Running Heart Rate Zones Explained
If you spend any amount of time with runners on social media, on the start line, or huddled in a ditch during a freak lightning storm, the conversation will inevitably come around to heart rate zones. Most new runners usually nod and make affirmative grunting noises while desperately looking around to see if these “zones” are marked somewhere on the trail.
Rejoice! By the end of our little tête-à-tête, you too will be able to bore people in break rooms and at dinner parties with details of how you used your superior knowledge to beat all the people pushing jogging strollers at your last 5k.
Heart rate monitoring is a valuable tool for runners looking to optimize their training and performance. By understanding and training within specific heart rate zones, you can tailor your workouts to achieve various goals, from building endurance to improving speed and overall fitness. In this guide, we’ll delve into the concept of running heart rate zones and how they can benefit your training regimen.
What Are Heart Rate Zones?
Heart rate zones are specific ranges of heartbeats per minute (bpm) that correspond to different levels of intensity during exercise. These zones are typically calculated as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR) and serve as a guide to help you determine the appropriate intensity for your workouts.
But why? You ask. Theoretically, if you pay attention to the heart rate zones, you can tailor your runs to achieve various goals, from building endurance to improving speed and overall fitness. I find that it especially helps when you start adding in other training techniques like tempo runs or interval training and it eliminates that deer in the headlights look you get when you talk to other runners.
To establish your heart rate zones, you need to know your MHR (max heart rate, not max hurt rate). A common method to estimate your MHR is by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 40 years old, your estimated MHR would be 180 bpm (220 minus 40). Keep in mind that this is a general estimate only, but it’s good enough to get something out of it.
Once you have your MHR, you can calculate your heart rate zones by applying percentages to it. There are various methods for establishing these zones, but one of the most commonly used is the five-zone model. Yes. Some math will be required unless your running watch does it for you on the fly, but it’s a good distraction from the pain.
The Five Heart Rate Zones
Zone 1: Recovery – 50-60% of MHR
This is the low-intensity activity zone of warm-ups, cool-downs, and recovery runs. Your runs in this zone still benefit you by improving overall cardiovascular fitness, enhancing fat metabolism, and aiding in active recovery between more intense workouts.
Zone 2: Endurance – 60-70% of MHR
The endurance zone is where you build your aerobic base. Long, steady-state runs at this intensity level enhance your endurance and teach your body to utilize oxygen efficiently. This is the zone in which you should be able to maintain a conversation while running, but what you say will be as inane as every other conversation you have with runners. You will spend a lot of time in this zone as it’s the foundation of many training programs.
Zone 3: Tempo – 70-80% of MHR
The tempo zone contains your moderate-intensity runs that push you closer to your lactate threshold. This threshold is the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate in your muscles. When you train in Zone 3, you’re working to improve the ability to sustain moderately fast paces for longer durations. The tempo zone is crucial for race prep as it helps build the stamina to maintain a challenging pace. It’s also hard to talk when running in this zone, so remember to push into this zone the next time your running partner brings up politics.
Zone 4: Threshold – 80-90% of MHR
Now you are pushing even closer to your lactate threshold. The goal of the threshold training zone, is to increase that threshold, allowing you to sustain a fast pace for longer periods. Even though zone 4 is highly effective for improving race performance, it’s important to use it sparingly.
Zone 5: Max Effort – 90-100% of MHR
This is your all-out, maximum effort zone. It’s typically reserved for short, intense intervals or sprints. Training in this zone improves your anaerobic capacity, power, and speed. Workouts in this zone should be brief and interspersed with adequate recovery.
Monitoring Your Heart Rate (let the beat go on!)
Unless you want to figure out how to run and manually take your pulse at the same time, get a watch with a heart rate monitor at least. Many also come with a feature to tell you which zone you are in at any moment. Most watches are accurate enough, but if you really want to up your game, go for a chest strap monitor. Just make sure it’s compatible with your watch or fitness app.
Establish your starting heart rate as you stretch or during whatever pre-run ritual you have, then during your run, periodically check your heart rate to ensure you’re staying within the desired zone. Adjust your pace accordingly to maintain the appropriate intensity based on the training plan you are following or simply stay within your target zone you decided on.
Now get out there and train more effectively while boring people to death with your knowledge of heart rate zones.