Training with heart rate is beneficial for many athletes. By monitoring your heart rate during a workout, you can quite literally monitor how hard your body is working to perform. Further, by understanding a little more about heart rate, you can learn to train smarter because there are different physiological benefits to training at different heart rate levels. To help understand the different physiological benefits, we break heart rates up into different training zones.
What are heart rate zones?
Heart rate zones are defined ranges of an athlete’s heart rate. We break up the entire range of possible heart rates into zones to better understand the benefits of training at that level. The zones are defined as percentages of an athlete’s heart rate reserve which is the full range of heart rates that an athlete can experience (their maximum heart rate minus their minimum heart rate). The table below shows the different heart rate zones. Notice the different training benefits in each zone. Also notice the primary energy system that you use in each zone.
How can heart rate help me?
Monitoring heart rate during a workout can help you to align your training goals with the types of workouts that you are doing. For example, if you want to lose weight by burning more fat, you should do a lot of training in zone 2 where the primary energy system is fat. On the other hand, if you are an experienced marathon runner who wants to build speed to try to qualify for Boston, you should have some workouts in zone 4 to help build that speed.
It is also important to watch how much time you spend overall in the different heart rate zones. Endurance athletes spend the large majority of their time in zone 2. Work with your coach to make sure you are getting a good balance of training in the appropriate heart rate zones to match your training goals.
How to calculate your heart rate zones
There are many different methods to calculate heart rate zones. You can read in detail about all of them in different articles, but here I explain one method based on heart rate reserve. Whichever method you choose to use, try to understand that all methods are getting at the same truth: on the spectrum of heart rates that you have to work with, there are different levels of effort and at those different levels, there are different primary benefits. Some workouts are aimed at improving aerobic ability and those should be done in a relatively lower heart rate zone. Some workouts are aimed at increasing strength and those workouts should be done in a relatively higher heart rate zone. You also need to make sure that you get sufficient recovery after a demanding workout.
Check out the table below or this attachment for details on how to calculate your heart rate training zones.
Biking vs running
Many triathletes that watch their heart rate during workouts will quickly notice that their heart rate during comparable efforts on the bike and the run do not have comparable heart rates. Most often, the athlete’s heart rate on the run is noticeably higher than the same effort level on the bike. For example, a conversation pace run might have a heart rate of 145 and the same perceived effort on the bike might have a heart rate of 125. The explanations of why this discrepancy occurs get somewhat muddled. What it really comes down to is that biking is one of the few sports that have a high demand for both aerobic ability and strength. Most sports emphasize only one or the other (ex. football emphasizes strength, running emphasizes aerobic ability). When an athlete cannot get their maximum heart rate as high on the bike as they can on the run, it is because the strength in their legs is holding them back from reaching their full aerobic potential.
It is important to note that in many high-performing, professional-level triathletes, this discrepancy does not exist – they will have the same heart rate on comparable efforts for both biking and running. This is because they have built up an appropriate amount of leg strength to truly operate at their heart’s full capacity.
***If you notice that your heart rates are not comparable biking and running at similar levels of effort, make sure you calculate separate heart rate training zones for both biking and running by using Option 2 to calculate your maximum heart rate for biking as well as for running.***