Heart Rate Training: Everything You Need To Know

Heart Rate Training: Everything You Need To Know

It goes by different terms. Some people call it heart rate training,, and others use the words zone training. Whatever you call it, the concept is the same. The athlete uses a monitor to measure beats per minute and targets workouts into certain zones or levels of exertion.

Where Do I Start?

To begin heart rate training, you need to establish your resting heart rate. Many experts suggest checking this right when you get up, before consuming caffeine or moving around too much. The average person’s resting heart rate is somewhere between 60 and 100.

An extremely fit person might have a resting heart rate as low as 40. Regarding resting heart rate, the lower, the better.

Maximum Heart Rate

A general rule of thumb to find your maximum heart rate is to take 220 and subtract your age. Working out at an elevated heart rate for a long period can be dangerous.

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Besides using a heart rate monitor to let you know if your heart rate is potentially reaching dangerous levels, signs of distress can include feeling breathless, light-headed, dizzy, or start to have chest pain.

Heart Rate Training Zones

There are five aerobic training zones, and they each have a decidedly different purpose. You read that correctly. They all have a purpose. Some athletes make the mistake of trying to execute each workout in the same zone. This is not effective, nor is it a realistic way to train.

Let’s break down the zones associated with zone training according to heart rate.

Zone 1

Zone one is an easy pace, one that is below your aerobic threshold. This is a very light workout, done at 50-60% of perceived effort. The benefit of zone 1 training is that it’s good for recovery. For a runner, think of zone 1 as the effort you would use on a long, slow, easy recovery run.

Zone 1 can also be used in a workout for the warm-up and cool down. Many people religiously start and end every workout with some time in zone 1.

Zone 2

The next level, zone 2, is in alignment with the aerobic threshold. In a zone 2 run, you are pushing the pace just a little bit more, but not too much. This is a fairly easy run, taking place at 60-70% effort.

Zone 2 training can help your body to more effectively burn fat, and it is an effort you can hold for a longer run. Zone 2 also gives your heart a workout without making it work super hard for a long period.

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When exercising in zone 2, you can speak in full sentences. An average runner or cyclist can easily spend a long time exercising in this zone. This would equate to a longer run with friends, chatting easily while out.

Zone 3

Zone 3 is between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Zone three is 70-80% effort. This is a harder effort. You cannot maintain this for as long as you can a zone 2 workout, nor should you try.

Training in this zone will help improve your hard efforts, but also make the easy efforts feel almost effortless. You will become a more efficient runner during your zone 3 workouts.

If you do the talk test in zone 3, you can still talk, but probably more in fragments than full sentences. Zone 3 is a slightly harder pace to maintain if on a run or bike ride.

Zone 4

Zone 4 running is mostly anaerobic exercise. This one is an 80-90% effort. These workouts are crucial to building speed and also working on endurance while fatigued. Otherwise known as Z4, these are also called “threshold workouts” because you are pushing yourself hard throughout these efforts.

This “hardcore training” burns calories, builds strength and tests your drive. Especially as you begin a fitness regime, zone 4 is not a place you live; it’s a place you visit. Zone 4 is often equated with high intensity and high-performance workouts.

Thinking back to the talk test – in zone 4 you can likely only speak a few words. You’re not talking during zone 4 workouts, but you might be cussing in frustration!

Zone 5

Zone 5 is 90-100% effort. This is maximum effort with your body giving all it has. Your cardiovascular and respiratory systems are on high alert. You’re exhausted. Just when you feel like you do not have one more thing to give, a rest or easy interval comes and your body thanks you. Of course, typically another hard effort follows.

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This is the way with zone 5. You flirt with it. You find yourself capable of longer intervals. You push harder. Zone 5 does not get easier – you get stronger.

Forget the talk test. In zone 5 training, you may be able to eke out a monosyllabic grunt or two. Think caveman.

Knowing Your Heart Rate Training Zones

To calculate your zone, you first need an accurate method to track heart rate during exertion. Although some cardio machines have heart rate monitors on the handles, these are often not accurate.

There are many fitness watches that monitor heart rate during exercise. Some you can even program to alert you if your heart rate goes above or below set criteria. These features are often used by athletes training via heart rate.

There are two main ways that technology monitors heart rate: either a chest strap monitor or a wrist monitor. Although chest strap monitors are noted to be more accurate, the wrist devices have become far more sophisticated than they once were.

Companies like Garmin, Apple, and Timex all make wrist devices that take a fairly accurate heart rate during exertion.

Use the chart to determine your heart rate for the different zones. If your workout is calling for a 45 minute run at zone 3 and you are 35 years old, your heart rate should be between 130-148 beats per minute.


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High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT training is an excellent way to visit multiple zones within the same workout and get a lot of “bang for your buck” in a relatively short period. Many gyms are offering HIIT group classes that are thirty minutes or less total duration.

During a HIIT workout, the athlete will typically warm up in zone 1. The “hard” efforts in a HIIT workout are typically zone 4 or 5, with recovery efforts in zone 2 or 3. The reason is that the recovery efforts are not long enough in time for the athlete’s heart rate to return to zone 1.

The hard effort intervals in a HIIT workout are typically anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minutes in length, with an equally short recovery.

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While it is an extremely effective method of working out, it is recommended to only do HIIT training three times each week, with 48 hours between these workouts. Level, lower zone training can be done between these hard efforts.

HIIT classes can be spin classes, treadmill interval classes, bodyweight cardio classes, or others. As long as you are switching up hard and easier efforts, you are achieving the desired goal.

Building a Running Training Program

If you are looking to build a running training program around heart rate, first you need to determine how many days per week you would like to run and what your overall goals are.

If you are training for a 10K race in 12 weeks or so and plan to run 5 days each week, you might create a plan where you run two days each week in zone 1 and 2 (easy runs), two days each week where you spend some time in zone 3 and 4 (tempo) and one day each week where you spend some time in zone 5 (intervals, speed work, etc.).

Train Slow to Run Fast

Meet Meaghan Nana-Sinkam. She was never much of an athlete in her youth. As an adult, she discovered running. When self-trained, early in her running, she used heart rate training. When she wanted to get faster, she started working with a coach and reading, asking questions, and mixing up her training.

She thought she needed to always train hard to get faster, but she learned she was mistaken. Faced with injury, Meaghan was forced to do some easy running. Not just a little easy running: months of easy running.

Photo Credit: Rehoboth Beach Company Race

Says Meaghan, “It’s a story about training slow to run fast. There are lots of people who don’t believe in this magic. Who will say no pain no gain. Who will say you have to train fast to race fast. That’s ok, and there are lots of people who have success with other ways of training.”

Meaghan did not intend to PR at a race called Rehoboth, yet she did. She credits that magical race to the easy efforts and her newfound heart rate training.

When giving advice on staying in the proper zone, she tells people if you go above the targeted heart rate and can’t seem slow down enough, you need to walk. Staying in the target zone is crucial to success.

Will It Work For Everyone?

While there are many ways to train, science is behind heart rate training. Spending some time in the zone is a surefire way to mix up your workouts with excellent benefits.

Know Your Resting Heart Rate for Resting, Exercise and Weight Loss
What’s My Ideal Heart Rate for Training?
Know Your Aerobic Training Zones
McMillians Six Step System