Words by Taylor Thomas of Thomas Endurance Coaching

Understanding the basics of heart rate training is a valuable skill for all runners. With a firm grasp on concepts such as lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), maximum heart rate, and heart rate training zones you can ensure that all of your runs are at the appropriate intensity, individualized to your abilities, and progressing properly through specific periods of your training. By paying attention to your heart rate you can ensure that your easy days stay easy so that you can give 100% during your hard workouts. Remember, not every workout should feel hard. There is a time and a place for intensity. 

Establishing your Threshold

The first step in making sure the intensity of your runs is appropriate is to establish your LTHR, thus enabling you to set your individualized training zones. There are several different ways for runners of all abilities to find out what your threshold is. Below are three different methods that you can use to arrive at your threshold, or max heart rate. With that number, you can set your training zones, monitor training load, track intensity, fitness, fatigue, and much more.

  • The average heart rate during a hard 45-60 minute effort gives a runner a good idea of what their LTHR is. One of the best and easiest ways to arrive at this number is to run a race. For most runners a 10K ran at race pace, would be the perfect distance to establish their LTHR. 
  • Another popular method is the self-guided “field test”. This test is to be performed on a treadmill, or uninterrupted trail/road. After a 15-20 minute warm-up perform an all-out 30-minute time trial. The average heart rate during the last 20 minutes of the effort is a good approximation of an athlete’s LTHR.
  • Many athletes have heard of the old equation (220 – Age) to arrive at Max HR. Don’t use this equation, as it will most likely return inaccurate results. More modern research tells us that the equation 208 – (0.7 x age) is better at approximating an athlete’s maximum heart rate. Keep in mind an actual maximum effort is always better than an equation. 
  • Once you have your LTHR or max heart rate established you can set up your individualized training zones. This is a key step in order to be able to use heart rate to guide your running. There are several zone formats, but many training platforms will auto-calculate zones once you input either LTHR or max heart rate. What’s important is that you use them. 

Controlling Intensity 

The fact is, most runners run too hard for too many of their runs. As we all know, running is a high impact sport, that requires major muscle groups to produce lots of force to propel an athlete forward. This means that lots of blood is required from the working muscles, and thus produces a relatively high heart rate compared to many other activities. Once you’ve calculated your training zones you’ll have a much better idea of how to gauge your efforts. For your “maintenance” runs, and/or long runs, the majority of the duration of the run should be spent below Zone 3, or what’s typically referred to as the tempo zone. Controlling the intensity on these endurance-based runs will ensure that you’re primarily taxing the body aerobic system, and conserving energy for when it matters. This becomes even more important as your fitness increases and you begin building up to goal events and races. Key workouts become more important and making sure your body is ready to tap into efforts in Zone 3 and higher is critical. Keep an eye on your heart rate and don’t be afraid to slow down if/when your heart rate climbs above Zone 2 for too long.

Too Much or Too Little

While controlling intensity is important to get the most out of your runs, it’s also an important aspect of building fitness. The body requires a certain amount of training stress to allow for adaptation to occur. So, there’s a time and a place to go hard. Much of the modern science on training intensity supports the 80/20 rule, which says that only 20% of your overall training volume should be performed at high intensity. This means that the majority of your sessions should be performed below approximately 77% of your maximum heart rate. When planning hard sessions ensure that the total workload performed in higher zones does not take up too much of your training volume. There’s also such a thing as going too easy. If you take it too easy on yourself, you’ll never gain fitness. One of the best ways to ensure this doesn’t happen is to make your training is progressive. If every 3-6 weeks your body is exposed to progressively harder training stimulus you won’t plateau, and your body will adapt. Training is all about finding balance and knowing when to push it, when to back off, and how to listen to the feedback your body is giving. 

Running is one of the most popular endurance activities for good reason. It’s efficient, requires very little gear, and provides an excellent workout at any distance. In order to maximize your time running start by establishing your LTHR and/or maximum heart rate. Use these numbers to calculate your training zones. These zones will help you manage intensity and understand how your body responds to different types of efforts. There’s a time and a place to go hard, but most runs should feel easier and be a chance for you to enjoy your workout.

Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, team organizer, writer, and podcast host. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from running and cycling to mountaineering. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.thomasendurancecoaching.com/. Also, listen to their top-rated podcast Endurance Minded everywhere you get your podcasts.


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