In February, we published a couple of posts about training intensity and heart rate. I promised a more in-depth article about heart rate zones for those of you who were interested in learning more about how heart rate and heart rate zones can be used to aid in training and recovery.

Before moving forward, a disclaimer. Using heart rate zones to facilitate training is a tool. There are many methods to do so. In this article, I will attempt to take what can be a very complicated subject and simplify it best I can for anyone beginning to utilize zone training with a HR monitor. If you have a method you prefer and it’s working for you, continue to use it! If you prefer to stick with perceived exertion to measure intensity (another excellent tool), I’d refer you back to one of the posts from February:

If you’re interested in setting up some training zones for your cardiovascular exercise, and you don’t mind a little math, let’s proceed.

First, you need to find your maximal and minimum heart rates [HRmax & HRrest]. HRrest can best be found by taking your pulse for a minute when you first wake up and haven’t even gotten out of bed.  You can also measure if you’ve been sedentary for several minutes. It is advisable to take several measurements to find an accurate number.

HRmax is a little more tricky, as there isn’t a perfect formula for it. Choose one of the following:

  • 220 minus your age. [This is the traditional formula, but gets more errant with higher ages. Standard deviation can be +/- 10. Not exactly perfect but should get you in the ballpark]
  • 207 minus 70% of your age. [Found to be more accurate for persons over 30]
  • 206 minus 88% of your age. [Women over 35]
  • 211 minus 64% of your age. [Older, healthy adults]

Are we having fun yet? If you know that your heart rate can go higher than a formula tells you, through prior use of a HR monitor, use that number.

Next you need to find a number called Heart Rate Reserve [HRreserve], which is just the difference in your HRmax and HRrest. HRreserve is in essence the true range in which your heart can operate. We use HRreserve to base our following percentages on, because if you just based off HRmax, well, your heart doesn’t go under your resting value, so there’s a need to factor out those numbers. Thankfully, your heart rate doesn’t go down to zero. If it does, you have a problem.

  • HRmax minus HRrest = HRreserve

Now that you have your HRreserve, you can use the following formula to start calculating some simple zones.

  • HRreserve x 0.5 + HRrest =  _______bpm. 50% Zone 1
  • HRreserve x 0.6 + HRrest = _______bpm. 60% Zone 2
  • HRreserve x 0.7 + HRrest = _______bpm. 70% Zone 3
  • HRreserve x 0.8 + HRrest = _______bpm. 80% Zone 4
  • HRreserve x 0.9 + HRrest = _______bpm. 90% Zone 5

You did it! Rock on! Now a couple of graphs to help you begin learning what you can do with these numbers.

Here’s a chart from Garmin’s website. It’s simple, and I like it. (You can click it to enlarge.)

HR zone garmin

Here’s a similar chart from me. It’s very similar to Garmin’s, which made me feel good. (You can click it to enlarge.)

HR zone table3

So now that you have this new info, the real question is how to use it.  Here’s some tips.

  1. The main thing is awareness.  Plan to spend some time in each zone each week.  While the bulk of your training will probably be in Zones 1-3, think of Zone 4 and 5 as the spice on your food.  Adding a little will make your meals taste better, but too much can be overkill.  The exception is if you’re completely new to exercise, or if you have a condition for which higher intensity exercise would be contraindicated, such as a heart condition.  If you’re not sure, talk it over with your doctor.  But if you’re generally healthy and functional, small doses of high intensity exercise throughout the week will provide many health and fitness benefits.  The AHA recommends 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise per week (Zones 3-5).
  2. Train according to your goals.  If you’re running a marathon later this year, you’ll want to spend a lot of time in Zones 1 & 2, and a bit in Zone 3 as well (although spending a few minutes of training time in the higher zones is still beneficial).  If you’re going for weight loss, you’ll want a blend of zones, as high intensity training burns a lot of calories and boosts metabolism.
  3. If you train for some type of short burst sport like soccer, tennis, basketball, even downhill skiing, spending time in Zones 3-5 can increase your work capacity and help delay fatigue.
  4. Don’t forget to rest!  Needing a recovery day but still wanting to exercise?  Keep your session in Zone 1 or 2 for the whole duration.


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