Finding heart rate zones for accurate heart rate training

A look at my experience with ways to calculate heart rate training zones.

There is very compelling research that training at different intensities builds better overall fitness. It builds speed, but also has been shown to help an individual build endurance so that individuals who train alternating between high intensity and low intensity can sustain long periods of low intensity exercise. I have dappled with heart rate training but never felt that the numbers I was looking at seemed right; it seemed that when I would work my hardest I was still in a really low heart rate zone according to the zones I had calculated based only on age. I recently was tested in a lab and it’s awesome (see super sexy picture). But more on the testing tomorrow; first a little bit more about my foray into intensity training prior to my test.

There are different ways to vary intensity which are nicely laid out in Joe Friel’s The Triathlete’s Training Bible (this is one of the main sources I have looked at and a really comprehensive source, but there is tons of information out there). You can vary intensity based on actual heart rate or using perceived exertion.

For actual heart rate to be effective, you must know your heart rate zones, which I have discovered is very person-specific. A commonly used method to calculate heart rate zones is to subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate, and then you calculate zones based on that number. For this to work, everyone at the same age would have the same maximum heart rate; but this isn’t the case. When I had my lab test done, the test administrator told me the amount that it can vary. I forget what she told me – but it was a high number. This really matters because when you get up into the higher training zones, there is only a 5 beats per minute different between the zones, so if you are 10 or 15 off then you will not be training properly.

I have read about some other calculations to use to get maximum heart rate that are also for the general population (based on age and maybe some other general data).

There are also tests that you can do on your own to try to gauge heart rate zones. I did one a couple of years ago for both cycling and running (and trained based on those zones for awhile but then stopped thinking that they didn’t feel very accurate. I have been using perceived effort until this recent lab test]. I think that one of the field tests was to ride 20 minutes as hard as I could and then somehow use the average heart rate to figure out heart rate training zones; and I think the test for running was similar.

And then there is lab testing. I will share my experience tomorrow.