What Is Heart Rate Training And How To Use It

Heart rate training is simply a training method designed to make the athlete focus on heart rate rather than pace or effort.

For example, instead of really focusing on keeping your pace at an 8 minute mile, you’d instead focus on keeping your heart rate below 150bpm and run at whatever pace is required to do that.

Often, heart rate training is referred to in these ways:

  • Zone training
  • 80/20 training
  • Maffetone (MAF) training

But essentially, they all mean the same thing – focus on heart rate above all else.

What are heart rate zones?

Zone % HR max
Zone 1 (recovery/easy) 55%-65% HR max
Zone 2 (aerobic/base) 65%-75% HR max
Zone 3 (tempo) 80%-85% HR max
Zone 4 (lactate threshold) 85%-88% HR max
Zone 5 (anaerobic) 90% HR max and above

What are the benefits of heart rate training?

The fundamental of heart rate training boils down to doing all of your easy runs in a Zone 2 heart rate range.

Zone 2 is chosen because it’s a range where not much lactic acid is released into the muscles, making it so you can run more often, and more miles, without feelings of excess muscle fatigue.

This helps keep you fresh for those hard and fast runs, avoid injury, and otherwise not feel exhausted after a week of training.

But you run so slow when Zone 2 training!

Yup, you will, certainly at the beginning.

Chances are you’ve been running in the useless middle ground of Zone 3 – where you’re pumping lactic acid into your muscles and creating fatigue, but not running hard enough that you’re benefiting your VO2 Max.

Because of that, your first few Z2 runs will feel painfully slow.

Over time, what happens is you become able to maintain that Z2 heart rate, but increase your pace.

Ultimately the goal is to race with the lowest possible heart rate, and this steady progression helps you get there.

Heart rate training is only for the easy runs

When you’re doing easy/recovery runs, yes monitor that heart rate and stay in zone 2.

When you’re doing race pace or tempo runs, forget heart rate ever existed.

A good marathon training plan will incorporate both slow, easy recovery runs, as well as fast hard runs. This way you can maintain a higher weekly mileage, which benefits muscle growth & adaptation, with quality hard workouts to help your speed.

How do you calculate your Zone 2 heart rate?

The most common formulas to calculate zone 2 heart rate are:

  • (220-[age])*.75 = upper z2 limit
  • 180-[age] = upper z2 limit

For me at age 33, using each of those formulas I get:

  • 140
  • 147

In my every day running, I find that 147 is more reasonable for me as I can still maintain a conversation while running, and I don’t feel fatigued after completing an easy workout. 140 is slightly too difficult for me to stay under.

In that way, use whichever makes the most sense for you – but the idea is the same, run slow to eventually run fast.

How to get started with heart rate training

Easy, just do it.

Use the formulas above to get an idea of where your upper z2 limit is, and on your next easy run, set your watch to heart rate only and stay under it.

It’ll feel weird, and it’ll feel slow, but track your speed progress for 2-4 weeks and watch the pace fall.