Heart-Rate Based Training Zones

Author Cody Wright
Heart-Rate Based Training Zones

There are a lot of different training methods out there, which can be very overwhelming when you're trying to choose just one. So is the right one pace training, rate of perceived exertion, or heart rate training? This article will help you decide which method may be the best for your training goals.

If you are not familiar with heart rate zone training, this guide will break it down for you.

 

What is heart rate training?

Heart rate training is a method of training based on varying percentages of your heart rate, or beats per minute (bpm) depending on the training focus which tracks effort while running. This can be an excellent training method to help runners achieve their goals effectively and efficiently while minimizing overtraining and under training.

What equipment do I need for heart rate-based training?

If you are new to training, you'll want to pick up an accurate heart rate monitor of some sort. Many of the smart watches today have them built in or can connect to external monitors worn generally on the chest or arm, which will measure and transmit the data back to your phone or watch to keep a live update while training.

One important piece to mention is the correct placement of the heart rate monitor. The best way to wear it will be ~1” above your wrist bone and tight to give the most accurate reading. 

Who should use heart rate training?

Athletes who are not completely new to running and have been training for at least a few months will greatly benefit from heart rate training. However, a complete beginner should think about using a different method until an endurance base is established. When first starting, heart rates can spike very quickly, making it extremely difficult to stay within the desired ranges for heart rate zone training. We recommend in these cases to apply RPE or rate of perceived effort until a solid running base has been established. This will provide the runner with a higher level of success in the meantime.

What are the benefits of heart rate training?

Heart rate-based training is a very personalized method that specifically accounts for each athletes resting and maximum heart rate. Each runner calculates their own zones using data taken from a couple of tests. These are your zones and are specific to your training needs. Once these 5 zones have been established, they can be used to base weekly training to the predetermined ranges for each session. Applying these ranges in the proper percentages throughout the week will allow the athlete to make the most out of every workout, as it helps you to not push too hard or go too easy during runs.

One cool feature of heart rate training is that most heart rate monitoring watches can tell if you're within the desired zone. Rather than having to constantly track your heart rate to make sure you're where you need to be, it will allow you to program alarms to let you know if you stray from a specific zone.

Staying within the desired zone during each training session will lead to a higher percentage of performance improvement as well as decrease the likelihood of injury from overuse, making you a higher level athlete over time.

 

Factors that can affect heart rate data

There are certain variables that can raise your heart rate which need to be considered during training. Some argue that this makes heart rate training unreliable, but if your heart rate is rising, your body is sending you a message that shouldn't be ignored. These factors can include:

  • Running in the heat and humidity
  • Elevation
  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of sleep
  • Cardiac drift (when your heart rate rises after an extended training session)
  • Medications
  • Caffeine

Now that we understand what heart rate training is, let's calculate our zones!

How do I calculate my heart rate zones?

Below we have added a calculator to do just that based on a range of different calculation methods. Feel free to use the one that you find the best fit.

 

 

Heart rate zones are often calculated by using your maximum heart rate value. There are also some calculations that consider your resting heart rate values as well. Using these two variables will define each one of the 5 different heart rate training zones.

Resting and maximum heart rate values vary from person to person, due to an array of variables that must be considered, such as age, fitness level, and even daily medications.

Resting heart rate

Your resting heart rate is the number of beats per minute taken when you are idle during the day. This is best calculated during sleep or right after waking up in the morning. Most heart rate monitor equipped smart watches today will automatically track your resting heart rate. This piece of data can range anywhere from ~20-30 bpm for an elite athlete, to 70-80 bpm for someone who is less trained. After a while of consistent training, you will likely see a decrease in your resting heart rate, which will affect your zones, so make sure adjustments are made accordingly.

Maximum heart rate

Your maximum heart rate is the number of beats per minute when you are sustaining an all-out performance. Similar to your resting heart rate, max heart rate values will also depend on many factors such as your body's particular physiology, genetics, and age.

The zones explained

Zone 1

Zone 1 is used primarily for:

  • Warming up
  • Cooling down
  • Resting between intervals
  • Recovering

Zone 1 should feel extremely easy. It is a very comfortable pace that you should ultimately be able to maintain for multiple hours at a time. Conversations held in this training zone should be very easy to have, and breathing through the nose should be comfortable.

Benefits of training in zone 1

Training in zone 1 is designed to help your body warm up or cool down without producing additional stress on the body; help you recover from high output training sessions or between hard intervals, and lower your heart rate.

Workout examples in zone 1

  • 10-15 minute warm-up or cool down run
  • 30 minute recovery run after a previous day of intense training

 

Zone 2

Zone 2 is used primarily for:

  • Long Runs
  • Easy Runs
  • Base Runs

Zone two is just slightly harder than zone 1, and should still be very comfortable for long periods while holding a conversation with a fellow runner. Like zone 1, this is a zone you can sustain for hours at a time. This is the primary zone endurance athletes focus on during training. Zone 2 workouts consist of long steady-state runs, aerobic base runs, and moderate length easy paced runs.

Benefits of training in zone 2

Zone 2 focuses on improving your basic cardiovascular training and overall endurance. Despite it being a very easy zone to train in, it is the zone that will lead to some of the most improvements in your ability to run fast for a long duration. This improvement in performance is due to increases in muscular endurance and greater fat burning efficiency.

This zone is the foundation of any endurance athletes training plan, taking up the bulk of your time spent running. You will notice that between 70-80% of your training should be completed in zones 1 & 2 when preparing for an endurance event .

Workout examples in zone 2

  • 2-3 hour consistent long run
  • 45 minute recovery run

Zone 3

Zone 3 is used primarily for:

  • Improving aerobic conditioning
  • Marathon effort training
  • Steady state runs

Zone 3 is where training becomes slightly uncomfortable because lactic acid is beginning to build up. It's a strange in-between, not too easy, yet not too hard. Even though it's a bit uncomfortable, it's an effort level you should be able to maintain for an hour!

You'll find that maintaining conversations in zone 3 can be limited to incomplete sentences before catching your breath is required.

Benefits of training in zone 3

Zone 3 training will allow us to improve speed, strength, efficiency and running economy. You will find that sustained sessions at a difficult pace will become less taxing and feel more comfortable.

Workout examples in zone 3

  • 4 x 15 min zone 3 with 3 min zone 1 recovery between sets
  • 25 – 60 min bouts in zone 3

 

Zone 4

Zone 4 is used primarily for:

  • Long intervals
  • Threshold training

Here is where training gets tough, real tough. Conversation has become a word or two at a time; your breathing becomes heavy and labored, and you are just trying to push through these intervals.

Why does this zone feel so hard?

This is because your body changes from the aerobic to anaerobic energy system as lactate accumulates within the muscles to a point it can't sustain. Called the lactate threshold, your body builds up lactic acid at a rate higher than it can flush out under the aerobic system; when this happens you will feel your muscles start to burn.

Benefits of training in zone 4

At this point, training sessions are broken into long intervals at a brisk pace. These intervals will increase power output, speed, and leg turnover. Much like zone 3, we will further develop running efficiency and a tolerance for sustaining hard paces for extended periods.

Workout examples in zone 4

  • 8 x 1 km zone 4 with 2-3 min zone 1 recovery between intervals
  • 4 x 8 min zone 4 with 2 min zone 1 recovery between intervals

Zone 5

Zone 5 is used primarily for:

  • Sprinting at short intervals
  • Max speed

Zone 5 is where you are running at your absolute maximum effort! Sessions will be limited to intervals lasting only a few minutes at a time, before requiring a period of recovery. Your heart will be pumping close to capacity, and you will be building up lactic acid so fast that your body will not be able to process it.

Benefits of training in zone 5

In zone 5, benefits to max speed, power, reaction time, running form, and leg turnover will see the most improvement.

Workout examples in zone 5

  • 8-10 x 400 meters zone 5 with 3-4 min complete rest in between
  • 6-8 x 2 min zone 5 with 3 min walk in between

 

Which zones should I train in?

Training zones will be determined by your goals and the time allotted to achieve those goals. A training plan for a 5k and a marathon will not look alike in many aspects. Though, it should be known that if your goal is to run faster, only running in zones 4 & 5 will not be the most effective approach. Your plan should always include most of your training in the low-intensity zones of 1 and 2.

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