Updated: September 14th, 2021

After you have figured out your Maximum heart rate (MHR), using the right method for you, we move onto the next steps…

You have a few options here, you can enter it into a heart rate calculator which will calculate your heart rate zones for exercising. OR if your plan has specific percentages for your zones you might want to calculate them yourself. Don’t worry I’ll walk you through both.

Please note: if you purchase a HR focused run plan online, it will specify the percentages per zone for that particular event and plan, traditionally the zones are:

  • Zone 1: 50-60% of MHR
  • Zone 2: 60-70%
  • Zone 3: 70-80%
  • Zone 4: 80-90%
  • Zone 5: 90-100%

You can use this simple online calculator in order to find your zones out effortlessly. – However, you will require to have your resting heart rate calculated too to maximise the accuracy.

On another note, these zones can differ slightly, for example MyProCoach works with:

  • Zone 1: 68-73% of MHR
  • Zone 2: 73-80%
  • Zone 3: 80-87%
  • Zone 4: 87-93%
  • Zone 5: 93-100%

And coincidently also have their own Zone calculator for their training plans. Pick what plan and zone percentage are right for you, if you are new to running and HR training, then I would stick to the traditional zones, most fitness watches have this feature pre-set so for ease and simplicity, stick to your basics.

Fitness watches

If you don’t want a calculator to do it for you, then to find zone 1 50-60% of MHR the sum is:

    0.5*MHR = 50%

  • 0.6*MHR = 60%
  • That is your zone 1 parameters.

    An example with real figures: (using my MHR as 181 from Gulati formula)

  • 0.5*181 = 90 BPM
  • 0.6*181 =108 BPM

Zone 1 = 90-108 Beats Per Minute.

Understanding the HR zones

By now you have your maximum heart rate figured out. You know how many BPM your heart needs per zone, but what exactly are the zones?What’s the point in them? How do they work? Here we have a breakdown of each zone and why the body needs to incorporate all 5 to train successfully (and with minimal injury risk).

Woman running and smiling

Zone 1. VERY LIGHT/RECOVERY 50-60%

The lightest and lowest intensity zone. Training in the 50-60% MHR will be used as active recovery (to boost your recovery rate) following a resting period to get your body ready to return to training in the higher zones again.

Activities for this intensity need to be easily controlled, walking is perfect for this zone.

Zone 2. LIGHT/ENDURANCE 60-70%

This zone should feel light and somewhat low effort; you should be able to maintain this intensity for a long time.
This zone improves your aerobic ability and general endurance. It teaches your body to be better at using oxygen, burning fat or energy stores, muscular endurance and circulatory benefits.

Training at heart rate zone 2 is essential for every exercise program, remain disciplined to stick to 60-70% of your MHR and you will reap the benefits without truly realising!

Zone 3. MODERATE/TEMPO 70-80%

The work starts to get harder now, this zone is crucial to improve blood circulation, strengthening the heart and skeletal muscles – and lactic acid starts to build in this zone as 70-80% MHR is mainly used as part of tempo runs.

Sustained efforts that are harder to maintain and last for a maximum of 60 minutes benefit your lactate threshold (the point where lactate levels in your blood start to build rapidly).

Zone 4. HARD/THRESHOLD 80-90%

Your runs will be tough in this zone, you will be breathing hard and demanding the body’s oxidizing ability to step up. Training at 80-90% of MHR will improve your speed endurance (ability to run quicker for longer) and your body will be able to withstand the higher levels of lactic acid in your blood for longer – real athletic prowess.

Zone 5. MAXIMUM/VO2 MAX 90-100%

No hiding here, this is your maximum effort. Your heart, blood, respiratory system, skeletal muscles, everything is working at its maximal capacity, so much so that the lactic acid buildup means after 3 minutes you won’t be able to continue at that intensity.

90-100% is really difficult so if you are new to running, or have yourself a beginner training plan, is unlikely that you need to train at this intensity.

Heart rate zones infographic

Tools for measuring heart rate

Stopping or slowing to measure your HR every kilometre, mile or set time can get seriously tedious, especially at the end of long runs when the maths feels more complicated, or during. A hill climb when your trying to motivate yourself to the top, the last thing you need is to stop to measure your heart rate, right?

I mean, I’ve done it and it got annoying pretty quick. By all means use the counting HR method, gently lay two fingers (don’t use your thumb-it has its own pulse and that’s misleading) on one of the following pulse locations:

  • Inside of wrist, palm up, radius side
  • Under your jaw line, anterior neck
  • Inside the crease of your elbow, ulnar side
  • Inside your anterior hip, where the thigh meets hip (hands on hips your fingers usually fall to the right spot)
  • Behind your knee
  • Top of our foot, tibia side

Checking pulse

Alternatively, you can purchase the kit that does this for you:

  • Chest strap – exactly how it sounds, there is a strap around your chest with a sensor. Most commonly connecting to a watch or app and presents your data on zones whilst working. This piece of kit is somewhat dated now, as many straps wouldn’t benefit womens’ chest, and inaccuracy with sweat, loose-fitting and skin irritation qualms. Most people opt for the watch instead.
  • Polar heart rate monitor

  • Watch – everything these days can be done with a watch, even paying for your coffee so having your HR monitored daily wouldn’t be a problem for today’s technology. With most heart rate monitor watches, you can manually adjust and set the zones you will be running in too. Constant monitoring means the exact moment your HR increases on that hill – it will beep and let you know. So all you have to do is focus on getting to the top a little slower.

    Incidentally, it will measure your resting heart rate throughout the day/night, often paired with a mobile app so you can understand your runs and recovery rate.

    Most running watches now feature a heart rate monitor as standard alongside a GPS tracking system but check the fine print to be certain.

GPS Running Watches Under $200

Heart rate monitor buying advice

To be honest, like most things in running, it is all about personal preference. Some tools such as the chest strap work great for men however women seem to struggle with the fit, and more often than not, opt for the heart rate monitor watch. Also, regarding your recovery and resting heart rate – a watch is sufficient here (even in your sleep) compared to the chest strap.

If you are still unsure and want further information on the tools available, there are some awesome guides available to help you find your perfect heart rate monitor training partner.

By now, you are ready to start ‘getting in the zone’ and training smarter than ever. You know how hard to work, and what tools can help you take your running to the next level, however we are yet to understand rest and recovery.

Your resting heart rate is just as important as calculating your exercise zones, how else will you know if you are ready to go from zone 1, back up to zone 3? That’s right! – by your resting heart rate.

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