Heart Rate Training: What It Is, and Why You Should Do It

When people tell you to “listen to your heart,” it’s usually meant figuratively. But with certain kinds of athletic training, you can interpret the phrase quite literally.

People associate heart rate with the intensity of your physical activity, using the number of beats per minute (BPM) as a metric for tracking your effort — the faster the heart rate, the harder you’re working, and vice versa.

(Sort of brings double-meaning to the phrase “racing heartbeat,” right?)

The tricky part about using your heart rate as a training metric is that it’s far from being cut and dry; there’s no “one-size-fits-all” tracking chart that can divulge exactly how much effort you’re putting into your workout just because you hit a certain BPM. Heart rate training is variable with every individual, so it’s difficult to create one set of standards that every person can work off of.

But if that’s the case, why is it considered a legitimate training measure, and how can you even benefit from it?

Let’s dig deeper.

What Exactly Is Heart Rate Training?

Well, as we said earlier, it’s pretty straightforward: heart rate training measures how hard your heart is working to gauge how much effort you’re putting into your workout.

And while it may not be an exact science, it’s a completely viable training method to account for your body’s response to physical activity. Not only does this allow for completely individualized training plans, but it also grants easier access to adapting your training as your cardiovascular system improves.

You can think of heart rate training like a spectrum: you have your resting heart rate, which indicates no physical exertion, and your maximum heart rate is the highest intensity you can muster.

To gauge what your heart rate “spectrum” looks like, one of the first steps is to calculate both your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate.

Calculating your resting heart rate is simple — next time you find yourself lounging on the couch, or sitting at your desk, take your pulse. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6 to get your resting heart rate. 

Finding your max heart rate is a little more complicated. There are a handful of methods that athletes utilize for measuring max HR — some are loose formulas that provide estimates, while others involve advanced technology and lab testing.

Estimating Your Maximum Heart Rate

One of the most common formulas people rely on is quite straightforward: subtract your age from 220! This will give you a vague estimate of where your maximum heart rate is likely to land, based on averages across the aging spectrum.

Now of course, working with a simplified formula isn’t the most scientific approach; it’s virtually impossible for every 55-year-old to have a maximum heart rate of 165. Plus, there are a multitude of other factors that can impact your heart rate, like gender, fitness level, body mass, etc.

Ultimately, if you use this calculation, just be sure to take it with a grain of salt — this estimate works best as a starting point.

In an effort to specify this estimate to your particular training, some resources suggest field testing as an option, which is where you push yourself to your maximum training capacity for a consistent period of time. Though it is technically a method for figuring out your max heart rate, we won’t really be covering it in detail here, as it can be dangerous to execute without a proper aerobic foundation. Field testing is usually suggested for experienced athletes who train at high levels on a daily basis.

Lab Testing Maximum Heart Rate

If you want to obtain the MOST accurate measure of your max heart rate, you can take a formal lab test to assess the specific physiological data behind your effort.

This process is also known as VO2 max testing (which may sound more familiar if you’re a runner). By harnessing the power of metabolic technology, these lab tests can determine nuanced details about your body’s physiological capabilities, including aspects like maximum oxygen intake or rate of lactate production.

What makes VO2 max testing so distinct is that running in this controlled environment allows you to hit your truest maximum effort. You’re strapped into a harness on a treadmill and are prompted to run until your body gives out — which can sound alarming, but is a medically sound way of collecting that metabolic data.

VO2 max tests are supervised by a medical professional, who will then help you translate what these data points mean for your heart rate and training. With a thorough understanding of what energy source your body’s using (and at what rate), you can hash out specific training thresholds to guide your workouts.

Benefits of Heart Rate Training

The obvious benefit is that working with your specific heart rate allows you to create a training structure completely tailored to your physiology. And the more your body adapts to the different training thresholds, the more optimized your training becomes.

Plus, your workouts can evolve with you over time — as your cardiovascular system improves, you can recalculate your heart rate ranges to reflect more accurate measures of intensity. (Optimizing as you go!)

Having standardized ranges also helps with keeping your training intensity in check! Many athletes have a tendency to go too hard (or work for too long), which will ultimately increase your heart rate and push your body beyond a sustainable level. Tracking your heart rate in real-time is extremely beneficial for staying within the bounds of certain workout intensities.

This becomes especially imperative if you have specific training goals. Depending on what athletic gains you’re striving for, you’ll want to customize your program to incorporate sufficient time training the proper energy systems (e.g., aerobic vs. anaerobic energy). 

Take running, for instance. When you’re in the base training phase, your runs are geared towards light to moderate runs for the sake of aerobic efficiency, recruiting slower pacing and more mileage to really build up your overall endurance. But with something like lactate threshold training, your workouts will naturally demand higher intensities, landing somewhere between the moderate to hard heart rate zones. And even that still doesn’t require your maximum amount of effort; that’s reserved for full-on sprints or elite-level training.

How to Use Heart Rate Training

Remember: variety is a key component to a well-rounded plan.

So, regardless of your overall goals, it’s important that you’re working all of your energy systems throughout your training.

While your particular training may require certain durations of different intensities, the grand scheme of your training should include a steady rotation through all the different heart rate zones to some extent.

In order to maximize the structure of heart rate training, it’s imperative to understand when it’s best to use which zones, as well as how to leverage that knowledge to best suit your training needs.

What Are the 5 Heart Rate Zones?

Once you’ve determined your max heart rate (or at least have a decent estimation of it), you can start formulating the rest of your training plan.

When you’re using heart rate to guide training, the structure is broken down into categories known as “heart rate zones.” These zones are based on percentages of your max heart rate, rather than specific BPM numbers, allowing you to see where your training intensity lands within the spectrum of each threshold.

To help standardize this structure, each zone is correlated with a certain level of training intensity:

And thankfully, these zones weren’t decided arbitrarily. There are particular physiological training benefits associated with each tier, allowing you to build an even more targeted approach to your training in the big picture.

How Do You Know What Heart Rate Zone to Use?

When you’re working towards a particular training result (like speed, strength, or endurance, for instance), it’s incredibly important to monitor your intensity. This is in part to ensure that you don’t overwork your body, but also to ensure that your training is as optimized as possible.

In the context of heart rate training, people have associated specific athletic benefits and types of workouts with each heart rate zone:

Zone 1 (Very Light): Recovery and Cool-Downs

Zone 2 (Light): Warm-Ups and Basic Endurance

Zone 3 (Moderate): Aerobic Endurance

Zone 4 (Hard): Speed Endurance and Performance

Zone 5 (Maximum): High-Level Performance

Based on these correlations between intensity and heart rate zones, you can create an initial training structure to match the needs of your goals.

Most athletes will spend a majority of their time in the lower heart rate zones because they primarily rely on aerobic energy, allowing you to sustain that level of intensity for longer durations of time.

(Even elite level athletes who specialize in high intensity activity will still dedicate a good chunk of training time to lower intensity exercise, as this helps maintain an aerobic foundation and ensures they aren’t subjecting their bodies to maximal effort with every workout.)

On the topic of matching heart rate zones to your training, let’s address another significant factor that can impact the effectiveness of your plan…

Determine Your Training Goals — and Stick to Them!

Understanding what each heart rate zone means is one thing, but that knowledge will only get you so far if you don’t have an end goal to work towards.

Of course, you can still improve your athletic ability just by diversifying your training intensities. But, if you’re looking to truly get the most out of your training time, you need to establish specific goals to dial into (otherwise, your time spent with each kind of training won’t be deliberate enough to yield the results you want).

Ultimately, the key is to train all your energy systems while still prioritizing the intensities that will benefit you most. If you’re a marathon runner in need of an impressive endurance base, tip the scales so more of your training lands within heart rate zones 2 and 3. But, reserve a handful of workouts for higher intensities to hone your plyometric power for behind-the-scenes maintenance and performance.

And vice versa, if you’re in the market for high power, high intensity sports, make sure you include enough lower heart rate training to offset those heavy workloads.

Listen to Your Heart!

When it comes down to it, heart rate training is a pretty ideal approach: the whole premise is based on listening to your body and building a plan around how it physiologically responds to your activity.

Granted, it may not be as cut and dry as following a training plan from the internet, but following a premade plan will typically come at the cost of truly deliberate training. And, when it comes time to progress further, those templated plans won’t be able to adapt as fluidly as heart rate training can.

After all, who doesn’t want a training plan that can grow alongside you and your ever-improving performance?

By Megumi Kamikawa

Megumi is a graduate from San Jose State University with a degree in English, Creative Writing. Previously, she has worked as a Writing Specialist, where she served hundreds of peers in the SJSU community with her knowledge of English pedagogy. In addition to her experience with academic, creative, and professional writing, she has experience with creating visual and informational resources for various audiences. She has enjoyed taking courses on anatomy and basic physiology, and continues to educate herself in the world of health and wellness through her work with Competitive EDGE.

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