Heart Rate Training: RPE For Endurance Athletes

Coming up with systems to track training intensity is important for any athlete. With a reasonable system in place for tracking intensity you can guarantee your hard workouts are hard, your easy workouts are easy, and that you are getting the exact training stimulus you desire out of every single session.

Lifting utilizes intensity rating systems like percentages, RPE (Ratings of perceived exertion), and RIR (Reps in reserve). However, while technically “usable” these systems tend not to translate well when it comes to endurance training (If you thought giving an RPE rating to your set of 5 reps on squats was hard try being as objective as possible rating the entirety of your 2 hour trail run).

This is where heart rate training comes in play. Heart rate training is an easy to use intensity rating system, mainly for endurance and conditioning based training, and can be accomplished using a device that is probably on your wrist right now.

What Is Heart Rate Training?

Heart rate training is exactly what it sounds like. Using your heart rate…as a training metric (really shocking stuff I know).

This is easily done through the use of any heart rate monitor and thanks to the plethora of smart watches out there, a majority of you probably have one on your wrist right now. Keep in mind while most fitness watches are decently reliable when it comes to tracking heart rate, if you want to get rid of a majority of the margin of error consider pairing a heart rate monitor that goes around your chest with your watch for the best results possible.

Don’t want to shell out for a fancy watch? You don’t have to. A lot of heart rate monitor chest straps will pair directly to your phone, no watch needed.

Once you have something to monitor your heart rate with, heart rate training is then divided into 5 different zones (based on different percentages of your max heart rate) and you can use these different zones to get a solid gauge of where your intensity level is at.

The Different Heart Rate Zones:

You may see some variation depending on where you look in terms of the values for the different heart rate zones, but most charts should look as follows.

  • Zone 1 (Very Light Effort): 50-60% of MHR (Max Heart Rate), example- brisk walking
  • Zone 2 (Light Effort): 60-70% of MHR example- basic steady state conditioning, light jog
  • Zone 3 (Moderate Effort): 70-80% of MHR example- tempo run
  • Zone 4 (Hard Effort): 80-90% of MHR example- H.I.I.T, interval training
  • Zone 5 (Max Effort): 90-100% of MHR, example- all out effort, the hardest thing you’ve ever done

There are various formulas that can be used for “guessing” your MHR:

  1. Fox Formula: 220 minus your current age (Simple but archaic formula)
  2. Hunt Formula: 211 – (0.64 * your age) (Used for active men and women)
  3. Tanaka Formula: 208 – (0.7 * your age) (Used for general pop men and women)

Benefits of Utilizing Heart Rate Zones:

Heart rate zones provide reliable feedback for your current intensity level outside of how you subjectively “feel“. This can allow you to push your workout if it’s too easy, or reign yourself back in if you are too hot out of the starting gate.

For example, say your intended workout for the day is hard sprint intervals around the track. On your first two efforts you notice you haven’t even cleared a Zone 2 effort. This would indicate you still have a lot more to give and should bump up the intensity for your following reps if you want to get the desired stimulus out of your training.

On the flipside you could have a long 2 hour jog planned for the day and 10 minutes in you notice your heart rate is already at Zone 4. With that in mind it’s probable you aren’t going to finish your run at your current pace and should ease up on the gas to save your workout.

This is not to say that your heart rate should be the only training variable you consider, it’s just more data to work with to help you gauge your current intensity.

Taking Heart Rate Training One Step Further: 

Not only can heart rate training be used to monitor your current workout, it can also be used to program all of your future workouts.

Just like RPE is often utilized in strength programming the heart rate zones can be used in the exact same manner.

You’ll often see it written something like 90 minute run (zone 2). Or tempo run 10 mins (zone 2) 20 minutes (zone 3) 10 minutes (zone 2). This makes endurance programming accessible to a larger degree of the population because you don’t have to worry about plotting out exact mileages or paces, but can instead let your heart rate guide the majority of your programming. The more advanced programming becomes the more you’ll begin to combine all three elements.

To help you along if you are interested in writing your own endurance programming here are some suggestions for the use of each zone:

Zone 1: Low stress training or recovery days, this is an effort you could maintain almost indefinitely.

Zone 2: Zone 2 makes up the bulk of  training for longer endurance efforts, think half marathons and up. Staying patient and staying in zone 2 can help you extend your workouts further than you may have thought possible. Perfect for long runs, bikes, swims, etc.

Zone 3: Zone 3 is used for prolonged efforts that require an increased pace, think a tempo run lasting around 30 minutes. This is excellent for harder training days but still keeps you at a sustainable effort.

Zone 4: Zone 4 efforts put you into “interval” territory. This can be used for threshold efforts to prepare for races or competitions or longer hard “interval” efforts with appropriate rest in between.

Zone 5: This is true max effort. Something you wouldn’t be able to sustain for longer than around 5 minutes. Think sprints, race or competition efforts, anything that requires you to go all out.



Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.