How to use heart rate in training

Your heart rate (or pulse) is measured in beats per minutes (BPM) and increases with the amount of effort you put into cardiovascular exercise such as running, spinning or any other vigorous high intensity exercise. This phenomenon occurs to make sure the blood circulates fast enough to provide the muscles with a sufficient amount of oxygen and nutrients to keep going.

Keeping an eye on your heart rate while working out is a great way to measure how hard you are working and ensure you make the most of your workout. In fact, you can establish different heart rate zones which you can aim to reach and/or maintain depending on your goals.

Maximum heart rate and training zones

Heart rate training relies on bpm as a workout intensity guide. This can be achieved by assessing your maximum heart rate (MHR) and calculating your five different training zones accordingly.

All you need to do to calculate your maximum rate is to subtract your age from 220. You can then determine your zones as follows:

Zone number Percentage of maximum heart rate (MHR)
Zone 1 50% to 60%
Zone 2 60% to 70%
Zone 3 70% to 80%
Zone 4 80% to 90%
Zone 5 90% to 100%


Your target zones will depend on your goals. For instance, marathon runners will focus on lower zones to maintain endurance while sprinters will focus on the higher ones to achieve maximum effort.

For the average exerciser, it is essential to slow down if you find yourself constantly in zone 4 or higher. On the other hand, you may want to push yourself harder if you find yourself continuously in zone 2 or lower. As a general rule, you should train at 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Remember not to push yourself to the point of exhaustion, and constantly listen to your body especially as you train in the higher zones. Going higher than your maximum heart rate for long periods of time could be dangerous for your health, especially if you are new to exercise.


Measuring your heart rate

You need an efficient way to track your heart rate in order to engage in heart rate training. You could use the ‘old school’ way of counting your BPM by placing your fingers on your pulse and using a timer, however this is difficult to sustain throughout your exercising session. Chest straps tend to be the most accurate heart monitors, however wrist watches are more popular as they are more comfortable and lightweight.

You can manage your training by using the readings throughout your workout as well as after. In fact, many devices measuring heart rate will log your readings so you can review your progress over time.


Heart rate fluctuations

Your capacity to hit certain training zones depends on a number of factors, and you may notice you need to either work harder or slow down to counterbalance those.

Your fitness level is an important factor when it comes to resting heart rate. The more athletic you are, the lower your resting heart rate – which means you will have to work harder to hit the higher training zones. Air temperature also effects your heart rate as heat and humidity may raise your heart rate. Medication use also needs to be taken into consideration as beta blockers can slow your heart rate while thyroid medication may raise it. Finally, stress is also an element that may increase or decrease your heart rate.