Heart Rate Training: Get in the Zone
Whether you’re just starting an exercise program or you’re an athlete prepping for your next race, heart rate training can help you get in the zone. Using a heart rate monitor (which detects your pulse) tells you how hard—or easy—your heart is working.
With a heart rate monitor, you can target your training to a specific goal. So if you’re overweight and hoping to shed a few pounds, staying in targeted zones will help you stick with the exercise and burn fat.
Hitting a “zone” means aiming to work out within a particular percentage of what’s called your heart rate reserve (or HRR) during every workout—for example, 60 to 70 percent for an average workout and 90 percent or more for sprinting past a finish line. If you’re not sure which zone is right for you, your first step is working out what your heart rate reserve is, using this simple paper-and-pencil calculation:
- Figure out your maximum heart rate: Subtract your age from 220.
- Measure your resting heart rate: Take your pulse at your neck or on your wrist as soon as you wake up, before you get out of bed. Count your pulse for 15 seconds and multiply it by 4.
- Determine your heart rate reserve (HRR): Your heart rate reserve is your maximum heart rate minus your resting heart rate. So, if you are 40 years old, your maximum rate is 180. Next, subtract your resting rate (we’ll say 80 in this example) and your HRR is 100 beats per minute.
With your HRR as a baseline, target your workout to a particular percentage of that number:
The Target Zones
- Zone 1 (60-70% of your HRR): Ideal for warm ups and cool downs, keeping your heart rate in zone 1 helps get your blood flowing (which can pump out lactic acid post-workout). Because you can maintain this rate for an hour or more, it has great fat-burning and health-boosting potential.
- Zone 2 (70-80% of HHR): In zone 2, you’re breathing heavier but you can still carry on a conversation. If you’re just beginning an exercise program, this is a great zone for training. Like zone 1, it’s also great for burning fat and losing weight.
- Zone 3 (81-93% of HHR): Zone 3 is a tough level to sustain. You’re breathing hard. Usually you can only talk in short bursts. Over time, training in this zone will provide a performance-enhancing edge as your body adapts to the intensity level.
- Zone 4 (94-100% of HHR): In zone 4, you’re working hard to enhance performance, like training for sprints. You probably won’t be able to talk at all. You’re working out at a level that isn’t sustainable for more than a few minutes.
- Zone 5 (98-100% of HHR): This is maximum capacity activity and you’ll burn out within seconds. (Keep in mind that you should never be in this zone. I’ve included it so you get a complete picture of how hard your heart can work.)
When you know which zone you’re hitting, you’ll be able to pinpoint how long you can maintain that level of intensity. You can even play around with heart rate training to improve your performance for a specific activity.
As you build your aerobic capacity, you’ll see the numbers start to change. If 120 used to be your zone 3, it may become your zone 2. That’s another way to track your improvement over time.
But here’s the caveat: Using a heart rate monitor to train in specific zones isn’t foolproof. If you’re dehydrated, in pain, or working out in the heat, your heart rate may be different than normal. And if you’re wearing your heart-rate monitor in a gym, signals from the machines might interfere with an accurate reading.
No matter your goals, make sure to get clearance from a doctor before beginning a heart rate training regimen. If you have a heart condition or another chronic ailment, your doctor or healthcare provider can explain what your target heart rate should be. They can also help you select activities that are appropriate for age, condition and fitness level.
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