In the ZONE – Heart Rate Zone Training 101

I’ve been asked a lot lately about Heart Rate Zone training since posting a bit about it on some of my social media accounts. Now let me be clear about this because there is a group of cynics out there who are quick to bash this way of training and/or quick to simply bash me and all that I do – I am no pro at this. Heart Rate Zone training has honestly become the most rigid, difficult, brutal and merciless type of training that I have ever done. But I’ve learned so much about myself, my body and my level of health and fitness in the process. I highly recommend you give it a try because knowledge really is power.

HRZ training is NOT about how fast you go or how far you go.

I’ve spent these last few years focused in on how fast my marathon time was, counting my strokes while swimming laps, adding and subtracting and adding again on the weight scale, or calculating how many miles I ran or rode. While all of these things I did are important, I completely missed the boat on what should have been the foundation to this whole journey.

HRZ training is all the above while measuring how effective and efficient your body is becoming while doing all these crazy workouts.

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Here’s the basics:

Get a heart rate monitor and strap it on as per the instructions. Find your resting heart rate by laying down, relax in a quiet peaceful setting for at least 20 minutes (preferably when you first wake up in the morning before any coffee, caffeine or ANY heart rate inducing/reducing medications or foods have been ingested). Note the number on your heart rate monitor. If it bounces around for a bit, that’s ok. Take the average. This should be your baseline to work with. Check your resting heart rate once a month and note any changes… hopefully you’ll see a reduction in that number as time goes by and workouts increase.

Don’t have a heart rate monitor and want to know your heart rate right this very moment so when you continue reading, you’ll know what to do and what to expect during your next workout? No problem. Heart rate is measured in beats per minute. It can be measured at your carotid (neck) or radial (wrist) pulse. Be careful not to place too much pressure on your carotid artery as you can compress it and block blood flow. Once you find your pulse, count the heartbeats for 15 seconds and multiply by four to find your current heart rate.

See the table below and find your age

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Heart Rate During Exercise

Measuring your heart rate during exercise gives you an indicator of how hard you are working. As your workload increases, your heart rate will increase. Heart rate is also an indicator of fitness. The more aerobically fit you are, the lower your heart rate will be for a comparable workout than someone less physically fit. This also means that you will have to increase your workload to achieve the same fitness benefits as you become more physically fit.

Target Heart Rate

To maximize performance and get the most benefit from your workout, you need to find and stay within your target heart rate zone throughout your workout. Calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. A 30-year-old woman’s maximum heart rate would be 190 beats per minute. Depending on your level of fitness, the American Heart Association recommends a target heart rate between 50 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. To calculate your target heart rate, take your maximum heart rate and multiply by 0.5 and 0.85. For a 30-year-old woman, the ideal training window is a heart rate between 95 and 162 beats per minute. If you are just starting to exercise, keep your heart rate closer to the 50 percent target. Those who have been regularly participating in aerobic activities should aim for the 85 percent range. When measuring your heart rate during your workout, do it as you are exercising or stop briefly and take it immediately as it will decrease rapidly with rest.

Additional Tips

You should be working out at a level that feels challenging. If it feels easy, pick up the pace a little. If your breathing is labored, you are extremely fatigued or your form is suffering, ease up. If you are exercising in water, your heart rate is an average of 17 beats less per minute, so decrease your target heart rate accordingly for an aquatic workout. Also check your medications. If any of them have a blunted heart rate response as a possible side effect, the use of target heart rates can be dangerous for you as heart rate is not a good indicator of how hard your body is working.

The following is taken from Runners World magazine (click here for the full article) 

Once you figure out your zones, the rest is like following the speed limit signs on the roadway. Since they are based on your redline, or lactate threshold, that becomes the point from which all the other zones are based—anything below the threshold heart rate zone (zone 4) is more aerobic in nature and easy in intensity, and anything at or above it is more anaerobic and high intensity.

The key to optimizing this knowledge is to train purposefully based on these zones. In a typical training schedule you’ll follow the flow of easy and hard workouts. You might have a tempo workout on day 1, and follow with an easy effort workout (or two) on day 2 and 3. By alternating hard and easy workouts, your body is able to recover efficiently, adapt to the demands of the workouts, and get stronger.

Many make the mistake of training solely by pace and end up training too hard most of the time (la la pace). It’s an effort that is too hard to be easy, and too easy to be hard. Somewhere in between purpose and the point of no return.

This doesn’t happen when you tune in and run by your body (effort) because pace becomes the outcome of every run rather than the purpose.

There are many variations of the zone percentages so don’t let that confuse you. The idea is to make friends with what they mean and then create a training plan based on the purpose of the run rather than the pace.

Here is a percentage chart by authors Foster and Edwards and how to use each zone in your training.

Zone 1: 60-70% of threshold heart rate: A very, very light intensity effort level marked by easy breathing and complete conversation. For many runners, this zone comes in the form of a walking pace as it is a very low intensity. Use it: for warm up and cool down, easy recovery workouts.

Zone 2: 70-80% of threshold heart rate: A light intensity effort level where you can still hold a conversation. Use it: for easy/recovery runs, warm up and cool down.

Zone 3: 80-90% of threshold heart rate: A moderate intensity effort level where you begin to hear your breathing, but you can still talk in sentences. Use it: long runs, training runs.

Zone 4: 90-100% of threshold heart rate: A comfortably hard intensity effort that is just outside your comfort zone where you can talk in one-word responses. Use it: for tempo runs and mile repeats to raise the lactate threshold (redline) and be able to run faster at easier effort levels

Zone 5: 100-110% of threshold heart rate: A hard intensity effort well outside your comfort zone where you can’t talk. Use it: for interval workouts and the final finish of your race.

The aim is to match your training workouts to one of these zones to maximize every run and its benefits. When you do, you’ll notice your recovery dramatically improves, your performance improves, and you’ll have fewer aches and pains from pushing too hard.

How has Heart Rate Zone training helped me?

My family’s history of heart problems go deeper and further than cancer so I do take this VERY seriously. I understand and am taking measures to reduce my caffeine addiction that clearly affects how hard my heart works, especially during tough workouts. Learning about my own personal heart rate efficiency and effectiveness is has been a huge wake up call to me.

I’ve learned that you can be a 30 year old size 2 and jacked up on pre-workout, diet pills and in greater risk of cardiac arrest during a half marathon that she attempts to finish in 1:20 pushing herself at a Zone 5 than a 40 year old size 20 pacing herself at a manageable Zone 3 pace and finishing that same half marathon in 2 and a half hours.

Currently, I am building my body up at a Zone 2 with longer workouts so that when I do my tempo and interval trainings as Zone 4, I actually increase my pace and endurance. By controlling my heart rate at a Zone 2, my body becomes more efficient with it’s power and effectiveness.

How is this different from what I’ve done before? I love pinterest. Before I go to bed, I try to unwind, zone-out and get “inspired” by asking pinterest for workout motivation. What comes back to me almost every single time are posts that have “no pain no gain”, “train insane or remain the same” and other such motivators that tell me push harder and not give up no matter what. To me, this means I need to go further, harder and faster. How heart rate zone training has changed my workouts is that it has worked on my patience. It has made me understand that while at Zone 2, it is still training my body for endurance. I can spend 4 hours on a tiny, uncomfortable bicycle saddle – which is a tough feat for any human – but not have the fear of going into cardiac arrest or muscle strain and injury because I’ve built up the stamina and an easy zone. I can jog for 9 miles, smile and sing and two days later sprint a couple of miles at half the pace of my long run.  It’s the toughest thing for me to be riding or running at Zone 2 and get dropped or passed up by fellow riders and runners because I want to be with them, push with them, be a recipient of their encouragement… and I can’t do that when they’re a mile ahead of me.

Yesterday, a group of riders passed me up and as I yelled out to them “Y’all are dropping me like a bad habit!!!” I remember the wise words of Ramon Hermida:

One thing I learned a while back was: ride your own ride, at your own pace. I know what my goals with cycling and exercise are. I don’t let others dictate what I should be doing, and don’t even bother attempting to explain to others my rationale for doing the rides that I do. What matters is: there is a reason and I know what that reason is. Another thing that I learned is not to pay attention how others want to define me: whether it be by my spirituality, by my race or ethnicity, by my looks, by my weight, by my career, or by my material possessions. That is their problem, not mine. I am in charge of my own story. I can sincerely tell you that each year that passes has been the best one in my life. If not, then each day I have the opportunity to change it and make it so.

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So I smiled as they all zoomed by me and I rode my own ride at the pace my coach designated for me to ride. And while I am explaining to you all why I’m doing what I’m doing, it is done in the hopes that it educates those who WANT to learn how to become a healthier, more fit version of themselves… and not for comparison sake or to compete against anyone. I am not looking for validation or acceptance from anyone but welcome everyone’s cheers and advice. I encourage the whole world to join me in this adventure but HIGHLY encourage you to join TEAM if you have a connection to cancer. Doing this is MY choice and I’m doing it the way I want to for my own reasons and I love that I am still learning something new about all that I do and all that I am every single day.

I hope that I have the patience to go slow when I need to go slow. I hope I have the power to go fast when I need to go fast. I hope I have the energy to go the distance when I need to go far. I hope I can do all of this so that I can make this the foundation of WHY I started this whole crazy journey in the first place. I am building my foundation.

I am in my now, investing in my future so that I honor my past and help make a positive impact on someone else’s future.  

I watched a movie last night that I got a great kick out of. It’s called Hector’s Search for Happiness and it chronicled this man’s journey around the world in search of happiness. During this movie, I was taken back to a time when I was sitting at the little bistro table with my bike guru at the front of his shop. He asked me how things were going and I responded with something like “what I would do to have just a normal average week with nothing super monumental or super devastating” implying that there were always ups and downs in my life.  The movie had one particular scene where Hector was in Tibet and a group of Tibetan monks were happily celebrating “all of it”. Hector couldn’t see it and didn’t understand. I think that was me. I couldn’t see it nor could understand it. At the end of the movie, the powerful flood of all the emotions is what clicked finally. It was all of it, the good the bad the ugly… it is all of it that has been my happiness. So I get it now.

In my own pursuit of happiness, I have found happiness in the pursuit and it is all of it and I celebrate it. (Confused? Watch the clip in the video link below) My wish today is that we all become as enlightened into the mystery of happiness. My journey has made me happy and I know my destination is still so very far away. Taking the difficult (higher) road has been hard but in the good, the bad and the ugly… I have found happiness. I hope you do, too. Cheers. May this journey continue on for a long time.

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