Heart Rate Training

Heart Rate based training is training for success. It is one of the best and most easily accessible indicators of improvement. Not only does it allow you to notice the body's improvements, but it also highlights when the body needs rest. Step one is purchasing the proper equipment to measure your heart rate, and step two is knowing how to effectively trained based upon heart rate. If you're looking to purchase a heart rate monitor, you can check out my review of the Polar S625X. This post will focus on step two: effective heart rate based training.

Most training plans are based on intensity. Intensity is generally described by five training zones, depicted in the chart below.
Intensity Indicators
Each zone is set based on percentages of generally one of three values:
  1. Lactate Threshold
  2. VO2 Max
  3. Maximum Heart Rate
Of the above values, Lactate Threshold (LT) has been shown to be one of the best predictors of endurance performance. Lactate threshold is the point at which your body can no longer get rid of the lactic acid produced by your muscles, and it starts to accumulate in your blood. This lactate threshold is closely correlated with heart rate and breathing rate.

VO2 Max represents the maximum amount of oxygen that can be used by the muscles during a specified period. Your base VO2 Max is genetically determined, but you can increase it by training.

Measuring lactate threshold requires a medical test while on a treadmill or stationary bike. It can also be estimated based on a very specific "field tests" on the bike or run. However, since there is no correlation to the heart rate, which is easier to determine, I recommend building your training plan around your maximum heart rate.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
One alternate to these indicators worth mentioning is the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion. This is another method of measuring the intensity of a workout if you are not using a heart rate monitor. The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion is a 1 to 20 scale. The range was developed because it represents about 10% of the heart rate experienced by a moderately fit 20-something person. In other words, 6=60bpm, or roughly a resting heart rate (no exertion), and 20=200bpm, or a maximum heart rate. The chart below depicts the RPE scale in detail.
Heart Rate Variation
A reduction in heart rate for a given intensity is usually due to an improvement in fitness but a number of other factors cause variation in heart rate for a given intensity:
  • Dehydration can increase heart rate by up to 7.5%
  • Heat and humidity can increase heart rate by 10 beats per minute (bpm)
  • Altitude can increase heart rate by 10 to 20%, even when acclimated
  • Biological variation can mean the heart rate varies from day to day by 2-4bpm
Resting Heart Rate (RHR)
Determining your resting heart rate (RHR) is rather easy. Find somewhere nice and quiet and lie down and relax. After 20 minutes, determine your pulse rate (beats per minute). Use this value as your RHR.

It should be noted that the single best way to determine your RHR is to check your pulse after waking up in the morning. If you wake to an alarm, turn the alarm off and continue to lie down for two minutes, then check your pulse. The surprise of the alarm can escalate your heart rate momentarily, so that is why it is best to wait another two minutes after turning it off. Also, it is generally more accurate to determine your RHR by placing your index and middle finger against the carotid artery on the underside of your neck, as opposed to using a heart rate monitor. For some reasons, heart rate monitors struggle with this lower calculation. Do not use your thumb to take your pulse as your thumb as its own pulse.

The heart is a muscle so with regular exercise it will become larger and more efficient as a pump. As a result, you will find that your RHR gets lower so you should check it on a monthly basis.

Max Heart Rate (MHR)
Unlike your RHR, your maximum heart rate never changes. There are several formulae you can use to calculate your maximum heart rate, but the most accurate calculation is to perform a max heart rate test. The following is a list of various formulae used to calculate maximum heart rate:

The easiest and best known method for calculating your maximum heart rate is:

MHR = 220 - your age

Londeree & Moeschberger
Their 1982 paper from the University of Missouri-Columbia indicates that MHR varies mostly with age, but the relationship is not a linear one. They suggest the following formula:

MHR = 206.3 - (0.711 * Age)

They further concluded that sex and race have no impact on your MHR, but that your MHR is affected by the activity and levels of fitness. Studies have shown that MHR on a treadmill is consistently 5-6 beats higher than on a bicycle and 2-3 beats higher on a rowing ergometer. Heart rates while swimming are significantly lower, around 14bpm, than for treadmill running. Elite endurance athletes and moderately trained individuals will have a MHR 3-4 beats slower than a sedentary individual. It was also found that well-trained over 50s are likely to have a higher MHR than that which is average for their age.

Miller et al
A paper by Miller et al (1993) from Indiana University proposed the following formula as a suitable formula for calculating MHR:

MHR = 217 - (0.85 * Age)

USA Researchers
Evidence from several United States researchers, reported in the Med Sci Sports Exerc (May 2007) identified the following formula as more accurately reflecting the relationship between age and maximum heart rate:

MHR = 206.9 - (0.67 * Age)

UK Researchers
Research carried out by scientists at John Moores University in Liverpool in 2007, reported in Int J Sports Med, came up with the following formulae for predicting maximum heart rates in both endurance and anaerobically trained athletes:

Male Athletes: MHR = 202 - (0.55 * Age)
Female Athletes: MHR = 216 - (1.09 * Age)

Miller, Londeree & Moeschberger
To determine your maximum heart rate you could use the following, which combines the Miller formula with the research from Londeree & Moeschberger:

  • Use the Miller formula: MHR = 217 - (0.85 * Age)
  • Subtract 3 beats for elite athletes under 30
  • Add 2 beats for 50 year old elite athletes
  • Add 4 beats for 55+ year old elite athletes
  • Use this MHR value for running training
  • Subtract 3 beats for rowing training
  • Subtract 5 beats for bicycle training
VO2 Max
It is also possible to calculate your MHR as a percentage of your VO2 maximum.

Other Methods of Calculating MHR

A stress test can also be conducted to determine your MHR. Another option is to actually perform a maximum heart rate test. To do so, I recommend a specific 2 mile build run. This means that you will begin at a moderate pace and gradually increase your speed. The best way to do this is to find a standard track, perhaps at a local high school. On such a track, eight laps around should equate to a 2 mile run.

Begin the run at a moderate pace. Every two laps (every half mile) increase your speed. Thus, you will increase your speed three times during this workout. By the third increase (two laps or half a mile to go), you should be in an all out sprint. Once you cross the finish line, you should be completely exhausted - completely exhausted. Immediately check your heart rate either using a heart rate device or by checking your pulse under your neck or on your wrist (count the number of beats in six seconds and multiply by ten). This number should be an accurate indicator of your maximum heart rate. For more accurate results, perform the MHR test a couple times over a two to three week period. Note: it is important that once you complete the two mile test run you do not collapse immediately. Once you cross the line, transition to a very slow walk to check your heart rate and to avoid injury.

Working Heart Rate (WHR)
Rather than using a straight percentage of your MHR, the best way to calculate your training zones takes account of your RHR and your MHR. The difference between these two figures is known as your working heart rate (WHR), or your heart rate reserve. WHR is the level at which you want your heart to beat to ensure you are working at an aerobic pace. This figure will typically be in at 60-80% of your MHR. Again, to calculate your WHR, use the formula:


Each training zone is a percentage of your WHR, added to your RHR. Here is an example of how to calculate a zone value %:

Your coach told you to do a run at 70% (Zone #3: Aerobic). You have a RHR of 50bpm and your MHR is 200bpm. This means your WHR is 150bpm. 70% of your WHR is 105. Add that figure to your RHR (50bpm) to get a figure of 155bpm. This means your heart rate should be 155bpm if you are doing an aerobic workout in Zone #3 (70%).

This is known as the Karvonen Formula for calculating your target heart rate for the various training zones. Mathematically, here is how it looks:

(Training % * WHR) + RHR = your training zone target heart rate

Training Zones
Now that you know your MHR, you can begin to utilize heart rate based training for your workouts. For starters, I recommend breaking your week up into a minimum of two aerobic workouts (Zone 3) and two anaerobic workouts (Zone 4). There are more than these two zones, and you are certainly not limited to four workouts per week (I do on average 14-18 workouts per week when in full training mode). It is important to allow proper rest time. You should typically allow one day of rest per week. Below I list the five heart rate training zones in detail:

Zone #1: Warm-Up
  • MHR: 50-60%
  • VO2: <48%
  • Lactate Concentration: <2mmol/l
  • RPE: 6-9
  • Description of RPE: easy, talking very comfortable, hardly notice breathing
  • Result: more fat burned, approximately 4 calories/minute (150lb person)
  • Exercise Type: light effort - warm-up, cool down, rehabilitation
  • Duration: 15-30 minutes
  • Benefits: prepare for harder exercise, improved self-esteem, stress reduction, blood chemistry, get fit
Zone #2: Recovery
  • MHR: 60-70%
  • VO2: 48-60%
  • Lactate Concentration: 2-3mmol/l
  • RPE: 10-12
  • Description of RPE: easy to somewhat hard, comfortable talking, aware of breathing
  • Result: mostly fat burned, approximately 7 calories/minute (150lb person)
  • Exercise Type: moderate effort - long, slow distance, recovery and regeneration
  • Duration: 60 minutes
  • Benefits: improves the heart's ability to pump blood and improves the muscles' ability to utilize oxygen - the body becomes more efficient at feeding the working muscles and learns to metabolize fat as a source of fuel
Zone #3: Aerobic
  • MHR: 70-80%
  • VO2: 60-73%
  • Lactate Concentration: 3-4 mmol/l
  • RPE: 13-14
  • Description of RPE: somewhat hard to hard, very aware of breathing, still comfortable to talk
  • Result: nearly equal amounts of carbohydrate and fat burned, approximately 10 calories/minute (150lb person)
  • Exercise Type: upper moderate effort - endurance and steady state
  • Duration: 45 minutes
  • Benefits: increases your cardio-respiratory capacity (your ability to transport oxygenated blood to the muscle cells and carbon dioxide away from the cells) and increases overall muscle strength - most effective for overall cardiovascular fitness
Zone #4: Anaerobic
  • MHR: 80-90%
  • VO2: 73-86%
  • Lactate Concentration: 4-8 mmol/l
  • RPE: 15-16
  • Description of RPE: hard to very hard, can still talk but not comfortably
  • Result: more carbohydrate than fat burned, approximately 15 calories/minute (150lb person)
  • Exercise Type: hard effort - time trials, intervals, tempo, hill work
  • Duration: 10-20 minute pieces
  • Benefits: increases the lactate threshold (the point at which the body cannot remove lactic acid as quickly as it is produced), which improves performance
Zone #5: VO2 Max
  • MHR: 90-100%
  • VO2: 86-100%
  • Lactate Concentration: >8mmol/l
  • RPE: 17-20
  • Description of RPE: Very, very hard to maximal, can't talk except for short phrases
  • Result: mostly carbohydrates burned, approximately 20 calories/minute (150lb person)
  • Exercise Type: maximum effort - sprinting, high speed intervals
  • Duration: 1-7 minute pieces (lactic acid develops quickly as you are operating in oxygen debt to the muscles)
  • Benefit: increase fast twitch muscle fibers, which increases speed
Typical Week
Given all of the above information, what would a typical week look like? Below is a guide that I use, but please note that it is not the blueprint for every week. Aerobic workouts can be substituted anywhere. I would tend to substitute it on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. An anaerobic workout could be substituted in on Saturday. Again, this is a general guide, not the rule.
Looking for an easy way to calculate your target heart rate for the various training zones? Click on the link below to download my Excel-based Training Zone Heart Rate Calculator.

3-Fitness Triathlon & Personal Training, USAT Coach Ken Johnson
Sweat 365, Lisa Sabin
Sports Coach, Brian Mackenzie


  1. This post has been very deep and useful to increase my knowledge in the field of knowledge and its various facets. Well, I'm so glad I found this post because I've been looking for some  information.Personal Trainer Network

  2. This is the best and most thorough post I have ever seen on HR training - thank you so much - so helpful!!!

    1. Glad to hear you found it helpful and thanks for the comment!