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Heart Rate Training – the key to effectively building endurance and elite-level cardio 

In many of my earlier articles I criticized the benefit and validity of long, slow cardio as an effective means for fat loss. I was all about intensity intensity intensity, be it with resistance training or cardiovascular training.

Over the last year, my fitness interests have however taken a bit of a different direction. I found myself becoming bored with High Intensity Interval training and some of the bodyweight and other resistance training I was doing.

I figured it was time for a bit of variety, and started getting involved in some endurance events.

I had to shift the focus and direction of my training. When having to run, swim or bike any reasonable distance, the whole balls to the wall approach (as your only approach) doesn’t really work, you have to throw some long-slow workouts into the mix too.

Doing this, forced me to re-look at the validity of that which I had previously criticized and said was a waste of time.

After studying up on endurance training and from my own experiences I have come to two key realisations:

1)   For fat-loss, and the best use of time, if fat-loss is your goal, High Intensity Interval Training is still the best  way to go!

2)   High Intensity Interval Training alone does not give you the endurance needed to complete certain events.

– If you want to be able to “go long” you need to be able to do it in training (although less frequently than you’d think). No amount of burpees, pull-ups, dips and kettlebell-swings (when this kind of thing forms the bulk of your training) will give you the necessary endurance to run a 42.2km marathon after a 180km bike and 3.8km swim in order to cross the finish line of an Ironman.

As I started to include more and more endurance training in my schedule, I wanted to learn how do do it as effectively and efficiently as possible.

I started training with a heart-rate monitor and using heart-rate zone training. After all, we all want to get the most bang for our buck when training. I also wanted to significantly improve my endurance, but still leave myself with a little time to do weights and intervals etc – so that I don’t lose all of my hard-earned gains (although some muscle loss is to be expected when doing a lot of endurance training.)

Right, so enough of my life story, on to how to properly use heart rate zones for more effective endurance and cardiovascular training!

First off, you WILL need a heart-rate monitor, it is not really possible to do this kind of training without one.

The first step in doing effective heart rate zone training is to calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR).

The most common way of doing this is to subtract your age from 220, the result is your MHR.

So for example, if you are 28 years old, your MHR will be 220 – 28 =192.

If you want to train at 70% of your MHR, you then multiply 192 by 0.7 to give you 134.

Although this method is the most common, it is highly generalised and does not account for individual differences at all.

A superior method of calculating your optimal heart rate zone is using the Karvonen formula.

This formula makes use of your resting heart rate (RHR), and so, does therefore account for individual differences to a greater extent. The lower your resting heart rate, the fitter you are, and the higher your heart rate training zones will be. To calculate your target heart rate using  the Karvonen formula, you will do as follows:

Let’s say, you want to use the same target heart rate of 70% as in the above example, using the Karvonen formula and someone of 28 years of age and with a RHR of 54.

Target Heart rate  = (MHR – RHR) x 70% + RHR
                             = (192 – 54) x 70% + 54
                             = 151

You can see the target heart rate is quite a bit higher than when using the general formula. This higher heart rate seems more suitable for someone with an RHR of 54 though, as the lower, the RHR, the fitter the individual and the higher their target heart rate for a given training zone should be.

So, now that you know how to calculate your MHR and Target heart rate, what should you target heart rate be?


There are 4 main target Heart rate zones.


Zone 1: 65-74% MHR:

Training in this zone improves the heart’s ability to pump blood and the the muscle’s ability to utilize oxygen. The body also becomes more efficient at using fat as a fuel source.

Zone 2: 75-85% MHR:

This is the most effective overall zone for improving overall cardiovascukar fitness. Training in this zone improves cardiovascular capacity, which is essentially the ability to transport oxygenated blood to the working muscles and then remove the carbon dioxide.

Zone 3: 86-89%:

Training in this zone produces lactic acid faster than it can be removed from the working muscles. The lactate threshold, is however improved by doing this, and this helps to improve overall performance. There will however be no shortage of heavy breathing and burning muscles.

Zone 4: 90-95%:

This is your VO2 Max zone.

Only very fit individuals should attempt training in this zone, and only for short periods of time. Lactic acid will develop very quickly. This type of training will increase the number of fast-twitch fibres which helps improve speed.


What Zone should I be training in?


The two zones you should be spending most of your time in are Zones 2 and 4 if improving endurance and cardiovascular fitness are your goals.

Zone 2 is your endurance zone, you should be spending about 90% of your training time here. It is not possible to train in Zone 4 for very long periods of time, but peppering your Zone 2 workouts with bursts of zone 4 training (for example 4 x 5minutes in Z4 with 3 minutes rest between each set) is a great way to improve your lung capacity, power and speed.

There is some evidence (albeit quite controversial), that training predominantly in upper Zone 3-4, by doing mainly sprints and longer, but still very intense intervals does in fact improve endurance and the ability to use fat as a fuel source too.

This line of thinking however, very much goes against the grain of conventional endurance training. I will be experimenting with this kind of training in the future, in the hope that I can be even more efficient and save more time, but I am not sure if it suits all endurance events. More on that in a later article.

Anyway, for now, remember to stay in Zone 2, with the odd bit of zone 4 training if you are training for an endurance event..


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