Heart rate based training for marathon running

What is Heart rate based interval training?

Heart rate based interval training is becoming increasingly popular for athletic training. Thanks to the advancement in accurate and inexpensive heart rate monitors, you are able to enhance your aerobic capacity, without overexerting your muscular and skeletal systems. The American college of sports medicine recommends, “aerobic exercise should be performed three to five days a week for 20 to 60 minutes at an intensity that achieves 55 to 90 percent of the maximum heart rate and 40 to 85 percent of the maximum oxygen uptake reserve“. Having a strong aerobic system can lead to further goal setting including running back to back half marathons and personal records. Let’s get started on your heart rate zones.

How to calculate your max heart rate

Your maximal heart rate (MHR), often used by the American Heart Association, is historically calculated by your age. For example, if you are 35 years old you take,

220 – 35 (age) = 185 bpm, as your maximal heart rate.

If you notice your heart rate is above your maximal heart rate, you may be overtraining. A spike above your maximal heart rate may also indicate fatigue or illness. Listening to YOUR body, and monitoring your heart rate helps you develop your training plan, and when you may need to incorporate more recovery.

Your ‘target heart rate’ (THR) is calculated by multiplying a percentage of intensity by your maximal heart rate (MHR). You can also use Heart rate zone calculators for your zones, which is often times the easiest to establish your “zones”. So let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far, and why does it even matter? In training for an endurance event, like running a full marathon-

You can base your training runs on,

heart rate based training
  1. Your pace- which is probably the most common training method. Your coach may tell you to “Run 6 miles at 9:45 min/mile conversation pace”, if trying to achieve a marathon under 4 hours.
  2. Perceived exertion- similar to heart rate based interval training, but this is a subjective assessment. Your coach may tell you to “Run 6 miles at what you feel to be an intensity of 7-8 on a 1-10 scale”. Or,
  3. Heart rate based intervals- this is an objective way to train. You can actually see what your heart rate is in real time and adjust your pace accordingly. Your coach may instruct you to “Run 6 miles in your ‘yellow aerobic zone’ which is 80-92% of your max heart rate”.


Recovery is your GREEN training zone- 65-70% of MHR

This is your aerobic heart rate zone in which you can maintain a conversation. This recovery is often the most neglected area of training in running. Recovery gives your tendons, joints and ligaments the time to adapt to the stress you’re putting on your body. The ‘green training zone’ maintains a lower heart rate, with low waste product build up and is used for endurance and overall fitness. This conversation paced running, is SO important to your training and prevention of injury! So enjoy those “slow” miles.


Endurance is your YELLOW Training zone in which you reach your lactate threshold- 80-92% of MHR

Lactate threshold is the border between low and high intensity work. It is the level of intensity of exercise that causes lactate to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. This is the heart rate based training effort in which you are able to only complete sentences, rather than paragraphs. You’re now stepping up your intensity to an 80-92% of your maximal heart rate. You should feel a perceived effort of about 7-8 on a 1-10 scale.


This is your ORANGE heart rate zone- 80-95% of MHR

This is “race pace” for many. The pace in which you can sustain for about one hour, thus a 5K or 10K. You should feel like your perceived effort is about a 8-10 on a 1-10 scale. This zone feels comfortably hard.

VO2 Max

This is your RED Heart rate zone 92-100% of MHR

VO2 max, or peak oxygen uptake, is the maximal amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. Think of your red heart rate zone where you can no longer speak more than a few words at a time. Interval training pushes you faster for shorter periods of time. You are running out of breath!

heart rate based training

Anaerobic This is your maximum effort

Anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’. You should not spend a lot of time training for a marathon in your anaerobic zone. This is often a hard concept to adapt as a novice. Many athletes love to test their limits, but this is your all out, ‘sprint-to-the-finish-line’ zone. The anaerobic zone is limited to 30-90 ‘all out’ seconds. If you notice your training is spending time in this anaerobic zone, hold your horses and slow down!

Heart rate based interval training may seem like a head spinning analysis of numbers. Rather it can be used as a Tool to reach your full potential.

Early as a novice runner, let your coach guide you and your body decide what Feels best to you. Use your heart rate as a tool to either speed up and push your limits, or slow down and give yourself the opportunity to recover. I hope you’re able to apply this knowledge to your next training session! After you have trained for your marathon, enjoy the travel Run-cation!

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