell you how to get started with heart rate training. You will learn:

  1. What to know before you start heart rate training
  2. Three ways to find your ideal training zones
  3. The limitations of heart rate training

Ready, set, go!

How Heart Rate Training Works

486971_229576513_XLargeAlthough there have been dozens of books and countless web articles written about this subject we’ll try to get into the necessary details without causing your eyes to cross out of sheer boredom.

When I ran my first two marathons I had a simple stop watch from the Dollar Store- yes, it did cost $1. After that I upgraded to my Garmin 110 GPS device but I’ve only accessed the basic information on it until recently (I was happy with distance, pace and time).

The heart rate monitor I purchased had been mostly gathering dust for the last three years. However, since I’ve started coaching clients I’ve done more evaluation of various metrics. Lately I’ve been experimenting with myself to know my personal metrics.

Before You Start . . .

  1. Commit to the process of building a solid endurance base.
    One reason many beginning runners get discouraged is that they try to run too fast at first. The best way to know the correct “easy” pace to train at is by monitoring how the body responds to the effort. You may have heard the advice to “run at a conversational pace.” This means you should be able to carry on a conversation, or speak naturally without becoming short of breath if you’re at the right pace.

  3. Gauge your effort using the Borg Scale.
    The Borg Scale rates your effort from mild to maximal. According to the modified Borg Scale a rating of 0 would be no exercise at all, 1=very weak, 2=weak, 3=moderate, 4=somewhat strong, 5= strong (heavy), 7= very strong, 10= very, very strong (near maximal). You can use this scale during your training runs to record perceived effort in your running log.
  4. Read more about the Borg Scale

    The Borg scale was first developed by scientist Gunnar Borg. He noticed that a close relationship existed between the exercising heart rate, the intensity of exercise and the athlete’s perceived effort. This led to the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and from this research he developed the Borg Scale which is a scoring system from 6-20 based on how the athlete feels. His advice was to “Rate your intensity honestly. Don’t try to be brave.” It was found that the Borg Scale correlates closely with the heart rate (Borg number multiplied by 10 equals approximate heart rate).
  5. Invest in a heart rate monitor.
    Heart rate training is a way to gauge your overall fitness and train at the appropriate effort. As you become fitter you’ll see your heart rate fall at all running speeds. Conversely, if you’re starting to over train you’ll see a rise in heart rate at all running speeds and this will be a sign to rest and not participate in hard exercise. By using a HRM you’ll gradually learn what heart rates you can sustain over time and this will help you plan pacing during races. If you’re interested in using heart rate training the first thing you need to do is buy a heart rate monitor which usually consists of a watch and chest strap with a sensor that tracks your pulse. Here’s a helpful article that reviews several top heart rate monitoring devices so you can decide which would be the best fit for you.


Three Ways to Find Your Heart Rate Training Zones

Heart rate training is all about “zones”. Perhaps you have seen zone charts on the internet – there are dozens and dozens which are all slightly different. Zones are key in determining the sweet spot in your heart rate training. The most accurate method to obtain your personal metrics is to visit an exercise laboratory and have an exercise physiologist perform a maximum exercise test (usually done on a treadmill). If you don’t want to spend the money on a professional assessment there are several tests you can do on your own. Here are three methods I recommend for finding zones:

  1. Maximum Heart Rate and Heart Rate Reserve Method
    This method is very common but can be confusing. Most zone charts will require you to know certain personal metrics but beware, one of the biggest flaws of using heart rate training is not working from the right numbers! For example, the old formula 220- age=Maximum heart rate (MHR) has been found to be scientifically inaccurate.

    Here’s how to establish your maximum heart rate (MHR) and another more accurate number called your heart rate reserve (HRR). *Word of caution! Unless your cardiac system has received a clean bill of heath this test should be done in a supervised setting. Anyone who has a known heart condition should always get clearance from their healthcare provider before undertaking any training program.

    How to Calculate Zones Using MHR and HRR

    Determine your maximum heart rate (MHR) by doing a 2 mile time trial. Use a track or flat stretch of road. Wear your heart rate monitor and run 1 mile easy to warm up, then run 2 miles (or 8 laps of the track) at the fastest pace you can sustain- meaning that each lap should be roughly the same pace. Look at your monitor later and see the maximum heart rate that was hit. This will be a good estimate of your MHR. (mine is 184)

    Determine your resting heart rate (RHR). Each morning before getting out of bed count your pulse for 60 seconds and record number (make sure you do this before having any coffee or tea as caffeine can skew the numbers). Do this for seven days and then average the numbers. This is your resting heart rate (my resting heart rate is low 40’s so we’ll say 45 for the sake of calculations). As you get fitter your resting heart rate will probably drop so you should recheck your resting heart rate approximately once a month. Your heart rate reserve (HRR) is your maximum heart rate minus your resting heart rate. (For example, this would be MHR 184- RHR 45= 139 HRR for me).

    It’s very important to understand which numbers you need to use before you start calculating your training zones. Some charts like the Karvonen method use HRR to calculate your heart rate for each zone. Simply take your heart rate reserve times the percent you want to train at and then add your resting heart rate. (For example- 139 x 0.65 (65% of heart rate for an easy run) = 90 + 45 (Resting heart rate) = 135 bpm

    Here’s a good article comparing various heart rate zone charts:

    In general, most of your training should be done in zone 2 and 3 where your body is building endurance and burning primarily fat. Interestingly enough, Zone 3 is often the pace you revert to in training runs without really thinking about it. Zone 4 is usually the zone that you run races in. Zone 5 (or the red line zone- anaerobic) is only possible for short periods and is valuable to train fast twitch muscle fibers and develop speed.

  2. The Maffetone Method
    Another heart rate training guide that you may come across was developed by a scientist, author, and coach Dr. Phil Maffetone. He developed a formula for establishing the peak heart rate you should achieve during the first three months of training. One of his mantras is, “Speed up by slowing down.” To calculate your ideal training heart zone for building your aerobic base do the following:

    How to Use the Maffetone Method

    • Subtract your age from 180 (ex- 180-35= 145).
    • Then subtract 10 if you’re recovering from a major illness or hospital visit or on regular medication for a chronic condition; subtract 5 if you have not exercised before or are just beginning to rebuild your running base; 0 if you’ve been exercising regularly without interruption. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
    • This number would represent your maximum heart rate to use for aerobic training to promote fitness gains while staying mostly in the fat burning zone. A training range from this heart rate to 10 beats below would be used as the training range. (for example my range would be a heart rate of 135-145). This provides a conservative guideline for a 3 month period of base training.
    • He also recommends doing a maximum aerobic fitness (MAF) test once per month to track your progress. After warming up with 10 minutes of easy walking or jogging, run 1 mile at your maximum heart rate in zone 2 (ex 145) and record the time, jog a 2nd mile at the MHR and record time, finally jog a 3rd mile at MHR and record. The times from each mile should progressively get a little slower. If you do this test regularly you will see how your aerobic endurance is increasing.

    Some people get frustrated because they find that their normal pace is outside the training zone. But lacking a solid aerobic base could be the reason why they’re not experiencing fitness gains or struggling with overtraining syndrome. If you want more information on his training methods you can check out: “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” or go to his website

  3. The Lactate Threshold Method
    The final method of heart rate training I will talk about is based on your lactate threshold. I have been using this method in my running. It was developed by endurance sports coach and Training Peaks founder, Joe Friel. Your running speed at lactate threshold (RSLT) is the best indicator of running fitness and endurance performance. RSLT is the velocity above which lactate begins to accumulate dramatically in the blood. Essentially the body gets backed up trying to remove lactate from the muscles. Lactate threshold is a moderately high running intensity, or the highest intensity that can be sustained without significant discomfort. For example, if you’re running below lactate threshold your breathing is controlled, however when you exceed the threshold there is a sudden increase in breathing rate.

    How to Use the Lactate Threshold Test

    One of the most important reasons to know your lactate threshold is because it is above this point that you will start developing lactic acid buildup in your system (also known as anaerobic threshold or point of deflection POD). Your LT is where your body is removing lactate as fast as it’s being produced. When you reach this certain heart rate the muscles switch from using fat as the primary source of energy to using stored muscle glycogen. A by-product of burning glycogen is lactic acid and there’s a point where your body can no longer remove the lactic acid from muscles quickly enough. This is your anaerobic threshold (AT) and you can train your body to increase its AT. Typically most people reach their anaerobic threshold in zone 4.

    Running LT test: On a day when you’re feeling great go to a track. Wear a heart monitor and warm up with an easy 10-15 minute jog. Then run a 30 minute time trial where you run at a tempo you can sustain for 30 minutes but not longer (8/10 intensity). At the 10 minute mark click the lap button on your watch so you can note when to begin calculating the average heart rate. When you’re finished with the 30 min time trial note the average heart rate you sustained during the last 20 minutes. This will be your LT heart rate for your run workouts and will correspond to your LT.

    Another way of determining LT is to put on your HR monitor and jog slowly for 2-3 minutes at a very easy pace. Then increase your pace moderately and sustain the new pace for 2-3 minutes. Continue this pattern, noting your heart rate at each new pace until you reach a pace where your breathing spikes. This would be your lactate threshold. A popular zone system uses this method as detailed below. Again this is something that you should re-evaluate every 3 months or so because as you become fitter your metrics may change.

Limitations of Heart Rate Training?

noun_343728_ccJust using a heart rate monitor will not automatically make your training more effective. There are a few mistakes that people make and there are some factors why heart rates can vary on any given day. Things like dehydration can increase the heart rate by up to 7.5%, heat and humidity can also increase heart rate by 10 beats per minute and altitude can increase the heart rate by 10-20% even when a runner is acclimatized. Biological variations like stress and hormone levels can cause day to day changes from 2-4 beats per minute.

Avoid these HR training mistakes:

  • Don’t use the 220-age formula. There are more accurate ways to determine maximum heart rate, resting heart rate, heart rate reserve and lactate threshold. After you figure out your lactate threshold most of your training should be performed below this zone and you should only go above lactate threshold in 1-2 speed sessions per week.

  • Heart rate monitors can be fairly inaccurate during shorter speed workouts. When you suddenly increase your exercise intensity something called cardiac lag takes place. During fast intervals your heart rate may continue climbing even when you’re doing a recovery lap. It’s best to use pace and perceived effort to help regulate intensity in shorter speed sessions like strides and 400-800 meter repeats.

  • Heart rate monitoring only provides one part of the total exercise intensity equation. For example, most runners have a lower heart rate when running on a treadmill than they do while running outdoors at the same pace. This doesn’t mean that running on the treadmill is easier. In fact the opposite is true. Studies have shown that runners feel better and can run faster outdoors even though their heart rates are higher. Also, things like dehydration, heat, humidity, stress level, allergies, illness, pain, and certain medications will skew the numbers you see on the monitor. If you over-analyze one day’s workout you may not get an accurate picture and instead you should look at the bigger picture of an entire week or month.


Remember that there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to becoming a successful runner. Your body is a complex organism, not simply a machine that always performs the same way. You may be able to estimate when your body is in the fat burning zone or when it’s starting to burn primarily glycogen. But your body may be burning some combination of lipids (fat), glycogen (carbohydrates), amino acids (protein) and phosphates during any given workout or day. Realize that you may respond differently from your running partner or someone you’re reading about.

Maybe the thought of all this stresses you out. You may never purchase a heart rate monitor or these superwatches and that’s fine. Realize that all these systems are simply guides to improve your endurance and enjoyment of running. If you find yourself stressing about zones during every second of your workout and boring random strangers about the details it may be time to unplug yourself and just listen to your body. Numbers and data are great when used in balance. But simple mathematics can’t tell the whole story. If your run is turning into the most stressful time of your day then something needs to change. Remember that running is what you make it. Choose to let running enrich your life as you learn to appreciate what your body is capable of accomplishing.

Sources consulted for this episode:

  • Running Science by Owen Anderson, Phd; Human Kinetic Press
  • Lore of Running -4th Edition by Tim Noakes, MD; Human Kinetic Press
  • Heart rate monitor graphic created by Charlotte Vogel from Noun Project

Other Helpful Links

  1. Heart rate monitor reviews
  2. Heart Rate Zone Charts side by side comparison


15 Responses to Replay Episode: How Heart Rate Training Works

  1. Trevor November 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    Does anyone use a heart rate monitor in your training?

    • Carine November 26, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

      Hi Angie and Trevor

      I just listened to your HR podcast today and really enjoyed it. I used an HRM quite a bit last year, and had done all the necessary maths. I used it to ‘force’ myself to run more slowly (as Angie says below) on my easy runs as I have the habit of running everything at the same effort. I also used it to push myself harder on the hard runs.

      But this is where it began to be counterproductive. I found myself looking at it in races and thinking “Oh no, its too high, no way I can sustain this for x more miles” and my fear of exceeding what I had done in training would slow me down. I would use it to frighten myself on hill repeats and intervals into thinking I couldn’t manage it since I hadn’t done it before. Its only after I stopped wearing it in races that I found I could push myself harder and get my times down, especially for short races where working at a really high HR is necessary. Then I stopped wearing it at all and learnt to push myself harder.

      However, listening to your podcast today, I looked down at my watch and felt my breathing and realised that I am yet again running everything at one effort level, on tired legs. So inspired by your techno-talk, I have dusted it off and will use it on my next long run to make sure I do actually run easy. I found it especially useful in the past to limit my pace on hills (including walking if necessary), since most of my running is hilly, and it is hard to keep effort down, when your pace bears no reflection on effort. I shall also use it on some of my harder runs but as a recording device rather than a guidance device, much as I have been using my GPS watch – trying to run on feel then analyse the stats later.

      Thanks for the podcasts. I have been running a fair while, completed my first marathon this year and have sworn never again. But I’m still training for events of other distances and so I love your podcasts for taking me to far away places, keeping me entertained and inspired as I bash up and down my hills (usually in the rain).

      Carine (England)

  2. Gwen November 9, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    It seems these HRMs quit working after about 6 months. I went through 3 of them in 18 months. It got too expensive. I appreciate this article very much. I had been using the 220-age when I was using a HRM, but that never seemed accurate. When I followed that rule, I was running too slow.

    • Angie November 14, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      It does sound like you’ve had bad luck with HRMs so far. I haven’t used mine consistently for 6 months yet but so far I’m pleased with my Garmin model. Hopefully you can get some more accurate metrics worked out for yourself now. However I will warn you that Zone 2 (for easy/recovery days) does feel very slow. Heart rate training has made me more mindful about slowing down on easy days.

  3. Jessica November 10, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Thanks for this information! My Garmin also came with a HRM and I have used it sporadically but without any real knowledge of what to make of the information. I am trying to rebuild my running after some health complications and have been getting frustrated because it is slow going and getting down on myself for a slow pace. With this information, I’ve decided to focus more on my HR and have reconfigured my Garmin to show HR rather than pace. I’m hoping this will help me rebuild my base, avoid injury, and not be so hard on myself! Thanks for all you do to help all of us runners run strong and healthy for the long-term.

    • Angie November 14, 2013 at 10:40 am #

      Hi Jessica. It’s awesome to hear that you’re rebuilding your running base. Focusing on effort (via heart rate) is a great way to truly get that foundation of cardiovascular fitness. Just focus on making progress (however small) and you’ll get back to where you want to be. Keep up the great work!

  4. Sam Pfanstiel November 14, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    Thank you for this very informative article, Angie. I’ve been using a Mio Alpha HRM watch I bought myself for my birthday and I love it, but I have never been quite sure where to set my HRmax. It’s comfortable, accurate, doesn’t require a chest strap, and best of all connects to Runkeeper on my iPhone 4S.

    I picked mine up used from Amazon, which was $50 cheaper than the new ones, but still came in the original box and looked brand new. YMMV.

    • Angie November 14, 2013 at 10:42 am #

      Hi Sam. I hadn’t heard of the Mio Alpha HRM before and will have to check it out. Sounds like an accurate and affordable option. Hope you get lots of great use out of it. Happy running!

  5. Running Noob December 8, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Hello Angie and Trevor,
    greetings from Italy 🙂

    I love your podcast, it’s like….professional but not only FOR professionals!

    I have a question for Angie: I tried the lactate threshold test, and got the same results as you, so I though I must have done something wrong as I only have started running 3 months ago. I tried the test again and got the same results. Meh!

    Now, that’s impossible. My question is: Is there a difference in gender? (i.e. a certain percentage of bpm’s that should be added or subtracted depending on gender?).

    Here’s the blogpost where I talk about this test, and mention your podcast 🙂



    • Angie December 8, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Hi Marco,

      I’m glad that you’ve been enjoying the podcast. Thanks for mentioning us in your informative blog post.

      I would say that you got the right result for the lactate threshold (LT) test, especially since you repeated it and got the same results. You’re obviously a naturally fit individual. Some running metrics like V02 max do have differences related to gender but the LT test really isn’t one of them. Of course the most accurate way to measure LT and other metrics is in an exercise laboratory.

      Stay tuned to the podcast because we’ll be talking about Vo2 max next. And good luck as you train for the Paris Marathon in 2014!

  6. Niki December 4, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

    Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through
    this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept
    talking about this. I will forward this post to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Adolfo Salgueiro January 9, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    I just got my TomTom watch with GPS and heart rate monitor. I used it yesterday. for the first time. I realized staying in Zone 2 is more difficult that I expected. i have a couple of halves schedules for the next 6 weeks so I am not going to change anything but after that I will be working on my HR Zone training in order to get some PRs in the 2015-16 season… I heard this episode a couple of times already but need more info on the issue. What book can you recommend?

    • Angie Spencer January 9, 2015 at 10:37 am #

      Hi Adolfo. It’s great to hear that you have a new GPS watch and HRM to use. You’re right, it is very challenging to stay in Zone 2. It often takes 3-4 months of slowing down before you notice any improvement in your pace. One of the best books on the subject is “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” by Dr. Phil Maffetone. Hope that helps!

  8. Kelly May 5, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Hi Angie and Trevor!
    I’d love to listen to this podcast, but when I try to download or stream, the file appears to no longer be available or hosted on your site. Is this on purpose? How can I get access?
    Thanks! Love the podcast!

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