Heart Rate Training

Someone was asking me about heart rate training zones last night… I work mine out with the rather basic formula of take 220 – your age = your max heart rate.  That would make mine 190… and it seems to be pretty accurate.

How To Find Your Maximum Heart Rate
A heart rate monitor can help to ensure that you don’t work too hard – or take it too easy! In training sessions, depending on the session, your target heart rate will be anywhere between 60 and 95% of your maximum.

Another way to calculate your maximum heart rate is this very approximate formula of 214-(0.8 x age) for men and 209-(0.9 x age) for women. 

Unfortunately for 5-10 per cent of the population this figure can be wrong by up to 24 beats per minute.  It’s much better to find your maximum through running.  Do this by warming up, then running as fast as you can evenly for three minutes (ideally on a treadmill), then resting with two or three minutes gentle running, then repeating your three minute maximal run.  During your second run you should get a higher maximum heart rate than with any other method – though use your heart rate monitor to take readings throughout it, as your heart rate may peak before the end.

220 – my age does me. 🙂

Heart rate training zones

Heart rate training zones are calculated by taking into consideration your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) and your Resting Heart Rate (RHR).  Within each training zone, subtle physiological effects take place to enhance your fitness.

The Energy Efficient or Recovery Zone – 60% to 70%
Training within this zone develops basic endurance and aerobic capacity. All easy recovery running should be completed at a maximum of 70%. Another advantage to running in this zone is that while you are happily fat burning you may lose weight and you will be allowing your muscles to re-energise with glycogen, which has been expended during those faster paced workouts.

The Aerobic Zone – 70% to 80%
Training in this zone will develop your cardiovascular system. The body’s ability to transport oxygen to, and carbon dioxide away from, the working muscles can be developed and improved. As you become fitter and stronger from training in this zone it will be possible to run some of your long weekend runs at up to 75%, so getting the benefits of some fat burning and improved aerobic capacity.

The Anaerobic Zone – 80% to 90%
Training in this zone will develop your lactic acid system. In this zone, your individual anaerobic threshold (AT) is found – sometimes referred to the point of deflection (POD). During these heart rates, the amount of fat being utilised as the main source of energy is greatly reduced and glycogen stored in the muscle is predominantly used. One of the by-products of burning this glycogen is lactic acid. There is a point at which the body can no longer remove the lactic acid from the working muscles quickly enough. This is your anaerobic threshold (AT). Through the correct training, it is possible to delay the AT by being able to increase your ability to deal with the lactic acid for a longer period of time or by pushing the AT higher.

The Red Line Zone 90% to 100%
Training in this zone will only be possible for short periods. It effectively trains your fast twitch muscle fibres and helps to develop speed. This zone is reserved for interval running and only the very fit are able to train effectively within this zone.

Heart rate variations for a given intensity
A reduction in heart rate for a given intensity is usually due to an improvement in fitness but a number of other factors might explain why heart rates can vary for a given intensity:

  • Dehydration can increase the heart rate by up to 7.5%
  • Heat and humidity can increase the heart rate by 10 beats/minute
  • Altitude can increase the heart rate by 10 to 20%, even when acclimatised
  • Biological variation can mean the heart rate varies from day to day by 2 to 4 beats/minute

What Heart Rate To Train At

There are three broad training zones:

60-75% – Easy
75-85% – Moderate
85-95% – Hard

Don’t fall foul to a common misconception: these aren’t percentages of your overall maximum heart rate – they’re percentages based on your working heart rate.  It makes a big practical difference to a regular runner.  It’s easy to do, but it takes more explanation than most gyms want to deal with.

How To Find Your Training Zones

To work out your training zones you need to know two things:

1. Your maximum heart rate. (220 – your age to be simple)
2. You resting heart rate.

To determine your resting heart rate (RHR) is very easy.  Find somewhere nice and quiet, lie down and relax.  Position a watch or clock where you can clearly see it whilst lying down. After 20 minutes determine your resting pulse rate (beats/min). Use this value as your RHR.

If you have a heart rate monitor then put it on before you lie down. After the 20 minutes check the recordings and identify the lowest value achieved. Use this value as your RHR.

Calculation of a zone value

The calculation of a zone value, X%, is performed in the following way:

  1. Subtract your RHR from your MHR giving us your working heart rate (WHR)
  2. Calculate the required X% on the WHR giving us “Z”
  3. Add “Z” and your RHR together to give us the final value
    Example: The athlete’s MHR is 190 and their RHR is 53 – determine the 70% value

MHR – RHR = 190 – 53 = 137
70% of 137 = 96
84 + RHR = 96 + 53 = 149 bpm

The heart is a muscle so with regular exercise it will become larger and become more efficient as a pump. As a result you will find your resting heart rate gets lower so you will need to check your RHR on a regular basis (e.g. Monthly).

Here are my training zones:





Sample Sessions

  • 60% Recovery run – dead slow. It may feel biomechanically odd at first, but it’s important. 30-40 minutes.
  • 60-70% Long, slow runs – up to 65% the body is teaching itself to burn fat as fuel (useful for marathons). Anything from 1-3hrs.
  • 70-85% Fartlek – speedplay (moderate-paced runs with random fast bursts). 30-60 minutes.
  • 70-85% Undulating route – peak at 85% on the climbs. 30-90 minutes.
  • 85% Anaerobic threshold run (or ‘tempo run’) – this teaches your body to run hard for long periods. Approximately 10-mile to half-marathon race pace. Sample session: 1.5 miles at 60%, then 15-20 mins at exactly 85%, then 1.5 miles at 60%.
  • 85-90% Approx 5K-10K pace. Sample sessions: 6 x 800m peaking at 90% in each rep; 5 x 2000m peaking at 85% in each rep.
  • 95% Peak heart rate at 400m rep pace (not full-out race pace). Sample session: 12 x 400m with 200m jog recoveries, making sure recovery heart rate drops to at least 70%.
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