Monitoring Running with Heart Rate

With the majority of runners using wearable technology like smartwatches, it’s worthwhile considering the use of a heart rate monitor when running. Survey results indicate that 88% of runners participating in road races use wearable technology.

Knowing the point where training turns to straining is important information. Yet, I find monitoring this point with a heart rate monitor can be inconsistent. For instance, during a run, the reading on my monitor can be so high that, if accurate, I’d be gasping for air rather than my current comfortable breathing pattern. When faced with a monitor being less than accurate, I just feel my pulse next to my trachea for six seconds and add a zero to the number of beats. This gives a fairly quick and accurate reading of my heart rate.

Despite this occasional inaccuracy, it’s very important for runners to know about establishing their Heart Rate Reserve and using heart rate information during training runs.

Establishing Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)
Exercise physiologists regard HRR as a more accurate means for endurance athletes to establish training intensities than the “220 - your age” formula, and without having to get it done in a lab.

HRR represents the number of truly available heartbeats between rest and maximum with this formula: maxHR - restingHR = HRR .

To establish maxHR, after a warmup, try running hard, straight up a hill for at least three minutes. Record your heart rate shortly thereafter every 15 seconds or so and wherever you max out is about right. Your maxHR will not likely increase with training over time.

To establish restingHR, take the average of your waking up heart rate for three mornings in a row, before you get up and about. Your resting heart rate will likely decrease with training over time and should be monitored on a monthly basis.

Example - Using this formula, for someone with a maxHR of 165 and a restingHR of 65, the HRR is 100 (165 - 65 = 100).

Establishing Training Zones
The percentage of HRR gives an indication of the type of physical response the runner can expect. Using the formula %HRR + restingHR = HR, the table below calculates the heart rate from 50 to 100% of HRR. For example, with an HRR of 100, at 60% of HRR, this runner's HR would be 125 (60 + 65 = 125 HR).

























The green zone on this graph represents a couple of important physical responses: 1) Less than 60% of HRR represents a recovery run or perhaps a good cross-training session. This type of session helps the runner recover and get ready for their next quality run. And 2) 60 - 74% of HRR represents runs that build aerobic threshold; in which the runner is “putting money in the bank” for their future running / race performance. Runs at this intensity (if they’re not too long) are fairly easy to recover from for a similar run the next day. 

The yellow zone from 75 to 84% of HRR represents the runner’s “best aerobic effort” and lactate threshold; whereby, the runner is on the verge of going into oxygen debt and breathing hard. Runs at this intensity take some time to recover from and best to do one of these runs a week. 

The red zone is above 85% HRR represents anaerobic running, in which the runner is most likely in oxygen debt and breathing hard. With the anaerobic system being much more inefficient than the aerobic system, it's like the runner tries to pay off oxygen debt with their credit card, resulting in high energy cost, earlier fatigue, and longer recovery.

Knowing these training zones is useful to the runner. They can be used to establish different training goals over the week. For example, one day the goal may be to run in the yellow zone at one’s “best aerobic effort”, then the next day, the goal is to stay in the green zone with a recovery run at 55% of HRR. Knowing where other training data, like pace and perceived exertion, sits in relation to these zones is useful. For instance, if your heart rate is in the green zone on your run, yet your pace is quicker that day, this may be a sign of increased fitness. Also, knowing these zones helps on hilly routes. For example, uphill climbs can be monitored to make sure this section is in the same zone as other sections of the route.

Thanks for reading. If you know of another way to monitor running with heart rate, please share.


A reader on Facebook commented, "For those who don't have hills available or simply want something convenient and easily measurable, I recommend the YMCA step test. I use it quite regularly with my clients."

Experiment of One Coaching searched for this test and came across this article...

A use for this test is for the person just getting into running and wanting a gauge of where their cardiovascular fitness stands.