How to Start Training to Heart Rate

There are many benefits to training to heart rate

I was given a Fitbit as a gift, many years ago, but I only recently started training to heart rate. As a sociologist, I love data. But I’d been shockingly resistant to training to heart rate when I was running. Even though the data was right there, already available, on my wrist.

I resisted heart-rate training because when I ran, I was constantly fatigued, pushing myself to my limit. Honestly, I felt incapable of thinking about one more thing. I was afraid that if I compromised my posture, to look at my watch, I would lose the momentum and rhythm I’d worked so hard to gain. Or worse, I would trip and fall.

I wish I’d realized, at the time, that the fatigue which kept me from checking my watch was actually the consequence of not training effectively. This turned out to be equally true of my tunnel vision. As soon as I started training to heart rate, I felt more comfortable. I was listening to my body and working within my limits. I could look at my watch or around the neighborhood, even chat with other runners! For the first time, I was actually able to enjoy myself and experience flow when I was running.

The Benefits of Heart-Rate Training

Heart-rate training allows you to maintain a consistent level of intensity, regardless of:

  • Incline
  • Heat
  • Humidity
  • Wind

This in turn, allows for more precise calculation of the time it will take to rest and recover, following your workout.

“Heart rate training offers a slew of physical benefits as well, such as improving your VO2 max.
In case you aren’t familiar, your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during a workout.”

Julia Guerra
Why Paying Attention to your Heart Rate Could Have a Big Impact on Your Workouts

Heart Rate Training Isn’t That Complicated

There are five important training zones, and two ways to calculate them.

𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟱: Maximum, All Out, Effort 90 – 100%
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟰: Anaerobic, or “without oxygen” 80 – 90%
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟯: Aerobic, or “with oxygen” 70 – 80%
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟮: Endurance 60 – 70%
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟭: Recovery 50 – 60%

Zone One

Zone One is very low intensity. For some, training in Zone One is about becoming active. Others use this zone to do light, recovery days between more intense workouts.

Zone One fitness may involve:

Hiking, depending on the intensity, and your level of fitness, may be a Zone One or Two Activity
Hiking, depending on the intensity, and your level of fitness, may be a Zone One or Two activity

Zone Two

Zone Two is a great place to start training when you’re a beginner.

Also, if you work out regularly, but are learning a new form of fitness, staying in Zone Two lets your body create muscle memories of new movements. It allows you to go slow enough to focus on your timing and technique.

Finally, Zone Two is the ideal training zone for longer distances, used to build endurance.   

“One of the biggest mistakes runners make is thinking that to run faster in races, they need to run faster in workouts. So they run their workouts faster than their current fitness level dictates.”

Jason Karp, PhD
How Running Slower Makes You Faster

Zone Three

Zone Three is where training to heart rate becomes aerobic. During aerobic exercise, oxygen is our source of energy. Regular aerobic exercise improves your body’s ability to process oxygen, or VO2 max.

“VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen the muscles can consume per minute.”

Maile Proctor
VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold and Aerobic Capacity for Beginners

Examples of aerobic exercises and programs include:

  • Jogging
  • Zumba, WERQ, and other forms of dance fitness
  • Rowing

Aerobic exercise has many benefits, such as:

  • Increased lung capacity
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Lower blood pressure, blood sugar
  • Helps reduce chronic pain
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Boosts immune system
  • Relieves stress
Training to heart rate allows you to select specific goals when you exercise
Training to heart rate allows you to meet specific goals when you’re exercising.

Zone Four

Anaerobic fitness begins in Zone Four. During anaerobic exercise, your body is not using oxygen for energy. Instead, it breaks down your stored glucose.

“With anaerobic training you can improve your speed and strength as well as your VO2 max and lactate Threshold.
It is also an effective way to increase your muscle mass and burn calories.
Simply put, anaerobic exercise is a powerful way to improve your fitness and performance.”

Riikka Lamminen
Anaerobic Training, Sprint to Success

Examples of anaerobic exercises and programs include:

  • High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  • Crossfit
  • Running sprints

Among the benefits of anaerobic activity are:

  • Boosts metabolism
  • Boosts energy levels
  • Increased bone density
  • Increased speed and endurance
  • Raised fatigue threshold
  • Builds muscle mass

Zone Five

Zone Five is used for high intensity intervals, training here should not last long. When you have trained in Zone Five, recovering goes from something that would be good for you, to something you need to do.

When you’re training to heart rate in Zone Five, you’re giving it your all. This is the place where maximum effort is achieved. It’s good preparation for the final push to the finish line.

Heart rate zone five is for the final push, when maximum effort is needed
Heart-rate Zone Five is for the final push, when maximum effort is needed

Calculating Your Zones

There are two ways to calculate your heart-rate zones. The first is easier to calculate. The second, on the other hand, is more personalized to your level of fitness.

Training to Heart Rate, How to Calculate by Age

To find your 𝗠𝗮𝘅𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗺 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲

  1. Subtract your age from 220. Since I’m 4𝟕, my 𝗠𝗮𝘅𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗺 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 is 173.
  2. Use the formula: Maximum Heart Rate 𝘅 𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 % to fill in the table. I’ve provided my numbers, as an example.

𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟱: 90 – 100% (156 – 173 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟰: 80 – 90% (138 – 156 bpm
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟯: 70 – 80% (121-138 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟮: 60 – 70% (104 – 121 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟭: 50 – 60% (87 – 104 bpm)

Training to Heart Rate, How to Calculate by Age + Resting Heart Rate

1. To find your 𝗠𝗮𝘅𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗺 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲, subtract your age from 220. Again, since I’m 4𝟕, my 𝗠𝗮𝘅𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗺 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 is 173.

2. Calculate your 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲, or how many times your heart beats per minute when you’re not doing anything. For the most accurate number, check in the morning, when you first wake up. Average the results after checking for multiple days, in a row, around the same time.

My 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 (according to my FitBit) is 60. Most adult 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲𝘀 are between 60 and 100.

3. To calculate your 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗲, subtract your 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 from your 𝗠𝗮𝘅𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗺 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 (173 – 60 = 113)

4. Use the formula: 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗲 𝘅 𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 % + 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝗲 to fill in the table. Again, I’ve provided my numbers, as an example.

𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟱: 90 – 100% (162 – 173 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟰: 80 – 90% (150 – 162 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟯: 70 – 80% (139 -150 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟮: 60 – 70% (128 – 139 bpm)
𝗭𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝟭: 50 – 60% (117 – 128 bpm)

Choosing Between the Two Heart Rate Zone Calculations

As you can see, for me, the results of these two methods are significantly different. When I’m running, the second method is more accurate, based on my level of fatigue, how rapid and shallow my breath is, and my ability to conversate.

There are a number of reasons why the second method produces more accurate results. As you become more fit, your heart rate lowers in relation to physical exertion. How fit someone is has relatively little to do with age. By the first calculation, a fifty-year-old and a twenty-year-old have a 30 beat gap within a zone. This is because our heart changes as we age.

A growing body of research suggests that exercise regimens
— even relatively moderate ones that start later in life —
can not only boost your fitness, but also reverse age-related changes to the heart.

Harvard Women’s Health Watch
Regular Exercise Helps Reverse Age-Related Changes in Your Heart

But, staying in shape mitigates, or slows, some of these changes. So, for someone who is active and works out regularly, calculating with the resting heart rate should produce more accurate numbers.

Who Should Train to Heart Rate?

The simple answer – everyone!

“Heart rate monitoring is one of the most effective ways of tracking progress and ensuring you’re training to prescribed intensities. Far from being the reserve of elite athletes, anyone and everyone … can benefit from taking fitness to heart.”

Isaac Williams
How Athletes of All Abilities Can Benefit from Heart Rate Training

In addition to the physical benefits, training to heart rate has opened up a world of data. It allows me to track my progress. Perhaps the biggest shift, though, has been mental. I’ve stopped looking around to see what others are doing, instead, focusing on my own limitations, abilities, and progress over time. Now, the only person I compare myself with is myself. I’m focused solely on becoming the best possible version of me.

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