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Heart Rate and Training Zones

A. Introduction

Heart rate (HR) can be used to monitor exercise intensity. Exercise target HR ranges or "training zones" can be determined from a combination of resting and maximum HR. Heart rate can be used to estimate calories used during exercise.

B. Resting Heart Rate (HRrest)

HRrest should be measured 2 to 5 minutes after waking while still in bed. HRrest be can higher with illness and overtraining.

C. Maximum Heart Rate (HRmax)

Determining HRmax is not as easy as measuring HRrest. Directly measuring HRmax is the most accurate method but it requires an intense effort to achieve a maximal level of exertion. Many people estimate HRmax based on age and other factors. Estimated HRmax can differ from measured HRmax by as much as 10 beats/min in some individuals.

i. Measuring HRmax

The best way to measure your HRmax is to do a running test. You should not do this without medical advice if you are over 50, if you are obese, or if you have any history of heart problems.

This is a good way to measure HRmax. First, warm up by jogging for 10 minutes. After warming up, run as fast as you can for three minutes at an even pace. Then, jog for two additional minutes. Finally, run as fast as you can for another three minutes. Your HRmax is the maximum level reached during the second 3-minute run.

HRmax usually differs for different activities. Highest values are usually obtained while running. HRmax rates obtained while rowing are usually 2-4 beats/min lower and those obtained while cycling are 5-6 beats/min lower. Rates measured while swimming can be as much as 15 beats/min lower. Interestingly, elite level cyclists usually have HRmax rates while cycling that are nearly the same as that measured while running.

ii. Estimating HRmax

The simplest and most popular way to estimate HRmax is to use the formula:

HRmax = 220 - age

A paper by Londeree and Moeschberger from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that the relationship between age and HRmax is not a linear. They suggest using this formula:

HRmax = 206.3 - (0.711 * age)

Similarly, Miller et al from Indiana University proposed using this formula:

HRmax = 217- (0.85 * age)

Londeree and Moeschberger also looked at other variables that might affect HRmax. Gender and race had no effect. Type of activity and levels of fitness did predict differences in HRmax. Elite endurance athletes and moderately trained individuals typically have a HRmax 3 or 4 beats/min lower than a sedentary individual. They also found that well trained athletes over age 50 are likely to have a higher HRmax than average for their age.

The following scheme incorporates these findings:

HRmax = 217- (0.85 * age)

  • Use this HRmax value for running and VersaClimber training
  • Subtract 3 beats for rowing training
  • Subtract 5 beats for bicycle training
  • Subtract 14 beats for swimming training
  • Subtract 3 beats for elite athletes under age 30
  • Add 2 beats for elite athletes between ages 50-55
  • Add 4 beats for elite athletes over age 55

See the sidebar for a tool to estimate your HRmax

D. Training Zones

I use percentage of maximum heart rate to calculate training zones. There are many variations. I am currently using one described by Steve House and Scott Johnson in Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete.

Heart Rate Training Zones from House and Johnston.
Description Name Range %HRmax Feeling Breathing
Recovery Zone 0 < 55% Very Light Conversational
Basic Endurance Zone 1 56% - 75% Easy Breathing Nose Breathing
No Man's Land Zone 2 76% - 80% Medium Deep & Steady
Uppermost Aerobic Zone 3 81% - 90% Fun Hard Short Sentences
Anaerobic Zone 4 91% - 95% Hard No Talking
Maximum Effort Zone 5 96% - 100% Maximum N/A

Another popular method uses percentage of heart rate reserve (HRreserve = HRmax - HRrest) to determine target HR ranges for training zones. This approach was initially described by Karvonen. Although the heart rate reserve method is popular, I think it is difficult to justify its use. A discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this page.

Karvonen Heart Rate Training Zones adapted from Serious Training for Endurance Athletes by Sleamaker and Browning.
Name Description % HR Reserve
Zone I Overdistance, Long-Distance-Slow 60% - 70%
Zone II Endurance, Strength, Body Speeds 71% - 75%
Zone III Endurance, Strength" 76% - 80%
Zone IV Intervals, Uphill/Vertical, Race Pace 81% - 90%
Zone V Racing, peaking sprints 90% - 100%

See the sidebar for a tool to calculate your target training zones.

E. Prediction of Energy Expenditure (Calories) by Heart Rate

Heart rate can be used to estimate energy used (Calories burned) during exercise. The formula for men is:

Energy Expended = [(Age x 0.2107) + (Weight x 0.09036) + (Heart Rate x 0.6309) - 55.0969] x Duration / 4.184

and for women is:

Energy Expended = [(Age x 0.0740) + (Weight x 0.05741) + (Heart Rate x 0.4472) - 20.4022] x Duration / 4.184

Where the result, energy expended, is in Kcal, age is in years, weight is in pounds, heart rate is average heart rate during the exercise in beats/minute, and duration is in minutes.

These equations were derived by LR Keytel, JH Goedecke, TD Noakes, H Hiiloskorpi, R Laukkanen, L van der Merwe, and EV Lambert and were reported in their study titled "Prediction of energy expenditure from heart rate monitoring during submaximal exercise."

See the sidebar for a tool to calculate calories used during exercise.