What Does Heart Rate Training “Feel” Like?

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Did you just hear your couch tell you to get up and get going? It’s been a trusty and comforting friend, but you realize it’s right and it’s time. So off you go looking for your running shoes, ready to head out the door to begin getting in shape.

Then it hits you. You’re not sure how far and how fast you need to go. Should you go a block or a mile? Should you walk, jog or run?

Relax! We have the answers for you, which are based on your current level of fitness and general ability to move your bones without risking life and limb.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “How are you going to coach me without me being there with you?” We’ll rely on exercise science and research that has been done on volunteers, who, like you, started exercise programs at any level of fitness.

You can take those lessons learned, strap on the heart rate monitor you were smart enough to buy and then let your body be your coach. Your heart rate will tell you if you are moving those bones the right way. We’ll just need to help you find your own personal target heart rate (THR) zones.

Forget about being too slow or going too fast. We don’t use pace in the form of minutes per mile, because that complicates workouts by requiring you to cover measured distances in a certain amount of time. Fast or slow is not the measure you need, because we believe that effort is the answer. Just think in terms of easy effort, moderate effort and hard effort.

Feeling the Effort

Using effort-based training offers an important opportunity: Use common sense to judge if the workout feels right. There will be a strong correlation between how you feel at various efforts within your THR zones. Read on to see how these controls match up.

Our system is based on a simple 1–5 scale of ranking easy to hard effort. The 1–5 scale is matched with easy-to-understand verbal cues of how you will feel (your perceived effort) at the different levels of work.

Effort Zone 1: Slowly Slogging (60% of maximum heart rate [MHR])

You should perceive this effort as barely harder than walking while window-shopping. This effort is so easy that you will worry if it will ever get you in shape. You might not work up much, if any, of a sweat. Fit runners usually complain that a pace this slow and an effort this easy is uncomfortable on their legs.

Effort Zone 2: Just Jogging (75% of MHR)

You will feel that this effort is worth doing, and it will help you break a sweat. However, you will be able to carry on a full conversation, and you will not feel tired unless you went for many miles or a long time. Compared to Effort Zone 1, it is comfortable for your legs.

Effort Zone 3: Striding Steadily (85% of MHR)

This effort requires a much faster pace and some serious huffing and puffing. You will not want to waste your breath talking. You have broken into a real run that will soon feel uncomfortable. But if your life depended on it, you could sustain the pace for a mile or two. You have shifted gears and have gone from jogging in first gear to running in third gear.

Effort Zone 4: Rapidly Running (95% of MHR)

This effort is seriously hard. The pace is very fast, but it is not all out. You have to consciously push yourself to work this hard and run this fast. But you are still not straining or busting a gut. You will limit this effort to just a few minutes to avoid slipping into the pain, torture and agony of the dreaded Effort Zone 5.

Effort Zone 5: Seriously Sprinting (nearly 100% MHR)

At this level, you are straining to go all out, as fast and far as you can. Your legs are turning to lead, and you are huffing and puffing hard enough to have smoke coming out of your ears. At this finish line, you might collapse from exhaustion if it weren’t so embarrassing.

Do not go here! This effort is for experienced athletes training for peak performances that require mental toughening.

Let us help you get in shape to be healthy first. Later on, you can use our training programs to take you to higher levels of fitness for reaching more advanced goals.

Choosing the Effort

As you saw in the above descriptions of perceived effort, each category included percentages of your maximum heart rate. Those zones have been calculated so we can separate workouts into the appropriate levels of effort to develop the matching levels of fitness. Isn’t this the reason why you jumped off that couch, all inspired to get in shape, in the first place?

More specifically, why did you jump off the couch? Are you interested in just changing your lifestyle to the “wellthy” level by playing around in THR zones 1 and 2? Is improving your heart health the idea, so you can lower your risk of cardiac disease? If so, the low-intensity efforts over a period of months and years can help control your weight as well. Hey, staying young and good-looking is not such a bad reason to get in shape.

Or are you interested in participating in recreational sports like road running? Is improving your cardio/respiratory fitness in THR zones 2, 3 and 4 the idea, so you can finish a 5K smiling? And just think how much easier it will be to get up the stairs from now on.

Finally, one more goal might involve scratching the surface to see if there is an athlete hiding under your skin. If so, you can become a peak performer by mixing THR Zone 5 with the above mentioned zones into a full package of athletic efforts that might even qualify you for the PTA (pain, torture and agony) Society.

Measuring the Effort

But first, we need to be sure of one thing: You need to know your very personal maximum heart rate. Many training programs recommend you find your MHR by taking 220 and subtracting your age. However, there is a wide variation of maximum heart rates within the population of any given age. Thanks to Mother Nature’s distribution along the standard bell-shaped curve, cardiac capacities can range from way below average to average to way above average—just like height and IQ scores. Lots of differences!

Therefore, we must recognize the inability of the standard, age-adjusted formula to identify any outliers. These are folks whose MHR’s can be as much as 30 beats per minute above or below what is predicted by the 220-beats-per-minute-minus-age formula. That could mean that what is predicted to be Zone 2 could be Zone 3 or even Zone 4 for some people, or vice versa.

Ultimately, your workouts should be your own, and they need to be highly personalized around your givens: your current shape, inherited genes and wise choice of goals.

Many happy heartbeats.

—By Coach Roy Benson for Wahoo Fitness

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