Pace Training vs Heart Rate Training: Which One Is Better?

When I started seriously running in 2015, I thought all I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other. With the help of Runner’s World magazine, I realized I wasn’t entirely wrong, but running is a bit more technical that I thought. A debated topic in the running community is which type of training is more productive – pace training vs heart rate training. I’ve tried them both. Here’s how both types of running training work so you can decide what the best fit is for your next race.

pace training vs heart rate training

What is pace training?

Pace training for running occurs when a runner sets a specific pace range for each run. Some pace ranges include: 

  • Recovery pace which is two minutes plus slower than goal race pace to allow your body to actively recover 
  • Sub-aerobic/ easy pace is a pace that feels slightly more challenging than recovery pace, but easy enough that you can hold a conversation. This pace is one to two minutes slower than your race pace and is the pace you will likely train at for a majority of your runs.
  • Aerobic threshold is the pace where running feels moderately difficult. This pace would be slightly slower than half-marathon pace, but faster than marathon pace and helps runners build mental stamina.
  • Lactate threshold pace is when you are running at a pace that your body produces more lactate than it can clear out. A typically training run at this pace is called a tempo run. This pace is what a runner can hold when racing a 10k or 15k. Training at this pace allows that lactate threshold to increase meaning runners will be able to run farther before fatiguing.
  • VO2 max is the pace at which a runner is nearing the edge of their abilities. This pace is what most runners can hold for a 3k. This training pace is a great tool to improve shorter distance racing like the mile or a 5k. 

To best determine what your goal pace is for a race, it is recommended to complete a mile or 5k time trial at all-out effort. When you finish your time trial, you can plug your time into this calculator to see what paces you are capable of running at various distances

What are the benefits of pace training?

Some of the benefits of pace training include:

  • It is more feasible for group training. When training for a specific pace, it is easier to find a group to run with. While marathon training, I knew I wanted to run a sub-4 hour marathon. CARA was able to place me in a group with other runners of similar speeds and abilities. This allowed me to maintain an appropriate pace and feel the support of the group.
  • It can be tailored to a goal pace. If you have a goal pace in mind, pace training can orient you to train at paces that will prepare you for that pace. 
  • Several running plans are oriented for pace training. To prepare for any race, it can be helpful to follow a plan. For those who are new to the sport or do not have a coach, many plans can be found online. These plans are typically pace oriented which makes pace training alluring.

What is heart rate training?

Though pace training is popular, I have recently learned about the benefits of heart rate zone training.  If you have attended a class at Orange Theory Fitness, you may be aware of these zones. There are two ways to determine your heart rate zones. The easy way is to complete some calculations. Your max heart rate (MHR) is 220 minus your age. I am 28, so my MHR would be 192 beats per minute. This number will inform other heart rate zones. 

A more complex way to learn your specific heart rate zones is to complete a stress test under physician guidance. This is useful for people who have or are predisposed to a heart condition. The heart rate zones are:

  • Zone 1 is low intensity exercise that is about fifty to sixty percent of your MHR.  This zone of training is for active recovery after harder efforts.
  • Zone 2 is light exercise at sixty to seventy percent of your MHR. This zone is the zone runners will spend a majority of their training time because it increases muscle mass and capillary density without causing exhaustion. 
  • Zone 3 is moderate effort at seventy to eighty percent of your MHR. Zone three training is where you meet your lactate threshold and increase running efficiency.
  • Zone 4 is hard effort at eighty to ninety percent of you MHR. This zone allows you to build endurance while increasing speed.
  • Zone 5 is maximum effort at ninety to one hundred percent of you MHR. This zone is often reserved for experienced athletes who are looking to optimize performance.

Benefits of heart rate training

Just as there are many benefits of pace training, there are several for heart rate training as well. Some include:

  • There is flexibility for environmental changes. When running in heat, at altitude, or in a different environment, your heart will work harder. A typical zone two pace may put you in zone three or four. Zone training will help you build awareness of what your body needs in different environments.
  • You will recover more efficiently. Recovery in running is paramount to improvement. By being mindful of heart rate zones, runners can ditch pace expectations and run according to their hearts’ needs.

Pace training vs heart rate training

Though this is a comparison piece, heart rate training and pace training do not have to be in competition. Often, heart rate zones and pace zones can overlay each other and inform each other. Give each a try and do what feels best in your body. 

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About Sarah Beerman

Sarah Beerman is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.