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Heart rate training. Part 1: How to set your zones

12-Sep-18

Last updated: 03-Oct-18

By James Eacott

In the first of a three-part series, James Eacott looks at setting heart rate zones. This will be followed by how to use your heart rate zones and then how to evaluate your zones and use them in training…

Despite the obvious similarities to the largest group of long distance runners – the marathon running community – ultra runners tend to pride themselves on their difference from their vest wearing, tempo running, gel gulping cousins. And yet we’re not all that different.

One box that marathon runners tick with a thick black marker-pen is they are very conscientious with their training. Anal, almost. That’s not us. Not really. We’re much more of an organic breed. We often run on feel, don’t obsess over the numbers and take a more holistic approach to it all.

But I do believe there’s a middle ground to be had here. I’m not suggesting you all go and buy a pair of dangerously short shorts and start hitting the track every Tuesday but there’s something I think we can learn from marathon runners: the use of training zones.

Why bother using heart rate?

Training zones form a key part of successful marathon training. Very few will reach their marathon potential without setting training zones, on which they base most sessions.

You can set zones based on several variables: rate of perceived exertion (RPE), pace or heart rate, for example.

Heart rate tends to be the most common because these days we all have access to devices on our wrists that provide instant feedback on how hard or easy our cardio system is finding the current effort. It’s also a winner over pace zones because your heart rate will respond to ‘life factors’.

For example, if you’ve had a poor night’s sleep or are coming down with illness, your heart rate is likely to reflect this, and so by following your heart rate you’ll speed up or slow down to take this into account.

Whereas if your zones are pace-based, even if your body is telling you it’s fighting an infection, you’ll still chase that 06:15mm pace, or whatever it is.

So, if you’re still reading and want to know how to set your heart rate zones to optimise your training, here’s how to do it.

The Threshold Heart Rate Test

I recommend runners complete this test on a treadmill or flat trail. Whichever you choose, use the same for future tests to ensure consistency and thus the ability to see progress (or not, if training isn’t going well!).

You don’t want a technical trail where you’re going up and down and worrying about foot placement.

This is a lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) test. You could do a max HR test and work out your zones from there, but there are considerable variables which can influence your max HR on any given day (and it’s more painful).

For long distance ultra runners, knowing your LTHR is more relevant and will provide you with more accurate zones.

So, the test is super simple: a 30-minute time trial. (Note: I thought it would go without saying, but you need to wear a heart rate monitor for this test! I once had a client do it, and I hadn’t specified they needed to use their heart rate monitor. They weren’t impressed at having to retake the test. I thought it might be obvious, but just so as you’re sure!)

You must run as hard as you can for a full 30-minutes. After 10 minutes, hit ‘Lap’ on your watch. Keeping pushing until the end of the 30-minutes. The average heart rate for the last 20 minutes (from when you pressed lap until the finish) is your LTHR.

You must go hard for the entire 30 minutes, don’t cruise the first 10 and then pick it up – this will give you a lower LTHR and your zones will be off. Those first 10 minutes need to be run hard to get your heart rate up to speed.

You’ll find your first attempt at this test difficult to pace. You’ll either go off too  hard and slow or be too conservative and have too much in the tank at the end.

Run hard from the off but, if anything, err on the side of caution for the first 5 – 8 minutes. It’s easier to go off too hard so take it solid but steady to begin!

Once you’ve got your LTHR, you can work out your zones by using the following percentages. I’ve included the sums in a couple of boxes in case you’re not sure how to calculate them. Say my LTHR was 150bpm, here’s how my zones would look:

Zone % of LTHR Bottom of zone Top of zone
Zone 1 Less than 85% 115 128
Zone 2 85-89% 128 134
Zone 3 90-94% 150 x 0.90 150 x 0.94
Zone 4 95-99% 143 149
Zone 5a 100-102% 150 153
Zone 5b 103-106% 150 x 1.03 150 x 1.06
Zone 5c More than 106% 159 Max


Once you’ve set your zones, don’t just squirrel them away! They’re a great tool from which to pace some of your runs. And not just for your tough ones. They come into their own in ensuring you hold back and run easy enough on your easy days too.

I can confidently say I ran my easy runs too hard until I started using a heart rate monitor.

If you’re really anti-technology, that’s cool. But I’d suggest giving it a go just once or twice per week. I use heart rate on nearly all my runs, but I’m a bit of a geek and enjoy data.
I appreciate not everyone feels the same!

This is the first of a three-part series on heart rate zones setting. It will be followed by how to use your heart rate zones and then how to evaluate your zones and use them in training…

Your Comments On Heart rate training. Part 1: How to set your zones

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EDITHRIVAS

11:34 17-09-18

Great article. I will follow your advise and see how it goes. I am also a geek and enjoy data :)

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Endorphinrush

08:53 16-09-18

Pretty much as in my Garmin, for my LTHR of course.