Heart Rate Based Endurance Training

A. Introduction

Measuring your heart rate during exercise is an excellent way to monitor exercise intensity. Affordable, easy to use, wireless heart rate monitors are readily available. Many use a chest strap that senses the electrical signals of your heart (electrocardiogram) from your skin and transmits them to a wrist-watch-like monitor that displays the pulse rate. I use one manufactured by:

Button: Polar Logo

In recent years, watch-like devices that measure heart rate from the wrist without a chest strap have been developed. In some circumstances, these monitors may not be as accurate as those that use a chest strap.

See the sidebar for tools to estimate maximum heart rate, calculate training zones, and estimate exercise energy expenditure.

B. Training Zones

Exercise intensity is often divided into training zones. Exercise experts have described many approaches to define training zones. Some use perceived exertion such a Borg's rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE scale)[1]. Others use heart rate. A typical approach is described by Steve House and Scott Johnston[2] in Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete. It is shown in the table below.

Heart Rate Training Zones from House and Johnston2.
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

I currently use a method that derives training zones from ones aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, and maximum heart rate. Please see the excellent book, Training for the Uphill Athlete: A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers by Steve House, Scott Johnston, and Kilian Jornet for further information about this method.

C. Measuring 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.

D. Determining 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.

If you are a competitive long distance runner, your heart rate as you are completing a sprint to the finish in an event lasting 10 or more minutes should be your maximum heart.

HRmax usually differs for different activities. The highest values are usually obtained while running. HRmax values obtained while rowing are usually 2-4 beats/min lower. 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 while cycling that are nearly the same as those measured while running.

ii. Estimating HRmax

The simplest and most popular way to estimate HRmax uses this formula:

HRmax = 220 - age

Tanaka el al.[3] determined, using a meta-analytic approach, that the best formula was:

HRmax = 208 - (0.7 x age)

Tanaka's work has subsequently been verified by others.

A study by Nes et al.[4] from the Norwegian University of Science recommended this formula:

HRmax = 211 - (0.64 * age)

Londeree and Moeschberger[5] at the University of Missouri-Columbia looked at age and 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 highly trained individuals typically have a HRmax that differs from sedentary individuals. This difference varies with age. The following scheme incorporates these findings:

HRmax = 206.3 - (0.711 * 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

E. Prediction of Energy Expenditure (Calories Burned) 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

The formula 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 et al and were reported in their study titled "Prediction of energy expenditure from heart rate monitoring during submaximal exercise." [6]

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


  1. Borg GA (1982). Psychophysical bases of perceived exertion. Med Sci Sports Exerc 14(5), 377–381.
  2. House S, Johnston, S, & Twight M (2014). Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete (Illustrated ed.) . Patagonia.
  3. Tanaka H, Monahan KD, Seals DR (2001). Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate Revisited. Am Coll Cardiol. 37 J(1), 153-6.
  4. Nes BM, Janszky I, Wisløff U, Støylen A, Karlsen T (2013). Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate in Healthy Subjects: The Hunt Fitness Study. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 23 (6), 697-704.
  5. Londeree BR, Moeschberger ML (1982). Effect of Age and Other Factors on Maximal Heart Rate. Res Q Exerc Sport. 53
  6. Keytel L, Goedecke J, Noakes T, Hiiloskorpi H, Laukkanen R, van der Merwe L, & Lambert E. (2005). Prediction of energy expenditure from heart rate monitoring during submaximal exercise. J Sports Sci. , 23(3), 289–297.