Are you looking to improve your fitness and overall health? Are you ready to start or revise your current exercise program to kick-off the New Year? If so, you will want to learn about the five heart training zones to get the most from your exercise program and better reach your fitness goals.
Learn About The 5 Heart Rate Training Zones
There are five heart rate training zones. The zones describe and measure the intensity at which your body is using aerobic metabolism to produce energy from fat and glycogen. Each zone corresponds to a specific percentage of your measured and age-determined maximum heart rate.
The 5 Training Zones are:
- Zone 1 training corresponds to 50 to 60% of your maximum heart rate.
- Zone 2 training corresponds to 61 to 70 % of your maximum heart rate.
- Zone 3 training corresponds to 71 to 80% of your maximum heart rate.
- Zone 4 training correspond to 81 to 90% of your maximum heart rate.
- Zone 5 training corresponds to 91 to 100% of your maximum heart rate.
Each training zone provide certain benefits. Your training goals will determine how much time you devote to training in the various zones. This article is geared towards the individual who exercises primarily for health benefits. How much time is spent training in the various zones will vary greatly among competitive athletes. A marathon runner trains differently than an Olympic sprinter.
One caveat to keep in mind, training in lower zones provides some benefit in training in the zones above it but the opposite isn’t true. In other words, Zone 2 training will improve Zones 3, 4, and 5 training, but training in Zone 4 will not improve Zone 2 training.
Determining Your Maximum Heart Rate
To take advantage of these heart rate training zones first thing you need to know is what is your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate can be calculated, or estimated by using your age. A frequently used equation is your maximum heart rate is = to 220 minus your age. For instance a 52 year old has an estimated maximum heart rate of 168 or 220 – 42. This method, however, frequently overestimates your actual maximum heart rate.
A more accurate calculation using age is felt to be 208 – (0.7 x age). In this instance the predicted maximum heart rate in a 52 year old would be 208 – (0.7 X 52) which = 172. Another method is the Maffetone Method which is 180 – your age. The Maffetone Method is specific to determining your upper limit of Zone 2 Training.
See our articles on Calculating Your Target Heart Rate.
The best way to determine your maximum heart is to actually measure during an exercise stress test. Once you determine maximum heart rate it would be most helpful to get a heart rate monitor such as a smart watch which will measure your heart rate enabling you to get into and stay in the training zone you want to be in at that time. If you are over age 40, have heart disease, or have risk factors for heart disease you should speak to your physician before determining your maximum heart rate.
Let’s now delve into each of the heart rate training zones.
Heart Rate for Zone 1 Training
Zone 1 training corresponds to 50 to 60% of your maximum heart rate. It is a really easy effort and is used for warmups and warm downs, recovery after workouts, and easy workouts that add to aerobic base. You many not feel like you achieved anything training in Zone 1. During this training you should be able to carry on a conversation. Zone 1 training basically corresponds to everyday living and walking around.
What is the purpose of Zone 1 training? In Zone 1 training build capillaries that transport oxygen to your muscles and carry waste (lactate) away from your muscles. The more capillary pathways that you can build, the more efficient you will be.
Heart Rate for Zone 2 Training
Zone 2 training is typically the lowest zone used for training purposes. During Zone 2 training you should be able to carry on a conversation speaking in full sentences. This zone serves as the foundation upon which aerobic conditioning is built. For those of you accustomed to more vigorous you may feel like you are not getting much benefit from Zone 2 training and the tendency is to want to push your heart rate into Zone 3 where you feel like you are exercising.
Exercising in Zones 2 will improve your mitochondrial number, function, flexibility, efficiency, and fitness. Zone training can dramatically improve your overall health. Peter Attia, MD defines Zone 2 training “as the highest metabolic output/work that you can sustain while keeping your lactate level below two millimole per liter”. Lactate is a waste product.
Physiologic changes that occur from Zone 2 training include:
- Increased efficiency of the left ventricle of the heart leading to an increased stroke volume. Stroke volume is the amount of blood the heart pumps during a single contraction.
- Lower resting heart rate.
- Increased VO2 max.
- Increased mitochondria and capillary density.
- More efficient fat burning.
- Increased endurance.
Zone 2 training does not trigger much of an inflammatory and stress response, therefore, the body easily recovers from Zone 2 training. Typical Zone 2 workouts involve continuous efforts with durations of 20 minutes up to several hours.
This is the zone you will want to focus on if your goal is to improve your overall health while improving many fitness goals. In fact, from a health standpoint it is recommended you spend about 80% of your training in zones 1 and 2. Zone 2 is so important we will write a more in-depth article on it in the near future.
The purpose of easy workouts (Zones 1 and 2) is to improve your aerobic fitness without overtaxing your cardiovascular, metabolic, and muscular systems.
Your body can make all of the necessary physiological adaptations for increased cardiovascular efficiency and improved aerobic endurance by running at a lower heart rate without going into Zone 3.
Heart Rate for Zone 3 Training
There is some disagreement among experts about the usefulness of Zone 3 and Zone 4 training.
Zone 3 training is a gray zone and is referred as “no benefit” training by some exercise physiologists but others think Zone 4 training provides little improvement.
Zone 3 is the zone many of us including myself find natural to train in. In Zone 3 you know you are exercising, but you are not going easy enough to get the benefits of a nice easy effort as you do in Zone 2 and you are not training hard enough to get the benefits of a race pace of Zone 4 or Zone 5 type workout. In Zone 3 you know you are exercising, thus you think you are benefiting, but you are not benefiting as much as you think. During Zone 3 training you can typically say a few words but should not be able to speak in complete sentences.
During Zone 3 training you begin producing lactate or lactic acid. This is more true for beginners or individuals in fair fitness condition. Highly conditioned athletes may not produce lactic acid until they are in Zone 4 and even Zone 5. Lactic acid inhibits energy production when it build up in your muscles. Muscle fatigue occurs when you make more lactic acid than your body can remove leading to an accumulation of lactic acid.
Zone 3 training can be helpful if your goal is to simultaneously run farther and faster. It is geared towards tempo runs and threshold intervals. Zone 3 training will trigger release of stress hormones if done for any length of time which can be harmful for health.
Heart Rate for Zone 4 Training
Zone 4 training corresponds to 81 to 90 % of your maximum heart rate. Some call this a “race pace” zone. Speaking more than one word at time should be difficult. Your legs and lungs will begin to burn in Zone 4 training. In Zone 4 you find that you simply want to stop exercising. If you are very fit you may able to train in Zone 4 for an hour, but if you are beginner you likely will have struggles maintaining your heart rate in Zone 4 for more than 5 or 10 minutes.
There are many benefits to Zone 4 training and these include:
- Your body begins burning carbohydrates rapidly in this zone.
- You will boost your lactate threshold and you tolerate lactate better.
- Zone 4 training prepares you for competition-type events.
- Zone 4 training boosts your anaerobic capacity (the total amount of energy from the anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems).
- Zone 4 training triggers utilization of more muscle fibers which serves to build mitochondria in fast twitch fibers.
Heart Rate for Zone 5 Training
Zone 5 training corresponds to 91 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. If you can speak, you are not in Zone 5. Zone 5 is designed for short bursts of activities.
Zone 5 training focuses on maximum speed and output. You will strengthen your muscles, increase muscle power, build up mitochondria in your fast-twitch muscles. The body becomes better adept at handling lactic acid.
Is Life a Marathon or a Sprint?
Life is actually both. It is largely a marathon interspersed with sprints (stress and high intensity moments). Therefore, it makes sense to train your body physically for both guided by the heart rate training zones. We recommend you spend a bulk of your time in Zone 2 training (endurance or marathon) and sprinkle in some higher intensity work (Zones 4-5) for brief periods. An example might be spend 3-4 hours of Zone 2 training a week (3 to 4 one hour sessions) with two days of getting into Zones 4 or 5 for 5 to 10 minutes a session.
The RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion can be used instead of heart rate to guide your zone training. Using a RPE scale of 1 to 10 the
0 Zone 1: Complete rest.
1 Zone 1: Very easy; light walking.
2 Zone 1: Very easy; light walking.
3 Zone 1: Very easy; walking.
4 Zone 1: Still easy, light sweat may occur
5 Zone 2: Starting to work just a little, can feel your heart rate rise.
6 Zone 2: Heart rate increasing but, able to talk in full sentences.
7 Zone 3: Strong effort; breathing labored, can still maintain pace.
8 Zone 4: Race Pace
9 Zone 5: 10k effort, very hard
10 Zone 5: cannot hold effort for more than a minute or two
Key Heart Rate Data
Critical heart rata data can be obtained by training with a heart rate monitor such as a Smart Watch. The key data you want to capture are you resting heart rate, recovery heart rate, and maximum heart rate. Noting these numbers can tell you if you are becoming more fit and can be used to adjust your training regimen.
Resting Heart Rate
As the name implies this is your heart rate while you are at rest. It can vary from 60 beats per minute to 100 or more beats per minute. Resting heart rate is influenced by your age, sex, medications, and current fitness level. Resting heart decreases the more fit you become because as you become more fit your heart becomes more efficient and can pump more blood and oxygen in fewer beats per minute.
Beta blockers are medications used to treat some types of heart disease and blood pressure. Beta blocker slow the heart rate and will prevent your heart rate from increasing as much as it normally would during exercise compared to if you were not on a beta blocker. In other words, you might be able to get your heart rate up to 150 during moderately strenuous exercise but may find it difficult to get it above 120 at the same intensity if on a beta blocker.
Recovery Heart Rate
Recovery heart rate is the time it takes for your heart rate to return to its resting heart rate after vigorous exercise. Some heart rate monitors can measure this. The more fit you become the faster your heart rate will return to its resting heart rate.
Maximum Heart Rate
We discussed above how to determine your maximum heart rate. A heart rate monitor may be able to do this for you as well. Alternatively, you can determine your maximum heart rate on your own once given the ok by your doctor. What you do is run as hard as you can for 3 minutes and measure your heart rate. Then rest for 3 minutes. Then run as hard as you can for another 3 minutes and measure your heart rate again. Your heart rate after the second run should be higher than the first and will serve as your maximum heart rate.
Maximum heart rate will be specific to the activity. For instance, your maximum heart rate will be lower when you cycle compared to running. You need to periodically re-determine your maximum heart rate as it will decrease with age and increase slightly with training.
You do not train to increase your maximum heart rate. Improvement in your fitness is better determined by your resting heart rate and your recovery heart rate.