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Heart Rate Training: The 5 Training Zones

Heart Rate Training: The 5 Training Zones

From warm-up to max, 5 training zones are identifiable in your workouts. This guide breaks down what they are and how to use them.

Personalize Your Workout Through Heart Rate Training

Your heart rate monitor is a powerful tool. As you get acquainted with heart rate training, you will begin to appreciate the use of your data. You will see your workload increase with your heart rate staying the same; measureable improvements that show that your hard work is paying off. It is important to vary your workouts and to train in different zones throughout the week. Your heart rate monitor is a window to your work, your performance, and yes, to your heart.

As you become sensitive to your numbers, watch the transitions between zones and get to know what that transitional number is. For example, when you move from an easy warm up to the place where you can still speak, but you note that it is different; you can still say a sentence, but it is with more effort. That transition is called your Ventilatory Threshold 1. Learn what that number is. You will need to know your max heart rate (see below). And you will need to know what the transition is from hard work to being on the edge of the knife; right before you start to go to your anaerobic (unsustainable) zone: Ventilatory Threshold 2. Without your monitor, you would have to rely on Perceived Exertion (a reliable scale but obviously lacking data, so limited).

Know your max heart rate

In order to know what your maximum heart rate is predicted to be, we recommend that you do a field max to get that number. Your zones (percentage of work done) are based on your max heart rate. See below for the tutorial on how to find your predicted maximum heart rate, the equation used to find Heart Rate Reserve (HRR), and the General Heart Rate Zones (NOTE: the General Heart Rate Zones in that guide are slightly different than this guide. See Zone 4 for the explanation of the difference). Zones can vary slightly depending on the way a coach will use them, but the physiology of how the body responds to increases in intensity is universally agreed upon.

Zone 1:

Zone 1 is used for warming up, cooling down, and it is often used for recovery during interval training (Zone 1 is used if you want a fresh effort for the next interval, Zone 2 is used for recovery if your goals are to add more stress to the aerobic system). Zone 1 is the place where you gently warm the muscles, elevate the heart rate, and prepare the body for the workout to come. You can easily talk, the body starts to perspire, and the effort is enough to feel like you are getting warm. Generally this is about 60-70% of your HRR.

Zone 2:

In Zone 2 you can still speak in sentences, but speech become a little harder. You are perspiring slightly. This is your all day pace for long bouts of exercise such as a long bike ride. Exercise in this zone still feels fun. It corresponds with Ventilatory Threshold 1, the place where your breathing transitions from an easy talk test, to speaking with slight difficulty. Zone 2 is about 70-80% of your HRR.

Zone 3:

As work continues to increase, the body will perspire more as your core temperature rises from the additional work, your breathing rate and heart rate will increase in order to supply oxygen to muscles that are working hard. Your talk test will drop down to a couple of words per breath, and you will feel serious; you are working hard. Most people will drift back into Zone 2 if they do not stay focused in Zone 3. Use Zone 3 for efforts lasting 10-20 minutes. Zone 3 is about 81-89, maybe as high as 93% of HRR.

Zone 4:

As intensity increases, heart rate percent will edge up toward and above 90% of maximum. Blood lactate will be forming at a level that is difficult to manage. It takes a lot of focus and will to stay in Zone 4 for a period of time. A true Zone 4 effort cannot be sustained for much longer than 2-4 minutes, a little longer for elite athletes. You will not want to talk in Zone 4, but can manage 1-2 words if you must speak. Some guidelines, like the General Guidelines below, put Zone 4 and 5 into the same category: a Very Hard Unsustainable effort. This, however, can also be broken down into 2 categories; both of which are unsustainable. Zone 4 in this guideline is the zone that can only be sustained for a longer anaerobic effort of 2-4 minutes or so. Zone 5 is broken out as the last push of effort, knowing that this push will cause total system fatigue, forcing the body to stop. Zone 4 is about 93% of HRR pushing up toward 100%.

Zone 5:

This effort is really tough and can only be maintained for 30-120 seconds. You will be unable to speak and will be reaching maximal blood lactate levels: you will not be able to supply the amount of oxygen you need for the intensity of the work performed. Your heart rate will be at a maximal level, and your ventilation will be fast and hard. Recovery is something you need, not just something you want. Zone 5 is 100% of HRR.

Using your Zones

Intervals are necessary for optimal performance and for those of us who want to decrease body fat, they are the E-Ticket to getting your lean, strong body fast.

Your workout can and should vary; using these zones in different ways creates a responsive body that has endurance, speed, and vitality.

HIIT training, one of the most successful protocols for getting fit and lean fast, uses Zone 1 for the warm up and then tends to go between Zone 4 or 5 for the work effort, and back to Zone 2 for recovery. The Tabata protocol (20-second interval ON followed by a 10-second recovery) has negative rest (less rest time than the work segment). Because of this through the 8 cycles of 20-seconds-on-10-seconds-off, the recovery for most people starts to drift into Zone 3.

For those training for a 5K (running) or a 10K (cycling) doing hard efforts in Zone 4 will help develop the muscle endurance required for better performance. Additionally, HIIT training in Zone 5 will help increase power, speed, and endurance and should be incorporated once or twice a week.

HIIT training is hard!

Intervals, especially High Intensity Intervals, stress the body more than work in Zone 2 or 3 (steady state cardio). Therefore, it is recommended that interval training with that kind of intensity be performed 2 to 3 times per week with other training supplementing exercise sessions such as longer endurance training, strength training, core and functional training, and flexibility training.


How to find your Heart Rate Reserve (HRR):

  1. Get your max heart rate by doing a field max. Wear your monitor and after an ample warm up (don’t rush the warm up), you will need an all-out effort. This could be done on a track, a treadmill, or during a 5K race. If you are not a runner, this can be done while walking on an incline with speed. If you choose to do your field max on a bike, you will be able to get a max reading, but it will be somewhat different (slower) than the value when running.
  2. Get your resting heart rate by taking your heart rate first thing in the morning upon awaking, before you get out of bed. Most accurate is to take your pulse from the carotid artery on your neck and count for an entire minute. Since this value can change depending on your recovery from your workouts, it’s best to do this on several days and on days when you are well rested.
  3. Calculate your heart rate reserve: this is the value when subtracting your resting heart rate from your max heart rate.
  4. Find your zones. Depending on the workout, the zone you will target will change. Sprint days will target a different zone than long easy days.

Example Heart Rate Reserve Calculation:

  • Max Heart Rate: 183
  • Resting Heart Rate: 60
  • Heart Rate Reserve: 123
  • Easy Run Target 65% of HRR: 123 x 0.65% = 79.95 + 60 (resting heart rate) = 140 BPM target heart rate.

Heart Rate Zones

The General Heart Rate Zones:

  • Zone 1: 60-70% of HRR: this is a comfortable effort; all day pace, warm up and cool down pace.
  • Zone 2: 70-80% of HRR: This zone is comfortable enough to speak in short sentences and hold a conversation. Most endurance athletes spend about 80% of their training time in Zone 2.
  • Zone 3: 81-93% of HRR: This zone is harder and takes more mental effort to stay here. Most people will automatically drift back toward Zone 2 if they are not focused on staying in this zone.
  • Zone 4: 94-100%: This zone is unsustainable; as you get toward 100% your ventilation will not be able to keep up with the work done, and recovery will be needed soon. Most people can sustain this zone for 30-60 seconds. Most interval training (HIIT) is done in this zone with recovery in Zone 1 or 2.

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