How to Use Heart Rate Zones to Improve Your Running

Run

, by Alex Kurt

Photography by: Shi Fujikami

In our last article on Understanding Heart Rate Zones, we told you what zones are, and how to calculate yours. In this one, we’ll show you how to apply them to your training.

Now that you know your zones, how do you put them to use? The answer depends on your current fitness and your goals. We’ve consulted with Coach David Roche to draw up the following guidelines.

Using Zones: Beginners

If you want the best bang for your buck to start getting faster and fitter, there’s some truth to those headlines about Zone 2 (Z2) being the sweet spot.

“Z2 is really the sweet spot,” says Roche. “You’re getting good stimulus, and you’re not stressing the body too much.”

MORE ON ZONES: Understanding Heart Rate Zones and How They Impact Your Training

That last part is key – to develop your fitness, by far the most important factor is avoiding injury so you can stay consistent. That’s a bigger key to success than any magic workouts, diet hacks or super shoes. 

Above all, stay healthy – and that’s why, when in doubt, Z2 is a great place to hang out.

Beginner runners should still do the majority of their running – 70 to 80% – in zones 1 and 2

But what if you want to take things up a notch? 

“You have so much to gain just by getting more comfortable and more efficient at faster speeds,” Roche says. He recommends sprinkling in short Z5 efforts with low injury risk, like 5 x 30 second uphill sprints, or 10 x (1 minute fast, 1 minute easy) on flatter ground. You can do one or two of these efforts a week. Be sure to warm up and cool down with some easy running before and after the harder efforts. 

Recovery is still key. It’s important to separate harder efforts with easier days, and Roche says beginner runners should still do the majority of their running – 70 to 80% – in zones 1 and 2

STRAVA TRAINING PLANS: From 5K to Marathon

But don’t stress about hitting these percentages exactly. Roche points out that runners, especially beginners, will often slip into Z3 or Z4 inadvertently when going uphill on an otherwise easy run. 

“Embrace it,” he says. “It’s like jazz. When you aren’t running a ton of miles, you have more freedom to play, and push, and see what feels right.”

Using Zones: Intermediate

You’re a seasoned runner. You’ve finished 5Ks, half marathons, maybe even marathons or longer. 

How can you take your great base of fitness and make yourself a more efficient, faster runner?

A lot of times, runners in this category are “stuck” in that consistent, middling effort level and need to spend time on both sides of it to break free, Roche says. 

STRAVA FITNESS: Find out more

“These athletes benefit the most from ‘polarizing’ the zones,” he explains. “Do the easy stuff even easier, the hard stuff hard, and not a lot of stuff in the middle.” 

That means about 80% of your runs should still be Z1 or Z2. But those Z1 runs should be easier than you’re used to going. 

On the other side of the spectrum, incorporate a hard Z4 or Z5 effort each week. Alternate between shorter, more intense Z5 workouts like 5 x 30 second hill sprints or 10 x (1 minute hard, 1 minute easy) and longer Z4 efforts like 5 x (5 minutes at tempo effort, 3 minutes easy). 

As you get fitter, start working in longer single blocks at high Z3 or lower Z4, like 20 minutes at tempo uninterrupted. Again, don’t forget to bookend your harder effort with a Z1-2 warmup and cooldown.

Using Zones: Advanced

We get it: You’re fast. But you wan t to get even faster.

“Advanced athletes benefit the most from hanging out in Z3 and Z4,” Roche says. “They’re fit enough to spend longer periods of time there, and that’s where tons more aerobic adaptations can occur.” 

In other words, you can teach yourself to be uncomfortable for longer, which could come in handy if you’re going for a BQ – or something even more ambitious. 

RELATED: Fitness Benchmarks: an Essential Training Tool You're Probably Not Using

Start working in longer tempo sessions, like 20-30 minutes in Z4 or high Z3, or cruise intervals of 4 x 10 minutes at Z4 with 3-5 minutes easy between. The latter allows you to spend more time in Z4 than you’d be able to without a break, increasing your potential aerobic gains. 

On the flip side, if you’re at this level, you’re probably running a lot of volume – which means your injury risk is heightened and you need to pay even more attention to recovery. 

Some of the fastest runners spend the most time running easy. So let’s dispel the notion that running fast requires running hard all the time.

“Fast folks need to do 80-90% of their running in Z1 or Z2,” Roche says. “And for very high volume athletes running up toward 100 miles per week, most of that should be Z1, because when you’re super fit, Z2 can still be pretty fast, and that equals higher injury risk.” 

You heard that right: Some of the fastest runners spend the most time running easy. So let’s dispel the notion that running fast requires running hard all the time. 

Zones in Action: A Real-World Example

To illustrate how real athletes can apply zones to their training and recovery, we talked to Heather Jackson – she’s a champion Ironman triathlete who today crushes long gravel cycling races and 100-mile ultramarathons – sometimes in consecutive weeks. So if anyone knows how to leverage zones to make the most of her training, it’s her.

Stay tuned for that article – and if you want to see and use your zones on Strava, start your subscription today