Heart rate training zones – how to train with a Heart Rate Monitor

Heart rate training zones

The day I got my first Heart Rate Monitor was the day I started looking differently at my training. Back then I didn’t know anything about heart rate training zones or training intensity, but I felt that such device will get my training to a new level.

And it sure did.

12 years and many different models later, I’ve learned a lot about how the body responds to stress, what certain workouts train and how training programs should be designed and executed. All of it was possible just by taking note of my heart rate before, during and after workouts.

And I’ll share most of it in this post. Yay!

What’s a heart rate monitor?

Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) is a watch that tracks your heart rate, speed and many other parameters. It effectively lets you listen to your body, understand what’s going on and be in sync with it.

My first model only showed the heart rate, so I had to calculate my average speed by measuring the actual map. Probably, like ancient Greeks did when prepared for the first Olympics.

Now I’ve switched to a more advanced model to track all my activities. Still amazed at the amount of data I have.

Back when I began I was bad at listening to my body. I overestimated the intensity I was training in most of the time. Any effort for me was “beat other teammates” which resulted in all-out efforts almost every day.

That led somewhere, sure, but mostly taught me how to accumulate fatigue and reach plateaus.

Heart Rate Monitor helped me to focus on myself. It gave me precise measurement of how hard I was going at any time. Over time I learned to execute workouts as planned and take notice of where my recovery was.

Heart Rate Monitor helped me to control the intensity to ensure I trained as effectively as possible.

Actually, heart rate training zones helped me to do that. With those I was able to adjust training intensity accordingly to train the right things.

Heart rate training zones and workouts

Turns out, there was no need to invent the wheel. Heart rate training zones have been there long enough and are very useful to categorize different intensities.

Creating a program was just about structuring the workout in different training zones and adding enough recovery.

Every intensity level triggers different process in our body and five heart rate training zones categorize those very nicely. Whatever it is you want to train – you have to spent more time in the relevant zone. That’s all the magic.

It was very useful to finally know what and how to focus on. After I learned and applied heart rate training methodology I started to see much better results from training.

I also noticed that in most cases what I felt was 70% was actually 90%, as I got too competitive looking at others.

Training intensity
I didn’t utilize heart rate training zones previously. Most of my training was at too high intensity, so I ended up over training for races.

Heart rate training zones calculation

The most precise way to determine heart rate training zones would be to take a lab test. During that intensity is being increased every minute and people supervise how much lactic acid in the blood the body accumulates.

But that’s not very convenient (nor is it very cheap). So, the quickest way would be to estimate zones using the Target Heart Rate formula.

Target Heart Rate = [ Max HR – Resting HR ] * XX% + resting HR

Heart rate training zones are based on resulting percentage ranges. Easy!

For example, a person named Ben is 30 years old and his resting HR is 50 (more on this below). His estimated max HR is around 190 (more on this below as well). 60% effort for him would be (190 – 50) x 60% + 50 = 134 beats per minute. 70% effort would then be 148 beats per minute.

So for him to train in Zone 2 (60% – 70% Target HR) the heart rate should be between 134 and 148 beats per minute.

Max HR

The easiest way to estimate maximum Heart Rate would be to use the formula (220 – age).

That can be imprecise for some athletes and can depend on genetics. Some people can even reach maximum heart rates of over 250 beats per minute. However, these are exceptional cases and, at least for me, heart rate training zones based on (220 – age) maximum HR formula are spot on what lab tests result.

For experienced athletes there are a couple of other ways how to estimate maximum heart rate. Some suggest to take a 20-minute all-out running test and record the heart rate at the finish. Or run four 800m intervals at maximum speed with short recovery (no more than 2 minutes).

Both are good measures and quite precise as well. However, I don’t advise either of those.

These tests are designed for athletes with years of aerobic training. Some beginners may not even be able to run 20 minutes non-stop. Also, running so much at such high intensity without building a proper aerobic base may result in injuries (including heart-related, especially for untrained or older people).

My advice is – unless you’ve averaged 6-7 hours of aerobic training per week for the past 2-3 months – to stick to the formula above.

Resting heart rate – easy way to evaluate recovery

Resting HR is your heart rate first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed to go to the toilet.

This measurement is an indicator of your current fitness and recovery. If it’s higher than usual – your body is still fighting stress (be it from a workout or illness). So, probably, it’s better to take the workout easy or have an extra day off.

Make sure you check it several times on different days, including after the day off. The last one should be most accurate, not impacted by the workout on the day before.

Zone 1 training – recovery, warm-up, aerobic base

Target heart rate: 50% – 60%
Duration: all day, if needed

Working out in Zone 1 feels almost effortlessly. It’s the pace you can easily maintain for 4 hours non-stop. This is the time to chat with others, because it’s possible to hold a proper conversation.

Professional athletes usually start their season with a 3-4 week training camp where they focus mostly on Zone 1 training. Every day they would put in 5-6 hours of very easy work to train the heart, focus on form and technique, as well as work on the base muscle strength.

Spending so much time in Zone 1 “stretches” the heart and allows it to pump more blood. After this point it’s only the heart rate that increases.

Result?

Faster recovery between intervals and workouts, which helps athletes to tolerate more training load later in the season.

Additionally, working out in Zone 1 speeds up lactic acid utilization without adding too much fatigue, which makes it perfect for recovery runs.

Workouts

  • Short recovery workouts of up to 30-40 mins
  • Long base-building workouts of 2+ hours
Heart rate training zones
Zone 1 is perfect for recovery or very easy activities, like SUP paddling or hiking.

Zone 2 training – easy pace / aerobic threshold

Target heart rate: 60% – 70%
Duration: 1+ hours

Aerobic threshold is the point at which lactic acid starts to slowly accumulate in the body, but not so fast that you lose speed significantly.

Even though this is still considered conversational pace, muscles gradually start to feel stiff and it’s only possible to say a couple of sentences before catching a breath.

This intensity level trains the body to develop capillary network which helps to transport oxygen to working muscles more efficiently. This leads to improved muscle economy – faster speed at the same effort level.

Zone 2 is ideal for building general endurance, necessary for any distance.

Workouts

  • Long runs of over 1 hour to develop base endurance and muscle strength
Surfing for recovery
One of the best ways to build general endurance is easy effort with a couple of hard sprints. Surfing (unless professional) is perfect for that.

Zone 3 training – marathon pace

Target heart rate: 70% – 80%
Duration: 10 minutes to 1+ hours

Here the body slowly goes beyond the comfort zone. At this point it’s barely possible to complete a sentence, before catching a breath.

Now that more muscle fibers are engaged, the body builds more mitochondria in it, resulting in even faster energy production and more speed and efficiency.

This is the intensity at which speed endurance is trained. That’s building that nice cruising speed required in longer-distance races, like 10K, half marathon and marathon.

Don’t forget,

All elite athletes spend 80% of their time in these 3 heart rate training zones to have a solid aerobic base to build speed on.

Workouts

  • Incorporate 20-30min portions at Zone 3 into your long easy workouts
  • For marathon training – build up to run up to 1:30 to 2 hours at this pace
Training for a marathon
While training for a marathon I spend most of my workouts in zones 1 – 3.

Zone 4 training – anaerobic threshold

Target heart rate: 80% – 90%
Duration: longer intervals, up to 10 minutes

This is where it gets tricky.

Anaerobic threshold is when the the body needs energy much faster than mitochondria can produce using oxygen. So we move into anaerobic mode and lactic acid starts to accumulate very fast. 

Muscles get heavy and at this point it’s possible to spit out just a couple of words.

Training around anaerobic threshold builds power in our muscles, which allows us to sustain very fast speed for longer.

The threshold is highly individual, but, generally, limiting intense work of over 1 minute to 85% could be a good starting point.

Of all heart rate training zones this one is the most dangerous. It is at this point that most over training happens.

Back in the days I’ve spent a lot of time in this zone and in most cases I simply didn’t allow enough time to recover and supercompensate. This put a lot of stress on my body, killing mitochondria I’ve worked so hard to build. It also led to over training or plateaus much too often.

My advice is to start training at Zone 4 only after spending enough time on aerobic base (around 40-60 hours in total). This will help to build endurance and prepare the body for the work ahead.

Workouts

  • 800m track workout
  • 2K repeats with 1min rest in between
Interval training
Intervals in heart rate training zones 4 and 5 must be very limited and structured.

Zone 5 – maximum effort

Target heart rate: 90% – 100%
Duration: short intervals, under 30-40sec

Training in this zone focuses purely on maximum speed. No words, no games – just very heavy breathing.

It’s like a shopping mall on a Black Friday. No friends, just business.

Maximum effort training is done mostly by time, not by heart rate. However, heart rate is a great way to check if the body has recovered from the intervals. As soon as the heart rate can’t drop to Zone 1 after 2-3 minutes – it’s time to end the workout.

Workouts

  • Sprints of up to 8 seconds to develop peak speed
  • Maximum speed workout with short recovery (i.e. a set of several 20sec sprints with 20sec recovery in between)
  • Speed workout of up to 40seconds with double recovery (i.e. 40 seconds with 1:20 minutes rest)

 

That’s all. Thanks for reading – I hope this will help you get your heart rate training zones right and get the most of that brand new heart rate monitor you’ve bought.

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