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Heart rate zones - woman on watch

Pushing yourself right! A quick guide to heart rate zones

Heart rate zones can sometimes be super confusing to understand. That’s why we’re going to break it down for you so it’s as easy as left and right!

Heart rate zones in a nutshell

Usually talked about in reference to running – heart rate zones (or HR zones) are a fantastic way to categorise different training intensities and your body’s physical exertion. Put simply, heart rate zones measure your effort. HR zones can be used as an alternative to only gauging a run by pace.

This might sound a little confusing, but it’s really very simple once you know a couple of things about your own personal ability. To understand our heart rate zones, first we need to have a general idea of our resting heart rate and our maximum heart rate. To achieve this, all you need to do is some challenging exercise and have a heart rate monitor. Most modern fitness assistance tech include these, such as a Fitbit.

Once you have an idea of what your max and minimum heart rates are, first divide the range of numbers in half as we’re only going to be looking at the top 50%. (You should be hitting at least half your maximum heart rate during most running). Then, divide that top 50% into five equal portions – these are your five heart rate zones. So basically each of the heart rate zones is expressed as a percentage of your maximum heart rate! Simple right?

What are heart rate zones used for?

Okay so now we’ve learnt what are five heart rate zones are, but what are they even used for? Often talked about in interval and threshold style run workouts, heart rate zones are perfect for pacing yourself throughout the week and making sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard (or not hard enough!) Over the course of a running plan, you should ideally be doing a variety of workouts covering the whole spectrum of heart rate zones. This is to ensure tangible progress and reduce risk of injury. Let’s look at each of the heart rate zones in a bit more depth. This information comes from Polar’s standardization based on research from the 1970’s, and is one of the more well established breakdowns of the heart rate zones.

The five heart rate zones

Pushing yourself right! A quick guide to heart rate zones

Zone 1 – 50-60% of max heart rate

Zone 1 is the most relaxed of the five heart rate zones and usually covers recovery exercises. Walking and staying mobile during your recovery days is enough to push you to 50% of your maximum heart rate. This will help keep your body prepared for more intense exercise. Some suggested exercises could be relaxed cycling or low intensity yoga. This zone is also covered through your warm up, and cool down segments during other workouts.

Zone 2 – 60-70% of max heart rate

This should be the intensity where you know you are working your body, but you could go on for hours if needed. You should still be able to hold a conversation whilst running at this level. It’s essentially a very light push. Zone 2 should be a primary focus, as it’s essential for improving your overall endurance and oxidising fat.

Zone 3 – 70-80% of max heart rate

As we come to the third heart rate zone, our body begins producing lactic acid. This is the cause of that burning feeling you get during (and after!) a good workout session. You’ll notice yourself starting to sweat more and unable to speak more than a word or two per breath in this zone. This is the pace most runners would be at during a ‘tempo’ run, a challenging type of longform run training.

Zone 4 – 80-90% of max heart rate

Things are going to start getting harder here! This heart rate zone is often used to improve speed endurance, and is seen as a good interval speed for interval based workouts. You’ll probably only be able to keep yourself at this pace for a few minutes, definitely no more than five! Regular sprinters will be familiar with this zone.

Zone 5 – 90-100% of max heart rate

Here it is, your absolute maximum effort. You should only ever be hitting this zone for very short bursts, less than two minutes in fact. The reason for this is you just cannot provide enough oxygen for your body during this period of intense physical exertion. It’s also usually reserved for more advanced runners. Recovery is absolutely essential after hitting this peak if you want to avoid injury!

Utilising the five heart rate zones 

Your overall training regime should contain a mix of all of the heart rate zones. Both to make sure you are improving your overall ability as a runner (and not just stagnating) and to make sure you don’t injure yourself by pushing too hard. Intervals and threshold runs are two key sessions to think about if you’re training to become a better runner, and you can read more about them in our earlier post here.

Whatever your overall fitness schedule or end goal, knowing your heart rate zones (along with your maximum heart rate!) can be an incredibly useful tool. It will allow you to better tailor your time, efficiently plan your ideal fitness progress and know when to recover properly. It’s also a tangible stat to watch if you want to watch yourself improve over time, which is always good. Now let’s get out there and get running!

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