Heart Rate Training: Years ago I read some advice that the single most effective thing you could do to improve fitness was to buy a heart rate monitor. That sure sounded easier than training!

Training in specific heart rate “zone” is an effective way of monitoring effort and ensuring you are pushing yourself within defined limits.  Many articles promote the benefits of heart rate training and connect it with weight loss.

At Zoom Fitness many of our cardio machines are equipped with heart rate monitors however for an accurate reading you should consider investing in a heart rate monitor. 

A simple formula for working out your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. You can then calculate percentages of your maximum rate to determine heart rate training zones (more about them later).  For many people, simply working out at a heart rate greater than about 130 beats per minute will ensure some aerobic benefit.  But for performance-minded athletes, the best place to start is with a max heart-rate test.  Discovering this maximum is a little painful but worthwhile.  It's also worth noting that the alternative formula of "220 minus your age" is notoriously inaccurate.  If your pulse is naturally high, then the standard training range recommendations will be too easy and for those with a naturally low resting rate the higher heart rate zones will be more challenging.

Maximum heart rate test: it's hard work and it's going to hurt!

Before taking the test, you'll want to be in at least decent shape.  Otherwise you'll tire before actually achieving true maximum heart rate.  It's also a good idea to get your doctor's approval.

It's possible to do the test while working out outside.  You may even attain your max at the top of a hill during a hard group ride or during your morning run.  But doing the test indoors on a stationary trainer or treadmill provides a better, more-controlled environment.  To do the test you will need a friend to assist you.  The goal is to reach your max in about 15 minutes.  If you're on a bike, shift onto the large chain ring and one of the larger rear cogs.  Start pedalling - or, if you're running, begin your warmup, building your pace up as you go - and achieve a heart rate of 120 to 130 beats per minute.  If using one of the Zoom Fitness Spin bikes ensure the tension is adjusted so you can stand out of the seat and really give it everything you’ve got.  Using a heart-rate monitor, have your friend record your heart rate every minute.  The monitor consists of two parts: a transmission belt strapped around the chest that relays the heart-rate signal wirelessly, and its receiver, a wristwatch or a device mounted to a handlebar.  The receiver continuously displays the heart rate in beats per minute.  An appropriate increase is two or three beats per minute, carefully increasing your speed and resistance.  Remember, this is a maximal test, it's hard work and it's going to hurt.  You must push yourself until you absolutely cannot maintain the speed anymore.  At this point, the number on your heart-rate monitor will be a solid approximation of your maximum heart rate.  With this number, it's now possible to determine your key heart rate training zones.

Knowing these numbers can help you maintain a heart rate that delivers the most benefit for what you want to accomplish on each workout. Remember that it's just as important to have easy days as it is hard training sessions. Without rest, you won't be able to train hard enough, recover, and grow stronger.  Keeping close track of your workout statistics will help you avoid overtraining, which can result in an elevated pulse during easy sessions and warmups and poor recovery between intervals.

So stay safe, know your maximum, and do it the healthy way.

Traditionally the training zones are:
HRZonesThe Energy Efficient or Recovery Zone - 60% to 70%
Training within this zone develops basic endurance and aerobic capacity.  All easy recovery training should be completed at a maximum of 70%.  Another advantage to training in this zone is that while you are happily fat burning you may lose weight and you will be allowing your muscles to re-energise with glycogen, which has been expended during those faster paced workouts.

The Aerobic Zone - 70% to 80%
Training in this zone will develop your cardiovascular system.  The body's ability to transport oxygen to, and carbon dioxide away from, the working muscles can be developed and improved.  As you become fitter and stronger from training in this zone it will be possible to undertake some longer sessions at up to 75%, so getting the benefits of some fat burning and improved aerobic capacity.

The Anaerobic Zone - 80% to 90%.
Training in this zone will develop your lactic acid system. In this zone, your individual anaerobic threshold (AT) is found and the amount of fat being utilised as the main source of energy is reduced as glycogen stored in the muscle is predominantly used.  One of the by-products of burning this glycogen is lactic acid.  There is a point at which the body can no longer remove the lactic acid from the working muscles quickly enough.  This is your anaerobic threshold (AT).  Through the correct training, it is possible to delay the AT by being able to increase your ability to deal with the lactic acid for a longer period of time or by pushing the AT higher.

The Red Line Zone - 90% to 100%
Training in this zone will only be possible for short periods.  It effectively trains your fast twitch muscle fibres and helps to develop speed.  This zone is reserved for interval training and only the very fit are able to train effectively within this zone. You may be interested in our article on High Intensity Interval Training and Tabata Intervals.

A significant benefit of being aware of your maximum heart rate and the heart rate zones is to ensure you are training to a defined plan.  For instance, you may decide to have a session with 10 minutes in the Anaerobic Zone bookended either side with 10 minutes in the Aerobic Zone.  This workout will contribute to both fat loss, improved cardiovascular health and an enhanced anaerobic threshold.

As far as the Red Line Zone is concerned – I might leave that to Dr Michael Mosley and the more dedicated athletes among you!