The key to building a run program can lie in understanding your heart rate and what it means. It is easy to get lost in the metrics, especially if you begin to focus on what other athletes are doing. Understanding that your heart rate is unique to you is one of the most valuable tools you can have. When you are able to establish your personal heart rate zones, based off of your running Threshold Heart Rate (rTHR) you can be sure that every run meets the intended intensity.
Establishing Your Running Threshold Heart Rate
Establishing a threshold heart rate for running is essential to help establish your different heart rate zones. This is where you can establish what zones to be running in for: easy runs, general endurance runs, and your tempo/threshold runs. While it is great to be able to utilize a lab in order to establish your rTHR, it is not always needed. In order to figure out your own rTHR, perform the following 30 minute time trial assessment on a track (optimal), flat surface, or treadmill:
- Begin with a 5-10 minute warm-up of easy running, followed by 3-5 minutes of drills or pick-ups
- When you are ready to begin the effort, start your timer for a 30 minute time trial. Be sure to set a pace that you can sustain for the entire interval.
- At the 10 minute mark, note your heart rate.
- At the conclusion of the 30-minute mark, note your heart rate.
- Calculate the sum of the two heart rates and divide by two. The result approximates your rTHR. *If you are recording your heart rate on a device like the ELEMNT RIVAL watch, you can use the average heart rate of the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute effort.
Once you have established your rTHR, you can use this data to then calculate your unique heart rate zones.
While you may be wondering if there is a difference between your cycling threshold heart rate and running, the short answer is: yes. The zones for cycling and running are the same percentages, but rTHR tends to be higher than cTHR (cycling threshold heart rate). This is because running utilizes more core and upper body muscles, increasing the amount of oxygen your heart needs to pump around your body.
Importance of Using Heart Rate Zones
While many endurance athletes are no stranger to going hard, it is more often than not that they are very unfamiliar with taking it easy. In fact, most athletes need a coach not to push them, but to know when to rein them in. One of the biggest mistakes that happen in a training program is athletes constantly placing their foot on the gas and never taking it off. If you’re always pushing, how can your body recover? This is where establishing your specific rTHR is important because it will allow you to visually see the effort you are expending and not just the pace. There are days when the pace feels effortless, and there are days when it feels like a knockdown, drag-out fight. There is a time and place for pace-based run sessions, but your easy runs, general endurance runs, and tempo runs – most of these will be following your heart rate and not the pace. The reason this is important? You want to make sure you are targeting the appropriate energy systems when performing your runs. If you find yourself drifting out of Zone 2 for most of your runs, even easy runs, you are fatiguing your body more than is necessary. When it comes time for hard days and workouts (race season) you will have a harder time tapping into these higher energy systems because your body never fully has a chance to recover properly.
Heart Rate Guide for Running
General Endurance Runs: your pace should be about 20-40% slower than your threshold pace. Your target heart rate is 70-87% of your rTHR. These values will correlate with Zone 2. *Important to note that heart rate can drift up over time, so you will want to start your endurance runs at the lower end of the heart rate range so there is room for it to drift up without going above 87% of rTHR.
Easy Runs: keep these runs aerobic within heart rate Zones 1-2. The intensity should simply be a relaxed conversational pace throughout. You want to keep your turnover (cadence) up, but avoid pushing too hard.
Tempo Runs: Tempo efforts should be performed at the low end of Zone 4. This being said, many coaches will base tempo runs off of the pace, if not using heart rate. In this case, the effort for tempos can be your half-marathon or lactate threshold pace. Depending upon the length of the tempo, if you are using heart rate as a guide, be aware as stated in the general endurance run section, that your heart rate will drift. Starting off at the lower end of your heart rate zone can ensure that you will be able to stay within your heart rate parameters by the end of the effort.
On the days we feel good when running, the urge to push the pace will inevitably want to kick in. If you are trying to get the most out of yourself and your running, it is important to recognize these urges and to ignore them by focusing on the intention of the run you are performing. Using heart rate is a great way to help you stay focused and on target to hit your goals and to see continued improvement in your running abilities.
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Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.
McGehee JC, Tanner CJ, Houmard JA. A comparison of methods for estimating the lactate threshold. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):553-8. doi: 10.1519/15444.1. PMID: 16095403.