Updated: August 28th, 2021
How to start running with heart rate zones: Train smarter not harder

When discussing heart rate (HR); we literally mean how fast your heart beats per minute (BPM). As simple as that. What’s beautiful is that everyone’s HR is so completely different, yet this training method is inclusive for all. How?

Your HR reflects how hard your body has to work to complete the task at hand; its job is to pump oxygenated blood around to the working parts of the body, so for example; a 100m sprint that requires A LOT of energy and oxygen fast will increase your HR instantly and significantly in comparison to a long leisurely walk with the dog (unless you have to sprint after the dog!).

So whether you are a seasoned runner looking to increase athletic prowess or a beginner who is struggling to run for 10 minutes; this training method is for you! And I promise you; it works!

Fitness watch for running

Because unless you have hired a run coach, working with a training plan based on your heart rate, is one of the best ways to improve your running performance and minimize your chances of injury.
Regardless of your run goals whether it’s going faster or longer, using heart rate will ensure you reach it; working smarter, not harder.

Okay, there are a few things to note when discussing heart rate; with four key aspects to understand and utilise to the best of your ability (to reach your goals):

  1. How to calculate your heart rate (the dos, don’ts and methods for best accuracy)
  2. Heart rate zones for exercise (an easy follow guide, with athletic benefits in each zone)
  3. How to measure your heart rate (everything you need to set you up for your HR-focused runs)
  4. Resting heart rate (and what your body is trying to tell you)

Which I will take you through, step by step – Let’s get straight to it, shall we?

Man taking his pulse rate

How to calculate your heart rate

To start a plan with HR focus, you need to calculate your own maximum heart rate (the amount of BPM your heart makes under maximal effort – such as that 100m sprint we mentioned earlier). Your heart rate maximum (HRM) is the benchmark to then calculate the rest of the zones for your training. As the HRM tells the maximum output your body can produce, we don’t want to be working at that level, risking overexertion for an entire training plan (remember, work smarter not harder).


There are several ways to measure your HRM with a simple mathematical sum. The most common being the Fox formula:

220 – [your age] = your HRM

However, it is important to note that the target HR formulas used for decades are derived from research on men, and women require a specifically different approach, as generally women tend to have a 5-to-10-beat higher maximum HR than men. Martha Gulati’s research agrees, concluding”the traditional estimate of the maximum heart rate for age with exercise, based on a male standard, appears to be an overestimate in women.”

Thus, she proposes a female-specific HRM formula in her 2010 study as:

206 – (0.88 *your age) = HRM

Additionally, there is the Fairburn method which understands the differing sum for males and females due to physiological differences, the formulae are:

Female: 201-(0.63*age) = HRM
Male: 208 – (0.80*age) = HRM

Here is an example to conclude the three above formulae methods. My maximum heart rate as a 28-year-old female would be:

  • Formula 1: (known as Fox formula) 220-28= 192 HRM
  • Formula 2: (known as Gulati formula) 206 –(0.88*28)= 181 HRM
  • Formula 3: (known and Fairburn formula) 201-(0.63* 28) = 183 HRM
  • If I were a 28-year-old male my HRM would result as:

  • Formula 1: (known as Fox formula) 220-28= 192 HRM
  • Formula 3: (known and Fairburn formula) 208 – (0.80*28) 186 = HRM
  • So you can see the disparity between male and female HRM benchmarks? If, as a female, I was to use the Fox formula, then the zones would be harder work than biologically required of me; and even increasing the risk of injury or burnout.

    However if a calculation doesn’t quite cut it for you, you want something more specific, then there are others options, don’t panic! However, for the rest of these tests, you either require a Heart rate monitor or the ability to count your speedy pulse.

    20 -minute test

    The aim here is to go hard, considering the test here is to find your maximum capacity. Generally speaking, as you start, the initial 3 minutes will rocket your heart rate to approximately 90% of HRM and beyond 95% within 10 minutes (remember, we want to hit your maximal effort so don’t hold back).

    To help, pick up the pace for the last half a mile (or kilometre) where you feel you can’t possibly maintain it, then final 200m sprint finish; your HR at the finish will no doubt, be your heart rate maximum.

    *Note: This will require some time to recover from, so better reserve this effort for an actual race, or a time where you can have a few days off afterwards.

    Sprinting man on a beach

    The 4×2 test

    Based more on VO2 max-type of training, the idea is to not let our body fully recover by having a shorter rest interval than the work/speed interval:

    • 2-minute maximum effort
    • 1-minute rest
    • X 4 rounds

    After the second round, your HR will start to peak, and after the third, you will almost have reached your maximum, so keep pushing – maximal effort, please!

    Air phase of running on track

    Laboratory testing

    A much more formal (and accurate) way to calculate maximum heart rate would be to take a supervised laboratory test. (Also known as VO2 max test) pushing you to the absolute maximum.

    You run on a treadmill with constantly increasing speed until complete exhaustion, you wear a mask to help collect more data (such as oxygen intake). Throughout the test, a lot of data is gathered about your current fitness including the speed of lactate build-up (usually by taking a finger-prick blood sample in intervals whilst running).

    VO2 max tests are always supervised by an exercise physiologist or cardiologist and/or other personnel, which makes it a much safer environment than a field test. Advised for professional athletes over a beginner to running. Beginners may not even get the full benefit from the test. As it requires a lot of mental strength because such a level of suffering is hard to maintain.

    V02 Max lab test

    To sum up, if you are new to running or want to experiment with heart rate training, then I would advise you to stick with the formula approach to calculate HRM, the field tests are not fun, Beginners quit or slow down long before reaching their maximum capacity, giving you false results, and nobody wants that.

    Now you have your HRM calculated, we head onto the next steps, figuring out your exercise zones and how to measure your heart rate whilst on the run.

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