Are You Making These Heart Rate Run Training Mistakes?

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3-Zone vs 5-Zone Heart Rate Training Explained

You want to get the most out of your training for optimal running performance, right? And you know heart rate is crucial – but do we need 5 heart rate zones? The great news is that for most runners, the answer is no. We’ll dig into the simpler 3-zone heart rate training model. It might just be better for you, and it’s way easier. After all, running doesn’t have to be complicated.

First up, let’s hit the basics. A few words we’ll be using:

  • Heart rate (HR) – how many times your heart beats per minute. It increases the harder you work, to get more oxygen flowing around your body.
  • Maximum heart rate (MHR) – the theoretical maximum your heart can beat. Here’s how to calculate your maximum heart rate. 
  • Anaerobic training – when you’re using more oxygen to exercise than you’re able to take in. Also called the ‘red area’.

Obvious stuff out of the way, first. Since your heart beats faster the harder it’s working, your heart rate is your number one tool for insights into your training and performance. You can find out your heart rate by using a smartwatch, but you’ll get more accurate readings by using a chest-strap heart rate monitor.

The classic 5-zone heart rate training model was developed by Polar heart rate monitors back in the nineties when chest strap heart rate monitors first came out. The company needed a way to help runners use their heart rate data with their training, and the zones as we know them were born. If your MHR is 180, then a HR of 90 beats per minute is working at 50% (of your MHR). 

Here are the 5 zones in the basic 5-zone HR training model:

  • Zone 1: 50% – 60%, aerobic
  • Zone 2: 60% – 70%, aerobic
  • Zone 3: 70% – 80%, anaerobic threshold zone
  • Zone 4: 80% – 90%, anaerobic
  • Zone 5: above 90%, anaerobic

That’s a lot of zones, and we’re just going to get super honest: the differences between zones 1 and 2 (and 4 and 5) don’t make a big difference to the average running. So a big shout out to Steven Sealer, who reduced the model to 3-zones:

  • Zone 1: 50% – 70%, aerobic
  • Zone 2: 70% – 80%, anaerobic threshold
  • Zone 3: above 80%, anaerobic

For most runners, it really is that simple. To get started using HR in your training, calculate your maximum heart rate and take 70% of that. Go out and run with your heart rate monitor and get a feeling for what that’s like. You want to learn to read your body and know what these heart rates feel like.

Zone 1 is aerobic and you can breathe easily. Zone 2 isn’t really enjoyable, you’re breathing heavier – but you can keep going for about half an hour or so. Zone 2 is what we call the grey zone. If you’re running and you really can’t keep it going for more than a lap and your breathing’s through the roof, then you know you’re in zone 3. 

Why do you need to learn how your body feels in these zones? Let’s be honest, you don’t want to be staring at your watch the whole time you’re running – you have to watch the road, too! Just like when you’re in a car and don’t stare at the odometer the whole time you’re driving. You get a feel for what the car feels like when it’s going 30 miles per hour, and you just glance at the odometer occasionally. It should be the same for your running. 

We’ve been talking about how different HRs feel, and it’s important to note that this is different from perceived effort, which is another way to measure exertion when you’re exercising. The Bo scale of perceived exertion is based on a score of 1 to 20, and it’s a valid scientific tool used in research and hospitals. A 20 is full out, absolute max.

So, an easy run might be a 6 out of 20, just jogging along. A marathon pace might start at a 10, but finish at a 20 at the finish line because everything in your body hurts. But this perceived scale is different from heart rate, because it includes other factors such as tiredness and muscle fatigue. It can be used in conjunction with heart rate as another measure, but HR is our go-to for training.

In the full podcast episode, we dive into more details and have a few more side conversations, which may or may not be your thing.

And if the info in this blog post is up your alley, you’ll want to sign up for our newsletter. We break down all the run-speak into something digestible so you don’t have to be super running nerds like us to get the benefits. Winning.

What You Will Learn & Highlights of the Podcast

  • 02:09 3 zone HR model defined
  • 04:39 Heart rate vs perceived effort explained
  • 07:18 When should you use it and when not?
  • 10:39 How to run to feel and not use metrics/data
  • 11:40 Episode Summary with a fun car Analogy
  • And Much more!

Podcast Notable Quotables

  • “The body isn’t clever enough to know whether you are in z1 or z2 heart rate zone”
  • “Heart rate training is just like driving a car – you don’t always need to know your speed, just do most of it by feel”
  • “If you’re new to running the 3 zone model is a great place to start”
  • “If you’re running and you can’t do simple math – it’s not an easy run”

Links & Learnings


This episode is brought to you by NRG – Coaching which is Mike Trees’ coaching service. Mike coaches beginners to pros and all levels in between.

No one is too fast and no one too slow. They just want a desire to learn and improve.

They focus on 1,500m to marathon running and triathlon training.

NRG Coaching is constantly overbooked, so Instagram and this new podcast venture gives Mike and the rest of his NRG coaching team a way to reach out to more people.

Contact mike and his team for more info


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