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How To Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones And What They Mean

Here’s something you already knew – you can put different levels of effort into exercise. And here’s something you instinctively know – those different levels of effort have different effects on your fitness. Working out and tracking your heart rate zones is the best – and, with heart rate monitors appearing on more and more fitness trackers, the easiest – way to make sure you’re putting the right level of effort into a session to achieve the result you’re looking for.

That could mean working hard enough to make high-intensity interval training (HIIT) effective, or it could help new runners follow the easy, steady, tempo and stride directions in a training plan.

It could also help people give themselves an adequate amount of time to recover after a particularly taxing session. “We know the harder we are training the longer the recovery time,” says Tero Myllymäki, head of physiology research at Firstbeat, a firm which provides heart rate analytics for consumer fitness trackers, professional sports teams and corporate wellness programmes. “Obviously it depends on the training and the person’s fitness level, but typically if you do a hard training session in the high heart rate zones it requires two or three days to recover.”

That’s why heart rate monitoring is one of the most useful features available on fitness trackers – because it can provide an accurate picture of your overall fitness and how challenging individual training sessions actually are.

Planning your training around your heart rate can be an excellent way to ensure you’re working as hard as you intend to each day, or even taking it a bit easier when you’ve planned some active recovery. To do that, however, you need to work out what your heart rate zones are and what each of them means.

How To Calculate Your Heart Rate Zones

There are different methods you can use to work out your training zones, but all of them require your max heart rate so let’s start with that. The simplest method of obtaining your max heart rate is to subtract your age from 220, and you may find your fitness tracker uses this method, but this isn’t especially accurate. In many ways it’s like BMI, a useful measure that’s accurate at a population level, but many individuals will have a higher or lower maximum heart rate for any number of reasons.

“If you’re healthy and able to do exercise safely, without any limiting factors, then it’s good to take your maximal heart rate to understand what your own limits are,” says Myllymäki.

To work out your max heart rate wear a heart rate monitor and push yourself to the limit. Obviously you should be confident this isn’t something that will make you keel over – checking with a doctor first is wise if you’re older. On a treadmill, start with a steady five- to ten-minute warm-up, then run for three minutes at your maximum pace. Then take a three-minute rest and run another three minutes at your max. Use the heart rate peak in the second sprint as your max. Your fitness tracker may allow you to manually set your max heart rate if it’s significantly different to the “220 minus age” formula.

Once you have your max you can work out your heart rate zones as a simple percentage of this – 60-70%, 70-80%, 80-90% and 90-100%.

What Each Heart Rate Zone Means

Broadly speaking, there are four training zones to use based on your heart rate, which break down as below.

60-70%: The fat-burning zone. Easy training at a conversational pace. Good for building endurance through long workouts. This commonly matches the “easy” designation in running training plans.

70-80%: The aerobic zone. The most effective zone for improving cardiovascular fitness – building your stamina. This is the zone you’ll spend most time in during steady runs and resistance workouts.

80-90%: The anaerobic zone. You’ll be working at a fast pace and breathing hard. This zone improves your anaerobic capacity, increasing your lactate threshold (how long you can sustain this level of effort for). Aim for 80% and above during threshold training, tempo runs and the intervals of HIIT workouts.

Just know that you don’t need to spend much time in this zone to get the performance benefits. “For instance, if you are aiming to develop your speed with hard anaerobic intervals, such as very short speed drills with long recovery periods, you probably won’t spend a lot of time in a high heart rate zone,” explains Myllymäki. “But it will still be a hard training session and good for developing your speed abilities.”

90-100%: The VO2 max zone. Push yourself to the limit, working at sprinting (also known as stride) pace for short periods. If you’re relatively new to exercise, make sure to spend a couple of months training in the lower zones to build a good fitness base before considering pushing above 90%.

Some trackers will also have a fifth zone – 50-60% – which is for warm-ups, active recovery sessions or very easy beginner workouts.

Bear in mind that your heart rate is affected by a range of factors, including dehydration, altitude and even how much you’ve been working out in the days preceding your session. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard if the numbers don’t seem to match up to your effort on a given day.

What Is The Best Heart Rate Zone For Losing Weight?

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, one of the zones is called the fat-burning zone so you could reasonably expect that one to be the best for losing weight. Of course, it’s more complicated than that but the fat-burning zone has one key advantage – you can do it for ages. “If we look at the relative contribution of different energy systems then the most efficient way to burn fat is to keep the intensity low and to perform the activity for extended periods – two or three hours,” says Myllymäki, although he recognises that dedicating that much time to exercise isn’t realistic for the vast majority of us.

the most efficient way to burn fat is to keep the intensity low and to perform the activity for extended periods

All the same, if you’ve decided you need to lose some weight there’s a good chance you’re lacking fitness too. In that case Myllymäki recommends sticking to a lower intensity for whatever amount of time you have available, gradually building the aerobic base and toleration to exercise.

Once you’ve developed your capacity, however, it can be beneficial to step up the intensity. “After a while, if you have an hour or half an hour, work in a higher heart rate zones because the overall cost of activity in terms of calories is greater with higher-intensity exercise,” says Myllymäki. “Also, by doing more intensive sessions you will burn more calories during the recovery – it activates the metabolism outside the training and is more effective in improving your fitness, which is a very important factor for overall health.”

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