Running according to heart rate or pace?


Time and time again the question arises as to which method is best suited for intensity control in training: Pace, heart rate or instinct? We discussed this complex topic with sports scientist and lecturer (e.g. for athletics and endurance training) at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Bern, Roland Schütz.

Basically, endurance training is about wanting to complete your units in certain intensity ranges. Sometimes the goal of training is to push yourself to your limits, while other times you consciously do a more relaxed training. But what is the most suitable method for monitoring this intensity? Some people think that this is easiest with the heart rates, while others prefer to orient themselves towards the speed and again others rely entirely on their gut instinct. In this interview, we aim to explain why the different methods are difficult to compare and when which method might make more sense.

How can the heart rate and tempo values for the different intensity ranges be determined?

For both methods, the intensity ranges must first be determined individually. The main goal is to determine the anaerobic threshold (when the body can no longer break down the lactate produced in muscles, cells and blood quickly enough and it starts to accumulate). This threshold can be determined by specific tests. There are several variants. The most common are the lactate level test and the Conconi test. The lactate level test measures your heart rate values and the amount of lactate in your blood as your intensity levels increase, which can be used to determine your anaerobic threshold heart rate and speed (corresponding to the limit between intensity zones 4 and 5), your maximum pace and the heart rate and speed zones for the intensity ranges 1-5. In the Conconi test, you run a certain distance (25m, preferably on a 400m track) several times in a row, increasing the pace slightly each time. Here, too, you run until you are completely exhausted. The heart rate curve can be used to estimate the anaerobic threshold and thus determine the heart rate and velocity rates for certain intensity ranges (however, the lactate level test provides more accurate results). For an estimation of the threshold pace (not the heart rate!), a 30′-tempo run or a maximum 30-minute competition on a flat track is sufficient. The average pace of the run is a good estimate value for the anaerobic threshold.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of intensity control according to heart rate?

Advantages: Heart rate control is particularly suitable for zones 1-4, where the heart rate increases linearly with increasing intensity and a relatively wide heart rate range can easily be assigned to a certain intensity range. The heart rate also tells me in hilly terrain or in headwinds whether I am loading in the desired intensity range. The estimation of training loads on varied routes is thus possible.

Disadvantages: Interval trainings in zone 5 can hardly be controlled with heart rate, because the heart rate always lags a moment behind the load (the shorter the loads, the more difficult). In addition, the HR is always in the range of HRmax anyway at the end of interval training in zone 5.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of intensity control according to pace?

Advantages: A speed control makes sense if you want to determine your position (i.e. like saying: “today it was easy for me to run at this speed”). If you train for a certain competition goal (e.g. half marathon under 1h 30min), you can set clear speed targets for the intensive training on a flat course. During interval trainings (zone 4 and 5) you can set clear speed targets, or at least you can check whether the speed can be maintained up to the last load. This way you learn how to ration your energy.

Disadvantages: The intensity control with speed only works with a standardized lap, so that I can compare my run time, or on a flat course. On flat tracks I need a GPS clock or measured track markings. The accuracy of GPS watches for me is not yet beyond all doubt. The displayed instantaneous speed is often not correct (with my not quite cheap watch, deviations of up to 50 seconds per kilometer at constant pace are not uncommon…). On the other hand, average speeds over longer distances are quite good. Running by pace can also tempt you to try to set a record on your laps every time or to get a certain average mileage (even if you are in bad shape or in unfavourable conditions). This can tend to lead to too high intensity even for basic training.

The issue with the flat track also applies to heart rate control. Do I have to slow down the pace uphill so that the heart rate does not leave the desired intensity zone, or can I compensate with a below-average heart rate downhill?

If you want to stay in the intended intensity zone, you have to slow down and possibly even march. Uphill you are quickly in zone 3. This has to be considered when planning your training (consciously plan the basic training on hilly or flat tracks). Compensation is not possible. The average heart rate of a training on a hilly track doesn’t really say anything. Otherwise you could also compensate a tough interval training by the low heart rate in the breaks and when running out and it would suddenly only be a medium hard training. But that’s not going to give you accurate results.

BY THE WAY: In our running.COACH app there is the GAP function (“grade adjusted pace”), which converts the speed of your training lap to the pace you would have run on a completely flat track. This way you can easily compare your performance on different tracks! Have a look at the value on the right in the screenshot below.

What kind of intensity control do you suggest if you want to succeed in a race?

If you want to monitor a competition by heart rate, it only works for the first half of the competition. This way you can prevent starting too fast. In the first few minutes, however, you need to have a sense for the intensity, because at this point the heart rate does not always correspond to the performance. In the second half the heart rate is no longer a reliable control factor. Among other things, this is due to the so-called “cardiac drift”. The term stands for the increase of the heart rate with constant effort, caused by factors such as increased heat in the body. In principle, as for the competition tactics (concerning the rationing of your energy) on a flat track with no wind a control of the pace is suitable. If, however, after the first kilometer you notice that you have started much too fast, you will pay for this in the further course of the competition.

Is one option more suitable for beginners and another more suitable for advanced athletes?

If we assume that beginners do not immediately start with intensive training (rule: first increase the number of training sessions, then the length and only then the intensity) and do not yet have a good sense for intensity, heart rate control is suitable for them. It presupposes, however, that the ranges are individually determined as described above. Rules of thumb such as HRmax=220 age are useless in individual cases. For advanced users I would recommend: Primarily to train the personal sense for intensity, to control basic training from time to time with HR, from time to time – on standardized distances – also with speed. Interval training should predominantly be done with speed control. In general, an exact adherence to certain intensity ranges is less important for beginners than for athletes with a lot of training.


Both heart rate and pace do not take into account fluctuations in daily form or external conditions (e.g. heat, distance profile) enough. It would be better, as running.COACH recommends, to develop your sense of intensity so well that you can feel which intensity range you are running in. If you have a good body awareness and/or some training experience, you can usually do that well. However, heart rate and speed control can be used to check this sense of intensity. In basic training (zones 1-3) the instinct can be well supported by heart rate control (the pace can be an interesting additional information) and in intensive training (zones 4-5) it can be well supplemented with speed control (there the heart rate is the interesting additional information). Performance changes at constant heart rate or heart rate changes at constant pace can give longer-term indications of progress or problems (e.g. deficiency symptoms or overtraining).

If you train with running.COACH, you do not have to worry about whether you train sufficiently in the different intensity ranges, because running.COACH automatically calculates the optimal intensity mix for you (regeneration run, endurance run, interval, average speed, long jog). As long as you have filled in the settings correctly and your training is according to our recommendations, the different intensity ranges in your training are covered.

Roland Schütz is a 57-year-old former middle- and long-distance runner (personal best time at the Grand Prix of Bern: 51:24), today an orienteer. He is also a long-time trainer in medium and long distance running in the ST Bern, advisor of orienteering cadre runners for running training and lecturer at the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Bern (athletics, endurance training, performance diagnostics, etc.).


Edited by: Marion Aebi, Translated by: Denise Kaufmann

Performance diagnostics for runners


Performance tests are not only for professional athletes. Even beginners and athletes with little free time often get important insights from taking them.

Author: Raphael Huber, MSc, Movement and Sports Science, MAS in Nutrition & Health, Medbase Winterthur WIN4



Where do I stand in my training? How well is my general fitness? How do I train most efficiently despite little free time? And what is the best way to achieve my goal, for example, the half marathon? Those who ask themselves questions like the ones above are candidates for performance diagnostics since it provides the most accurate answers.

Performance diagnostics comprises two categories: Endurance and strength diagnostics. The core element is a lactate level test. Most athletes do it on a treadmill or bicycle ergometer, rarely on a rowing ergometer or while swimming. Every three or five minutes, the speed or resistance is increased – until the athlete can no longer do it or no longer wants to continue.

Ideally, the performance level test measures three components

  • the fitness of the cardiovascular system
  • the subjective perception of stress
  • the metabolic state

The continuous measurement of the heart rate during the performance test shows how trained the heart is. At the same time, the athlete should indicate at the end of each performance level how resilient they still feel.

The “Borg Scale”, named after the Swedish physiologist Gunnar Borg, serves as a measure for the perceived exertion. Six as the lowest value of the scale corresponds to a very light strain, the highest of twenty is the effort at which the athlete reaches their limit which can’t be maintained for long.

The performance test is most meaningful if the lactate concentration in the blood is analyzed as well. Lactate (lactic acid) is produced as soon as the oxygen supply through respiration is no longer sufficient for energy production in the muscle. As a result, muscle cells increasingly switch from aerobic to anaerobic energy production, which is reflected in a sharp increase in the lactate concentration. To determine this, it is best to extract one drop of blood per performance level from the earlobe. Such a performance diagnosis takes about 1.5 hours (including training advice) and costs around 250 Swiss francs.

Individual training areas

The measured values – heart rate, subjective perception and lactate – can be used to determine when the runner is still training in the range of their basic endurance, when the aerobic (first lactate increase) and anaerobic threshold values are reached and when the athlete starts running in the interval range. This varies from person to person.

If, for example, the heart rate and lactate values are already high, but the perceived exertion is still in the middle range, this may indicate that the athlete tends to “bite their way through”. Those runners are mentally strong but often overtax their bodies.

Athletes who know their performance values, strengths and weaknesses can focus their training on what is important for their type of sport: Marathon runners, for example, need a good basic endurance, while 800-meter runners have to cope with high lactate values.

Good long-distance runners have low lactate values (about one millimole per liter of blood, mmol/l) in the test over several performance levels. This is partly due to the ability of their muscles to produce less lactate at a given level and partly due to the fact that their body can recycle the lactate more easily.

For good short-distance runners, on the other hand, lactate levels rise faster. However, their organism is able to continue to perform at its best despite high values of over ten mmol/l. In technical jargon, this is called “good stamina”.

Without knowledge of the individual thresholds one– in the truest sense of the word –  runs the risk of training incorrectly. This is all the more serious when the time budget is tight. If you train for a marathon alongside work, family, and commitments, it is essential to manage your time very well. Here, the performance test can help to make the training efficient and goal-oriented. The running.COACH training plan is adjusted to your individual threshold for you to train in the right training areas.

Test results and nutrition

The training plan also helps to coordinate nutrition. As long as the training is within the range of basic endurance, the body primarily uses fat reserves as a source of energy. At this stage, there is no need for an extra portion of pasta providing carbohydrates. In high-intensity training, on the other hand, the organism can hardly burn any more fat reserves. In this situation, a “low carb” diet makes it difficult to achieve the required performance.

A performance test makes sense also for amateurs and beginners

Knowing where one’s own thresholds are thus makes sense for several reasons – not only for competitive athletes but also for amateurs and especially beginners. They in particular often make the mistake of expecting too much of themselves according to the motto “Only hard training is good training”. If this happens too often, the “basis” is neglected, and the risk of injury also increases.

The right training is one that is adapted to the individual organism. And this can best be determined by the performance test.


A rule of thumb can help to determine the performance areas:

  • Basic endurance 1: The athlete can still talk normally without getting out of breath
  • Basic endurance 2: Only short sentences are possible
  • Threshold range: “Yes/No” only
  • Interval range: Speaking is no longer possible


VO2max – maximal oxygen uptake


Do you know your own VO2max value? This value is an important parameter when classifying your endurance performance. In the running.COACH training plan, you can calculate your VO2max on the basis of previous finishing times. This will help you to track your performance over a longer period of time.

In this blog entry you will learn what VO2max stands for, how it can be calculated and what is needed to improve your personal VO2max rate.

What is VO2max?

The VO2max rate is the maximum rate of oxygen uptake measured in a human during incremental exercise. It’s about the oxygen taken up, transported to the cells and, ultimately, utilised. Further, it is specified in mL/min/kg and shows how many millilitres of oxygen your body can take up per minute per kg body weight at maximum exercise strain to metabolise it in the cells. Hence, the value shows the endurance performance of an athlete. Generally speaking: The higher the VO2max value, the better the athlete’s endurance performance.

The maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is the measure for:

  • Oxygen supply
  • Oxygen transport
  • Oxygen metabolization

What lies behind this formula?

V is the volume, O2 is the chemical notation for oxygen and max stands for maximum. It becomes clear: We are calculating the maximal volume of oxygen. As it is about a measure mainly concerning volume and time, it could be expressed in litres (of oxygen) per minute. However, to couple it with physical activity, it’s necessary to include the variable of weight. It is for this reason that VO2max is normally expressed in millilitres of oxygen an athlete can metabolise per kilogram and minute.

How can I profit from knowing my VO2max value?

Knowing your VO2max value, it’s possible to rank your endurance performance and deduce your overall state of fitness. The table below shows an overview over fitness states according to the VO2max value. The value also depends on age and gender.

The value shows every athlete their limits and makes training planning easier. It can thus be used to plan future competitions in an optimal manner.

How to calculate your VO2max

The most precise method is to determine the value with a spiroergometric test (breath gas analysis). The test is incremental, which means that the resistance is raised gradually until maximal strain is reached. This can be done on the treadmill or on an ergo bike. With a mask over nose and mouth during the test, the consumption of oxygen is measured, which is how the maximum value is determined.

The more intense the activity, the more oxygen the body needs. Measuring the VO2max permits an athlete to know their limits.

There are also other methods that are indirect (and a bit less accurate) to get indicative results.

  • Cooper test: 12 minutes at maximal intensity and using the following formula to determine the VO2max value: (distance in meters-504.9):44.73*
  • Rockport test (or Mile test): A complicated formula that is often referred to on the internet, but it’s not very accurate.
  • Various GPS-enabled sport watches display a VO2max value for every workout. The watch manufacturers use algorithms from require personal data (gender, age, weight, training experience) and effective data from your workouts (velocity in relation to heart rate). Often, these calculations are quite accurate. However, this method is less reliable in hilly terrain, challenging ground (e.g. trails) and in trainings with interruptions.
  • Competition results: With the running.COACH training plan and the statistical evaluations we can analyse your competition results.

Calculating your VO2max with running.COACH

There are a few parameters from your competition considered in the calculations of running.COACH. With a GPS file from your competition as a basis, the results will be even more precise. The following parameters are included in the calculations:

Distance, uphill, downhill, steepness, height above sea level (whether a competition takes place 200 meters above sea level or on sea level is a significant factor)

Of course, these calculations are still an approach to lab results. Still, a very accurate one, as has been shown. To date, inaccuracies exist when it comes to technical trails, ultramarathons and measurement errors of the watch (e.g. measurement inaccuracies).

By the way, the calculations and statistical evaluations are also part of the freemium version on running.COACH and freely available there. The data are used for the planning of individual trainings in the running.COACH training program.

And that’s how you can easily calculate your VO2max:

  1. Log in to your account on running.COACH (if you don’t have an account yet, register here for free).
  2. Enter various previous competition results of yours. This can also be done by exporting the stopped GPX file from the platform of your watch and manually importing it to running.COACH à change the type of training to competition and name your entry (e.g. Berlin Marathon).
  3. Go to Statistics and scroll down to the competitions. Next to the ANS (anaerobic threshold, green line), there is a column for the VO2max value (yellow line). Besides, these two values correlate. The graph also shows the development of your form over months and years.

More about VO2max

The VO2max value is a useful measure for the aerobic energy metabolism. Even though the value does not account for a good endurance performance, it lies at the base of it. Crucial factors are also the technique, the discipline and the mental component.

VO2 in everyday life

The table below shows which activities in everyday life or which workouts need how much oxygen. The more intensive the activity, the higher the VO2max value. In order to achieve a certain pace when running over a longer period of time, a certain VO2 value is required.

VO2max and running

In order to run a marathon at world record pace, a VO2max of around 84 mL/kg/min is required. Which marathon finish time would you be able to achieve based on your personal VO2max value?

Further, it is possible to observe your VO2max value over a longer period of time. Thus, you can analyse your own performance curve and see if the training suits your goals. On the basis of the VO2max value you can make a prediction for your next competition for a particular distance. In the following table, though, altitude profiles are excluded.

If you are interested in a prognosis for a particular run taking into account altitude, gradient and meters above sea level, please consult our running calculator. If the competition you are interested in is not in our database yet, don’t hesitate to let us know (

Higher VO2max value = faster?

A higher VO2max value does not in itself mean that your performance is better than the performance of a person with a lower VO2max value. Significant factors in this equation are also the technique, the type of sport and the mental constitution.

Also competitive athletes, the VO2max value is an important parameter. In the following, we present you an overview (information supplied without liability, based on internet research) over the highest VO2max values among competitive athletes. Cross-country skiers generally tend to have higher VO2max values as they use their whole body for this type of sport.

How can I improve my VO2max value?

The less trained a body is, the easier it is to improve its VO2max value. For very well trained runners, it gets harder to make big steps of improvement in this domain. At some point, genetic and physiological factors inhibit pushing the limits further and further.

To make progress nonetheless, we recommend you run in a structured and differentiated way. A good mixture incorporated in your training will bring progress and challenge your body on various levels. Longer and shorter units, rapid long jogs and intensive workouts should alternate.

For the increase of the VO2max value, there are a few typical intensive trainings. For example, you can do hill sprints (5x4min) or intermittent workouts of 15 seconds fast, 15 seconds easy over 10 minutes.

Our running.COACH training plan provides you with structured everyday trainings and shows the optimal intensity for you. Check your individual and dynamic plan for free here!

Blog entry written by: Stefanie Meyer and Gabriel Lombriser