Mastering heart rate based training and zones is a great way to slash your PBs, and it can add an element of science to your schedule.
The process has been made all the easier thanks to the latest running watches with heart rate tech finally makes this scientific method of training accessible to all – but it's not easy to master.
Essential guide: How to buy a heart rate monitor
Anyone with a heart rate strap or watch can take advantage, but it's not straightforward. That's where we come in. We're here to help you use your running wearable tech to calculate your max heart rate (MHR) and then use your own heart rate zones to be a better runner.
Devices like the Garmin Forerunner 225, Fitbit Surge and TomTom Spark enable us to keep tabs on what our tickers are doing while we workout. Yet while tracking heart rate is one thing, applying it to your zones is another.
Read on for our guide.
Why train using heart rate zones?
"The most common issue I find with runners – from beginners through to more experienced – is that they run most of their sessions within a very small range of effort," explains Tom Craggs, running coach with marathon training experts Running With Us.
Without heart rate monitors we're struggling to spot when we're running at the right – or the wrong – intensity.
"Their easy runs are too hard to fully recover and get the full aerobic benefits they should accrue, while threshold and VO2 max run (the harder, interval sessions) aren't specific or hard enough to get the full benefits at the top end.
Therefore runners plateau easily and find it hard to achieve significant progress after the first couple of years of training."
Understanding heart rate zones
Understanding what's happening in each of the heart rate zones is also vital if you want to make the most of that expensive running watch on your wrist.
Giuseppe Minetti, founder of PaleoGym, which specialise in using advanced sports science and personalised functional fitness, explains how your heart rate zones break down and what happens in each zone.
1. Easy rest and recovery
65-70% of Maximum HR (MHR)
"There is no such thing as overtraining, only under recovery. At PaleoGym we prescribe recovery days and phases to help with a list of essentials that include muscle and tissue repair; removal of waste products; the reduction of inflammation; the restoration of energy stores and nutrients necessary for cellular activity; and the recuperation of the central nervous system. In simple terms, the repair of the connection between the brain and body. This is necessary for anyone in training from Mo Farrah to you."
2. Endurance base training
70 - 80%
"It's essential for any new runner but too many athletes spend far too long developing this component, but doing the right amount of endurance training is a very fine balance to achieve, particularly if you're looking to run faster. Doing too much of this will wipe out any speed you've gained, doing too little will prevent you from adding the distance to your speed required over marathon distance."
3. Aerobic capacity
"Aerobic capacity improves with your exercise age i.e the amount of years you have trained. It's all about running at medium effort and putting in many hours. For anyone running less than a marathon distance it's not necessary to develop a huge aerobic base."
4. Anaerobic threshold
90 - 98% of MHR
"Otherwise known as race pace or lactate threshold, this is the point where things start to burn. Perfecting this requires strategic planning over many months and years. Get this right and you'll get fast, get it wrong and you'll go backwards even faster. This training requires the most amount of effort, but with low volume and is a necessary evil for all people looking to improve their running."
5. Max aerobic
98-100% of MHR
"There is conflicting research surrounding Max Aerobic/VO2 Max exercise. Too many athletes exhaust themselves with constant VO2 max training, whilst completely disregarding the speed elements of their discipline."
How identify your personal heart rate zones
Well, we put those questions and concerns to Professor Greg Whyte, former Olympian, fitness trainer to the stars and Fitbit ambassador. He's a huge advocate of using heart rate data to train – can we went to his Centre for Human Health & Performance in London.
GW: There are a number of ways of doing it. The generic training schedules you'll find on the internet actually dictate when to run at different intensities. There are a number of solutions to working out those intensities in terms of target heart rates, from the very simple to very complex.
If you come and see me it's complex: we will take blood lactate and some gas analysis and run you on the treadmill. At the simple end of the spectrum there are four main categories:
1. Recovery run – And that is very easy (-10%)
2. Threshold running – That is marathon race pace (+/- 0%)
3. Half marathon pace (+ 10%)
4. 10k pace running pace (+20%)
What you're trying to do is identify your personal heart rate zones for 10k (fast), half marathon. Marathon (threshold) and easy.
There are 18 different definitions of threshold, and no-one understands it. As a coach my athletes understand what I tell them but that will be different for other people.
So you just have to work out your heart rare for those four zones, and for me the easiest one to anchor everything from is the marathon race pace. That is a pace at which you can sustain indefinitely. We can fundamentally all do that.
To work it out go for a run on your own, with your heart rate monitor, for a minimum of 30 minutes and in that run you should have the ability to hold a conversation. When you're at a pace you think you can carry on indefinitely, for 30 minutes, and can hold a conversation take a look at what your heart rate. Take that heart rate and put a five beat range either side.
How to implement that into your plan
GW: Once you have your heart rate for that marathon pace zone you can work out the rest. For the half marathon pace add 10%, and for your 10k pace add another 10%. That's 20% above marathon race pace.
And for an easy/recovery run, subtract 10% from the marathon rate.
When you take that generic plan from the internet it should say easy (marathon), moderate (half marathon) or hard (10k). So keep it simple. It's just about translating it.
Try not to overthink it, but keep the quality. But make sure you get the best out of your high intensity sessions don't back-to-back them, and everything else will slot into place.
Now you've mastered your heart rate zones, why not check out some of our other guides to taking full advantage of your running tech: