Heart Rate During Training

In a previous article I discussed how my heart rate varies during ultramarathons, which was in response to a post by Greg Loomis inquiring about heart rate zones appropriate for ultramarathon training. My original article focused on racing, which was necessary since knowing how to train requires knowing how you race. Now that that that’s done, I’ll provide some insight into how I train.

It’s a little hard to nail down, since training — especially for ultramarathons — is so variable. My most intense, long workouts come from races themselves. Other weekend long runs tend to be more social and are not very strenuous. I rarely do speed work and never hit the track (although I should).

While weekend long runs are often considered the foundation of ultramarathon training, I think it’s the mid-length runs during the week that really count. (I know several runners that are at every event every weekend, but are not particularly fast). In this article, I’ll describe two typical training runs — one on the road and one on the trail — that are the core of my training.

Road training run

I lived in Chicago, IL, for four years (2002–2006) while getting my PhD at Northwestern University, and it was here that I learned to really run by training with a bunch of roadies at Universal Sole. On the road you develop turn-over and consistency, which translates into stronger running on the trail.

I hated the roads at first — mostly because they hurt — but I eventually learned to appreciate what going out for a 10-mile run meant. And as I learned to like the roads, I learned to love the trails (primarily because they seemed easier). At least half of my daily miles today are on the road.

Plotted below is a heart rate profile for typical mid-week road run, which I consider to be the “bread and butter” of my training. These are usually 60–90 minute workouts, generally run at 150–160 beats per minute (bpm) or 79–83% of maximum heart rate (MHR) at a pace of 6:30–7:30 minutes per mile.

Heart rate profile from a road training run

Click to enlarge.

Heart rate profile from a road training run

Heart rate versus distance from a recent midweek road run on the Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, DC. The 11.9-mile run took 82 minutes (6:53 pace, relatively constant), at an overall mean heart rate of 157 bpm.

Trail training run

My midweek trail runs are run at a similar intensity (150–160 bpm), but the overall pace is at least one minute per mile slower than for a road run. The graph below shows data from a trail run last week in Rock Creek Park.

Heart rate profile from a trail training run

Click to enlarge.

Heart rate profile from a trail training run

Heart rate versus distance from a recent midweek trail run in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. The 11.4-mile run took 94 minutes (8:15 pace, with a 1.25-mile interval in the middle), at an overall mean heart rate of 152 bpm.

This particular run is actually a little unusual, as I did a 1.25-mile interval on the C&O Canal towpath (which is flat and fast). This type of interval, during which I reached 180 bpm and averaged 6:10 pace, constitutes my speed work, and is about as hard and fast as I ever run (I hit 180 bpm about three times a year). I do a run like this perhaps once a week. The rest of the run was on single track trails, and is representaive of a typical trail training run.

Roads versus trails

Comparing the two profiles, the effort in the road run is generally harder and much more consistent. It is also easier to “dial-in” a heart rate, making planned workouts more precise on the road than on the trail. Running on roads is also much faster (by over a minute per mile), enabling more effective use of training time. The trail run, by virtue of hillier and more technical terrain, has natural periodicity in intensity and is thus more like a fartlek run. This can make interval training of this type easier on the trail.

Training versus racing

Comparing these data above to those from races, it is pretty clear that I generally race at a higher intensity than I train.

6 Responses to “Heart Rate During Training”

  1. Buddo says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your training and racing info. One of the things I like about trail running and the ultra scene is that the top guys are accessable. Question: have you found your paces at the same heart rates have increased? I’m asking because I’m thinking of applying your paradigm to my training, but I’m slow, wanting to get faster. Thanks.

  2. Keith says:


    I think you mean pace decrease? Certainly, yes. The more I train — especially with speedwork — the faster I can run at a given exertion. That is one of the cool things about training with a heart rate monitor.

    The idea is to train with your heart rate high, so that you can race with it low.

  3. Buddo says:

    What I was trying to ask is what you actually answered. I was trying to ask if your paces at the same heart rates have gotten faster over time as you’ve trained at that heart rate, not during an event. I ran this week with my hear rate between 150-160 and ran about 10:00 miles. I’m hoping to speed up while keeping my heart rate in the same range so that 10 can turn into 7 or 8:00 miles. Not quite sure of the best way to do this though.

  4. Keith says:


    If you can, try running in the 170s for a mile or two at a time on some of your runs. This should increase your anaerobic threshold, making you more efficient at your “basline” pace. When you return to 150—160 bpm, you should be able to run faster at the same effort.


  5. Buddo says:

    Thanks man. I really don’t know how to train. I started to run two years ago specifically to run ultras. I switched over from powerlifting to running. I went out and just started running, trying to increase my distances and soon got hurt. I then bit on the low heart rate training idea, ala Maffetone. I’m still learning. Thanks for your advice. I really appreciate it. In just a few weeks of running at 150-160 I’ve found my pace at 135-140 (Maffetone training) has increased. It’s seems fairly simple really, stress then recover, and the body adapts, becoming more efficient. Thanks a lot for your advice. Hope to meet you some day. I admire your accomplishments and ability.

  6. Keith says:


    Don’t take my recommendations as the literal truth. I just report what works for me (keep in mind that I have no formal training in this stuff). I am not necessarily saying that you are “doing it wrong.” You should do what works for you.

    I can saw with certainty, however, that periodic intense workouts will make you faster. These will also make the easier efforts — and racing — seem easier. Running with people slightly faster than you also helps. Quite simply, you have to run fast to run fast.

    Enjoy experimenting and finding what works for you. I myself am continually learning. It’s what makes this hobby fun.


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