Training zones: How Hard Should You Work Out?

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Ask most people how hard you should exercise and most people will just tell you to keep your heart rate between 60 to 90% of your maximum heart rate. While this is good advice, it’s also very broad. 60% is very much down at the easy end of the intensity spectrum and 90% is almost the top.

Different heart rate levels target your body in different ways. Therefore, a good training plan utilize multiple zones to increase overall performance.

Heart Rate Training for Beginners

The American Heart Association breaks heart rate training into two simple training zones, which is easy to follow for beginners just starting to exercise.

  • Moderate intensity: 50%-70% of HR max
  • Vigorous intensity: 70%-85% of HR max

If you’ve been sedentary and are otherwise healthy start in the moderate zone. As your fitness levels improve you can add vigorous intensity workouts.

Once you become fitter you can move on to training plans that make use of a more complex multi-zone approach, such as the one below.

Multi-Zone Heart Rate Training

There are five training zones that target different aspects of your physiology. These training zones, developed by Polar, can be applied to any type of cardio exercise – running, cycling, swimming, rowing or anything else.

Ideally you want to develop a good sense of what it feels like to be in each heart rate training zone. This allows you to rely less on your heart rate monitor and give yourself more time to focus on and enjoy your workout.

Therefore, perceived effort has been included for each zone. You can also help this process along by using your heart rate monitor to alert you whenever you fall out of the heart rate zone you’re exercising in.

Read more: Heart rate calculator

ZONE 1: Recovery

Very easy workout. Good for beginners and for warm-up/ recovery

What it does: As the name suggests, this training zone is very low intensity and will put more into your body than it takes out.

Feels: Can breathe through your nose; comfortable to talk

Heart Rate: Your pace will be slow and your heart rate will be around 50 – 60% of your maximum.

RPE: In terms of modified Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale (a scale of perceived exercise intensity) you should feel as though you are working at around 4.

How to do it: Training in zone 1 should allow you to exercise for a long period of time. This type of training is ideal for the days following a very tough interval training session or race and is also ideal if you haven’t exercised for a long time.

ZONE 2: Fitness

Comfortable workout designed to put in more than they take out.

What it does: This zone will develop your basic long-haul fitness and is the cornerstone of most endurance athlete’s training. Training at LSD pace will train your body to run/cycle/swim etc a long way slowly. 

Feels: Can still carry on normal conversation; breathing through mouth

Heart Rate: In this zone, your heart rate should be around 60 – 70% of your maximum.

RPE:  Your RPE should be around 5 – 6 when exercising in this zone.

How to do it: This type of training is commonly called long, slow distance training or LSD for short. LSD workouts can last several hours depending on your fitness. 

Tip! This zone is the most commonly used training zone and many people fall into the LSD trap by doing too much of their training at this level. If you want to increase your fitness levels, you need to move up and out of this zone from time to time.

ZONE 3: Aerobic

Comfortable enough workout to hold a conversation. Workouts will improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance. Most training is done in this zone.

What it does: This causes a significant rise in lactic acid which is the stuff that makes your muscles burn. Used for a type of fast, sustained training called tempo training, exercising in zone three will increase your top-end fitness where level two increases your ability to keep on keeping on.

Feels: Can only talk in short sentences; breathing is more noticeable

Heart Rate: Also known as speed endurance, zone three elevates your heart rate to between 70 – 80% of your maximum.

RPE: Your RPE should be around 7.

How to do it: Zone 3 workouts are generally shorter than zone one and two workouts because the intensity is much higher; 20 to 40 minutes is typical. When training in this zone, you should feel you are working at close to your maximum sustainable pace and that going any faster will force you to slow down because of fatigue. Think of zone three as being race pace workouts.

Read more: Tempo training

ZONE 4: Lactate Threshold

Hard workout. Workouts tend to be shorter or broken up with periods of rest i.e. interval training. High intensity exercise where oxygen is in short supply and lactic acid is produced.

What it does: In this zone, also knows as anaerobic threshold, you are dipping your toe into anaerobic (or without oxygen) energy production. You aren’t quite flat out but you are very close. Your pace should be sustainable for only a few minutes. In athletics, this zone is representative of 400 and 800 meter running. This zone raises lactate threshold and increases performance.

Feels: Can only say one word at a time; breathing is difficult and uncomfortable; feeling the (muscle) “burn”

Heart Rate: your heart rate will probably hit 80 – 90% of maximum.

RPE: RPE for this zone should be 8 to 9.

How to do it: Training in zone 4 usually involves interval training – periods of exercise interspersed with periods of rest. For example, you may run 400-meters as fast as you can and then rest three minutes before repeating.

ZONE 5: Anaerobic/ Red Line

Sprinting and other high-intensity workouts that are exclusively anaerobic.

What it does:  Where zone four is sustainable for several minutes, zone five is only sustainable for several seconds – a maximum of 2 minutes. However, most people can stay in this zone for 30 to 60 seconds; think flat-out sprinting.

Feels: Extremely uncomfortable and difficult; breathless; chest pounding; grunt and gasp

Heart Rate: Your heart rate might not actually get chance to respond to your sudden short burst of exercise. However, as you are (or should be) working as hard as you possibly can, your heart rate may well hit 100% of your maximum heart rate once you stop your sprint. If you’re only just beginning to exercise or are out of shape, it is unnecessary and inadvisable to train at this level of intensity.

RPE: RPE 9 to 10 activity.

How to do it: A 100-meter track sprint is a good example of a zone 5 activity. Like zone four, interval training is the name of the game for level five although work periods will be shorter; ten seconds of work alternated with 60-second recoveries are appropriate for this training zone.

Read more: High intensity interval training

Quick Training Zones Guide

The table below summarises the different training zones and when to use them.

Zone 1
(Recovery)
Very Light
50–60%
HR max
Exercise that places minimal stress on the body. Good for beginners, easy training, recovery workouts, and for warm-up. Feels like you could train for hours.
Zone 2
(Fitness)
Light
60–70% 
HR max
Used for longer workouts. Requires basic effort that can be sustained for a long time. Can still carry on relatively normal conversation. Develops endurance fitness. LSD training falls in this zone.
Zone 3
(Aerobic)
Moderate
70–80%
HR max
Used for fast, sustained training. Builds stamina and increases aerobic capacity. Can only talk in short sentences. Tempo training tend to fall in this zone.
Zone 4
(Lactate Threshold)
Hard
80–90%
HR max
Comfortably hard workout where you push the pace to develop speed and strength. Builds performance and increases lactate threshold. Can only talk in single words. Interval training falls in this zone.
Zone 5
(Anaerobic)
Very Hard
90–100%
HR max
Maximal effort. Boosts maximum power and speed. Can only grunt and gasp. Sprinting, high-intensity interval training, and other high-intensity workouts fall in this zone.

Read more: Other ways of monitoring exercise intensity

Using Heart Rate Zones in a Training Plan

A training plan generally includes several training zones. How often and how long you train in each zone depends on your athletic goals, current level of fitness, health, and workout preferences.

Training plans tend to allocate a more time to the lower heart rate zones. An example of a training plan might be:

  • Zone 1: 30% of your time
  • Zone 2: 40% of your time
  • Zone 3: 15% of your time
  • Zone 4: 10% of your time
  • Zone 5: 5% of your time

Unless you are a beginner, have been sedentary or have a pre-existing health condition, you should regularly be working out in all training zones to maximize your athletic performance.

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