How to Calculate Your Heart Rate Training Zones

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Take your workout to the next level by tracking your heart rate!

The key to a great workout is to train to match your goals. And this requires exercising at the right intensity and getting into the right training zone.

For example, some workouts are short and intense, which builds speed and power. Other workouts are super long and light in intensity, which develops cardiovascular endurance. Each way of exercising achieves different outcomes.

Heart-rate training involves exercising in personalized training zones that are determined using your heart rate to help you know how intensely you are exercising during your workout. Heart rate is one of the best indicators of exercise intensity and effort.

Zone 1
(Recovery)
50–60% HR maxVery Light
Zone 2
(Fitness)
60–70% HR maxLight
Zone 3
(Aerobic)
70–80% HR maxModerate
Zone 4
(Lactate Threshold)
80–90% HR maxHard
Zone 5
(Anaerobic)
90–100% HR maxVery Hard

Heart rate or percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR) is used as a guide for intensity.

Monitoring the intensity of your workouts using your heart rate allows you to be much more prescriptive and precise with your workout time, and achieve faster, better results.

However, if you are just starting to exercise, focus first on getting better at your chosen activity. So if you’re a beginner runner, build a solid foundation first, focusing on running form and adding miles. As you become more proficient, take your workouts to the next level by utilizing heart rate training.

Read more: Training zones: How Hard Should You Work Out?

There are three of main methods of calculating your heart rate training zone.

KARVONAN METHOD

The most common method for calculating heart rate training zone (the range in which your heart rate should remain while exercising), is known as the Karvonan method.

The Karvonan method is very simple. This simplicity is one of the reasons this method has its critics.

To calculate your heart rate training zone, perform the following calculation:

HR = Heart Rate

1

Determine Maximum Heart Rate

220 – age in years *

In other words, subtract your age in years from 220.


2

Heart Rate Training Zone for Exercise

MHR x target intensity

In other words, multiply your maximum heart rate (step 1) by the target exercise intensity (as a percentage of maximum heart rate).


Example

A 35 year old who wants to train at moderate intensity (zone 2), which is 70% – 80% of MHR.

Step 1

220 – age in years

That would be: 220-35 = 185 
So maximum heart rate = 185 bpm


Step 2

MHR x target intensity

For 70% MHR, that would be: 185 x 70% = 129.5 bpm

For 80% MHR, that would be: 185 x 80% = 148 bpm

So, according to this method, exercising at moderate intensity, would require that heart rate remains between 129.5 bpm and 148 bpm.

Critics of the Karvonan method believe that this formula does not reflect the needs of individual exercisers or take into account current fitness levels.

However, for many people, Karvonan method provides an appropriate heart rate training zone for aerobic exercise.

HEART RATE RESERVE

This more personalized method for calculating your heart rate training zone is called Heart Rate Reserve or HRR.

Heart Rate Reserve tends to result in a higher heart rate training zone compared to the Karvonan method and is popular with endurance athletes and fit individuals.

To use this calculation, you need to know your resting heart rate. Obtain this figure by taking your heart rate when you are relaxed, well rested and caffeine-free. So your best bet is to do it first thing in the morning, just after waking up.

1

Determine Maximum Heart Rate

220 – age in years *

In other words, subtract your age in years from 220.


2

Take Your Resting Heart Rate

To obtain your resting heart rate take your pulse for 60 seconds when you are relaxed, well rested and caffeine-free.

So your best bet is to do it first thing in the morning, just after waking up.


3

Calculate Your Heart-Rate Reserve

MHR – Resting HR

(Number from Step 1 – Number from Step 2)

In other words, subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.


4

Determine Heart Rate Training Zone for Exercise

(HR Reserve x target intensity) + HR Rest

(# from Step 3 x % intensity at which you want to exercise) + # from Step 2

In other words, first multiply your heart-rate reserve (step 3) by target exercise intensity (as a percentage of maximum heart rate), and afterwards add back your resting heart rate (step 2).

Simply repeat this final step, to determine the different heart rate zones. Plugging in the different % target intensity to find the different zones.

It seems repetitive or counterintuitive, but you do need to subtract your resting heart rate at the previous step, and then add it back in this step. But it is necessary! Just be sure to follow the steps in order.


Example

Example for a 35 year old with a resting heart rate of 60 bpm and a maximum heart rate of 185bpm, who wants to exercise at moderate intensity (zone 2), which is 70 – 80% of MHR.

Step 1

220 – age in years

That would be: 220 – 35 = 185
So, maximum heart rate = 185 bpm


Step 2

Resting heart rate = 60 bpm


Step 3

MHR – Resting HR

That would be: 185 – 60 = 125
So, heart rate reserve = 125 bpm


Step 4

(HR Reserve x target intensity) + HR Rest

For 70% MHR, that would be: 125 x 70% = 87.5
Then, add HR Rest: 75 + 60 = 147.5 bpm

For 80% MHR, that would be: 125 x 80% = 100
Then, add HR Rest: 100 + 60 = 160 bpm


So, exercising at moderate intensity, would require that heart rate remains between 147.5 bpm and 160 bpm.

You can repeat this for other exercise intensities (i.e. zones), such the fitness training zone, as shown in the table above.

As you can see this method results in a higher training zone than the basic Karvonan method calculation for the same exerciser.

All those steps can be summed up in one mammoth equation (if you want it!):

Exercise HR = % of target intensity (HR Max – HR Rest) + HR Rest

* The formulae used to estimate maximum heart rate are based on population statistics and do not take factors such as physiology, genetics and certain medications into consideration, which can impact MHR and result in different MHR results for people of the same age. These formulae are intended to be no more than an estimate.

The only way to truly determine your own maximum heart rate is to do a maximal heart rate test. Use the MHR formula only to get started and then do a maximal heart rate test when possible.

MAXIMAL HEART RATE

The method of using the formula of 220 minus your age to determine your maximum heart rate is an estimate based on age, based on the statistical analysis of a large cohort of people. The gold standard for determining maximum heart rate would actually involve a treadmill stress test in a lab with a cardiologist.

Alternatively, with your doctor’s approval, you can also determine your maximum heart rate by doing your own maximal heart rate DIY test. Besides the gold standard lab test, this is the next best method of obtaining a personalized result that considers your physiology, genetics, and other individual factors.

Testing essentially involves doing short, intense and repeated bouts of exercise to try and drive your heart rate up as high as possible.

For example, running 400-meters as fast as you can, resting a minute and then repeating. After two or three such efforts, your heart rate should reach its maximum. Use this figure for all your subsequent heart rate calculations.

Consider the following when doing maximal heart rate testing:

  • MHR testing should only be attempted if you’re very fit and healthy.
  • You should be well rested before and energised enough to push yourself to reach your maximum-effort threshold.
  • Warm-up before completing the test.
  • Complete the test using the specific activity you plan on doing, e.g. running, cycling, etc.

If maximal heart rate testing is not feasible, use the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) chart in conjunction with your heart rate to help you find and correct any errors from the estimates.

Read more: DIY fitness tests

How to Take Your Heart Rate

Taking pulse from your wrist: Turn your hand so that your palm is facing up. Using the tips of your index and middle fingers of your other hand, gently feel for a groove on your forearm, just below the fold of your wrist and the base of your thumb. Press lightly over the radial artery to take your pulse.

Taking pulse from your neck: Place your index & middle fingers on the carotid artery, which is on your neck just below the angle of your jaw and to the side of your windpipe. Do NOT feel for both carotid artery pulses at the same time, as this can cause severe slowing of the heart.

Take pulse for a full 60 seconds to determine your heart rate, or take for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.

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