Is Heart Rate Training Beneficial for Runners?

Is Heart Rate Training Beneficial for Runners?

Smart run training relies on an athlete’s ability to gauge exercise intensity. Runs will have a designated intensity zone to achieve a certain physiological response: easy runs, moderate runs, threshold runs, interval runs, and more (you can read a detailed overview on the different types of runs here). Heart rate zones have become a popular method for determining training intensity. This article will explore how to use heart rate training, including understanding the nuances and limitations of its application. 

Is heart rate training essential? No. Many runners can train effectively without using heart rate zones. For some runners, heart rate training is helpful in calibrating training intensity. It is up to you (and your coach if you work with one) to determine the appropriateness of using heart rate zones in your individual training. 

The Science of Heart Rate Training

To understand heart rate training, let’s look at what your heart does during exercise. When you run, your body needs to send oxygen to your muscles to produce energy for muscle contractions. Oxygen is delivered to your muscles through your blood. Your heart pumps out that oxygen-rich blood. 

The amount of blood pumped from your heart per minute is called cardiac output. Cardiac output is determined by stroke volume (how much blood is pumped with each beat) and heart rate (number of heartbeats). Your heart rate reflects your workload since your body increases heart rate (and stroke volume) to meet the demands of exercise. 

For runners, heart rate measurements offer a proxy measure of several internal physiological processes. Generally speaking, heart rate increases as oxygen consumption increases. Heart rate is a proxy for blood lactate levels, oxygen consumption rates, mechanical workload, and more. 

However, it is not a perfect measure. In several scenarios (which we will explore), a runner’s heart rate could increase without significant changes in blood lactate levels. Additionally, heart rate is not a predictor of performance in the same way that velocity at VO2 max, lactate threshold, aerobic threshold, critical speed, and running economy are. While measuring heart rate can be helpful for understanding exercise intensity, it is not the superior method nor only method for measuring intensity.

What Happens to Your Heart Rate When You Run?

At the start of exercise, a runner’s heart rate increases rapidly. This rapid increase in heart rate is triggered by your sympathetic nervous system. Sometimes, the nervous system can even start to increase heart rate in anticipation of exercise. 

Corresponding to this, your body initially relies more on glycolysis (carbohydrate metabolism that can occur without oxygen). After the first few minutes of adjusting to the workload, heart rate stabilizes until intensity increases again (or cardiac drift occurs). 

During longer runs, you may also experience an increase in heart rate independent of increases in pace and RPE. This phenomenon is called cardiac drift (or aerobic decoupling). Dehydration and elevated core temperature contribute to cardiac drift. Dehydration will cause a decrease in stroke volume, which means that heart rate has to increase to maintain the same workload. (You can read more on the science of cardiac drift in this article.)

Understanding Heart Rate Zones

Heart rate training zones establish a correlation between a certain heart rate range (usually a percentage) with training intensity. A common system used is the five-zone heart rate training system. (You can learn more about the five-zone system including zone 2 training in this article.) The Polar system for zones is as follows: 

  • Zone 1: 50-60% MHR
  • Z2: 61-70% MHR
  • Z3: 71-80% MHR
  • Z4: 81-93% MHR
  • Z5: 94-100% MHR

Some other models of the five-zone system exist, such as this model defined in a 2014 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Exercise physiologist Dr. Stephen Seiler describes the science behind this five-zone model in this Youtube video

  • Zone 1: 55-72% MHR
  • Z2: 72-82% MHR
  • Z3: 82-87% MHR
  • Z4: 87-92% MHR
  • Z5: 93-100% MHR

Seiler’s model delineates the zones based both on physiological markers and practical considerations. This model makes a bit more sense than the Polar model (physiology doesn’t exactly happen in clean 10% margins), especially for trained athletes. 

As you will read more about a bit further down, you can also calculate a five-zone model based off of lactate threshold heart rate.

It is vital to understand that physiology happens on spectrums, not sharp zones. A 2 bpm change in heart rate may shift you into zone 4, but it does not automatically mean that you are at your lactate threshold.  

It is important to remember that not every runner’s heart rate zones are the same! Using heart rate training appropriately requires individual calibration. You cannot use someone else’s data from Strava or Instagram. Instead, you need to calculate your own heart rate zones based on one of the following models. 

Maximum Heart Rate Model 

The most common approach for calculating a runner’s heart rate zones is by using a maximum heart rate model. Maximum heart rate can be calculated using an age-predicted formula; however, this formula has a significant standard deviation (+/-10-12 bpm within one SD). That wide standard deviation does not make it a reliable predictor of heart rate if you are serious about heart rate training. 

Instead, you can calculate your individual maximum heart rate. There are multiple ways to determine maximum heart rate (MHR). If you have been using a chest strap, you can review your data. The highest number you consistently hit in interval workouts or near the end of short races (such as a 5K) can be used as your maximum heart rate. 

You can also perform a field test to determine maximum heart rate. Field testing will not be fun, but it will give you a reliable number. You will want to use a chest strap for this. Dr. Jack Daniels recommends a field test of repeated 2-min uphill runs or 800-m repeats on the track. Alternatively, you could run a mile time trial and observe your highest heart rate.

Lactate Threshold Heart Rate Model

The lactate threshold heart rate may be more sensitive to the physiology of a trained endurance athlete. As the name implies, you calculate your heart rate zones off of your heart rate at lactate threshold. This article guides you through how to perform a field test for lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). Once you have determined your LTHR, you calculate your zones using the following model:

  • Zone 1: Less than 80% of LTHR
  • Z2: 80–88% of LTHR
  • Z3: 89–95% of LTHR
  • Z4: 96–99% of LTHR
  • Z5: 101%+ of LTHR

Heart Rate Reserve Model

Heart rate reserve uses the difference between an individual’s maximum heart rate and resting heart rate to determine functional capacity for work. As with the maximum heart rate model, you will want to use your individual maximum heart rate over an age-predicted formula.

 The Karvonen method determines your heart rate reserve (HRR) and corresponding heart rate zones. This method involves a bit more math than other formulas:

  • To determine your HRR: max heart rate minus resting heart rate
    • Sample: 185 max heart rate minus 45 resting heart rate = 140 HRR
  • To determine heart rate zones: (multiple HRR by the intensity) plus resting heart rate
    • Sample: 70% of HRR = (140 HRR x 0.70) + 45 = 143 bpm

Heart rate reserve zones are meant to correspond approximately with a percentage of VO2max. As a result, the percentage of HRR will differ from the percentage of max heart rate. 


What Factors Can Affect Heart Rate?

The biggest limitation of heart rate training is that additional factors beyond oxygen consumption rates can influence heart rate. If you are wondering why heart rate is high on easy runs, one of these factors may be at play.

Your sinoatrial node in the heart generates electrical impulses that affect your heart rate. The autonomic nervous system (both parasympathetic and sympathetic) regulates the sinoatrial node, and therefore also affects heart rate. The parasympathetic nervous system inhibits the sinoatrial node, while the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the sinoatrial node. Both are simultaneously active in a normal healthy person, which means your SA node (and therefore your heart rate) has both stimulatory and inhibitory influences acting upon it simultaneously. 

The nervous system activity affects heart rate by releasing certain catecholamines (neurohormones) such as norepinephrine. Norepinephrine signals an increase in heart rate, both in response to exercise and to other factors including emotions. (Think of your heart rate may spike high before a big presentation.) (Norepinephrine also increases blood glucose levels to support the demands of exercise.) 

  • Digestion: Energy is required to digest food (a process known as dietary-induced thermogenesis). If you recently ate or are ingesting food on the run, your heart rate will respond accordingly. (Fasted training may keep your heart rate lower, but it is not recommended due to its effects of the endocrine system and no clear correlation to improved performance.)
  • Body temperature: Increases in core temperature will elevate heart rate. Conversely, you will also see your heart rate drop when your core temperature is lower. (That said, do not deliberately underdress and risk hypothermia to make your heart rate lower.)
  • Ambient temperature: The hotter it is outside, the higher your heart rate since your body works harder to control core temperature. On the other extreme, peripheral vasoconstriction and a slight decline in VO2max in sub-freezing temperatures can also elevate heart rate. 
  • Humidity: Humidity environments make sweating a less effective cooling mechanism. As a result, heart rate increases as the body regulates core temperature via radiation. 
  • Dehydration: When you get dehydrated, your blood thickens and stroke volume decreases. Chronic and acute dehydration can both cause heart rate to increase in order to maintain cardiac output with lower stroke volume.  
  • Certain medications: Medications such as beta blockers can alter how heart rate rises in response to exercise. If you are on beta blockers or another medication that affects heart rate, you will not want to rely on heart rate training.
  • Caffeine consumption: Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. As a result, it can increase heart rate at resting and exercise levels. Individual response to caffeine may affect just how much caffeine affects heart rate. 
  • Anxiety/stress: The catecholamines that regulate heart rate are altered by anxiety or stress. Norepinephrine is also responsible for stimulating your brain in response to fear or arousal. So when you are nervous, stressed, anxious, or even excited, your heart rate can go up. 

Will My Heart Rate Change with Training?

Runners’ heart rates will typically change as they adapt to training. Let’s look at the science:

  • Cardiac output is how much blood your heart pumps in one minute. Heart rate (beats per minute) and stroke volume (volume of blood pumped from the left ventricle with each contraction
  • As you become more aerobically fit, your stroke volume will increase. As a result, more cardiac output can occur at the same or lower heart rate. 
  • The nervous system becomes trained to increase stroke volume and regulate heart rate during exercise. 
  • You can run at the same effort with lower heart rate because your stroke volume is higher. (Factors like the improved running economy will also affect your heart rate at a given pace.) 

Understanding the Types of Heart Rate Monitors

There are two popular types of heart rate monitors: chest straps and wrist-based. Chest straps rely on sensors to measure heartbeat via electrical activity. According to the American College of Cardiology and supported by many research studies, chest strap heart rate monitors are typically more accurate.

Wrist-based heart rate monitors are rising in popularity and are included on many GPS watches now. However, wrist-based heart rate monitors are less accurate, with an error margin of anywhere from 1% (2018, Digital Health) to 13.5% (2019, Journal of Sports Sciences), depending on the brand. Wrist-based heart rate monitors utilize a bright LED light. This light is refracted off of blood flow beneath the surface of the skin. The watch then calculates the data through an algorithm to measure heart rate. Factors such as humidity, sweat on your skin, the tightness or looseness of the watch strap, and any built-up grime on the sensor can affect accuracy. Athletes with wrist tattoos or darker skin may experience less accurate data from their wrist-based sensors.

Should You Use Heart Rate Training as a Beginner?

Different coaches may express varying opinions on heart rate training for beginner runners. Personally, I do not recommend it if you are a new (<6-12 months) runner. Why?

Your physiology changes in response to running. The responses to endurance training are both acute (more immediate) and chronic (long-term). Within the first six to twelve months of being a runner (or returning to running after a long hiatus), your body undergoes significant chronic adaptations. One of these adaptations is changes to your stroke volume, as noted above. Your stroke volume improves with long-term training. This adaptation both increases overall cardiac output and allows you to maintain a lower heart rate at any given submaximal intensity. 

Beginner runners do not have that increased stroke volume. As a result, their heart rate will be higher during exercise. You may find that your heart rate is higher even at a sustainable effort. 

If heart rate training helps you as a new runner, use it. But if it creates obstacles for you or makes running more difficult, do not bother with it. In the first few months of running, focus on creating the habit and adapting your musculoskeletal system and cardiovascular system. Do not push every run, but also do not worry about numbers on your heart rate monitor (unless medically instructed). 

Can You Use Heart Rate Training for Hard Workouts?

Heart rate monitoring can be used on tempo runs, since those are prolonged and continuous efforts. However, there are downsides. Worrying too much about your heart rate can hinder your ability to gauge your perceived effort. If you are using a less accurate heart rate monitor such as a wrist-based monitor (see below), you could end up training too hard – or not hard enough. Heart rate zones for your aerobic threshold, lactate threshsold, VO2max, and other hard workout zones are narrower than your easy pace zone, meaning a margin of error is heart rate reading is more likely to affect your workout. 

Heart rate monitoring becomes even more complicated and less practical on interval runs. Your heart rate doesn’t instantaneously jump up when you start running faster. Cardiac lag occurs, meaning that you will be running hard for a good portion of time before your heart rate monitor reflects it. This is especially true for short intervals; your heart rate will not register the appropriate reading for a majority of the interval.

Should You Use Heart Rate for Racing? 

Anxiety and excitement around racing can make your heart rate spike (even if the effort does not feel that high). A higher heart rate during racing is common. I encourage runners not to look at their heart rate during racing and rather focus on their perceived exertion and ability to push themselves for that day. 

Is Heart Rate Training Right for You?

Heart rate training can be an effective tool for gauging exercise intensity. However, like any tool, it requires calibration and an understanding of its shortcomings. 

If you have trouble slowing down on your easy runs enough, you may benefit from heart rate training. Opt for a chest-strap monitor if possible and focus on your breathing and effort as well. As with paces, you do not want to over-rely on data during a run. Any piece of technology will have a margin of error.

Do not use your heart rate monitor to cast judgment on your fitness. Use it as a tool to aid in the calibration of training intensity if it makes sense for you. However, even if you use heart rate training, you do not need to use it all the time. If heart rate training is not for you, you can try using the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale or talk test.

Sign Up for My Newsletter for More Running Tips

* indicates required

Share this post

9 Responses

  1. Hello!
    First of all, sorry for my English taken from the google translator …. 🙁
    I usually follow your blog, I have it added to my feed reader.
    The article seems very good, very complete, congratulations!
    I have been a faithful heart rate monitor runner for a good number of years.
    When I started it helped me a lot. I was not able to control my career pace and, before I knew it, I was already tired of going too fast.
    That was when I bought a cheap heart rate monitor at Decathlon and everything changed.
    I understood that if I wanted to endure more time running, I should not go beyond a certain number of keystrokes. At that time I still did not know about formulas and their frequency zones.
    Over time, little by little, I have become accustomed to running without taking into account that value, although I keep recording it as an information: today I run faster at less pulsations than a year ago, for example.
    Currently I start running using more power through Stryd.
    Anyway there is a section in which I do not agree with what you say, and it is in the use or not of the pulsometers on the day of the competition race.
    Precisely, when you are a newbie, it can come in handy there too.
    For example, if you are running at a specific pace, for you bearable, and you start to climb a fairly steep slope, it is clear that you will not be able to continue at that same pace. But how much do you go down? Well, whatever your heart rate is.
    If you know that, for example, at 170 ppm you are doing well, if before that slope you were going at a rate of 4:30 min / km, at the beginning of that slope you lower the rate in such a way that you do not exceed those 170 ppm.
    That way, when you reach the top you will find the strength to continue the race.
    All that for a newbie, of course.
    Well …. it’s just an example 😉
    Sorry for the long text and thank you very much for your posts.
    Greetings from Galicia / Spain.

    1. This is exactly why I personally don’t use HR training in my coaching or own training. Age isn’t a reliable marker for someone who is very fit and has been training for decades! I recall even reading in Greg McMillan’s book that at a certain age, it’s more practical to train at higher heart rate levels (if you choose to use that metric) because otherwise you would be working too easy to try to maintain that easy heart rate.

  2. I absolutely loved running workouts (mostly tempo and threshold) with a heart rate monitor. We got tested in a lab to find our max and then did workouts based off of the results. I found that even now, 15 years later, I can sense/feel when I’m in the right zone.

  3. I’ve used heart rate training off and on over the years, but I’ve been off for a while. It just isn’t relevent to my goals these day. I like to use perceived exertion for myself and my clients, except for those who are really interested in HR training. It can be a great tool.

  4. This might be a tricky question, because I think there’s a dearth of research on post-menopausal runners and training. I’d appreciate your best guess/opinion, if the evidence is thin.
    I’m a good recreational runner, but also a 65 year old female…a doggedly determined amateur, running up to half marathon distance. I notice now how much longer it takes for me to warm up, or be able to settle into a comfortable running pace, for my breathing to become comfortable, than when I was, say, 20 years younger. I have an impression that this is slow vascular responses, either directly in the vessels/heart, or in the balancing of sympathetic and parasympathetic output. I feel this might be slow responses in the intramuscular vasculature, but it may be more central. I guess the point of knowing this would be that I could warm up more intelligently if I had more grasp on what was happening.
    Do you have any thoughts? Thanks.

    1. Hello! Physiology of aging athletes is not my area of expertise, so please do excuse if my response is lacking. As best as I understand it, there are numerous mechanisms affecting the cardiovascular system as an athlete ages: lower maximum heart rate, reduced strength of the myocardium (leading to lower cardiac output especially at rest), reduced cross-sectional area of the coronary arteries (thus affecting blood flow), increased peripheral resistance (also affecting blood flow), and lower rates of oxygen extraction in the working muscles. Exercise can mitigate these changes compared to sedentary individuals, but the various changes still occur.
      When I work with athletes over 50, I encourage longer warm-ups. Dynamic stretches (leg swings, etc) are beneficial for runners of any age before running. for older athletes, a warm-up walk (even just a few minutes) can also aid in the transition from rest to running. Starting a bit slower than usual is also beneficial; it takes several minutes for aerobic metabolism to start, so starting a bit slower than your average easy pace minimizes anaerobic byproducts during that time.

  5. Thanks very much for that advice and for taking the time. It can feel a bit lonely at this end of the age range….and being called ‘athletes’ is always a boost, even when it feels undeserved. 😁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *