How to Use Heart Rate Training

by Wahoo Fitness
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How to Use Heart Rate Training

Has your fitness instructor ever guided you through counting your heart rate? Maybe you’ve seen other people at the gym doing it? Or maybe you’ve attempted to hold on to the bars on a treadmill for a calculation mid-run?

Well, your instructor isn’t crazy and the other people in the gym aren’t “too elite.” Heart rate zones are for everyone because they provide a way to quantify and manage the intensity of your workouts. In other words, heart rate zones are a measurable method for how much effort to put into a workout to lose weight, improve health and fitness, or maximize athletic performance.

The Five Zones

There are many approaches to heart rate training, but the standard “5 Zone” method is most common. Each zone is usually 10-20 beats apart, and has different health and performance benefits. Heart rate zones are typically used for running, but they can be used for any workout: cycling, swimming, strength training or a group fitness class.

Training Zone% of Max HREffortExample DurationHow It FeelsBenefitsExample Exercises
Zone 150-60%Very Light20-40 minutesRelaxed pace with easy breathingBeginner level aerobic training. Improves overall health and helps recoveryWarm up, fast paced walking, active recovery between high intensity interval training (HIIT) intervals
Zone 260-70%Light40-80 minutesComfortable pace with deeper breathing and the ability to hold a conversationImproves base endurance and aids recoveryLong-distance running, active recovery between HIIT intervals, group fitness class, strength training
Zone 370-80%Moderate10-40 minutesModerate pace and more difficult to hold a conversationImproves aerobic fitness and optimal aerobic trainingTempo runs, group fitness class, strength training
Zone 480-90%High2-10 minutesFast pace with heavy breathing and muscle burn (lactic acid build up)Increases aerobic fitness and anaerobic training
Group fitness class, intervals, time trial runs
Zone 590-100%Maximum0-5 minutesSprint pace with labored breathing, unsustainable for long periods of timeDevelops maximum performance with muscular speed and powerHIIT, hill sprints, running speed work

Zones for Losing Weight and Recovery

Zones 1 and 2 are the recommended zones for losing weight. Don’t be misled by the relative low intensity: Fat is the primary fuel source when working out in these zones, so you can be confident that your workout will be effective. These zones don’t tax your heart or your muscles too much, so your activity can be performed for longer periods of time. Zone 1 is recommended for activating your metabolism when transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle, or for active recovery for more intermediate/advanced athletes. Zone 2 is an effective zone when you are building a base for training at higher intensity.

Exercising at high intensities can also have weight-loss benefits—for example, high intensity interval training (HIIT) completed at maximum heart rate intensity (Zone 5). Although you would burn less fat during the actual workout, you will burn fat after the workout while recovering. It’s recommended that new athletes proceed with caution in this zone, as it can be easy to overdo it, and cause injury. Before ramping up intensity, make sure your base is solid with a few weeks (for intermediate exercisers) to a few months (for beginners) of working out in Zones 1 and 2.

Zones for Improving Fitness

Zones 2 through 4 are focused on improving overall fitness and performance. Zone 2 is where you start to build your base endurance level, which gives you the ability to complete longer aerobic exercise sessions. Zones 3 and 4 focus on maintaining and strengthening your aerobic fitness.

Zone 4 also introduces the element of anaerobic fitness, which literally means “no oxygen,” and is the point at which lactic acid is introduced. That lactic acid is what makes your muscles burn in more intense exercises like sprints, intervals or strength training. People training in these zones are focused on building muscular endurance while maintaining endurance levels. Remember when you used to have to stop halfway through a kickboxing class, but now you can finish the full 50 minutes? Or that you used to run a 10K in an hour, but are now closer to 45 minutes? That’s because your aerobic fitness is higher!

Zones for Maximizing Performance

Zones 4 and 5 are ideal for athletic training to maximize speed and power. Advanced athletes will do workouts that push their heart rates to Zones 4 and 5. In Zone 4, you’ll “feel the burn” and, by working through it, athletes will become faster and have more power. Full training in Zone 5 is for fit and advanced athletes. It’s uncomfortable, and can only be sustained for short bursts of time. Training in these high-intensity zones is generally not something you should do every day, as your body requires some well-deserved rest to perform optimally during the next high-intensity workout. Of course, rest here doesn’t necessarily mean staying on the couch, but could mean a low-intensity recovery workout in Zone 1 or 2.

If you are ready for training in these high zones, it can be very effective. But for the less experienced, it can also produce injuries. No one wants a pulled hamstring.

Calculating Your Heart Rate Zones

Manually calculating your heart rate zones isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Smart science people created a formula that will give you a rough estimate of your maximum heart rate. Keep in mind that this is a general idea, and distribution can vary depending upon what formula is being used. There are more specific max heart rate tests out there, but this is a great place to start.

220 – Your Age = Maximum Heart Rate

To determine the range for each zone, multiply by the percentages listed in the chart above.

For example, a 30-year-old would have a max heart rate of 190 beats per minute (bpm). That person’s zones would be as follows:

Zone 1: 95 – 114 bpm
Zone 2: 114 – 133 bpm
Zone 3: 133 – 152 bpm
Zone 4: 152 – 171 bpm
Zone 5: 171 – 190 bpm

If you really don’t like math, some heart rate monitors will calculate the zones for you. For example, when you pair the Wahoo Fitness TICKR with the Wahoo Fitness app, just enter your max heart rate and it will do the rest. And, it might even lead you through a maximum heart rate test.

Related

  • Dave Dunkley

    Have been using a heart rate monitor (HRM) for years. For a long time I trained too hard, which resulted in injury. Once I switched to HRM training, the injuries reduced and I realised I didn’t need to be being sick or collapsing after every workout to get a benefit. I now mix my workouts and intensities. It has worked for me.

    • bill

      Smart.

  • Ginger

    I’ve been trying to lose 70 pounds for a month now and have a heart rate monitor. I think I was working out way too hard (in zone 4) and it made me super hungry, so much so that it would kiil my calorie counting goals for the day because I would be so starving I would over-eat. I thought the higher my heart rate was and was kept up that I’d burn more calories. I think I need to lower the intensity of my workouts. Thank you for posting this.

    • Loren Pombo

      Have a good Whey Protein (powder) drink within 30 minutes after your workout. It will nourish your muscles and curb your hunger.

    • George Carey

      I second the vote for protein shake after exercise. I sometimes mix in some Metamucil too which thickens the drink and makes you feel more full as well as contributing healthy fiber without many calories. The protein helps you rebuilt muscle too.

      I’ve also learned to eat appropriately before I exercise and fuel a bit during a long workout instead of trying to starve myself and exercise additional calories off. That only makes me crave things I shouldn’t be eating after I’m done.

      • Kellisa J

        Hi. Pysillium is metamusil in it’s natural form. Thickens without the sugar. 🙂

    • bill

      Drink lots of water, especially after work outs, and feed your body protein. It takes a long time-if you do EVERYTHING right, you might lose 8 pounds of fat in a month. You will burn very little fat in zone 4. Stick to zones 1 and 2 for longer duration’s. Your intense workouts (followed by a protein shake) will help build muscle mass, so you will be burning more calories the rest of the day. Remember, your success will depend a lot more on healthy eating habits than the exercise, but the exercise will help-besides, it’s just good for you!

    • Bob

      Ginger I am right there with you. This will be my second attempt at getting back to a healthy weight. This time I went ahead and hired a personal trainer as both a safety net to be sure I did things safe but also to give me a needed kick when necessary. One thing he stresses is getting into zone 2 and then not taking a long enough break at any point to get out of it. He will kick me into what is listed here as zone 4 at the beginning or end of our sessions for 5-10 min and on off days has me work in burst modes as he calls them but he stresses he doesn’t want me to take any long breaks. After our sessions he will ask me to get on a treadmill or bike and walk down into zone 1 for 20 min so that I don’t have a blood sugar level drop. We started that after I pointed out that at times I felt lethargic for an hour or two after a session.

      He also pushed protein powder after a workout but a little reading and a check with my doctor and I found that wasn’t necessary. My doctor has asked me to check out something called the Dash Diet, put out by the American Heart Association. As he said don’t think of it as a diet because he doesn’t want me counting calories. Instead the goal is to reduce salt and sugars and increase veggies. I have only lost 10 lbs so far but I figure it took me ten years to add the 70 lbs I want to lose, so if it takes a year or a year and a half to get to a healthy weight so be it. Good luck to you.

  • Evgeni

    Terribly wrong on the fat loss thing. One actually burn more fat at higher “zone” if duration is maintained. Also, the HR formula used has been superseded. This one is old and inaccurate for most people.

    • Jimmy Fuentes

      I’ve heard the same thing about this formula several times, which one do you recommend?

      • Evgeni

        Try 211 – 0.64 * age. It’s a better fit outside a maxHR test.

    • bill

      The zones vary based on your level of fitness. Most people with a lot of fat will not be able to maintain at a higher zone, they won’t have enough oxygen to burn fat.

      • Evgeni

        Perhaps. That’s why I write “if duration is maintained”

  • Wissywig

    Well, now I’m even more confused than I was before. At Zones 1-2 (the “fat burning”zones) the calorie burn is much lower than in the 3-4 zones, which aren’t fat burning? I thought higher calorie burn = weight loss (simply put). So if I walk slow enough to keep my heart rate in Zone 1-2 I’ll burn more fat than I would in Zone 2-4? This seems illogical to me.

    Help…:(

    • green_ember

      At higher burn rates, the body uses other sources of energy instead of fat because it can’t process fat fast enough to meet energy demands (or so the theory goes)

    • Jackson Clark

      Totally… if you run in zone 3 or 4 for 30 minutes vs walking in, zone 1 or 2, you definitely burn more calories and hence more fat…

      • bill

        Wrong. You won’t have enough oxygen to be burning fat as effectively. Yes, you will burn more calories, but not from fat.

    • Raina

      It depends on the duration of your workout. Moderate-low intensity work-outs longer than 20 minutes utilise the aerobic system for energy production. This system utilises body fat as well as blood glucose. Moderate intensity, shorter workouts use the lactic acid system for energy production, which just uses blood glucose and liver glycogen.

      You can lose weight at zone 3-4 but it is difficult to maintain this heart rate for longer than 20 minutes which means your body will still be using the lactic acid system primarily for energy (which doesn’t use body fat as a fuel). Whereas, with zone 1-2 is easier to maintain the work-out for a longer period of time and you can lose weight as the aerobic system (uses fat as a fuel) is used.

      You can read up on energy systems (there are three) if you are still confused. Hope that makes sense. x

    • bill

      You need oxygen to burn. Burning fat takes a lot more oxygen than burning carbs or protein. So if you want to burn calories from fat, you need to stay in the zone where you have plenty of oxygen (zones 1 or 2). Yes, you will have to do it for longer periods of time to burn the same number of calories, but they will be coming from your stores of fat, not from your lean muscle tissue. If burning fat is your goal, keep your pace at a level where you can breath through your nose, or comfortably talk while you’re exercising, and you never get out of breath. It can be boring, but it is effective!

    • Kaiser

      As I understand it, to achieve fat burning, you need to include a set timeframe. Say, 30-60 minutes. That was one thing the article didn’t go into very much. If you stay in the zones 1-2, and go for a longer time than zones 3-4,5 then you will lose weight faster. Personally, I can’t stay in the lower zones. I get bored.

    • Also, while “higher calorie burn = weight loss” is very true, if you burn primarily carbs, rather than fat, then your body will need to replenish them and you’ll get hungry, so you’ll find it much harder sticking to your diet plan. Effectively you just end up eating more to compensate for the calories you’ve burned.

  • Ike Knight

    It would be nice if I could read the whole chart without the right side being cut off.

  • Hannah Banana

    My Mum lost loads of weight this way by going on ‘fat-busting’ walks. Her Dr said that as long as she didnt stop for long enough to lower her heart rate ( and it only had to be slightly raised just so that she was a little bit out of breath ) but she said she HAD to do it for a minimum of 1 1/4 hrs as this would just be burning calories then anything after that would actually be burning body fat. So if you can find the time for, say, a 2hr a low intensity (NON-STOP!) walk/cycle/swim? every week or so the weight will just drop off… But the key is not stopping for long enough to let yr heartrate fall because once you go into rest your body will go back to just burning calories again and you’ll have to start all over! At least that’s what out Dr said!

  • John Anderson

    My resting pulse is 46 bpm due to bradycardia (slow heart rate) and competitive long distance running in my 20s. It’s impossible for me to reach my max heart rate (159) no matter how hard I push my aerobic workout. The best I can do is 146. Is there a different chart for folks with this type of heart condition?

    • Theo Morris

      First, talk to your doctor about your workouts. Maximum Heart Rate, as discussed in thIs article is an estimate. Your Max HR may not fall into 220-age calculation. There are other ways that calculate your personal Max HR. Try another method to estimate your Max HR.

      • John Anderson

        Not sure why I’d want to see a doctor when there’s no medical problem. The problem is the charts which apply to adults with an average heart rate.

    • Kaiser

      Are you taking Beta Blocker meds? That will control your heart rate.

      • John Anderson

        No, I don’t take any meds.

        • kate1song

          i don’t take my heart rate at all.. If you want to reach max, the sprint as hard as you can or push as hard as you can till you wipe out. .. The only machine i can’t reach some kind of max heart rate on is elliptical.. and recumbent bicycle..so i don’t exercise with those machines anymore.

          • John Anderson

            kate1song, how might you know what “max” is if you’re not measuring your heart rate?
            My intent is not to reach “max” (whatever that might be), but to find a chart of training zones which takes into account one’s resting pulse rather than the simple formula of 220 – Age = Maximum Heart Rate. I’m assuming that the lower the resting pulse, the lower the percent of maximum heart rate in each zone for those of us with bradycardia.

          • Frank Lech

            I think what you’re looking for is the “Karvonen” formula, which takes your resting heart rate into account. For max heart rate, I use the maximum reading I get on my heart rate monitor in a short race (like during the final sprint of a 5k). It’s probably safe to assume 146 is your max until you see something different. Also, I think calculating specific zones isn’t necessary unless the goal is to improve sports performance (running, triathlon, cycling, etc).

        • Kaiser

          Good

  • andyv

    The problem I have with the heart rate training is that at age of 69 I’ve measured my heat rate at 185 bpm which is probably not quite my max and I’m not supposed to be able to achieve more than 151 using the 220-age formula, yet exercising in zone 2 often gets me well above this. How else can I determine my true max and do the five zones then still apply?

    • Kaiser

      I must be reading this wrong. Your 69 years old and your ” Not quite Max HR” is over 185? This has to be a typo.

      • andyv

        This is correct as far as I can tell. I’ve measured this on a finger tip oxymeter whilst running. This is a device that optically senses the blood pulsing in your finger, counts it in beats per minute and also measures the % oxygen. At lower rates it compares well with my heart rate on a blood pressure monitor. My resting rate is about 52 bpm on both devices if that’s relevant.

        • Kaiser

          You have a great resting HR. If you’re 69 years old and you get your heart rate up to 185 BPM, 100% heart rate is 151 and you’re running/walking that gets your HR up to 185? That’s fantastic! I wish I had your heart.

          • andyv

            Thing is I’m not sure whether it’s a good sign. I go to exercise classes and always struggle at the back when we do any running. Press ups are fine, but anything requiring endurance is rubbish, and I don’t seem to be able to improve on this.

          • G8r.Ray

            Good going & great heart rates. I’m 70 with a resting HR (average) of 46 and, during a 10k race recently, registered a HRmax of 162; so, the formula, HRmax = 220-age, definitely doesn’t work for endurance runners. For me, a better formula seems to be HRmax = 209-(0.67*age); but, that doesn’t even come close to your HRmax.

            Live long and keep running!

          • andyv

            Thanks for the comments. I used to run 30 years ago but after pneumonia I never got back my original ability. I was recently interested to see what my VO2 max might be. Using the 3 minute step test and checking my heart rate at the end gave me a really impressive score. Since I’m not the super athlete it was indicating I went and had it done properly on a bike wearing a mask and then got a very low result. However they only worked me up to 80% of predicted max HR, which using the 220-age formula is only 128 bpm. For me this is barely a brisk walk. My heart may have been strengthened early on, but it could be my lungs aren’t keeping up so my HR is high to compensate.

  • Dawn

    I think some of the comments to this article have been more helpful for me than the article itself. I wish this article would have explained why fat is burned in zone 1 & 2 like green_ember, bill, and Raina did below. It makes total sense to me now! Thanks! 🙂

  • bruce

    Using the standard heart rate formula is bad science. Google maximum heart rate and do the specific routines that allow one to measure true maximum heart rate.

  • Ray

    The HR Max calculation is definitely inaccurate, you either try to establish Your own rate through exercise or search for other methods online. I am 55 and I normally exceed 185 in my HIIT on elliptical or rowing

  • Roger

    I’m 66 and await a replacement aortic heart valve, a congenital problem. In heavy duty cycle classes i now try to work at an average heart rate of 135-140 with occasional peaks of maybe 165 – I previously peaked at around 170 and averaged 148ish – the heavier workload helped me to lose plenty of weight and get a uplift in aerobic fitness – the lighter load on the heart arises from using a lower FTP to start with and accepting this is all about keeping loose and working the legs – still helps to maintain fitness though. I reckon any general rules about heart rates are at best very very approximate – you have to find what works for you…

  • Julie Miller

    Brilliant – Thanks for this I found it really useful.