Ask Stew: How Heart Rate Zones Affect the Way You Train

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Monitoring heart rate while running
Members of Team Holloman participate in a physical fitness assessment at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Aug. 26, 2004. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force photo)

Ideas about aerobic endurance training split the fitness world in two groups, those who prefer lifting and higher-intensity training and those who do more cardio training (run, swim, bike, etc.). Heart-rate zones can help you determine whether you are training in the aerobic or anaerobic zone, depending on your current fitness level and age.

There is nothing wrong with training at a higher intensity, but the body (and mind) can also use some downshifting in the slower-paced training of zone 1 and 2. The lower zones can help with stress reduction, so do not blow off the easy walk for mental health and stress mitigation.

Here is a great email that hits on many issues faced by people who train hard all the time.

Hey Stew. I recently discovered Zone 2 training after being a HIIT (probably zone 4-5) guy for years. I am not the best long-distance runner and have issues with knees and shins. Can I still do this zone training without running? I am still trying to get better at timed runs, so I will need to run soon. Any assistance? Thanks Cal

Cal, it is smart to diversify your training and not redline with high intensity interval training (HIIT) all the time. If you want to increase your aerobic endurance, build an aerobic base with zone 2-level training.

However, if you are not doing well with putting in the long and slow distance running miles, you can absolutely do it with biking, rowing, elliptical, swimming and stair-stepping workouts instead. If your legs can handle walking, try adding weight and try a few miles of rucking at a fast walking pace and see whether that gets you in the zone without typical shin pains and knee tendinitis.

If you are not familiar with heart-zone training, here are the heart-rate zones for training. Depending on your age and resting heart rate, you can target different energy systems by monitoring your heart and breathing rates.

You can do this in two easy steps or use a heart-rate zone calculator.

First, you need to know how to calculate your theoretical heart rate. Using the Karvonen formula, you can do this by simply subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 30-year-old would have a theoretical max heart rate of 220-30 = 190.

Second, take your heart rate for one minute before you get out of bed after a night's sleep. Our example has a resting heart rate of 50 beats per minute (bpm). You will need to know this for the heart-rate zone calculator, or you can use the HR max you have calculated and multiply it by the zone training percentage ranges below.

A zone 2 goal (60%-70% max HR) for a 30-year-old with a 50bpm resting heart rate would be between 134-148bpm. That is the zone you need to be in when doing walk, jog, bike, elliptical or other cardio activity for a sustained period of time (30-45 minutes, for instance).

Now, depending on your max heart rate, find the zone below that is your desired effort zone training.

  • Zone 0: At rest. Your heart rate will be less than 50% of your max heart rate.
  • Zone 1: Light warmup or cooldown activity. 50%-60% of HR max.
  • Zone 2: Light activity (aka conversational pace). 60%-70% HR max (aerobic base training)
  • Zone 3: Moderate activity. Improves aerobic endurance. 70%-80% HR max.
  • Zone 4: Hard activity. Anaerobic training zone. 80%-90% HR max.
  • Zone 5: Max effort. Speed and power training. 90%-100% HR max.

Zone 2 is a great way to train, and you may find it easy and relaxing compared to your zone 4-5 HIIT from the past, but it is also helpful for you to master a steady pace for longer cardio events. Many call this building an aerobic base, and you can do it with multiple forms of cardio activity.

However, the issue is more with your knees and shins. Maybe the problems came from HIIT workouts with too much high-volume calisthenics, weights, plyometrics (box jumps, etc.) and sprinting.

Other causes could be your running technique, the shoes you wear or the surface on which you run. All of the above can make running more painful for you. My advice is to lay off the higher-intensity events that involve hard impact on your shins and knees for a while, get a new pair of running shoes, and make a video so you can watch yourself run and compare your form with other long distance runners' stride and cadence. Your pain could be a combination of all the above or come from just one factor.

In the meantime, work on the aerobic base training with limited running and more biking. If your knees start to feel better after changing the intensity of your training, start to increase running miles slowly at about 10%-15% per week. Practice running in zone 2 and 3 and do non-impact cardio training on different days of the week to help with speed and conditioning.

Here are some related articles on running form, shin splint recovery and non-impact cardio ideas that can work multiple heart-rate zones:

Since you are battling running pain, it is best to reduce or stop running but still work the lungs and legs with non-impact cardio. Even when you can start running again, you may want to progress slowly into doing longer-distance runs in zone two and treat your aerobic base training the way a triathlete would, with two-thirds of your cardio training from non-impact options (swim and bike) and one-third from running. This is a much safer way to increase aerobic conditioning.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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