Training with Heart Rate

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.

Heart Rate Zones

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.

Heart Rate Zones Handout

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.***

Fitness Tests

Throughout your training, it is a good idea to do fitness testing. This allows you to track your progress in order to make sure you’re on track to meet your goals. If you’re on track, great! If you’re off track, what can you do to adjust your training to make sure you are still able to accomplish your goals?

*This list includes all of the fitness testing that I like to do with my athletes. The swimming and biking tests are for triathletes, so runners can omit those.

Planks (front, right side, left side, and back)

Do a timed plank for as long as you can hold it while maintaining good form. In each plank, your body should stay in a nice straight line – shoulders to hips to knees to feet. On each plank, make sure your hand or hands are grounded directly below your shoulders so that your arm makes a 90 degree angle with the ground.


Do as many consecutive push-ups as you can while maintaining good form. If you can’t do many or any push-ups, try doing modified push-ups on your knees – just make not of that if you do modified push-ups.

Chair Squats (both legs and single leg)

Do as many consecutive chair squats as you can using just your body weight. Make sure you sit down all the way into the chair to get the full range of motion. First, test doing a squat with both legs and then test your right and left legs individually (take a break between each set to rest). For the single leg squats, you can hold your arms out for balance, but don’t hold on to anything and don’t use your second leg to assist.

If you an do 500 with both legs and 100 with one-leg, stop there because you’re doing great! You’re ready for a more challenging test.

Wall Squat

Hold a timed wall squat for as long as you can. Your back should be firmly against the wall. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground and your shins should be perpendicular to the ground (everything is a 90 degree angle).

Freestyle Swim (50 m and 500 m)

In the pool, do a timed 50 m sprint and a timed 500 m swim. Yards are fine too, just make sure you make note of whether you are doing the test based on yards or meters and stick with that throughout your training program. These tests are intended to test your speed and endurance in the water.

Bike (5 min and 1 hr)

Do a timed biked ride of 5 minutes and 1 hour and record how far you went. This should be an all-out effort for the duration of the test. This works best to do on a trainer to eliminate outside variables like the weather and traffic. If you do it outside, try to find a flat course and use the same course each time you test. These tests are intended to test your speed and endurance on the bike.

Bike Drills

These tests are intended to measure how efficient you are with your pedal strokes.

Top Bike Cadence: Set your bike up on the trainer and put the resistance or your bike in the easiest gear. Start spinning and spin up to the highest cadence you can get until you start bouncing out of the saddle. Record the top cadence you were able to reach. This works best if you have a cadence sensor on your bike. If you don’t have a cadence sensor, spin up to your highest cadence. Hold that cadence for 10 seconds and count the number of times your right leg reaches the bottom of the stroke. Multiply that number by 6 and you have your top cadence. Counting yourself will not be quite as accurate, but if you do the test the same way throughout your training, you should at least be consistent.  

Peg Leg: Bike like a one-legged pirate! Set your bike up on the trainer and put the resistance or your bike in the easiest gear. Clip in only one foot and time how long you can continue to pedal with just one foot. The catch is that your time is up when you feel/hear a distinct click at the top of your stroke. That click happens when you are not applying force to the pedals all the way through your stroke. If you never get that click, time until you can no longer pedal.

Run (1 mile and 10k)

Do a timed run of 1 mile and 10k. This works best if you do it outside or on an indoor track (not on a treadmill) because you’ll get the most accurate time. If running outside, try to find a flat course and use the same course each time you test for consistency. These times can help you calculate your VDOT (the amount of oxygen your body consumes in a minute) which is a good measure of your body’s efficiency. You can then use your VDOT to calculate appropriate running training paces and project potential race times for whatever running distance you are training.