Heart Rate Training - The Basics

A short, foolproof guide to training by heart rate

Posted: 5 June 2002
by Sean Fishpool

How To Find Your Maximum Heart Rate

A heart rate monitor can help to ensure that you don’t work too hard – or take it too easy! – in training sessions. Depending on the session, your target heart rate will be anywhere between 60 and 95% of your maximum.

To know your target heart rate though, you’ll need to know your maximum. If you’re very overweight or a complete beginner, it’s best to use the very approximate formula of 214-(0.8 x age) for men and 209-(0.9 x age) for women to estimate your maximum.

Unfortunately for 5-10 per cent of the population this figure can be wrong by up to 24 beats per minute. It’s much better to find your maximum through running. Do this by warming up, then running as fast as you can evenly for three minutes (ideally on a treadmill), then resting with two or three minutes gentle running, then repeating your three minute maximal run. During your second run you should get a higher maximum heart rate than with any other method – though use your heart rate monitor to take readings throughout it, as your heart rate may peak before the end.

What Heart Rate To Train At

There are three broad training zones:

  • 60-75% – easy
  • 75-85% – moderate
  • 85-95% – hard

But… don’t fall foul to a common misconception: these aren’t percentages of your overall maximum heart rate – they’re percentages based on your working heart rate. It makes a big practical difference to a regular runner. It’s easy to do, but it takes more explanation than most gyms want to deal with.

How To Find Your Training Zones

  1. Find your maximum heart rate (see above) eg 206
  2. Find your resting heart rate (laying still, soon after you wake up. Ideally take an average over a few days). eg 56
  3. Subtract the resting rate from the maximum. This figure is your working heart rate. eg 206-56=150
  4. Take whatever percentage of your working heart rate that you’re aiming for (eg 60% for an easy run eg 150x0.60=90), and add it to your resting heart rate eg 90+56=146. The final figure is your personal target heart rate.

Sample Sessions

  • 60% Recovery run – dead slow. It may feel biomechanically odd at first, but it’s important. 30-40 minutes.
  • 60-70% Long, slow runs – up to 65% the body is teaching itself to burn fat as fuel (useful for marathons). Anything from 1-3hrs.
  • 70-85% Fartlek – speedplay (moderate-paced runs with random fast bursts). 30-60 minutes.
  • 70-85% Undulating route – peak at 85% on the climbs. 30-90 minutes.
  • 85% Anaerobic threshold run (or ‘tempo run’) – this teaches your body to run hard for long periods. Approximately 10-mile to half-marathon race pace. Sample session: 1.5 miles at 60%, then 15-20 mins at exactly 85%, then 1.5 miles at 60%.
  • 85-90% Approx 5K-10K pace. Sample sessions: 6 x 800m peaking at 90% in each rep; 5 x 2000m peaking at 85% in each rep.
  • 95% Peak heart rate at 400m rep pace (not full-out race pace). Sample session: 12 x 400m with 200m jog recoveries, making sure recovery heart rate drops to at least 70%.

NB: you can’t usefully use a heart rate monitor to pace intervals below 1000m – rather, the figures above 85% are a guide to what you can expect to reach at the end of each repetition.

If The Target Pace Seems Way Too Slow…

  1. You may not be using an accurate maximum heart rate (if you’ve estimated it). Add 12 beats your theoretical maximum and try the calculations again.
  2. You may be using percentages of your maximum heart rate rather than your working heart rate (see above).

Previous article
10 Guaranteed Ways To Burst With Motivation
Next article
Hard works

HRM, heart rate, heart rate monitor

Discuss this article

I took my resting heart rate yesterday for the first time in a couple of months.
Last time I took it: 72 bpm
Yesterday: 62 bpm

I was very pleased that my RHR has come down and I presume it is because I've got fitter, but could it be a reason for concern at all?

I'd be interested to know what you more experienced runners' RHRs are.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 06:02


A low RHR is generally a reasonable indicator of fitness (stronger heart = less beats to supply body's needs) however a number of experts believe that it is the speed with which the heart slows again after exercise that is a more reliable indicator of fitness.

Looking at your RHR can be a good indicator of overtraining and/or illness. You should monitor your RHR every morning before getting out of bed - if it is significantly higher on one day then perhaps best not to train.

Average rates for men and women are different (I'm not sure what the average is but 72 is often bandied about). My RHR is currently 40.

Remember that heart rates can be adversely affected by heat.

This is a huge topic and once you get hooked on heart rates and exercise it can be quite addictive.
Posted: 27/08/2002 at 07:26


I have also witnessed my RHR drop as I have become fitter and my current average RHR (taken 1st thing in the morning) is about 40bpm give or take a couple

On my last visit to the docs he did inform me that I had a large left ventricle but it was nothing to be worried about – which was good as I was in with a suspected heart attack – turned out to be reflux :o)

A decrees in RHR along with a decrease in the time it takes your HR to recover after intense exercise can be good indicators of improvement in general fitness.


Posted: 27/08/2002 at 10:12

Beth: I agree with Martin and Will; it is usaually a good sign that you are getting fitter and that your heart doesn't need to beat as fast to supply the same blood flow as it did before (the heart is a 'muscle' really and is responding to the training it has been receiving by you getting out of breath). Well done!

Martin: How do measure your recovery rate? I have a HRM and am interested in know how to do this properly. I usually finish a run at about 140 ish and start stretching. After a minute I check my HRM, if it is around 100 then I think that I am doing ok.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 11:29


I have a function on my HRM that measures recovery speed – you set the upper and lower limits and it measures the time to recover from one to the other – I use this mainly on interval or hill session with walk recoveries where I have the upper set at about 170bpm and the lower at 120bpm – So I measure how long (In Seconds) it takes my HR to recover by 50bpm

PS I use a Cardiosport ultima to do this – when I use to use my Polar I had to watch the display as it did not capture this info.


Posted: 27/08/2002 at 11:38

In three months of running my resting HR has fallen from 60ish to between 47 and 53. If I've had too much to drink the night before I've noticed that it causes it to be elevated as high as 65 - which is quite scary.

I think it's quite suprising how quickly your heart adapts to the exercise. I thought it would take years of training rather than months to make a significant difference to your RHR.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 12:07

Beth -- I used to be a cardiac nurse and I would say that the difference in 3 months in your RHR is fine (as the others have said) but a better indicator of cardiac health would be how quickly the HR recovers following exercise. I'm not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination but I think (not sure) between 1-2 mins is generally viewed as being a good recovery time. I know my HR returns to it's resting state in about 3 mins because I'm not entirely fit yet (getting there).

Also another indicator is your blood pressure - athletes find that their blood pressure is alot lower than the average Joe's because the heart doesn't have to work as hard to maintain the same level of cardiac output. For example, my blood pressure used to be 140/90 but it is currently 110/60 but I fully expect it to drop further and wouldn't be at all surprised if it is as low as 90/50.

The main thing to remember with heart rates and blood pressures is, there isn't usually any cause for concern unless there are other symptoms as well. Sportsmen and women do occasionally have heart problems but this is more often than not due to congenital (inherited) problems rather than the effects of their sporting exercise regime.

Will --- If someone told me I had a huge left ventricle I think I would be extremely pleased - it means your heart can shift more blood with each pumping action. I bet you rarely suffer with the lactic cramps.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 12:21


I don't tend to monitor recovery heart rate (I'm sure there are some prescribed formula), however, as with RHR you should monitor it over time i.e. after 60 seconds and this will then tell you whether you are improving or not and will also indicate (as with RHR) whether you are ill, overtrained etc.

WW's idea is also one suggested way of monitoring intervals i.e. don't start the next until you rate reaches a certain level.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 12:23

Thanks everybody! I will start to make a note of my HR after 1 minute and again after 2 mins. This way I will be able to spot a trend.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 12:28

My resting rate is around 43 bpm.
To measure my recovery rate, like Will, i use a Cardiosport but i have to keep looking at my watch for the time. I did a hard session last Thursday - 4 minutes at 85% WHR, 2 mins recovery slow jog. It took me about 30 seconds from recovery when i was around 134 bpm up to 85%, then about 40 seconds back down below 140 when my Cardiosport started beeping again.

Posted: 27/08/2002 at 12:31

Thanks everyone. I will take my heart rate after 1 and 2 minutes recovery.
I appreciate your advice and am glad that there is a nurse on the forum for that professional opinion!
Posted: 27/08/2002 at 14:47


Funnily enough I don’t suffer from lactic cram and have found over a 10k race I can maintain a very high heart rate (92-94%MHR) for the full race, which for me at the moment is around 48mins


Posted: 27/08/2002 at 14:59

My heart rate is about 160bpm right after a 20 min run around my local park. I just quite smoking, im 19 and dont class myself as fit .....yet. Im hoping to run the london marathon in 2005, so i gotta make myself super fit, and invest in a heart monitor.
Posted: 16/01/2004 at 16:03

Well done on starting to regain your health.
Just it take it nice and easy in these early days and don't be afraid to walk!

Posted: 16/01/2004 at 16:22

I've just sarted using a HRM and I'm finding it really useful - particularly helping me not feel depressed that everything was a struggle - I was spending too much time at 90%! My one query is, in training schedules I often see runs at marathon pace, but as I'm training for my first marathone, what should my heart rate be for race pace? I'm following the 5.00 schedule.
Posted: 19/01/2004 at 10:45

Hi all,
I've recently found this site and have been really interested to hear what you have all have to say. What a friendly bunch! I'm doing a half marathon in march and a full marathon in june. I have already done the half marathon distance (actually did 14.5 miles!) I noticed that during running my heart rate is around 160-180. My resting heart rate is around 60. It usually takes me a couple of minutes for my heart rate to come back down to normal level once finishing exercise. Does this sound ok? I'm 24 and i would say reasonably fit.
Posted: 15/02/2004 at 11:31

Hard to say, Richard. The crucial figures are percentages, not absolute numbers.

You need to take your resting hr, and find your max. Max hr minus resting hr gives you your heart rate range, from which you calculate your percentages.

Example: my resting is 40, max 178. Deduct min from max and my heart rate range is 138.

Today's long run came in at an average of just under 70 per cent of hr range. The 70 per cent figure is more important than the number of beats (133).

Your hrm manual will have more info on this. Or try John L Parker's Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot.

Hope this helps!
Posted: 15/02/2004 at 14:37

I'm looking to buy a heart rate monitor, but I'm finding it difficult to find any objective reviews or recommendations. The Runner's World list doesn't really recommend any particular one.

I want one with a good selection of functions, but it doesn't need to be top of the range as I probably wouldn't be downloading info to a computer etc.

Any suggestions or recommendations? I appreciate any help with this.

Posted: 14/04/2004 at 14:27

I have a Polar M52 which satisfies my number crunching nerdiness without being OTT. I think they cost about £60 nowadays, bought mine over 2 years ago.

Polar are good in the gym as most machines are compatible, but I know CardioSport are also rated by some folks.
Posted: 14/04/2004 at 14:53

I have just not long purchased a Polar FT40 to help me train for my first marathon. I followed Runners World advice on finding my working heart rate but seem to hitting 80 - 90% without even trying. Can anyone advise me where I'm going wrong? My 10k time is 50 mins and my half marathon time is I.57.
Posted: 19/02/2010 at 18:42

How did you find your max ? If its 220-your age, then its often wrong - your real max will be higher than that.
Posted: 19/02/2010 at 18:46

No, I didn't do that, I followed the Runners World advice above to get my working heart rate and when I was finding I was reaching my upper limit very quickly I even added 12 beats as advised but I'm still finding my monitor is telling me I'm at over 90% of my rate but I don't feel as though I'm working  too hard, the opposite really. I must be going wrong somewhere!
Posted: 20/02/2010 at 18:14

I bought a HRM yesterday, a SUUNTO T1. i have been doing a lot of research on how to train. through running, i want to loose weight, but i also want to become fit. i have been training for a couple of months now and i am seeing some results. however, yesterday using my HRM, my average HR was 173, 88% of MHR (195),over 45 mins and it felt like any other day training. my hr went from zone 1 to zone 3 in 20 minutes, and i spent the next 27 minutes above zone 3. i had a hard time, but i could maintain the pace.i have all this data, but how do i turn it into information? how do i set up a training plan or shedule?any advise?


Posted: 20/10/2010 at 14:40

This is an old thread, but just wondered, are there any watches nowadays, that have 100% accuracy for heart rates, without the straps?

Posted: 12/09/2016 at 13:55

We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.