How to get the most out of your workouts by heart rate training

07/01/2016 - 06:50

Eric Grabin

For most of us, working out requires discipline—from making time in our schedules to maintaining our weekly routine. So once you get going, maximizing the benefits of your workout should be a top priority. Keeping track of your heart rate is one of the easiest ways to do this, but the science behind it can put people off.

Don’t let a lack of understanding keep you from utilizing one of your body’s most useful data transmissions. From knowing when to push yourself and when to recover to better targeting your exercise towards weight loss, heart health, endurance or competition, take a look at how monitoring your heart rate can help you meet your goals more efficiently.

The Basics

In order to get to know your own heart rate and how it relates to your exercise intensity, you’ve got to calculate your resting and maximum heart rate:

  • The National Institute of Health says the average resting heart rate for most adults is between 60-100 beats per minute, or as low as 40-60 beats per minute for athletes. To find your own, count the number of times your heart beats per minute before you get out of bed in the morning.

  • To find your approximate maximum heart rate (MHR), subtract your age from 220 (this is the maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute while you're exercising).

Now, you can calculate your target heart rate (a range in whicih it’s not over or underworked) for different types of exercise. As a rule of thumb:

  • For moderate exercise intensity, aim for 50-70% of your maximum heart rate.
  • For vigorous exercise intensity, aim for 70-85% percent of your maximum heart rate.

Of course, these maximum heart rates are just guidelines, so for a more accurate personal maximum, head to an exercise physiologist for a treadmill test.

Like to run or bike? Play sports? Lift weights? See how heart rate training can change the way you exercise.

In the Zone

Exercising in a “zone” means maintaining a particular percentage of your maximum heart rate while you work out. For instance:

  • Working at 65-70% of your maximum heart rate promotes recovery by allowing your muscles and tissues to heal between more rigorous workouts--all while training your body to metabolize fat as a fuel source.
  • In the aerobic or “target heart rate” zone, between 70-80%, you develop an endurance base, increasing your overall cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength while improving your long distance speed over time.
  • Training at 80-90% feels harder, since your body stops being able to remove lactic acid at the rate it’s produced (you reach your lactate or anaerobic threshold). Training in the anaerobic zone helps you increase this threshold, which ultimately improves performance.
  • From 90-100%, (or V02 max) you can improve your race-pace by developing the fast twitch muscle fibers that increase speed—but workouts in this zone should be kept short, since your muscles can’t operate for long on an oxygen shortage.

No matter why you run or bike, knowing your target zone will help you achieve your goals. Hitting your zone helps you gain endurance, burn fat, improve your race pace and properly recover.

Once you become familiar with what your zones feel like, you can often hit them based on perceived effort and talk tests (whether you can speak in full sentences).

Still, elite athletes say that the precision of a heart rate monitor and attention to additional factors like blood lactate levels and oxygen consumption do give them an extra edge. Recent studies have even suggested that the use of compression gear, particularly stockings (knee-high socks) and compression shorts for men and women, have yielded increased endurance and speed in various treadmill tests, while bike compression shorts have also been linked to desirable effects on maximum heart rate and quicker recovery through lower blood lactate levels after exercise.

What do compression shorts do? Often worn as underwear, compression shorts keep muscles warm to prevent strain or fatigue and wick away sweat to prevent rashes and chafing. Some brands even include medical-grade taping to stabilize muscles and optimize blood flow. Though many of their proven benefits have been cited as post-performance and recovery-enhancing, numerous endorsements from athletes and trainers have made them go-to gear for anyone looking for that extra edge in performance.

Getting into the game

When it comes to sports, research shows that zone training to build anaerobic power and cardiorespiratory endurance is key to designing workouts that accurately mimic the demands of a game. So whether it’s a singles showdown or a team effort, you want your training to be calibrated to your competition.

Match point

In tennis, you’ll need to build endurance both for long matches (60-70% MHR) and the long points within them (70-80% MHR) through a program of light to moderate zone training. But for those hard rallies and quick recoveries (80-90% MHR), don’t underestimate the necessity of anaerobic fitness and speed-burst ability (90-100% MHR).

Full court press

Basketball fitness is all about speed and agility. Prepare for short bouts of high-intensity performance (80-90+% MHR) with drills and sprints, but be sure to underpin the suicides with extensive endurance training (70-80% MHR) in the aerobic zone so you don’t fall behind in a full court press.

Fútbol v. Football

Soccer places yet another cocktail of fitness demands on its players, with constant aerobic activity (60-75% MHR) throughout a game interspersed with repeated, higher-intensity periods (80-90% MHR) and sprinting at maximal effort during key plays (90+% MHR). In sports like soccer and football, fitness requirements also fluctuate by position, so team heart rate data can be used to create specialized fitness regimens that reduce risk of injury for individual players as well as analyze trends across training sessions, games and seasons.

Peak physique

Traditionally, lifting weights was not considered a cardiovascular workout, but now heart rate monitors allow you to boost the cardio benefits of your weight sessions by maintaining a target heart rate (between 60-75% MHR) and incorporating total-body movements and shorter rest between sets.

Whatever your exercise of choice, knowing your zones and how they affect your body can help you optimize your workouts and reduce injury. Have any tips on heart rate training for different exercises? Let us know in the comments below.