Pay attention; your heart rate holds the secret to boosting training efficiency.
By Sara Lingafelter
Comfort” wasn’t the only zone I’d stepped out of. Weighted down with a heavy pack and climbing up a rocky mountainside, I’d pushed past my anaerobic threshold-a training zone where, in theory, I’d up my power and sprint capacity. Between trailhead and treeline it felt like a great workout, but as I approached my endurance limitations (and the peak), I’d turned the day’s training hike into an exercise-induced asthma attack.
In fewer than six years, I had transitioned from a mostly sedentary novice climber to a baby mountaineer with my sights set on Mount Rainier, a glacial peak looming out beyond Seattle’s skyline. The nearly 10,000-foot climb between the Paradise visitor’s center and the summit would test my fitness-aerobic, anaerobic, and endurance. But when I started spending more time carrying heavy loads up mountains in the name of training, my asthma flared up. I wondered if I was cut out for the level of physical activity it would take to get fit.
Enter heart rate training. I’m an average Jane with my approach to fitness-I don’t upload my workout data to my computer and I don’t pour over my logs. My moderate performance goals didn’t set the bar high enough to need tech-heavy training tools. Or so I thought. Dr. Emily Cooper, medical director and founder of Seattle Performance Medicine disagreed. “Heart rate training creates a self-awareness that lets people get used to their own personal heart rate response so that they can monitor improvement over time. That’s important for all athletes, not just competitive ones.” It turns out, she told me, that increasing my heart-rate would ultimately help me summit Washington state’s highest peak.
Whether your goal is weight loss, weight maintenance, building cardiovascular fitness, or building your peak capacity for high-output workouts, knowing your body’s heart rate zones will help. “We all have different baselines, based on our history and genetics,” says Dr. Cooper. “No two people are going to respond the same way to the same training, and that’s why training according to your heart rate is so important,” she says.
Marcia Horn Noyes of Golden, Colorado, is using heart rate training in her efforts to qualify for the Boston marathon. Her goal is to improve her speed, and 12 years after her initial experiments with a heart rate monitor, she’s adopted a training regime that keeps her heart rate lower than what she expected. “Training in the lower zones has helped me develop more speed and avoid injuries, illness, and overtraining,” she says. Under the advice of her coach, former world record-holder Steve Jones, she’s placed new importance on listening to her body. “A heart rate monitor is invaluable to know your body and to know what it feels like when my heart’s pumping 120, 130, 140, or a wind-sucking 150 beats-per-minute.”
In my case, preparing for Mount Rainier, I needed to maintain my weight but still put in long hours to improve my endurance. It turns out that, instead of training at the break-neck (and asthma-inducing) pace that felt like an endurance-pushing workout, maintaining a slower pace and a lower heart rate was actually better for increasing my stamina for the two-day trip. In addition to optimizing my endurance, my increased awareness about my heart rate has had the pleasant side effect of helping me get my asthma under control-it’s been more than 18 months since I’ve had an attack.
While even casual heart-rate awareness can help you achieve your fitness goals, it can be equally important for avoiding training pitfalls-in my case, those track-stopping asthma attacks of my past. “If you’re traveling the same route, going the same pace you normally do, and your heart rate is ten points higher than usual, then you know something is wrong,” says Dr. Cooper. She explains that dehydration and under fueling are both common causes of an otherwise-unexplained heart-rate increase-something that can wreak havoc on women’s systems in the long term. “If you go into a workout under-fueled, over time you’re going to wind up losing muscle and increasing the risk of injury, bone density problems, and fertility issues,” she says.
According to Dr. Cooper, when left to our own instincts, most people will train at a higher intensity than is actually most beneficial for their goals. “Instinctively, most people train in a tempo zone, just below our anaerobic thresholds, because it’s the highest intensity zone before you start losing your ability to sustain.” The downside to always training in that zone, she says, is that athletes “end up losing their gears.” She advises training with a mix of tempos, pointing out that high intensity workouts help make sure you can kick things into a shorter, faster gear when you need to. “But it’s really the lower to moderate endurance zones that are the most beneficial in alleviating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes symptoms, and working on weight issues,” she says.
Thanks to my new understanding of my own zones, and with the baseline of fitness that took me to Mount Rainier’s summit last summer, I’m a heart-rate training convert. This year I’m aiming to up my speed in the mountains-instead of reaching new heights. Though it’s unlikely I’ll start uploading my workout stats anytime soon, wearing a heart-rate monitor has put me on the fast-track to pushing past my status as an average Jane after all. n
Human heart rates average around 72 beats per minute (bpm). Here’s how we stack up to other animals: Hamster – 450 bpm • Hummingbird – 250 bpm • Gorilla – 170 bpm • Large adult dog – 70 bpm • Cow – 65 bpm • Elephant – 30 bpm • Blue whale – 7 bpm.
Heart Rate Zones
Find your anaerobic threshold
Tailor your workouts to your body and find the heart rate zones to achieve your goals. Your Anaerobic Threshold (AT) determines your heart rate training zones, so Dr. Cooper recommends taking this test to discover your threshold:
To perform the test:
1. Warm up at an easy pace for 3 mins.
2. Take 5 mins to find a pace that you’d describe as a “light” level of exertion.
3. Maintain that pace on a level treadmill (incline 0) for 3 to 4 mins.
4. During the 4th min, record your HR and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).
5. Increase the treadmill incline to 2.5% and maintain that pace for 3-4 mins.
6. During the 4th min, record your HR and RPE.
7. Continue to increase the incline while maintaining your pace for 3 to 4-min stages until your RPE is Heavy. Note your HR and consider that your “Anaerobic Threshold HR” or “AT HR.”
8. Cool down at a comfortable pace until your heart rate drops to its warm-up level.
1. A treadmill
2. A HR monitor
3. Pen and paper to record results
4. A coach/trainer/friend to observe and record your HR and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).
Rate of Perceived Exertion scale:
1. No exertion at all
2. Extremely light
3. Very light
6. Somewhat heavy
8. Very heavy
9. Extremely heavy
10. Maximum exertion
Calculate your heart rate zones by subtracting from your AT HR:
AT HR -59 to -49
Warm up & cool down. Train the body to burn fat.
AT HR -48 to -29
Extensive endurance zone. Maintain your aerobic base.
AT HR -28 to -18
Aerobic threshold zone. Improve your V02 max.
AT HR -17 to -7
Intensive endurance zone. Boost aerobic power.
AT HR -6 to -1
Tempo zone. Maximize your endurance just below the AT.
AT HR to +5
Threshold zone. Improve your speed and power at the AT.
AT HR + > 6
Maximum zone. Increase your sprint capacity and speed.