Heart rate training is a useful metric to measure intensity and removes any ambiguity about how hard you are pushing yourself on any given day.

By incorporating heart rate zones, it is easier to measure your progress, allows you to more specifically tailor your training to an event, avoids burnout by going too hard the whole time, and generally makes your training more efficient.

Here’s how to train using your heart rate:

Heart rate monitor

First, you need a way to measure your heart rate, usually in beats per minute. There are many products on the market, but bear in mind that wrist monitors, like watches, are not as accurate as chest monitors. If you have a watch, like a Suunto or Garmin, it is best to invest in a chest band you can link to get an accurate reading.

Discover your zones

The best athletes in endurance sport know that ‘no pain, no gain’ in training is an outdated concept. Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa-Zentralbild/dp

You have to discover your maximum heart rate, then work back from there. The conventional method is 220 minus your age. So, if you are 30, your maximum heart rate is 190 beats per minute. However, it becomes less accurate the older you are, so you can use “208 – (0.7 x your age)” for similar, more accurate results.

Once you have your maximum heart rate, you have your zones:

  1. Warm-up – 50 to 60 per cent of your maximum heart rate
  2. Aerobic/base – 60 to 70 per cent
  3. Tempo – 70 to 80 per cent
  4. Lactate threshold – 80 to 90 per cent
  5. Anaerobic – 90 per cent and above

Sometimes, for ease, zones two and three are lumped together when creating training plans.

Using your zones

  1. Warm-up – this is good for warm-ups and longer sessions, particularly recovery sessions but will not go so far as to provoke the physical changes and growth you are looking for. If you want to do a long session for other benefits – such as getting used to spending hours on your feet for an ultramarathon, or hours on your seat for a long distance cycle – it is a useful zone.
  2. Aerobic/base – for endurance sports you should spend most of your time in the aerobic zone, doing long sessions, even if you will spend most of competition day above the aerobic zone. The adage “no pain, no gain” is now debunk, and long sessions building base fitness should be at least half your session, possibly far more. Exercise scientist Stephen Seiler, during his Ted Talk, said the best athletes dedicate about 80 per cent of their training to the aerobic zone. This is the base of the pyramid, on which all the other benefits of training at a higher intensity are built, and without would crumble.
  3. Tempo – you can begin to build speed during your tempo sessions, but still sustain it for extended periods. A fartlek session is a good way to hit your tempo speeds but without burning out – for example, 1,000m fast, 300m easy jog. It can be included in the “aerobic/base” of your pyramid because it is not very intense.
  4. Lactate threshold – once you breach your threshold the intensity becomes barely sustainable, so zone four is about skirting just below the sustainable line. Roughly, it is your maximum heart rate minus your age. So, if you are 30, you should be able to hold around 165 beats per minute, but it will be very tough. Use it for tough, medium length sessions like a 5km row or run, or a 20km fast cycle.
  5. Anaerobic – once your reach 90 per cent of your heart rate, your body cannot get enough oxygen to your muscles. Instead of using oxygen to make your muscles contract, your body enters an anaerobic cycle instead. This produces far more bi-products, including lactic acid. Your muscles feel heavy and soon your performance begins to fade. You can hit your anaerobic zones with sprints or circuits, short but sharp interval training when you are pushing yourself to the absolute maximum for minimum periods. It is an important part of training, but should make up less than 5 per cent of your sessions.