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 HR||Effort||Example Duration||How It Feels||Benefits||Example Exercises|
|Zone 1||50-60%||Very Light||20-40 minutes||Relaxed pace with easy breathing||Beginner level aerobic training. Improves overall health and helps recovery||Warm up, fast paced walking, active recovery between high intensity interval training (HIIT) intervals|
|Zone 2||60-70%||Light||40-80 minutes||Comfortable pace with deeper breathing and the ability to hold a conversation||Improves base endurance and aids recovery||Long-distance running, active recovery between HIIT intervals, group fitness class, strength training|
|Zone 3||70-80%||Moderate||10-40 minutes||Moderate pace and more difficult to hold a conversation||Improves aerobic fitness and optimal aerobic training||Tempo runs, group fitness class, strength training|
|Zone 4||80-90%||High||2-10 minutes||Fast 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 5||90-100%||Maximum||0-5 minutes||Sprint pace with labored breathing, unsustainable for long periods of time||Develops maximum performance with muscular speed and power||HIIT, 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.