DIY Heart Rate Zone Assessment

By January 15, 2016Challenge 2016

heartrate The key to getting the most out of training via effort (HRM) is understanding your heart is unique. There are a lot of variables that affect heart rate including your size, gender, age, and fitness level, as well as altitude and medications. An unfit heart will beat faster than a fit one; women’s hearts tend to be smaller and have higher heart rates than men…

The best strategy for learning to use your monitor with purpose is to keep it simple.

Start to wear it around the house and during your runs. Get familiar with how your heart rate elevates and declines and what makes it do so. Before you put meaning to the numbers, just be with the numbers first.

Next, you can begin to understand how the numbers correlate to your current fitness. That is, what do the numbers mean, and how do you use them to train at the right effort level that day?

Why formula’s don’t work.

In the past, we used to recommend performing a maximal or submaximal test to figure out your highest possible heart rate and develop training zones based on this number. And if you weren’t able to do this test (it is not fun), then we would use a formula that would estimate your maximum heart rate. The problem with this formula is it can be off by quite a bit (20 beats) and it just isn’t accurate the vast majority of the time. We’ve evolved to using better options.

The current gold standard for heart rate assessment.

The current gold standard method is to find your lactate threshold (redline), or the point at which you shift from using a higher percentage of oxygen to glycogen due to the demands of the higher intensity activity. Or, as I like to describe it, the point at which you begin to ask yourself, “When is this going to end?”

Once you find the redline (which shifts with fitness) you base your training zones (easy, moderate, hard) on this threshold and thereby begin to train and race based on what is going on metabolically (good stuff). Knowing where that redline is will allow you to train below it for easy to moderate runs and at or above it for high intensity workouts. Plus, smart runners, like yourself, will learn to tune into their bodies while they train and get a sense of what each level feels like regardless of the pace.

The reason I love this way of determining effort zones is because it is easy to do anywhere, it gives you personalized and accurate heart rate zones based on your current fitness, and it allows you to fine-tune your training and progress more rapidly. The key is to perform the assessment throughout your training to continue to tweak your zones as you gain fitness (or lose it).

How does the assessment work?

So, how exactly do you find your redline? There are a few ways. One, you can pay for a VO2 test at a gym or sports medicine facility. Two, you can DIY with this modified version of an assessment created by Carl Foster and Sally Edwards in their new book, Be a Better Runner.

Although it may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, it will become quite clear where your redline is with some practice. This may seem too simple, but it has been proven quite effective in research. I also happen to like this method because it guides you into learning what it feels like, is easy to perform, and is great for newbies who may be unfit and unable to perform the more standard 20-minute hard-effort protocol.


Follow the instructions below. It is recommended to perform this assessment on a treadmill. It’s best to perform this assessment when you’re fresh rather than fatigued.

  1. Have a pad a paper handy and pen to write down the speed at every interval, the heart rate, and how you feel.

  2. Warm up by walking easy for three minutes. Begin to tune into your breath and watch your pace.

  3. Pick up the walking pace for two more minutes, again tuning into your breath.

  4. Recite the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (or any 3 sentences you know by heart like a prayer or quote) out loud, paying close attention to your breath and how easily you are able to speak the words.

  5. Increase the speed to a very easy run (very easy) for two minutes and recite the Pledge again at the end of this set.

  6. If you can recite it easily—increase the speed by .3 mph, and run for two minutes at that speed, and at the end, then recite your message (sentences) out loud again. If it’s still easy, repeat this step again (speed up y .3 mph, run, speak out loud).

  7. When you reach the point at which you can no longer say the words out loud easily, you are at, near, or close to your red line. This is also the point many describe as “comfortably hard,” an effort where you can hear your breathing but you’re not gasping for air.

  8. Once found, make note of your heart rate, pace, and, most importantly, how it feels.

Note for walkers: Start this assessment with a very easy walk and follow the progression with walking speed. If you reach your fastest walking speed before you reach your redline, continue to increase the intensity by increasing the incline by 1% every 2 minutes.

Calculate your zones.

Once you find your threshold, calculate your training zones based on this number. Foster and Edwards refer to this number as your anchor point or your 100 percent. From this number calculate your training zones:

Zone 1: 60-70% of threshold heart rate

Zone 2: 70-80% of threshold heart rate

Zone 3: 80-90% of threshold heart rate

Zone 4: 90-100% of threshold heart rate

Zone 5: 100-110% of threshold heart rate

For example, if your threshold heart rate is 130, your Zone 4 is between 117-130 (130 x 90% and 100%).

Plug in your zones into your training device.

On most apps, heart rate monitors and GPS devices, you can enter customized heart rate zones. Simply find this in your settings on your app or device, then plug in your zones. It’s best to re-assess every four to six weeks when in training for an event.

Correlate your assessment results with Coach Jenny’s Color Zone Training System

If you follow my training, then you know I use an easy three Color Zone Training System. I color code each of the three zones, and then have my runners learn to train by feel. This allows them to learn to run truly easy, moderate or hard on any given day, and in any condition.

Once you find your redline, you can determine three effort zones for training.

The easy Yellow Effort Zone is well below your redline and an effort where you can easily talk out loud without reaching for air. This zone is for easy or longer runs.

The Orange Effort Zone is between the top of the Yellow Zone and just below your redline. It’s an effort that is outside your comfort zone, and one where you can talk anywhere from a sentence to only in a few words at a time.

The Red Effort Zone is the effort that is above your redline, and one where you can’t speak at all, and your breathing is vigorous and labored.


  • Shecop3033 says:

    I will give this a whirl this week on my easy run…or at least what I hope will be easy

  • I’m looking forward to trying this. So far other ways a figuring out my HR zones haven’t worked correctly. I’m currently using a max from a 3 sprint test but today on my long run I was able to hold a conversation while my watch had me in zone 4. That kind of thing happens a lot.

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