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Heart rate training part 2: Using your zones!

In Heart rate training 1 we discussed what heart rate training was and why it exists. In this part the practical aspect will be discussed and hopefully simplified. As mentioned, lactate threshold is important to know when using heart rate effectively. This can be found either through laboratory testing or using a DIY test. Lab testing is extremely accurate and will promote other good information. The DIY test is not quite as accurate but effective, accessible and cheaper.


After a comprehensive warm-up conduct the following.

  • Run, Row or Cycle a 20min time trial on an even surface. Try and maintain as steady a pace as possible for the entire 20mins. Make note of heart rate and or watts/pace every 30secs for the final 5 minutes (or use 5 min average). 
  • One can also use a 5km run trial by collecting the average heart rate or pace in the final half of the run.

Once you have your lactate threshold Heart rate you can use a number of calculators to establish your heartrate zones. It doesn’t matter which method you use as long as you stay consistent with the figures and the method. Which method will be dictated by you or your coach’s training philosophy.

The most practical method is the 5 zone approach as it works well for most sports and is quite intuitive.

ZONE 1 (Recovery)

This zone places little demand on the musculoskeletal and energy systems. It is very easy to recover from and can be done regularly without creating much stress. Many use it primarily to recover from hard efforts. It can promote lactate clearance and help mobilise joints etc. without inducing any further fatigue.

ZONE 2 (Aerobic)

Many athletes would consider this zone base training. It is the intensity at which the heart fills and stretches fully, which is effective for remodelling the heart over time. Energy demands are predominantly met by oxidative means and so the oxidative system is extremely active. Lactate is also being consumed as an energy source. Training in this zone promotes vascularisation and improves bloodflow to the muscle. Overall processes occurring at this intensity level will improve oxygen supply to muscles and removal/consumption of lactate. This zone is extremely important to athletes.

Zone 1 & 2 should be very comfortable efforts

ZONE 3 (Tempo)

From a physiological perspective, zone 3 is no man’s land. Both the aerobic and anaerobic systems are active but neither effectively enough to enduce significant adaptation. From a performance perspective it is a lot more important. This zone will likely be race pace during middle to long distance races. Therefore exercise economy at this level is important and becomes especially relevant to pacing.

Zone 4a (Sub threshold)

Zone 4a sits just below actual OBLA but is harder than tempo pace.  The lower end of this zone is often referred to as “Sweetspot training”. The aerobic system is at full capacity and reasonable amounts of lactate are being produced. Longer distance athletes need to spend time here in  an effort to raise their aerobic capacity at higher intensity. The ability to clear lactate and prolong time to accumulation is extremely important. Promoting aerobic glycolysis and utilization of lactate as fuel are the main aims of training in this zone. 

Aerobic capacity and ability at Zone 4 will dictate pace over longer sustained efforts

Zone 4b (Threshold)

Zone 4b sits at and just above OBLA. Training in this zone promotes one’s ability to tolerate the accumulation of lactate and prolong time to failure. Anaerobic glycolysis becomes predominant in this range. While aerobic glycolysis is more efficient, this zone is likely to be race pace for shorter events. One’s ability to perform at this intensity can be very important in race situations. It is inevitable that you may find yourself pushing past threshold. Being more aerobicly developed can help avoid going to far past this zone in a race situation.

Zone 5 (Anaerobic/Neuromuscular)

Zone 5 is the end range for heart rate and associated with maximal effort. Efforts at this intensity are shorter in comparison to others. It is often referred to as sprint capacity. Large amounts of lactate are being produced and neuromuscular function will be hindered as the pH of the blood decreases inhibiting muscle fibre activation and contraction. One’s tolerance and ability to push into this zone can be important when a sprint effort is called upon. Trained athletes will function better at this intensity than untrained.

Shorter faster races will require the ability to tolerate maximal Zone 5 efforts in many situations

In summary, exposure to all intensities will be important for an all-round efficient performance. Some zones require larger duration of exposure to stimulate adaptation than others. Generally the ones requiring more time reap the greatest rewards. The counter argument is that they are not as time efficient. Interval training has become popular as a method to stimulate multiple zones and systems in a short space of time. Intervals may be a better choice if time is a constraint. A periodised program is always more effective where possible. One can direct attention to different physiological systems when the time is appropriate. Long steady work in Zone two is less of a priority days before an event than speed work for an example.

Heart rate science can be complicated at first glance, but the application can be quite simple. Whatever zones you use need to stay consistent, that’s all. If you have a well structured training program, the zones you use should be quite obvious. Once you ascertain OBLA heart rate or power you simply need to work out the ranges for each zone and make sure you apply them as your program dictates. Once there is consistency in the training then it’s quite easy to make changes based on how your performances play out over the season.

If you feel you want to structure your training and implement heart rate zones then don’t hesiate to contact us and enquire about services. If you found this article usefull then please like on social media and share with a friend.

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