To simplify a little, sports training is based on three variables: frequency, duration and workout intensity.
So, a good running plan will include different workouts spaced out so that you have time to recover: some workouts are shorter and some long, some are tough, some light. It’s the variety that makes a good running plan good.
Frequency is easy to understand: it’s how many times you exercise per period of time, for example per week.
Duration is simple too: it’s how long you exercise at a time, usually counted in minutes.
Defining workout intensity, however, is a bit more complicated – and that’s where the heart rate zones come in. Your heart rate is one of the best indicators of how hard your body is working during a workout.
Your heart rate is one of the best indicators of how hard your body is working during a workout.
And unlike a purely subjective evaluation of the workout intensity, your heart rate is a trackable number, just like frequency and duration.
What are heart rate zones?
We all have a personal resting heart rate, “a minimum heart rate” , and a maximum heart rate. And between these values are different heart rate zones that correspond to training intensity and training benefit.
There are different ways to specify your heart rate zones. One simple way is to define them as percentages of your maximum heart rate, and that’s what we’ll focus on in this introduction.
Heart rate zones can be defined as percentages of your maximum heart rate.
Heart rate zones are closely linked to your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds but we can talk more about those in a different article.
Five heart rate zones
There are five different zones, 1–5, and your training plan can include workouts in all these five zones. Below is a breakdown of what each zone means in terms of your heart rate and also what the benefits of training in that heart rate zone are.
Heart rate zone 1: 50–60% of HRmax
This is the very low intensity zone. Training at this intensity will boost your recovery and get you ready to train in the higher heart rate zones.
To train at this intensity, pick sports during which you can easily control your heart rate, such as walking or cycling.
Heart rate zone 2: 60–70% of HRmax
Exercising in heart rate zone 2 feels light and you should be able to go on for a long time at this intensity. This is the zone that improves your general endurance: your body will get better at oxidizing – burning – fat and your muscular fitness will increase along with your capillary density.
Training in heart rate zone 2 is an essential part of every runner’s program. Keep at it and you’ll reap the benefits later.
Heart rate zone 3: 70–80% of HRmax
Running in zone 3 is especially effective for improving the efficiency of blood circulation in the heart and skeletal muscles. This is the zone in which that pesky lactic acid starts building up in your bloodstream.
Training in this zone will make moderate efforts easier and improve your efficiency.
Heart rate zone 4: 80–90% of HRmax
Zone 4 is where the going gets tough. You’ll be breathing hard and running anaerobically.
If you train at this intensity, you’ll improve your speed endurance. Your body will get better at using carbohydrates for energy and you’ll be able to withstand higher levels of lactic acid in your blood for longer.
Heart rate zone 5: 90–100% of HRmax
Heart rate zone 5 is your maximal effort. Your heart and your blood and respiratory system will be working at their maximal capacity. Lactic acid will build up in your blood and after a few minutes you won’t be able to continue at this intensity.
If you’re just starting out or have only been training for some time, you probably won’t have to train at this intensity. If you’re a professional athlete, look into incorporating interval training into your training plan for peak performance.
What are my personal heart rate zones?
Do you know your maximum heart rate? Use the calculator below to estimate your heart rate zones based on your maximum heart rate.
Don’t know your HRmax? Read more about calculating your maximum heart rate.
How can I use this to improve my running?
Variety is good. Mix different workouts, vary the duration and intensity of your training sessions. Don’t get stuck running the same distance every time.
If you’re looking for a running plan, check out the Polar Running Program. It’s meant for anyone training for a 5K, a 10K, half-marathon or marathon. Play around with it and make yourself a running plan so that you can focus on what’s important – running.