Heart rate training zones explained

All exercising heart rates are good; which zone you use will depend on your goals and training plan.

Training with heart rate zones is a great way to keep track of your volume and intensity, to get fit and plan some rest and recovery. And if you’re not keeping track of your heart rate during exercise, do it!

Heart rate zones can tell you how hard (or how easy) you’re exercising. They’re typically broken down into five zones: zone 1 is the easiest, and zone 5 is the hardest. Sometimes you’ll see four zones, and sometimes six, but the same pattern applies. The zones are calculated for each individual based on your resting heart rate and your maximal heart rate.

You can either estimate your max heart rate using math (220 – age), or you can actually measure it. The latter is recommended because of the wide variation in everyone’s max heart rate. If you are 30 years old, your predicted max heart rate is 190 beats per minute. But if your actual max heart rate is 205 (measured during maximal exercise), you would be underestimating your fitness and training intensities if you used the predicted max.

Heart rate zones are based on the heart rate reserve principle. Heart rate reserves take into account your fitness by determining the actual heart rates you can reach, from your resting heart rate to your max heart rate.

For example, 75 percent of a 30-year-old’s heart rate max is about 143. But that number assumes that your heart rate ranges from 0 to 190. A better way to find your 75% exercise intensity zone is to determine 75% of your actual heart rate range between rest and max. In this example, if the resting heart rate is 60 and the max heart rate is 190, then 75% of this range is 158.

For those of you keeping score at home, I calculated that number using this equation: 75% of heart rate reserve = 0.75(190 – 60) + 60

But instead of doing all that math for each exercise intensity, Addaero has already done it for you! If you haven’t done so already, go into your settings and create your heart rate-based workout zones using your maximal heart rate and resting heart rate. Each zone is relative to your personal fitness. Here’s how you can break it down:

Zone 1: 50-60% A light jog/brisk walk. Perfect for warming up or cooling down.

Zone 2: 60-70% A comfortable effort that you can maintain for 30+ minutes, like a jog or a bike ride.

Zone 3: 70-80% Not too hard, not too easy, just enough to get you working hard, but not enough to put you on the couch for a few hours afterwards.

Zone 4: 80-90% A hard effort that you can maintain for about 10 minutes continuously.

Zone 5: 90-100% This may not be an all-out 10 second sprint, but it’s the hardest you can exercise for about two minutes.

You can call them whatever you like: “heart healthy zone” or “fat burning zone” or “HIIT zone,” but it’s more important for you to know why they exist and how you can use them.

So why do we have zones? Each zone is based on slightly different physiological adaptations to exercise.

Zone 1 represents the intensity in which your body is preparing for exercise. Your heart rate increases, you start consuming more oxygen, and your metabolism speeds up. You can exercise for a long time in zone 1 before you get really tired, so it’s a perfect intensity for warming up, or doing some sort of recovery exercise on a day off from more difficult training.

Zones 2 and 3 are where most exercise takes place. The top of zone 3 is your max sustainable pace. It’s the intensity at which you would compete in a race. This is because the beginning of zone 4 represents the point at which your body begins to fatigue more quickly due to metabolic and hormonal changes. You start to recruit more powerful muscles, but they can’t sustain those high power outputs for too long. You’ll know you’re in zone 4 when your hard breathing prevents you from talking easily. Just don’t call it the “anaerobic zone;” you’re still consuming oxygen – even more than in zone 3!

To improve your fitness, you need to be in zones 2 or 3 for a while: 30+ minutes per day or 150+ minutes per week. Or you can exercise in zone 4 for slightly less time: about 75 minutes per week.

Zone 5 will improve your fitness in the least amount of time, but it takes a long warmup to progress into it, and you need more time off afterwards to allow your body to adapt and recover.

As you become more fit, you need to either spend more time in a lower zone (increase your volume), or start working a little more in the higher zones (increase your intensity).

But remember, exercising in any zone will improve your health and burn calories and fat (but some a little more than others). As always, the best prescription is to find what works for you. Play around with different heart rate zones to see which one(s) you enjoy the most, or keeps you training consistently.

photo credit: TownePost Network/Flickr
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