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How to Lower Your Heart Rate When Running

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ How to Lower Your Heart Rate When Running

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.

Running with a low heart rate sounds like an impossible task. It can seem as though the second our running shoe hits the pavement, our heart rate goes through the roof, and we already feel out of breath. In this article, we’ll teach you how to lower your heart rate when running. 

But should you even be running at a lower heart rate? Doesn’t running harder make you stronger, fitter, and faster?

The unequivocal answer is No. 

Low heart rate training, often called Zone 2 training or aerobic training, makes you faster, fitter, and fresher than running hard. Here is a quick summary of the benefits of low heart rate training (spending 70–85% of your total training hour under your Zone 2 heart rate cap): 

  • Improved freshness in training and throughout the day
  • Increased metabolic efficiency
  • Improved ability to burn fat as fuel
  • Increased endurance and aerobic fitness

You may be wondering if it’s even possible for you to run at a low heart rate. The answer is: Yes, you can! 

Anyone can learn to run at a low heart rate, and we’ll teach you how in this post. First, we’ll cover the basics of heart rate and the factors that affect your heart rate. Then, we’ll explain why it’s better to run at a lower heart rate and what your target heart rate range should be. And finally, we’ll tell you how to piece it together: how to lower your heart rate when running. 

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Lowering Your Heart Rate When Running

How to Lower Your Heart Rate When Running:

  • What is Heart Rate?
    • Resting Heart Rate
    • Normal Heart Rate
  • 5 Reasons Why Your Heart Rate is High When Running
    • Heart Rate Training Zone Calculator 
  • How to Lower Your Heart Rate When Running
    • Patience is Key
    • Calculate Your Heart Rate Ceiling 
    • Run a Lot
    • Running Slowly Take Walking Breaks
    • Train With Short Frequent Runs
    • Design Workouts to Bring Your Heart Rate Down
    • When and Where to Run at a Low Heart Rate
    • Deep Belly Breathing
    • Run Your Smoothest Cadence
  • Factors Affecting Your Heart Rate When Running
    • What Does It Mean If My Heart Rate While Running is Abnormally High?
    • Other Heart Health Factors
  • Is it Better to Run at a Lower Heart Rate?

What is Heart Rate?

Heart rate is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. It is measured in beats per minute, or bpm. 

With each heartbeat, your heart pumps oxygenated blood throughout your body. As the oxygenated blood circulates through your body, you fuel your muscles for your activity of choice. 

Resting Heart Rate

When you are not exercising, your heart is beating at its slowest. This is known as your resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate occurs in the middle of the night when you are sleeping, and your body is as relaxed as possible. 

Normal Heart Rate

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In everyday life, your heart rate will be slightly higher than your resting heart rate since you are thinking, moving, and probably a little stressed. 

The normal resting heart rate is 60–100 bpm (beats per minute). A normal resting heart rate for endurance athletes will fall in the 50–70 bpm range.

During exercise, your heart rate will rise substantially, sometimes up to 180–200 bpm. For most beginner runners, a “high heart rate while running,” will be somewhere around 150–190 bpm, or 80–90% of their maximum heart rate.

5 Reasons Why Your Heart Rate is High When Running

Everyone starts out running with a high heart rate. Even professional runners or triathletes began their running career struggling at a high heart rate. 

Running is hard on the human body, but it can also be trained at all levels. You don’t need special equipment or expertise to become a fast, happy, and efficient runner. Before we explain how to lower your heart rate when running, here are a few reasons that your HR may be so high.  

  1. You Actually Have a High Heart Rate

Heart rate is an individual metric that is unique to each person.

About 20% of the population has a naturally high heart rate, which means they will not benefit from basic heart rate training advice such as “keep your heart rate below 145 bpm in Zone 2.” 

Someone with a naturally high heart rate may have a Zone 2 heart rate of 155–163bpm, whereas an athlete with a more typical heart rate may have a Zone 2 of 140–148 bpm. 

Our heart rate training zone calculator below avoids the pitfalls of other zone calculators by using the Karvonen Method, which accounts for abnormally low or high heart rates. Once you know your heart rate training zones, you need to know and trust them. 

We cover Heart Rate Training Zones more below, but we also have an entire post dedicated to heart rate training. You can learn more about heart rate training and calculate your exact training zones using our Heart Rate Training Zone Calculator in our post, Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Training Zones

  1. You Don’t Yet Have the Mitochondrial Density

Let’s do a quick science dive for this one. Everyone knows that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell – but what does that mean?

Mitochondria, in simple terms, are the energy producers in the body. The stronger and fitter we are, the more mitochondria we have, and thus, the higher our mitochondrial density. In other words: 

  • Unfit and sedentary: low mitochondrial density 
  • Fit and active: high mitochondrial density

Runners with low mitochondrial density won’t have as much energy to produce, so their heart rate will beat faster to keep up with their energy expenditure. In contrast, the runner with high mitochondrial density will have a much easier time running at the same pace as the runner with low mitochondrial density.

As you may have guessed, structured endurance training is the best way to build mitochondria and increase your mitochondrial density. Specifically, mitochondria are best built by training in Zones 1, 2, and 3 based on your heart rate. 

  1. You Are Not Yet Metabolically Flexible

Metabolic flexibility refers to your body’s ability to use various fuel sources. Here, we’re talking about fats and carbohydrates. 

The higher your exercise intensity, the higher the number of carbs you will burn compared to fat. 

You will burn a higher amount of fat at lower exercise intensities than carbohydrates. Conversely, vigorous activity burns mostly carbohydrates and very little fat.

The best way to improve your endurance is to teach your body to burn fat and run at lower intensities (Zone 2). 

To be a successful endurance athlete, run a marathon, or complete an Ironman, your body needs to burn large amounts of fat and carbohydrates over a long period of time.

  1. You Haven’t Done Enough Speed Training

This point may seem counterintuitive but bear with us. As you improve your top-end speed, your bottom-end (low speed, Zone 2 pace) will gradually get pulled up with it. 

Remember our recommendation from the first part of this post: spend 70–85% of your total training time below your Zone 2 cap, not 100%!

Only training at low intensities will limit your progression and fitness gains. While low-intensity training increases the number of mitochondria in your body, high-intensity training teaches mitochondria how to work well. In other words, you can build up a ton of mitochondria with low-intensity training. But if you’re not teaching it how to work really well (through high-intensity training), you’re not getting all the benefits of a well-designed training plan.

Go back to your heart rate training zones and use our calculator to figure out your Zone 4 and Zone 5 heart rates. Add high-intensity intervals and runs into your training program, using 15–30% of your training time in Zones 4 and 5. 

  1. You’re Running in the Heat or Up Hills
person running on top on hill during daytime

There are two main conditions that make it much more challenging to keep your heart rate in Zone 2: hot and humid weather and hills. 

Heat and humidity add a significant amount of stress to your body, increasing your core body temperature and increasing your heart rate. 

Hills have the same effect on your body. The steeper the hill, the more stress you’ll experience, and your heart rate will be higher. 

You cannot stick to your usual running pace in hot and humid conditions and expect your heart rate to be the same as a run in cool and comfortable conditions. Nor can you run up a 10% hill at your Zone 2 pace and expect your heart rate to still be in Zone 2. This is why knowing and trusting your heart rate training zones is essential when focusing on Zone 2 training. 

Know and trust your heart rate zones, and stick to them in hot weather or on hilly terrain. 

How to Lower Your Heart Rate When Running

Running at a low heart rate has a vast variety of benefits. Learning to run at a lower heart rate is about more than just improving performance. By staying below your Zone 2 cap for 70–85% of your total training time, you will be able to run faster, increase your efficiency and run with less effort, and avoid injury and burnout

Perhaps above all, you will also enjoy running more!

man in running on pathway near trees

Patience is Key

Above all, be patient! Low heart rate running is not something that can be achieved overnight. It may take around three months of structured training before you can run comfortably at a low heart rate. 

You must build the proper foundation when training in endurance sports, especially running. By following our low heart rate training recommendations, you will be fitter, happier, and faster in the long-run. 

Here’s how to do it.

Calculate Your Heart Rate Ceiling

Use our Heart Rate Training Zones Calculator to find your running training zones. Now focus on Zone 2 training and the highest heart rate you can achieve while still in Zone 2. This is your Zone 2 cap, or heart rate ceiling. 

Your heart rate ceiling is roughly equivalent to your aerobic threshold, or the intensity at which your blood lactate starts building at an unsustainable rate. Running above your aerobic threshold, whether you’re above it by 2 bpm or 22 bpm, is extremely taxing on the body. 

Spending too much time about your Zone 2 heart rate ceiling (remember the 70–85% rule) can lead to overtraining, injury, and burnout. Not only that, but it will also hamper your ability to perform in your other workouts, such as speed work or structured interval sessions.

We recommend running at 5–10 bpm lower than your Zone 2 heart rate ceiling. If your Zone 2 heart rate is 132–148 bpm, we recommend spending 70–85% of your total training time at about 140 bpm. This gives you some wiggle room in case you are running in hot conditions, you aren’t feeling great, or you’ve added something like caffeine or alcohol (the night before) that could significantly increase your heart rate. 

Run a Lot

This might be the most straightforward advice you’ll ever hear, but it’s true: to get better at something, do it more often. 

This technique works for chess, ballet, public speaking, regular exercise, and running. By running more, you will be able to increase your running efficiency. This allows you to save energy and feel like you are running easier. 

A running coach may help you identify small weaknesses or tweaks that you can make in your form that could have minor effects on your running efficiency. But running frequency has truly been shown to increase your running efficiency significantly

When your running efficiency increases, your heart rate during running decreases because you are putting less energy and effort into running at the same pace. 

Running Slowly

For a minute, imagine that there is no minimum pace for running. You can say that you are running as long as you are on your feet and moving.

Imagine that you are shuffling forward at a 15-minute per kilometer pace. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says; you are running. At this pace, your heart rate should be slightly above your walking heart rate. This is where you should start when learning to run at a low heart rate. 

Over time, gradually increase your pace until you are near your Zone 2 cap, and that is your Zone 2 running pace. 

Take Walking Breaks

The best way to lower your heart rate while running is to take a break from running. For beginners, we recommend a walk/run technique which will allow you to increase your fitness without getting injured or burning out. 

We put together a complete Run/Walk Training Program in our post, Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started Running

In summary, walking breaks allow you to rest and recover and bring your heart rate down while remaining active on your feet. This allows you to practice and perfect your running technique without worrying about excessive fatigue.

Train With Short Frequent Runs

man in black shorts and shirt jogging at sidewalk

The same principle for run/walk training applies to training with shorter frequent runs.

Instead of one or two 60–90 minute runs per week, break them up into three or four 30–45 minute runs. 

Design Workouts to Bring Your Heart Rate Down

While the above techniques are 100% effective, they can sometimes be monotonous and boring. To help spice things up, we have a few recommendations for keeping your Zone 2 runs interesting. 

Try hiking, trail running, or exploring new loops through the city, all with short walking breaks. Taking in the scenery, stopping for a picture, or traversing a technical section of trail are some of the best techniques for bringing your HR down without even thinking about it.

When and Where to Run At a Low Heart Rate

We recommend running in the morning to keep your heart rate down while running. First of all, most world climates are significantly cooler in the morning, which helps you keep your core body temperature and heart rate down when running. 

There is also the mental aspect of running early in the morning when things are calmer, and the world is quiet. If you can get out and run first thing in the morning, you will beat the work and stress of the day and focus on your run with little to no distractions. 

For the most calming and meditative runs, we recommend getting out of bed, putting your running shoes on, and getting out the door without ever looking at your phone. 

Trail Running

man running on edge near mountain

Trails are one of the best places to run at a low heart rate because they are technical and challenging compared to basic road running. When you’re running down the street, on the sidewalk, or laps on the track, you don’t have to think about anything except putting one foot in front of the other. 

Because of the ups and down of trails, plus mixed terrain, branches, roots, leaves, and maybe rocks, trail running forces you to slow down. 

Your body doesn’t know pace when it comes to running training. If your feet are on the ground and you’re working hard enough to break a sweat, you are training. Your heart rate could be 140 bpm while doing laps on the track or 140 bpm while descending a technical trail. The exact paces don’t matter, but the stimulating training effects on your body and your aerobic capacity will be significant. 

An added benefit of trail running and hiking is that they are essentially strength workouts on top of being run workouts. Trails also build balance skills and stimulate your stabilizing muscles, which can help improve your overall strength and balance, as well as prevent injury. 

Deep Belly Breathing

Breathing and heart rate are intuitively connected, we just never really think about it. Right now, you’re probably not breathing hard, and your heart rate is probably just above resting. But if you ran a kilometer as fast as possible, your breathing would be rapid, and your heart rate would be near its maximum rate. 

Controlled belly breaths, expanding your diaphragm downward rather than just breathing through your chest, can significantly affect your heart rate when running. 

We have an entire post dedicated to breathing while running. You can learn more by checking out Learn How to Breathe When Running

Run Your Smoothest Cadence

Running cadence is how many steps you take each minute, measured in steps per minute (spm). We recommend about 165 spm as the optimal cadence for most runners and a maximum cadence of 180 spm. 

The best way to improve and increase your cadence is through speed workouts focused on fast turnover. As your run training increases, pay attention to your cadence and what feels like the smoothest and most efficient for you. 

Try out different cadences in training and see how they affect your heart rate when running. Over time, you will learn which cadence is the smoothest for you. 

Factors Affecting Your Heart Rate While Running

woman jogging on gray road across mountain during daytime

One of the most significant weather factors is heat. Your heart rate increases in hot and humid environments, making it very difficult to run with a low heart rate in the summer or a hot climate. Sticking to your heart rate training zones in hot and humid environments rather than your running pace zones is essential. 

Caffeine is one of the biggest culprits of inflating our heart rate, as it is a stimulant. While caffeine affects everyone differently, it can have the effect of increasing your heart rate by 5–10 bpm. This is especially true on race day when you may have had more caffeine than normal. Combined with nervousness before the start of the race, you may look down and see your heart rate is 115 bpm at the start line. 

Once you get going, the nervousness will slowly dissipate, but the caffeine will linger. It is best to practice having caffeine in training to know the potential effects a certain amount of caffeine may have on your body. 

Poor sleep also has a significant effect on your running heart rate. Lack of sleep or quality deep sleep can increase your heart rate while running because your body is not fully recovered. 

What Does It Mean If My Heart Rate While Running is Abnormally High?

Following the best and most consistent training structure, your heart rate while running should be very consistent at specific intensities and conditions. If your heart rate is significantly different (e.g., 12 bpm higher at Zone 2 pace), that could be a sign that something is wrong. 

An abnormally high heart rate could be – but is not always – a signal of fatigue or illness. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a more reliable indicator of illness. However, you can still identify trends in your heart rate. You can track your HRV with a fitness wearable, which will monitor your HRV throughout the night, and some devices can monitor it during the day. 

An abnormally low HRV compared to your baseline can indicate illness. 

As for heart rate, an abnormally high resting or exercising heart rate can signal illness. 

Other Heart Health Factors

In addition to exercise, weather, caffeine, and sleep, other factors can affect your heart rate too. 

white and black digital device

High blood pressure is associated with elevated heart rate and vice versa. While there is no direct link between chest pain and heart rate, chest pain could be a sign that something else is wrong. If you experience chest pain while running, it is best to stop running and walk home. 

Heart health is also linked to heart rate, with better heart health being associated with lower resting and exercising heart rates. 

All of these factors can be linked to body weight, and those with a healthy weight tend to have better heart health and lower resting and exercising heart rates. 

Additional stress can lead to a higher heart rate. Stress has several effects on your body, including increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, and not just during exercise. These effects can occur throughout the day, which means that you are literally stressing your body 24/7, both physically and mentally. 

Is it Better to Run at a Lower Heart Rate?

The short answer: Yes!

Here’s a reminder of what low heart rate training (spending 70–85% of your total training hour under your Zone 2 heart rate cap) can do for you: 

  • Improved freshness in training and throughout the day
  • Increased metabolic efficiency
  • Improved ability to burn fat as fuel
  • Increased endurance and aerobic fitness

To maximize your potential through heart rate training, you need to know your Zone 2 cap. More than that, you need to know your accurate heart rate training zones. Zone 2 training is the best training strategy for runners and endurance athletes. 

Sources

5 Fixable Reasons You Have a High Heart Rate When Running

6 NEW Ways To Bring Your Running HR Down (INSTANT IMPROVEMENT)

3 Step System to INSTANTLY BRING YOUR HEART RATE DOWN While Running

Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Training Zones

Learn How to Breathe When Running

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.