How to Use Your Heart Rate Zones to Reach Your Fitness Goals Faster – InStyle

Gabrielle Kassel is a sex and fitness journalist who writes at the intersection of queerness, sexual health, pleasure, and sports. She is a CF-L1 CrossFit trainer and locally competitive athlete based in the greater New England area. Her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Health, Hello Giggles, Cosmopolitan, Well & Good, Healthline, SELF, Women's Health, Greatist, Bustle, and more. In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, or recording episodes of her queer education podcast, Bad In Bed: The Queer Sex Podcast.
If you own an Apple Watch or fitness tracker from Fitbit, Garmin, WHOOP — the list goes on — then you already have access to your heart rate with the simple flick of the wrist or bop of a button. But unless you know how to actually use that data, well, then you're missing out on a ton of benefits of heart rate training (and not getting the most out of your fancy wearable, either).
An exercise imperative that involves eyeing your ticker while you train, heart rate training has the power to help you reach your fitness goals as efficiently and quickly as possible. And that stands whether you want to lose weight, PR a race or lift, or simply reach your athletic potential right from your yoga mat or bike.
Intrigued? Read on to learn more about the training methodology that teaches you how to use your heart rate to reach your fitness goals.
At its most basic, heart rate training is training that involves keeping your heart rate — measured by the number of times your heart beats per minute (BPM) — within a certain range for a designated period of time.
As it goes, there are five main ranges that someone's heart rate could fall within. These ranges are referred to as Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3, Zone 4, and Zone 5. As you might guess, the higher the zone number, the higher the heart rate range.
These ranges aren't specific numbers, but rather percent ranges of your max heart rate based on your age, according to Brittany Masteller, Ph.D., research scientist for Orangetheory Fitness, a heart rate zone-based workout class. The reason the zones are based on age-predicted maximum hearts is that peoples' (healthy) maximum heart rate changes as they age — older hearts simply can't beat as fast as younger hearts.
According to The American College of Sports Medicine, the five zones are broken down by the following:
To find an estimate of your maximum heart rate, simply subtract your age from 220. That means that if you're 25, your maximum heart rate is estimated to be 195, while if you're 35 it's 185. Another popular option for finding your max heart rate is something called the Tanaka equation, says Dr. Masteller, which uses the formula: 208 – (0.7 x age).
Once you know your estimated max heart rate you can do a little math to figure out what your heart rate floor and ceiling should be to stay within different zones. (Thank God for iPhone calculators!).
The main benefit of heart rate training, according to Jason M. Hoff, M.D., a cardiologist at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute in Loma Linda, California, is that it’s basically just a type of cardiovascular training. Defined as any vigorous activity that increases heart rate (so no, it doesn’t have to be just running or cycling if you hate those things!), cardiovascular training offers health perks ranging from improved heart health and lower blood pressure to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
As a refresher: The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise. The problem is that only half (53%) of people actually get this much exercise, which should be considered the bare minimum, Dr. Hoff says. In fact, according to a new study, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in collaboration with the American Heart Association and Apple, found that after analyzing more than 18 million workouts logged using Apple Watch during the pandemic, participants with above-average Cardio Fitness levels (a strong indicator of your overall physical health) averaged more than 200 minutes of activity per week, while those with high Cardio Fitness averaged more than 300 minutes of activity per week — the number Dr. Hoff suggests aiming for.
Paying attention to your heart rates, he says, can motivate people who are under-exercising to exercise more. Makes sense!
Heart rate training also requires paying attention to your heart rate more-or-less continuously throughout your workout. “Heart rate training allows you to monitor the intensity of your workout in real-time,” explains personal trainer Mike Leveque, the CEO & COO of Myzone, the heart-rate monitor brand. Translation: you’re able to go harder or slower based on what heart rate you need to be in to reach your goals, he explains. If your goal is to just finish a marathon, for example, you’ll probably spend most of your training time in zone 2. But if you want to PR your marathon, you’ll need to train with a little more chutzpah — meaning, log some miles in zone 3 and 4.
Even if you don't look at and monitor mid-movement, Leveque says wearing a heart rate monitor encourages more self-reflection post-workout. In addition to your heart rate, most heart rate monitors also tell you how many calories you've burned, minute-by-minute intensity graphing, average intensity and gamification metrics or points earned, he says. "This greater feedback can encourage you to keep making progress toward your goal."
"Zone 1 is the zone you're in during very light activity," says Dr. Hoff. Think: nature walking, lower-intensity hikes, golf, foam rolling, restorative yoga, etc. Generally, this is the zone individuals stay within during recovery days.
Training within this zone can help the body become more efficient at delivering oxygen to your muscles, and also carrying lactic acid (that's science-speak for 'exercise waste') away from the muscles. Over time, this allows people to exercise longer and harder, without having to deal with that burning feeling lactic acid build-up creates.
If you've heard of heart rate training, likely it's because you've heard of Zone 2 training, which is the most popular iteration of heart rate training. Especially popular amongst CrossFit athletes, Zone 2 training is the lowest zone used for training purposes.
"It's a pace you can go at and sustain for a long period of time," explains Dave Hoppe, Ph.D., professor at the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) and Chief Wellness Officer at Optimal HRV. For most people, that means going for a 30 to 60-minute jog, but this can also be done at a stationary rower, ski urg, assault bike, or other stationary bike.
In addition to reducing the risk of injury and improving insulin resistance, Zone 2 training has been shown to increase VO2Max, which is how much oxygen your body can utilize. The higher your VO2max, the more physically fit a person is, per research. In practice, that means you get less tired doing the same exact types of exercise.
"Training in this range helps to speed up recovery after heavier exercises as well," adds Dr. Hoff.
Zone 3 is where a person may begin to feel the burn, says Dr. Hoppe. If you've ever taken a SoulCycle class, your legs know exactly the muscular burn he's talking about!
Over time, staying in this zone can become a challenge, but it's a pace that is still manageable for distance or duration work, he says. This is the heart rate most people usually stay in during the majority of Pilates classes, kick-boxing lessons, and run-club runs.
"Zone 3 is the zone that helps improve aerobic fitness to help a person build up their aerobic strength," says Dr. Hoppe. It can also improve anaerobic threshold, meaning that the more you train in Zone 3, the higher the intensity you'll be able to entail for a longer period of time.
In this zone your lungs and heart will burn baby burn. That's because, to get into the nitty-gritty, in this zone you're creating waste faster than your body can feel it, explains Dr. Hoff. "You'll feel the burn in your muscles, and as such it will be difficult to stay in this zone long."
The most iconic example of zone 4 training is a 5K run race, or 500-meter swim. Other common places include CrossFit classes, HIIT classes, and other high intensity training.
Don't let the hurt of this hot-spot scare you, though. "This is the zone where you push the limits of your exercise threshold and gradually increase your aerobic capacity performance," he explains.
"Zone 5 is the zone you're in where you are pushing yourself to your limit," says Dr. Hoff. It's the zone you're in when you feel like you're about to red-line.
"You won't be able to hang around in this zone very long," he says. As in, no longer than one to two minutes. Races like the 200-meter swim, 400-meter dash, or the CrossFit Fran workout will probably put you there.
Training in this zone can help you increase power and speed, strengthen muscles, and help you become more proficient at training at high intensities.
Heart rate training isn't about getting your heart rate as high as possible — and training too much in your Zone 4 or 5 can actually make it hard for your body to properly recover. It's really all about training smarter based on your own goals. So ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish at the gym?
For example, if you're training for short and fast exercises like a 100-meter race, for example, you're going to be doing more high intensity or interval training in zone 4 or 5, Dr. Hoff says. Meanwhile, people training to run a marathon are pushing the limits of their endurance and will want to stay in lower zones but for much longer periods.
Captain obvious alert: The easiest way to heart zone train is with the help of a heart rate monitor! Chest straps and armband monitors tend to be slightly more accurate, according to Dr. Hoff. But wrist bands like Whoop, Polar, Garmin, and AppleWatch all have more intel and fun features.
"Pick the monitor that works best with your body and your workouts," he says. "After all, it does not matter how accurate the monitor is if it bothers you during work outs and you end up leaving it at home." Re-tweet!
Want to make sure you actually enjoy heart rate training before dropping dough on a monitor? Hey, fair! Dr. Masteller recommends trying a simple talk test to gauge intensity. "Someone performing moderate intensity (zone 2 and 3) activity should be able to carry on a conversation without being out of breath," she says. But they shouldn't be able to sing (that's zone 1).
"If someone is doing vigorous-intensity activity (zones 4), they will not be able to say more than a few words without needing to pause and take a breath," she says. "This intensity will feel very challenging, but doable."
As for zone 5? The reality is if you can speak more than a word or two you're not pushing hard enough to be in zone 5.
Indeed, there's a time and a place for heart rate training. "But it's still important to remember to listen to your body," says Dr. Hoff. That means not narrowing your attention to your heart rate monitor and making sure to also pay attention to your body and any potential signs of excessive fatigue or injury. (No matter what, he says, "Stop if you feel like something is wrong.")
For instance, just because your heart rate isn't sky-high doesn't mean that your body isn't pooped! Lack of energy, uncharacteristic moodiness and anger, poor sleep quality, an increase in nightmares, and decreased motivation are all signs of overtraining AKA signs you should take a day or three off.
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