Helpful Tips

Using Heart Rate Zones To Your Advantage


Every runner needs a way to measure how hard he is pushing himself towards his goal. Heart rate zones are one of the best objective methods of monitoring the intensity of your training. They are determined individually for every person and are relative to your maximum heart rate.

There are five running heart rate zones which all come with their own benefits and all five of them serve a different purpose. Understanding how and when to train in each one of them is going to be key to your future success and will also keep you in optimal shape. Using those zones in your workout is often called zone-training. These zones are also closely related to your body’s aerobic and anaerobic capacities.

Before you get into any of those zones, it is important to understand how to determine each of them for your own body. You must also learn where you need to draw the line in terms of the maximum pressure your cardiovascular system can take.

Some Important Metrics To Keep In Mind

There are two very important metrics when it comes to zone training:

  • Your resting heart rate
  • Your maximum heart rate

Both of these rates are measured in bpm (beats per minute).

The resting heart rate is measured when you’ve spent at least 30 minutes at one place and are in total emotional and physical calmness. It is best to measure it after you wake up before you get out of bed.

The maximum heart rate (MHR) signifies the upper limit of your cardiovascular system’s capabilities during a workout.

There are many ways to measure your MHR but the most widely accepted one is to take the number 220 and subtract your age from it. If you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate will be 180. This means that going over 180bpm is putting an unnecessary amount of strain on your heart and might cause cardiovascular deficiency since the needs of your body surpass the capabilities of your heart.

Some of the best methods to measure your heart rate is either using a good fitness tracker with an HR sensor or a chest heart rate monitor (more accurate).

Which Are The Five Heart Rate Zones?

Athlete runner

Before we dive into each individual zone, it is important to really boil down the calculation process. There are many zone variations used for runners, all having different formulas to correctly figure out your ideal heart rate. Some variations use 4 zones while others (more frequent) use 5 zones. In this one, each zone represents a percentage of your HRMax as it follows:

  • Zone 1 – 50-60% of your HRMax
  • Zone 2 – 60-70% of your HRMax
  • Zone 3 – 70-80% of your HRMax
  • Zone 4 – 80-90% of your HRMax
  • Zone 5 – >90% of your HRMax

So, let’s take a look at one example to really get an idea of how they’re calculated. As we said, let’s imagine the runner is 40 years old. 220 minus 40 equals 180 so that is the HRMax with which we will work with. Now, all the different zones will look like this:

  • Zone 1 – 50-60% of your HRMax = 90 – 108 bpm
  • Zone 2 – 60-70% of your HRMax = 108-125 bpm
  • Zone 3 – 70-80% of your HRMax = 125-144 bpm
  • Zone 4 – 80-90% of your HRMax = 144-162 bpm
  • Zone 5 – >90% of your HRMax = 162-180 bpm

If that is too hard to remember, some online calculators allow you to calculate and then print or download a pdf document which you can put on your wall and go through every time you want to go for a run or want to do some zone-training. In a few weeks you will memorize these metrics. On top of that, if you use a heart rate tracker you will soon learn what each zone feels like in terms of breathing rate, sweating, and even pain.

Now, as we mentioned, each zone has a different purpose. Let’s now go through them all and see how each one helps you enhance your body endurance and performance.

Zone 1 (Very Light)

The first zone is very light training. If you are already a few weeks into your training schedule, your cardiovascular system will get into that zone right from the moment you start moving (walking or warming up).

This zone is perfect for people that look to improve their aerobic conditioning (muscle work during an excess of oxygen) and endurance. Low-intensity exercises where you can easily control your heart rate are ideal here. Walking, running or swimming slowly are great for that purpose.

Zone 1 is also called the fat-burning zone since you will burn fats very efficiently here. It is also perfect for recovery either after the workout, the next day, or even in the workout itself as a way to rest for a bit.

Don’t worry about easily going above this zone at first. That is something untrained people struggle with a lot but you will soon be able to control it and not get your  heart rate higher than it when you start warming up or exercising slightly. The more endurance you build up the lower your heart rate will be during workouts and that is the one true signal for proper progress.

Zone 2 (Light)

The man

Zone 2 is really similar to Zone 1 but it bumps up a notch the intensity of your run. It is a far easier zone to maintain your heart rate into, since you will be able to keep a slower running pace and stick to 60-70% of your HRMax.

In terms of your body’s metabolism, it is pretty much as Zone 1 here. Far burning is heavily stimulated and the aerobic capacity of your muscles is improving the more you train in this zone. Muscular fitness also gets a slight bump, even though it will truly progress from the next few zones.

The benefits from Zone 2 are felt further down the road in your progress and implementing it heavily in your weekly routine is an essential thing to do if you want to help your body progress naturally.

Zone 3 (Moderate)

Zone 3 is where most runners spend the majority of their time. It is the go-to zone to strengthen and further improve your cardio. In fact, most people train primarily train in this zone without even realising it. Once the body is warmed up and exercising, it will primarily stay within 70-80% of its HRMax.

Running in this zone will also improve blood circulation within your muscles, so it is also a good idea to have at least 15-20 minutes of this zone in your run on the next day after a heavy workout.

Unfortunately, there is a bad side to this zone. Since the upper limits here start making your body go into anaerobic conditions (muscles working without the necessary supply of oxygen), lactic acid might start building up, hence the pain if you go straight into this zone without proper warm up or conditioning.

Still, the more you train in Zone 3, the better you will prepare your body for the zone 1 and 2 exercises and the more efficient you will become with your breathing.

Click here if you want to learn more about anaerobic vs aerobic exercises and their benefits.

Zone 4 (Hard)

Zone 4 is where the fun begins. Prepare for heavy breathing and pain in the muscles. This is because your body is now relying solely on its anaerobic capacities. Shortage of air and lactic acid buildup are typical for this zone and you can usually last only a few minutes at a time in the beginning of your training course. Experienced runners can usually sustain this for about an hour if they stay around the middle of this zone (approximately 85%).

This zone heavily improves your endurance, and more specifically – your speed endurance. The more you are able to hold your heart rate in zone 4, the more you will be able to sustain your body at this pace in the future. You will also develop a stronger tolerance for lactic acid and your muscles will perform better by relying primarily on carbohydrates for fuel.

To sum it up, this zone will train you to endure faster and harder paces for longer periods of time. It is here where you show your character and it is here where true progress is being created.

Zone 5 (Maximum)

Male runner

Lastly, it is time to look at Zone 5 which is where the boys are separated from the men, so to speak. This zone is primarily used in interval training and even experienced athletes cannot last more than just a few minutes here. The main reason for that is that your heart and lungs are working at their maximum capacity and the amount of lactic acid building up your bloodstream will be intolerable in a very short period of time after you get into that zone. This is why you need to cycle it with periods of rest or moderate activity during your workout.

Zone 5 will strengthen and further develop your fast-twitch fibers and will also improve your VO2 Max which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume during exercise.

If you are just now starting to get into running or training in general, you won’t need to train at this zone, at least not right now. After a while, though, as your needs get bigger and you want to progress further, implementing a zone 5 workout once in your week will greatly help you. Just make sure you track closely your heart rate and don’t stray too far off the HRMax point, as that can have the opposite effect on your cardiovascular system.

An Introduction To Zone-Training

Zone-training (or heart-rate training) is basically ensuring that the heart rate zone you are training in corresponds with the desired effect you want to get from the said workout. This means that at the core of this type of training sits your understanding of the different heart rate zones and tracking them during the actual exercise.

Since we already know the effect each zone has on your body, why not put that into good use?

One very important thing about zone-training is that you need to focus not only on your HR but on the sensation you get while in that zone. Are you breathing heavily? How easy it is to keep moving? Are your breaths getting deeper? Are you starting to feel pain in your muscles?

All those questions serve a very important role – to moderate your workout. By knowing that Zone 1 and 2 shouldn’t make you breath heavily you can (without looking at your HR) determine that you are getting into Zone 3 if you start to take deeper and more frequent breaths. This means that you need to pull your foot off the gas pedal a bit.

Here is an example of a classic running session that gets you through all 5 zones:

  • Zone 1 – You are just warming up, walking and/or stretching. It is really easy to move and your breaths are shallow. Your mouth is closed, as the nose is enough for your lungs to take all the air they need here. You start feeling your body warm up… By this time you are already telling your body to kick things up a notch and head into the following zones, unless you calm your breathing and movements down and try to stay in this HR zone.
  • Zone 2 – You are picking up the pace a notch. The work you are putting still feels comfortable and it feels like you can go on like that forever. Exertion is moderate, you feel like you are working to improve your endurance. Breaths are getting deeper but are still fluid. Your mouth might open.
  • Zone 3 – You start running at your normal (or slightly faster) pace. It gets challenging, you start paying attention to your breaths as they get heavy and deep. The work gets harder but still is manageable.
  • Zone 4 – The run is now feeling uncomfortable and can even hurt your legs if you keep pushing. You are considering whether you should hang on and keep on going but you are still able to do so, nonetheless.
  • Zone 5 – You are now sprinting at full speed and giving everything you got. The sprint lasts 30-60 seconds. It hurts, your lungs struggle to keep up and might even leave you breathless but you are performing at your maximum capacity.
  • Zone 1 or 2 – You stop fully or go at your slowest recovery pace. Your breathing slowly returns to normal and you feel the lactic acid disseminates across your body. The pain stops, and you can now go on for a second (or third) try, or keep enjoying your recovery run.

So, in conclusion, each zone brings you a new set of improvements if you use it wisely. This is the idea behind modern-day running programs which create a schedule with different types of runs in different days of the week that focus on putting your body into different zones depending on your goals. Long distance runners might want to stay more in zone 3 and 4, while sprinters should opt for interval training that often gets their body into zone 5 and then take rests at zones 1 or 2.

We will cover different sorts of running programs you can use or personalise for your own needs and goals in another article, as that topic cannot be summarized in just a few sentences.

Related Questions

What is a normal resting heart rate?

A normal resting heart rate should be anywhere between 60 to 100 bpm for adults. The lower your resting heart rate is, the more efficiently your heart is working to pump blood in your vessels. As you keep training and progressing, one of the true signals of your progress will be the continuous lowering of your resting heart rate in the morning.

At what heart rate should you go to the hospital?

If your resting heart rate drops below 50 or you consistently track a heart rate of over 100bpm, you should visit your doctor or consult with a cardiologist.

What is a dangerously high heart rate during exercise?

Anything above your maximum heart rate (220 minus your age) is considered potentially dangerous and you should try to stay below that threshold.

Final Words

Understanding the different heart rate zones can and will take your training to the next level. Not only will you be able to measure your progress better but you will also be able to know when your body is at its peak capacity or when it can go even further. Training at each zone can also bring you a number of benefits ranging from improved cardio to better anaerobic capacity and stronger fast-twitch muscle fibers. As a whole, getting an HR tracker that lets you monitor your heart rate at any moment can easily prove to be one of the best decisions in your running or workout routines.