All You Need to Know About Heart Rate Zone Training

Heart rate zone training is a powerful tool for runners, or anyone engaging in cardiovascular exercise. By understanding your heart rate zones, you can better understand the intensity and effectiveness of your workout, and craft a plan to 

In this article we’ll explain all there is to know about heart rate zones and how you can apply them to your training program, including a sample training plan utilizing heart rate zones.

What Are Heart Rate Zones?

Heart rate zones are different levels of exertion based on your heart beats per minute (BPM).

They describe how hard your heart is working to pump blood around the body and supply oxygen to the muscles, in order to keep up with the exercise you’re doing at the time.

The five heart rate zones are as follows:

  • Zone 1 (very light/warm up - easy to maintain)
  • Zone 2 (light/easy - around 3/10 effort, still able to speak in complete sentences)
  • Zone 3 (aerobic/vigorous - moderate exertion, more difficult to speak)
  • Zone 4 (high/threshold - you hit your lactate threshold, accelerating fatigue, speech is clipped)
  • Zone 5 (maximum - highest intensity you’re capable of)

When you work out, you’ll usually spend time in some (or all) of the heart rate zones above, as you cycle through higher intensity levels.

For example, you might start your workout in zone 1, peak at zone 4, and slip back into zone 3, then 2, then 1 as you cool down and finish up.

How to Determine Your Heart Rate Zones

Heart rate zones are based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate. The closer your heart is to its maximum capacity, the higher the zone: 

  • Zone 1: 50%-65% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 2: 65%-80% max HR
  • Zone 3: 80%-85% max HR
  • Zone 4: 85%-92% max HR
  • Zone 5: 92% max HR and above

The actual BPM for each zone will be slightly different for each person, as everyone has a different maximum heart rate, based on their age, activity level and other factors, such as personal physiology.

To get a rough idea of your zones, first subtract your age from 220 to get your estimated maximum heart rate.

So for example, a typical 40 year old person will have a maximum heart rate of around 180 BPM (220 - 40).

Using this as your max heart rate, the threshold for each zone would be:

  • Zone 1: 90-117 BPM
  • Zone 2: 117-144 BPM
  • Zone 3: 144-153 BPM
  • Zone 4: 153-165 BPM
  • Zone 5: 165-180 BPM

The best way to tell which zone you’re in at any given time is to use a wearable fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor, such as a smartwatch or chest strap.

These devices can tell you which zone you’re in, and let you track how much time you spent in each various heart rate zones during your workout - like this example from one of my recent workouts:

Note that, depending on the type of exercises, some wearables can be more or less accurate with heart rate data. Chest straps generally give more accurate readings than smartwatches, particularly for exercises where you’re moving a lot.

What is Heart Rate Zone Training?

Heart rate zone training (aka heart rate training or zone training) is when you use target heart rate zones to guide your exercise intensity, rather than other metrics such as reps, distance or speed.

For example, instead of setting out to run for 10 miles, or aiming for a specific speed, you aim to maintain a certain length of time in certain training zones.

If your heart rate is below your target zone, you’ll pick up the intensity, while if your heart is working harder than you expected, you would dial it back.

Benefits of Heart Rate Training

Heart rate training zones help you tailor your exercise program specifically to your own body and your own capabilities.

It also allows you to take a more measured and analytical approach to your training, particularly if you’re training to improve cardio.

The benefits of zone training include:

  • Preventing yourself from pushing too hard or overtraining, and training appropriately for your fitness level.
  • More effective workouts, and greater overall benefits from your workouts, including;
  • Increased cardiovascular health, V02 max and overall fitness levels.
  • Increased motivation, by being able to see tangible improvements in your cardio over time.
  • More efficient training, by working out at higher intensity for a shorter duration.

Heart Rate Zone Training Plan

You can utilize heart rate zones to create a training plan tailored towards your goals and priorities.

The right plan depends on what you want to achieve - for example, if you want to train for a marathon, you might want to focus on spending more time in zones 2 and 3. 

If you want to improve your cardiovascular health and lose weight, and have a limited amount of time in the gym, your focus might be getting your heart rate up and spending as much of your limited workout time around zone 3 and 4 as possible.

Generally, you’ll plan your training around a certain percentage of time in each zone, i.e.:

  • 20% of your workout in zone 1
  • 40% of your workout in zone 2
  • 25% of your workout in zone 3
  • 10-15% of your workout in zone 4
  • 0-5% of your workout in zone 5

Zone training is most commonly used with cardio, such as running, biking, swimming, hiking, elliptical, etc.

However you could also make a plan to utilize heart rate zones for a HIIT workout, for weight training, or even in sports, to be able to better manage your energy levels and avoid fading late in games.

Heart Rate Zone Training FAQs

Let’s take a look at a few common questions that come up around heart rate zones and zone training:

What Heart Rate Zone Should I Train In?

The ideal heart rate zone depends on your goals - such as increasing your overall fitness levels or cutting fat - and other factors, such as how much time you have to work out.

Generally, zones 3-4 are the most efficient (without pushing yourself too high), though if you’re training for long-term endurance, for example, you may want to aim to maintain more time in a lower zone instead.

Which Heart Rate Zone Burns Fat?

You can burn fat and achieve weight loss by training at any zone. The higher the zone, the higher the caloric output, and the more efficiently you will burn body fat.

Which Heart Rate Zone is Best for Cardio?

Zones 3 and 4 are the best for improving cardio. Training in these zones requires your cardiovascular system to work harder than normal, thus increasing its potential output.

Is Zone 5 Heart Rate Bad?

Being in zone 5 for a short time is fine, and provides the toughest challenge for your body, as well as the highest caloric output. But too much time in zone 5 can be unsafe. You should take care if your heart rate reaches this level, and consider dialing back the intensity so you don’t push yourself too far.

Final Thoughts

If you want to understand your body’s cardiovascular capacity, understanding different training zones and tracking time spent in each training zone is a great start.

It's important to remember, though, that these training zones (and the key heart rate data you get from wearable heart rate monitors and smart devices) should only be used as a rough guide.

For actual medical advice on what your body can handle, and what's best for your cardiovascular health, you'll need to see a medical professional for personalized advice.

But as long as you don't have any specific medical concerns, you should be able to use the insights gathered from your heart rate and different zones you spend time in to work out more efficiently and reach your fitness goals faster.