Heart-rate training: A guide to working out in the zone

Posted on 30 August 2017

Tracking your heart rate is one of the safest, most effective ways to look after your health and fitness (as long as it is done correctly or in some cases under medical supervision).

The popular idiom, ‘listen to your heart’ is frustratingly vague when dealing with emotional conundrums, but it should be taken literally when it comes to your fitness. Heart-rate training is an effective way to achieve your fitness goals and improve your overall performance, confirms Carlo Jacobs, a biokineticist at Mediclinic Panorama. In short, heart rate training is a way of prescribing exercise intensity so that training can be effective, according to Professor Mike Lambert, from the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town.

This method is also effective for those recovering from medical conditions, such as cardiac patients, says Carlo.

Figure out your resting and maximum heart rates

To gauge your exercise intensity in each session, you need to figure out your resting heart rate (your heart rate when you’re most relaxed) and your maximum heart rate (the highest rate you could reach while exercising strenuously).

‘Work out your resting heart rate with your heart rate monitor, or feel your pulse at your neck or wrist as soon as you wake up,’ directs Carlo. ‘Find your pulse, and count how many times your heart beats for a full minute.’ Do this for a week to establish your average.

Next, figure out your basic maximum heart rate. ‘Subtract your age from 220. For example, if you’re 30, your maximum heart rate would be 190, based on the formula 220 – 30 = 190 beats per minute.’

Other influencing factors

Other factors that could affect heart rate during training include diurnal rhythm (time of day), state of hydration, state of fitness, emotion, temperature and exercising in a competitive environment such as a race (Heart rate during training and competition for long distance running; M. I. Lambert , Z. H. Mbambo & A. St Clair Gibson Published online: 07 Feb 2011).

Get into the right zone

Now you’re ready to calculate your zones. Exercise is divided into different intensity zones, which each have different health and fitness benefits. The key to making progress is to ensure you elevate your heart rate into the optimal zone, so that your effort matches your exercise goals.

Zone 1: Very light

Work at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). ‘This zone is good for a warm-up or cool-down, and helps with recovery,’ explains Carlo.

Zone 2: Light

60-70% of your MHR. This fat-burning zone improves basic endurance. Most training is done in this zone.

Zone 3: Moderate

70-80% of your MHR. This zone improves your fitness and maximises weight loss efforts.

Zone 4: Hard

80-90% of your MHR. This zone increases your maximum performance capacity for shorter exercise sessions.

Zone 5: Maximum

90-100% of your MHR. It helps you develop speed, adapt your muscles to be resistant to fatigue and build up your lactate threshold.

A word of caution

If you’ve been inactive for a long time, are overweight or are recovering from a medical condition, like a heart attack, it’s best to start off heart rate training under the supervision of an exercise expert, cautions Carlo. ‘This includes patients who are on supplements or medications that affect heart rate, such as betablockers.’


Published in Exercise

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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