Your Comprehensive Guide to Heart Rate Training

Devin Arrigo

Photo by Artur Łuczka on Unsplash

If you’re a runner, I’m sure you’ve heard of heart rate training before and the vast amount of benefits that come with it. So, I’m not going to bore you with the details. That said, you may not know the three best methods for actually implementing this technique into your training.

There are three main techniques I’ve used over the years to develop my aerobic engine, which is responsible for nearly 95% of endurance activities. The techniques range in difficulty — the easiest being The 220 Method and the most involved being The Lactate Threshold Test.

1. THE 220 METHOD

This is by far the easiest to use, therefore, it has the largest margin of error. When I first started HR training, this is what I used. Eventually, as I got fitter and fitter, I wanted more accurate HR zones, so I upgraded to using technique #2 and eventually #3.

Step 1: Calculate Your Maximum HR

You can estimate your max heart rate by taking 220 — your age. For example, I’m 24 years old, so my estimated max HR would look like: 220–23 = 196

Once you have your maximum HR, you can then calculate your HR training zones with the following percentages.

• Zone 1: 50–60% OF HRMAX
• Zone 2: 60–70% OF HRMAX
• Zone 3: 70–80% OF HRMAX
• Zone 4: 80–90% OF HRMAX
• Zone 5: 90–100% OF HRMAX

My HR Zones looks something like this:

• Zone 1: 98.5–119 BPM
• Zone 2: 119–140 BPM
• Zone 3: 140–158 BPM
• Zone 4: 158–178 BPM
• Zone 5: 178–197 BPM

2. The 180 Formula (MAHR)

Developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone, the ‘180 Formula’ enables athletes to find their ideal maximum aerobic heart rate (MAHR) in which to base all aerobic training. Generally, this is the most effective heart rate zone to build aerobic endurance — also known as Zone 2.

1. MAHR = 180 — your age
2. Adjust this number according to your overall health and fitness history questions below:
• a) If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
• b) If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
• c) If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), keep the number (180-age) the same.
• d) If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For me, this looks like: 180–24 = 157–5 (b. regressed in training) = 151

The 180 Formula allows you to calculate the most effective HR zone to build your aerobic endurance (Zone 2). To do this take your adjusted MAHR and subtract 10.

Zone 2 = MAHR (minus 10) — MAHR

For example, the most effective aerobic building HR zone for me (Zone 2) is between 141–151 BPM.

3. Lactate Threshold (LT) Test:

This method is by far the most accurate but also the most involved. Out of the three, this one is my favorite. I do this test every 4 or 5 weeks to ensure I’m actually progressing in my training and fitness levels.

Step 1: Find Your Lactate Threshold (LT):

Your Lactate Threshold (LTHR) determines the maximum effort/intensity you can maintain for extended periods of time.

• The Test: Run continuously at a pace you can hold for 30 minutes. The key is to not start too fast or drop off at the end. Be sure to pace constantly throughout the 30 minutes. The test should be done on a relatively flat surface with minimal to no stops. A track is most ideal.
• Record your heart rate throughout the session — this will be your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).

Next, using your LTHR, calculate your training zones using the below criteria.

• Zone 1: Less than 85% of LTHR
• Zone 2: 85% to 89% of LTHR
• Zone 3: 90% to 94% of LTHR
• Zone 4: 95% to 99% of LTHR
• Zone 5: 100% to 102% of LTHR

For example, I recently did two lactate threshold tests and in only 5 weeks saw considerable improvement!

• Test 1: 30 mins, 4.55 miles, 6’37” pace, avg. HR: 165 BPM
• Test 2: 30 mins, 4.66 miles, 6'26" pace, avg. HR: 168 BPM

In just 5 weeks, I was able to cut off 10 seconds per mile on my 30-minute max-effort pace. This led to an increase of 2 BPM in my Zone 2 heart rate — from 140–148 to 142–150. Ultimately, a great sign that I’m actually progressing and getting stronger, faster, and becoming a better runner.

Regardless of the method, your heart rate is a great way to train more efficiently and effectively, and reduce the risk of injury. Nearly 98% of my training is done in HR Zone 2, which over the past 2 years has decreased considerably. When I first started with HR training, my Zone 2 was a 10 min/mile pace. Today, that same HR zone sits at a 7:30 min/mile pace.

A true testament to the ’train slow, run fast’ philosophy!