Heart Rate Training 101

February is National Heart Month so when better to think about heart rate training!  This Q&A will help you learn more about HOW to utilize heart rate in your training.  Below, I have responded to the most commonly asked questions.  

  • What are heart rate zones and how do I figure out what mine are?

Heart rate zones indicate the intensity at which you are exercising based on how fast your heart is pumping to deliver oxygen to the muscles.  Many people set their zones based on a formula (220-age) to determine maximum heart rate (MHR) and taking percentages from there. This is a generic formula and doesn’t work well for everyone.  When coaching my athletes, I find it most accurate to perform lactate threshold testing and set zones based on a percentage of their lactate threshold. Lactate threshold (LT) is the level when lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood faster than it can be removed. Once you go over your lactate threshold, your body can only perform at that level for a finite amount of time before you are forced to slow down or stop.  Working with a coach to determine your lactate threshold and subsequently train to raise that lactate level threshold will improve fitness and performance!

  • Should I do every workout in the higher zones to get the maximum benefit? 

Training at high intensities has a purpose, but workouts like these should be used cautiously and sparingly.  Most workouts should be done at an aerobic effort for the best increase in fitness. A coach can help you develop a training plan that incorporates key intensity workouts as well as aerobic development workouts and recovery days to provide a safe and effective approach to reach your goals.  

  • If I’m training by heart rate, how will I know if I’ve gotten more fit?

In addition to heart rate, many athletes track distance and time (pace) and/or power.  As you get more aerobically fit, you’ll find your paces get faster to maintain certain heart rate zones.  If you train with power, you’ll see you are able to produce higher wattages in your heart rate zones than you previously did.  These adjustments indicate your fitness has improved!

  • Should I use the same heart rate zones for every type of exercise I do?

Heart rate zones vary based on the activity you are doing.  Running typically produces higher heart rate due to the impact and working against gravity.  Cycling is slightly lower (approximately 10 beats per minute).  Swimming is even lower (approximately 10 beats per minute lower than cycling) due to non-impact and cool water temps.  Heart rate zones should be determined with these variabilities in mind.  It is ideal to test lactate threshold in both running and cycling before setting training zones.  Monitoring heart rate while swimming is difficult because heart rate monitors often lose contact with the chest as water travels between the body and the strap. I prefer to use pacing in swimming after determining time trial pace for specific distances.

  • I can’t ever get my heart rate as high as my friends when training.  Am I not working hard enough?

This is a common assumption, especially when using heart rate tracking where you can see the values on a screen during a class.  If you are an aerobically fit athlete, you will find it nearly impossible to get in the same zones as other people in the class.  That is because you have trained your heart to pump more volume with each beat. You’ll also find that your heart rate drops quickly between sets because you have trained your heart to recover efficiently. When you lay horizontally, you’ll see that your heart rate stays low as well.  This is because you are not working against gravity and you are working smaller muscles that require less oxygen (blood flow) to contract. 

Courtney Kutler ~ORR and Run Formula Coach

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