10 Heart Rate Zone Training Tips for Astounding Performance Improvements

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Heart Rate training zones

Heart Rate Zone Training

Heart rate training zones are a fantastic tool.

Heart rate zone training probably isn’t the first thing most people thing of when they start racing.

But it probably should be.

It will prevent injury, and get results like almost nothing else.

Read on to find out more!

If you’re like me, when you started running, your idea of a good run was a fast run.  Yes, I’ve trained and tried to maintain that pace throughout – you pick up injuries very easily, and always feel tired.

The reason?

Some days you’re dehydrated, or your body is fighting off an illness, or you didn’t recover from your last exercise session.  It would be a bit mental to try and go the same pace under those conditions, as you would if you’re fully rested, feeling fit, and ready to go.

And this is where heart rate zones for cardio training come in.  Instead of attempting to maintain a given pace, you’re targeting a certain heart rate zone.  Your heart rate will vary given different conditions – both your physical fitness and well-being, but also temperature and other factors.  The same pace might require a higher heart rate – a greater effort. 

That is unlikely to be a good way to train.

How Heart Rate Zones Help Improve Your Fitness

Heart Rate Zone to Improve Fitness

Instead, you target certain heart rate zones to encourage your body to make adaptations to improve your fitness.  The are many reasons behind a heart rate zone target – you might want to improve your endurance, encourage your body to burn fat, recover, get faster.  By targeting the range you get the desired effect no matter the conditions and improve.

A big benefit is, on a recovery day you’re reminded if your heart rate goes too high.  This stops you from over training when you should be actively recovering.

On the other end of the scale, if you’re not going fast enough, you can be reminded of that too.  It’s like having a coach running beside you.

For the heart rate zones to work correctly though, you will need to set them, and understand what they mean.  The watch will do a rough guess, which will be wrong, and result in not achieving the desired result.

There are two different ways to calculate heart rate zones, which we will explain now.

Heart rate zones

Heart Rate Zones

The two types of heart rate zone are as follows:

  • Maximum Heart Rate (MHR, MAX HR)
  • Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)

Maximum Heart Rate

A note on 220-age, or similar equations for max heart rate prediction.  Don’t use them – they all have such a margin for error that it could mean you training in the wrong zone.  Hence heart rate zone training for any cardio activity would be ineffective.  VO2 Max, and all training zone either directly or indirectly use the max heart rate value to predict them.  So instead, measure your maximum heart rate.

Maximum heart rate does vary for different exercises, so use the exercise that you want to train in, to calculate your maximum heart rate.

Maximum heart rate is different for every person, and is the heart rate at which you explode.  Only kidding.  A full out effort will give you your maximum heart rate, and can be done as follows:

The proper way to calculate your maximum heart rate is to run as fast as you can do for three minutes, then actively recover with an easy jog for 3 minutes, then another 3 minutes as fast as you can. 

That second run should show your maximum heart rate.  You should not try this if you are sick or have an injury. 

Check this periodically, as it can slightly increase as you get fitter, and slightly decrease as you get older.

Heart Rate Reserve

This is the heart rate range available to you during training, ad is defined by:

Hear Rate Reserve (HRR) = Maximum Heart Rate (MAX HR) – Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

This calculation is interesting, as you get fitter your resting heart rate will become lower.  So, if you want to regularly update the zones according to your current fitness, this is the calculation to use.

Resting Heart Rate

If you have a sports watch you might have it on there. Otherwise, according to Harvard health, you will have to do the following:

  • Lightly press or hold the index and middle finger of one hand on the other wrist, slightly below the base of the thumb.
  • At the Neck just below your jawbone, hold index and middle finger on the pulse

Count the number of beats in 15 seconds, and multiple it by four to get your heart rate in beats per minute.

This measurement will not be accurate under the following conditions:

  • Two hours must elapse after exercising
  • Up to two hours after a stressful event
  • An hour must elapse after consuming caffeine
  • After sitting or standing for long periods of time

You can take the measure several times, try four times, then add the numbers you get together for each.  Then divide by 4 to get the average rate.

Plug these values into the Heart Rate Reserve to get your own HRR value.

So if for example your maximum heart rate is 197 bpm, and your resting heart rate is 44, then:

HRR = 197 – 44 = 153bpm.

This means that your heart rate can rise 153 beats per minute above your resting rate, until it reaches your maximum heart rate.  This is in effect, your “training zone”.

It is a better target heart rate, as it considers the fitness of the individual.

Karvoven Formula for Target Heart Rate Zone

Karvoven Formula - Target Heart Rate Zone

You can then use the Karvoven Formula to calculate your target zone as follows:

Target heart rate = (Heart Rate Reserve x Training zone percentage) + resting heart rate.

So using the above values, and looking for a 90% training zone:

Target heart rate = (153 *0.9) + 44 = 181.7 bpm.

You can calculate directly with Max HR, or use in the above formula, for the following zones:

Heart Rate Zones for Training

Heart Rate Zones for Training

There are many different definitions for the percentages used for training zones.  There is no correct and incorrect types, and you need to adjust to get the training effect you desire, based on the following.

For any of these heart rate ranges you can use your MAX HR or Hear Rate Reserve value, depending on your preference.

Polar Heart Rate Zones

Polar originally came up with the following zones in the 70s which are quite widely used:

Zone 1

50-60% of MAX HR

Very Light

Boost Recovery / Warm up

Typically: Walking or Cycling

Zone 2

60-70% of MAX HR

Light

General Endurance – Body improves at burning fat, and muscular fitness improvement due to increase in capillaries. Increase aerobic fitness.

Zone 3

70 – 80% OF MAX HR

Moderate

Improve blood circulation in muscles (including the heart). Generally considered zone to improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

Zone 4

80-90% of MAX HR

Hard

Speed endurance.  Body uses carbs for energy more effectively, and greater ability to withstand higher levels of lactic acid in the blood for longer. 

85 to 90% MAX HR

Zone 5

90-100% of MAX HR

Maximum (Anaerobic Training Heart Rate Range)

Peak performance. VO2 Max improvement.

The American College of Sports Medicine Heart Rate Zones:

Aerobic: 50-70% of MAX HR (Fat Burning)

Tempo and Threshold Running: 71-85% MAX HR (Cardio)

Intervals or Anaerobic zone: Greater than 85% MAX HR (Peak Performance)

Best Watch for Heart Rate Zone Training

Best Watch - Heart Rate Zone Training

All the watches for runners from Garmin are good at this particular function.  I personally have the Forerunner 45, which is the lowest in the range.  You can set up a workout, and one of the options is heart rate zone, or you can set an alarm or notification if you stray out of a particular zone.  You can also download heart rate zone-based training plans. I think it is a great little watch. It surprises me how many great features it has. When I have enough money saved, I’ll get the Fenix 6 Pro, a friend has one that works out lactic threshold and a bunch of other cool stuff.

(To be transparent, if you click the link above and end up buying the watch, I get a small commission, as thanks for helping you with your choice – I hope that’s okay? That helps me pay for the upkeep of the site, and continue giving you good advice)

Today I did a “long run” – which was 1 hour in heart rate zone 2, then 30 minutes in heart rate zone 3.  Quite an easy run to do, and the watch beeps at you when you heart rate falls outside of the required range.

Automatically Set Max Heart Rate – Garmin

One thing the watch does do is it automatically sets the heart rate.  It does this using 220 – age, which is a rough guess (it has a huge margin for error) and would only be correct for a small percentage of the population (for me it’s about 15% error).  It isn’t very accurate for most, and using it as a Max HR will mean for the majority of people, that the heart rate zone training isn’t effective.

Yes, it’s strange for a watch that one of its selling points is heart rate zone training. But it does update, you just have to put in the effort to find your maximum heart rate.

I found mine was set a lot lower than I needed.  I noticed I was running in zone 5 for an easy jog – in zone 5 I should be pushing close to 100% effort and not be able to speak. 

Other Garmin watches have additional features that will assist you in knowing when you are “in the training zone”, or allow you to set pace alarms, play music, measure blood oxygenation and so on.  The Forerunner 45 is fine for anyone who is starting out, or even quite a regular runner.

Heart Rate Zone Marathon Training

Heart Rate Zone Marathon Training

Whilst you need to train in a wide variety of heart rate zones, the one considered marathon pace zone is zone 4.  You will need to train in other zones, to increase endurance, increase aerobic and anaerobic fitness, to improve VO2Max and lectic threshold, and for recovery.  See below for suggestions on some of the workouts you could do, and the reasons for doing them.

Aerobic Training Zone

The aerobic training zone can be anywhere from zone 1 up to and including zone 3, although zone 3 may include anaerobic.  You can tell the anaerobic part if you are finding it difficult to say 5 words without a break in this zone.

Heart Rate Training

There are many different ideas that can be used for heart rate training, to build a heart rate zone training plan.  You can obviously download them, your fitness watch may have them, as Garmin does.  Here are some ideas for workouts:

Heart Rate RangeDetailNameDescription
60%30 minsRecovery run 
60-70%1 to 3 hoursLong Slow DistanceGreat for marathon training – teaches body to burn fat as fuel
70 to 75%1 hourEndurance / Aerobic CapacityDo between harder workouts
70 to 85%Up to 90 minsHill RunHilly route. Peak at 85% on hills
70 to 85%60 minsFartlekModerate space around 70% with burst to 85% randomly
85% to 90%Below 10K pace, 6 reps 800m max HR 90%Intervals 
95%400m reps pace (not full 400m race pace)Intervals12 reps 400m, 200m jog recovery (HR down to 70%)

Information from Runners World, Active and Training Peaks.

Zone 2 Training

Zone 2 Training - Jogging

Zone 2 training I s typically used for cardio for fat loss and aerobic fitness.  It is a rate that is below the aerobic threshold (the point where lactic acid starts to build in the muscles).  This is typically done for long periods of time and is of low intensity.  This is also known as the “Aerobic base”.  In this zone, you can build aerobic fitness, but also minimize the stresses on the body whilst doing so.

Zone 2 training is slow, easy training.  Doesn’t seem as exciting as higher intensity exercise, and somehow feels like it is less effective than high intensity.  The problem with all out high intensity is we don’t get a chance to recover, so risk injury, and can’t push as hard when we are supposed to be doing high intensity work.  So you need both. 

Lactate Thresholds

At rest, or when exercising at low intensities, lactate accumulation and removal remains balanced, so the body removes what is accumulated.  At lactate threshold, there is a rapid increase in lactate accumulation. The body cannot remove the lactate quickly enough to keep up with lactic acid production).  This is the point

This is often confused with anaerobic threshold which

A good ratio for zone 2 training to high intensity training is 80:20. That’s 80% zone 2 training and 20% higher intensity training.

V02max and Vo2Max Training Zones

vo2max Training Zones

VO2Max is a measurement of the maximum heart rate at which a person can consume oxygen whilst performing an activity.

VO2 Max is pointless if you base your heart rate on 220-age.  As a result, you VO2 Max will be wrong, so refer back to previous parts of this article to make sure you get it right.

There is a direct relationship between the VO2Max and the speed of a runner. A quicker runner is typically thought to have a VO2Max value that is an amount higher than the slower runner to allow for the greater degree of oxygen required to run in a time faster than the slower runner.

VO2Max training performed in or around the 85 – 95% MAX HR as a maximum, through interval training.

Here are the levels of VO2Max for various ages:

VO2 Max for Men

AgePoorFairGoodExcellentSuperior
20-29< 41.741.745.451.155.4
30-39< 40.540.54448.354
40-49< 38.538.542.446.452.5
50-59< 35.635.639.243.448.9
60-69< 32.332.335.539.545.7
70-79< 29.429.432.336.742.1

VO2 Max for Women

AgePoorFairGoodExcellentSuperior
20-29< 36.136.139.543.949.6
30-39< 34.434.437.842.447.4
40-49< 333336.339.745.3
50-5930.13336.741.1
60-69< 27.527.5303337.8
70-79< 25.925.928.130.936.7

Values Taken From Garmin VO2 Max. Standard Ratings. Various Other Sources Have Similar Values