For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose. A time to push with might and main, and a time to rest and recover. A time for training long and slow, and a time for going hard and fast.
Yet ask most people how intensely you should exercise and you’ll often be told to simply keep your heart rate between 60 to 90% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). While this is good advice, it’s also very broad.1 60% is very much down at the easy end of the intensity spectrum and 90% is almost the top.
What are Heart Rate Zones?
The wide spectrum of easy to hard exercise can be broken down into helpful heart rate zones. Each heart rate zone has specific benefits. This helps to ensure that you are exercising at the right intensity to achieve your goals (e.g. run longer, swim faster), and to train at an effort suitable for your level of fitness. Heart rate zones can also be helpful in other ways. For example, it can:
- Make sure you’re exercising hard enough (or not too hard) during your workout.
- Help you to balance tougher and easier workouts, allowing enough time for recovery.
- Guide a beginner runner in keeping the right pace.
- Help a beginner just starting exercise to meet the recommended amount of physical activity.
In other words, using heart rate zones allows you to be much more prescriptive and precise with your workout time, and achieve better results.
There are a variety of ways of dividing up heart rate zones, and beginners should start with a simple 3-zone approach. Once you become more fit you can move on to 5 heart rate zones, which is more comprehensive.
Heart Rate Zones for Beginners
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks exercise intensity into 3 simple training zones, which is easy to follow for beginners starting to exercise.234
- Low intensity. This is light activity that is 50% – 64% MHR (or RPE 4). Activities include casual walking or doing light household shores.
- Moderate intensity. This is physical activity that is 64% – 77% MHR (or RPE 5-6). Activities might include brisk walking, cycling or hiking on flat terrain, and general gardening. The CDC recommends at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity a week to gain significant health benefits, or an equivalent mixture of moderate and vigorous activity.
- Vigorous intensity. This is exercise that is 77% – 93% MHR (or RPE 7-8). Activities in this zone include running, jump rope, and swimming laps. The CDC recommends at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity a week to reap significant health benefits, or an equivalent mixture of moderate and vigorous activity.
1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity is roughly equivalent to 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.5
Heart rate zones are defined as percentages of your maximum heart rate. So to get started you first need to determine your maximum heart rate (use this heart rate calculator or calculate your target heart rate on your own).
It’s also a good idea to develop a good sense of what it feels like to be in each heart rate training zone. Therefore, rating of perceived exertion (RPE) has been included for each zone. RPE is a simple way of gauging how hard physical activity feels like on a scale of 0 to 10. This subjective method of assessing exercise intensity is an extra tool in your arsenal to better guide your training and help you become more attuned to your body.
The 5 Heart Rate Zones
A good training plan should utilize multiple zones to increase overall performance and reduce the risk of injury. There are five heart rate training zones that target different aspects of your physiology:6
How often and how long you train in each zone depends on your athletic goals, current level of fitness, health, and workout preferences. For example, many elite distance runners, cyclists, triathletes and other endurance athletes spend about 80% of their training in zones 1 and 2.7 It is a strategy that works for recreational runners too.89
Very easy workouts designed to put in more than they take out.
- Feels: Can breathe through your nose; comfortable to talk
- Heart Rate: About 50 – 65% of maximum heart rate.
- RPE: 4
- Improves: Recovery
Benefits: Warming-up with lower-intensity exercise before workouts prepares you physically and mentally for physical activity, while cooling down after training facilities recovery.101112 If you do tough workouts, a session in this zone one to two day after strenuous physical activity may aid post-workout recovery.1314
For beginners who have been inactive, exercising at this intensity has a positive effect on cardiovascular and metabolic health, such as improving blood sugar control and blood lipids.15161718
How to: Your pace will be slow, so training at this effort level should allow you to exercise for a long period of time. In addition to traditional cardiovascular activities, Tai Chi and some forms of Yoga fall in this zone.19
If you’re regularly active, this heart rate zone is very low intensity and will put more into your body than it takes out, making it an ideal workout for the days following a very tough interval training session or race.
- Feels: Can still carry on normal conversation; breathing through mouth
- Heart Rate: About 65 – 75% of maximum heart rate.
- RPE: 5 – 6
- Improves: Endurance
- Workout: LISS
Benefits: Regular exercise at this intensity is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and dementia.2021222324 It also has a positive impact on blood pressure, cognitive function, energy levels, sleep, and mental health.25262728293031
A popular form of training at this intensity is low-intensity, steady-state cardio (LISS) or if you’re a runner long, slow distance training (LSD). This type of workout improves cardiovascular fitness, develops endurance, and generally does not require a lot of recovery afterwards. Regular endurance training strengthens the heart and improves blood supply, the ability to take in more oxygen, and energy-making capacity.32333435
How to: LSD training is a comfortably paced, continuous workout that is generally at least 30 minutes in duration and can last several hours, depending on your goals and level of fitness.
This zone is the most commonly used training zone and for most people should form the bulk of their workouts. Still, to further increase your fitness levels, it’s important to move up and out of this zone from time to time.
Moderately hard workouts of moderate duration.
- Feels: Can only talk in short sentences; breathing is more noticeable
- Heart Rate: About 75 – 85% of maximum heart rate.
- RPE: 7
- Improves: Stamina
- Workout: Tempo training
Benefits: Exercising at this intensity has many of the same positive effects on health as zone 2, but may confer even greater improvements in blood pressure, blood sugar control, and cardiorespiratory fitness.36373839
In this heart rate zone you are exercising around the lactate threshold, which is the point at which a lot of lactic acid builds up and your muscles start to burn. Training in zone 3 teaches your body to use oxygen more efficiently, boosts the rate of lactate clearance, and improves how intensely you are able to exercise for a sustained time.404142 Basically, it boosts stamina, helping you to go faster over moderate distance.
How to: Zone 3 workouts typically last 20 to 60 minutes. A fast, continuous type of training called threshold or tempo training falls in this zone.
At this intensity you are working close to or at your maximum sustainable pace, so that if you were to go any faster you would have to slow down or stop because of fatigue.
Hard workouts that are shorter or broken up with periods of rest.
- Feels: Can only say one word at a time; breathing is difficult and uncomfortable; feeling the “burn”
- Heart Rate: About 85 – 95% of maximum heart rate.
- RPE: 8-9
- Improves: Speed endurance
- Workout: HIIT
Benefits: Interval training in this zone has a positive impact on cardiovascular and metabolic health, improving insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and blood vessel function.434445464748
In zone 4 oxygen is in short supply and a lot of lactic acid is produced. Exercise at this intensity improves the heart’s ability to pump blood and increases the amount of oxygen your body can utilize (VO2max).4950 It boosts exercise efficiency, how long you can exercise before exhaustion, and speed endurance.515253
How to: In this zone, you aren’t quite flat out but you are close. Exercise usually involves high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a workout consisting of periods of intense exercise (called work intervals) interspersed with periods of recovery.
Work intervals generally last at least 30 seconds. For example, alternating 1-minute work intervals with 1-minute recovery periods. HIIT workouts with longer intervals tend to be harder, such as 4-minute work intervals alternated with 3-minute recovery periods.5455
Sprinting and other high-intensity workouts that are exclusively anaerobic.
- Feels: Extremely uncomfortable and difficult; breathless; chest pounding; grunt and gasp.
- Heart Rate: About 95 – 100% of maximum heart rate.
- RPE: 9 – 10
- Improves: Speed & power
- Workout: Sprint interval Training (SIT) & Tabata
Benefits: Interval training in this zone improves insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and cardiovascular function.565758
Exercise at this intensity taxes the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. This improves both anaerobic and aerobic fitness, and leads to increases endurance, speed, and power.596061626364
How to: Efforts are near-maximal or maximal intensity, and only sustainable for several seconds. This means your heart rate might not actually get a chance to respond to the sudden short burst of intense activity.65 However, it may well hit 100% of your maximum heart rate once you stop your sprint. Zone 5 training is only for the very fit.
Sprint interval training is the name of the game (HIIT, but even harder). Work periods are tough and short, lasting only seconds and recovery periods tend to be much, much longer to allow for complete recovery. For example, 20-second work intervals alternated with 2 minute recoveries.66 Tabata workouts are an exception. The rest periods are only 10 seconds, which makes them incredibly tough.
How to Use Heart Rate Zones
Planning your workouts using the 5 training zones will allow you to target specific elements of your fitness, so that you can tailor your training to meet your particular goals.
Training plans generally allocate more time to the lower heart rate zones. HIIT (zone 4 and 5) is strenuous, which means the body needs more time to recover and repair. Too much exercise at this intensity can negatively impact regulation of stress hormone cortisol and lead to symptoms of overtraining.67686970
To allow sufficient time for recovery, ideally avoid performing HIIT workouts on consecutive days. Research suggests 1 to 3 workouts per week may yield maximum results, depending on how tough the rest of your training schedule is and how much you’ve recovered from your workouts.7172737475
The table below summarizes the different heart rate zones and when to use them.
Exercise that places minimal stress on the body. Feels like you could train for hours. Good for beginners, easy training, recovery workouts, and for warm-ups and cool-downs.
Used for longer workouts. Requires comfortable effort that can be sustained for a long time. Can still carry on relatively normal conversation. Develops endurance fitness. LISS cardio and LSD training falls in this zone.
Used for fast, sustained training. Builds stamina and increases lactate threshold. Can only talk in short sentences. Workouts are comfortably hard. Tempo training tend to fall in this zone.
Workouts where you push the pace to develop speed endurance. Builds performance and increases aerobic capacity (VO2max). Can only talk in single words. HIIT falls in this zone.
Near-maximal to maximal effort. Boosts maximum power and speed. Can only grunt and gasp. Sprinting, sprint-interval training, and Tabata fall in this zone.
*Maximum heart rate (MHR)
These training zones can be applied to any type of cardio exercise, such as running, cycling, swimming, and rowing. However, your maximum heart rate is likely to vary according to the type of sport you are doing. While the effort feels the same, people tend to have a higher heart rate when running compared to sports such as swimming.7677
Be you beginner or advanced, recreational athlete or Olympian, the same rule applies – avoid tough spikes in training. Don’t jump into intense workouts, instead prepare your body by gradually increasing training load. Steadily increase exercise intensity, slowly incorporate more challenging workouts, and if you’re training hard allow enough time for recovery. This will maximize the health benefits, increase athletic performance, and lower the risk of injury.787980
Beginners who have being doing some moderate- or vigorous physical activity, but less that the recommended amount, should start in the moderate-intensity zone (see heart rate zones for beginners). As your fitness levels improve, gradually include more vigorous-intensity physical activity.
However, if you have been particularly inactive a good way to start is with low-intensity activity and with time slowly incorporate moderate physical activity. If you have a health condition, speak to a health care professional to get advice on the best type and amount of exercise for you.81
There is a time and a purpose to every workout. Whether you want to swim longer, run faster, or cycle uphill with more va-va-voom, performing different workouts in a variety of heart rate zones will help you create a more balanced, well-rounded training plan that is geared towards achieving your goals. So mix it up and keep it interesting.