Running and heart rate

May 8, 2020

By exercising at the correct intensity you can avoid both over-training and under-training, and enjoy the benefits of an effective exercise program. Your heart rate, in a single number (beats per minute) gives you an up to date and accurate report on how hard you are training and how well you have recovered. The harder you train, the faster you use energy, the higher your heart rate. Your heart rate will also tell you whether your body has recovered from your last workout – recovery is key to improved fitness and vitality, as well as to injury and illness prevention.

Runner speed work

Heart rate-based programs are based on the following:

The foundation

  1. Very easy: 60 – 65 % of your maximum heart rate (MHR). You feel as if you can maintain this pace all day long. It’s where you do your warm-up and cool-down kilometres. It’s also an excellent recovery pace when you’re jogging between speed repeats.
  2. Easy: 65 – 70 % of your maximum heart rate. Aerobic conditioning occurs at this pace. Do runs at this easy pace when you’re recovering from a hard workout the previous day. Also, maintain this pace for the early kilometres of a long run.
  3. Moderate: 70 – 80 % of your maximum heart rate. The majority of your base mileage should be done at this solid training pace. Long runs should also finish in this zone.

The foundation of the training is run at levels 1, 2 and 3, which, taken together, should account for about 80 – 85 % of your weekly total.

The heart rate quality zones

Hard: 80 – 90% of your maximum heart rate. Steady-state runs done at marathon race pace, tempo runs and tempo-pace intervals are all examples of running in this quality zone. Workouts done at this pace should account for roughly 10 to 12 percent of your weekly kilometres.

Very hard: 90 – 97 % of your maximum heart rate. Long intervals, such as 1600m repeats, 1200s, 1000s and 800s run at your 5km or 10km race pace will get you into this zone. Running at this intensity improves your VO2 max and should total 5 – 7 % of your weekly kilometres.

Full out: 98 – 100 % of your maximum heart rate. Running 400-, 300- or 200-meter repeats at anywhere from your 800-meter to 1600-meter race pace should get you into this zone. Workouts at this intensity improve neuromuscular coordination and accelerate leg turnover. Only 1 – 3 % of your weekly kilometres should be run at this level.

Always do one or two runs in zones 1, 2 or 3 after running in zones 4, 5 or 6.

There are many well-worked out training programs for different distances. The following are however key elements in any training program irrespective of the amount of kilometres trained:

Training for a 10 km race

  • Hills
  • Time trial
  • Track sessions: 400m – 1000m
  • Mid-week long run: 12km
  • LSD: 15km – 18km

Training for a 21,1 km race

  • Hills
  • Time trial
  • Track sessions: 1000m – 2000m
  • Mid-week long run: 15km
  • LSD: 21km – 25km

Training for a marathon

  • 1 X Hill session
  • 1 X Tempo run
  • 1 x Mid-week long run
  • 1 x Long run

Suggested approaches to the hill, track and fartlek sessions are as follows:


Easy warm up of 3 km and then a hard effort sprint up a hill not longer than 300 meters. The gradient of the hill should not be unrealistically steep but should allow you to “run” the 300 meters. Start off with five hill repetitions, running hard uphill and relaxed downhill. The objective of this specific session should be to run the last repetition at the same speed as the first. Work hard with your arms; imagine there are two ropes in front of you and you have to pull yourself up the hill using the ropes. It is suggested to increase the weekly repetitions by two with a maximum of twelve.


Start a track session with relaxed stretching for about 10 minutes followed by an easy warm up of at least 3 km, which must include four short sprints of about 50 meters each to stretch the legs. The track repetitions recommend in this phase, are:

Week 1 – 10 x 200 m with 200 m jog recovery between each repetition

Week 2 –   8 x 400 m with 200 m jog recovery between each repetition

Week 3 –   6 x 600 m with 200 m jog recovery between each repetition

Week 4 –   4 x 800 m with 200 m jog recovery between each repetition

Repetitions should be run as fast as possible with the last repetition being as fast, if not faster, than the first.


This can be used in conjunction with track or as a substitute for track. The warm up should be the same as for track and the session can be run on one of your regular routes. After a warm up of 3 – 4 km, pick up the pace to a near sprint for two minutes and then relax for a minute while still running. Running tempo is increased once again for say three minutes, followed by a two minute jog. A typical pattern of a fartlek session might be:

  • Two minutes hard, one minute easy
  • Three minutes hard, two minutes easy
  • One minute hard, one minute easy
  • Three minutes hard, two minutes easy
  • Two minutes hard, one minute easy
  • One minute hard, two minutes easy
  • Two minutes hard, one minute easy
  • Three minutes hard, two minutes easy, and so on.

Dr Jacques Rossouw

Jacques, recently retired, is a Sports Scientist and Biomechanical Pharmacologist, specialising in nutritional supplements and product formulation. He is also the author of numerous scientific papers and articles in popular publications.


  1. Eyestone, E. 2003. Run like an Egyptian. Runners World (September): 34.

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