Heart rate (HR) monitors aren’t just for serious athletes anymore. Today even recreational exercisers are strapping them on before treadmill runs or spin classes. But does tracking your heart rate and training in specific heart rate “zones” translate into better results?
HR monitors measure the rate at which your heart is beating through sensors built into a strap worn around the chest. The feedback is then displayed on whichever compatible device you’re using (or directly on your TV if you’re doing a program like Inferno HR). However, this isn’t just meaningless data that should be overlooked or ignored – many trainers say knowing your heart rate helps take results to another level.
“Heart rate provides an objective measurement of how your cardio-respiratory system is working,” says Joe Dowdell, owner of Peak Performance, one of New York City’s top personal training facilities and home to many A-list clients. “The more intense the workout, the higher your heart rate will be.”
“At the same time, more aerobically fit people will have a lower heart rate at a given workload,” Dowdell says. “By using a heart rate monitor during a workout session, trainers can gauge the intensity of the work being performed in a given exercise and either scale back the intensity or crank it up, accordingly.”
Enter the Zone
Heart rate monitors can help you adjust your effort so your heart rate falls within a specific “zone” or percentage of maximum heart rate. There are five heart rate zones, each offering slightly different benefits to exercisers.
Here’s a general guideline to heart rate zones used by Dowdell:
- Zone 1: 50 to 60 percent — This is very comfortable effort. Aim for zone 1 during the warm-up, cool down, and recovery between higher intensity intervals.
- Zone 2: 60 to 70 percent — “Average” effort; easy enough to still maintain a conversation. Use this for training aerobic maintenance or cardiac output, or the volume of blood the heart pumps per minute.
- Zone 3: 70 to 80 percent — Above average effort. Ideal for training for improvements in aerobic capacity.
- Zone 4: 80 to 90 percent — Hard effort, although sustainable. Good for maintaining anaerobic capacity.
- Zone 5: 90 to 100 percent — As hard as you can go, great for developing anaerobic capacity.
How does this translate? A high-performance athlete who competes in a sport that’s very demanding on the anaerobic energy system (think: sprinting) might have a tendency to spend more time in zone 4 or zone 5. But by training more in zone 2, for example, this individual can strengthen his or her aerobic capacity and become a more well-rounded athlete. By contrast, a seasoned triathlete will find it easier to stay in zone 2, but upping the intensity to try to reach zones 4 or 5 will put their anaerobic energy system to the test. Don’t find yourself in either category? A recreational exerciser looking to burn fat and maintain good cardiac health might stay in zone 2 as well as use something called interval training, described below.
How to Heart Rate Train
To try heart rate zone training for yourself, you first need to determine your maximum heart rate. Max HR is the highest heart rate an individual can achieve through exercise stress. The most precise way to measure it is to have an exercise physiologist administer a treadmill test, which involves running on a treadmill while machines monitor your blood pressure and heart rate. A far less involved (but also less accurate) way is to use the following equation from the American College of Exercisers.
208 – (.7 x your age)
So the maximum heart rate for a 46-year-old would be 208 – (.7 x 46) or 208 – 32 = 176 beats per minute (BPM).
Let’s say our 46-year-old trainee exercises regularly and is currently trying to improve their aerobic capacity. With a maximum heart rate of 176 beats per minute, he or she should try to keep his or her heart rate between 123 and 141 BPM, or at about 70 to 80 percent of 176.
Multiple Monitor Functions
Heart rate monitoring can also help trainers figure out how long rest periods should be. For example, most resistance training programs call for lifters to rest a certain amount of time between sets, with little regard for individual recovery ability.
According to Dowdell, a heart rate monitor allows the exerciser to ditch the guess work and simply resume exercising when their heart rate has returned to a low enough level, say 115 BPM.
To see how this would work, here’s a sample aerobic development session using heart rate monitoring designed by Dowdell for use on a treadmill by a middle-aged active individual.
Warm Up: 5 minutes
Work Interval #1: Two minutes at 146-159 BPM
Recovery Interval #1: Recover to 115 BPM
Work Interval #2: Two minutes at 146-159 BPM
Recovery Interval #2: Recover to 115 BPM
Work Interval #3: 2 minutes at 146-159 BPM
Recovery Interval #3: Recover to 115 BPM
Work Interval #4: Two minutes at 146-159 BPM
Recovery Interval #4: Recover to 115 BPM
Work Interval #5: Two minutes at 146-159 BPM
Recovery Interval #5: Recover to 115 BPM
Cool Down: 5 minutes
For seasoned exercisers looking for more data to help them improve their results, heart rate monitors are affordable and effective. However, they still must take a back seat to good old-fashioned common sense. If you feel uncomfortable while exercising then by all means slow down or stop, no matter what the monitor is telling you. The more information you have about how hard your body is working, the better you’ll be able to train.