Ask the Coach – The Beat on Heart Rate Training

Ask the Coach – The Beat on Heart Rate Training

Heart rate training is popular topic these days. I’ve gotten several questions from athletes regarding heart rate training, including one from Julia (aka @swimrjul). She asks, does it really work?
In short, yes. Here’s a little more…
There are many ways to train for a triathlon or other endurance event. Beyond just going out and swimming, biking, and/or running, is there a way to optimize or focus our training effort so that physical adaptation and improved performance/fitness comes about? You probably already know the answer to that is yes. We can train systematically based on perceived exertion, pace, power, or heart rate.
Heart rate is probably one of the simplest ways for a recreational athlete who is looking to improve performance to do so. But you can’t just go out and buy a heart rate monitor without understanding how to apply the numbers it spits out to your training.
Why train with heart rate? Benefits include:

  • Heart Rate monitors are relatively inexpensive
  • The data is relatively easy to understand
  • Simple way to monitor overall fitness

Some terminology:
Resting heart rate – this will be your lowest heart rate when you are completely rested and relaxed. You can measure this first thing in the morning when you wake up (but make sure you aren’t startled by an alarm!), or after you’ve retired for the evening and have been reclined for a few minutes. As your fitness improves, your heart will pump more efficiently and it won’t need to pump as fast to keep the oxygen delivered to your body through your blood.
Maximum heart rate – this is the maximum beats per minute your heart will go. This is going to vary by fitness and age and genetics. There are formulas to determine max heart rate, and tests you can do to estimate this. This number varies so much by individual, it is useless to compare max heart rates with other athletes.
What makes heart rate go up? As we increase our activity, our muscles need more oxygen to function, and so our heart rate increases to fulfill this demand. That’s why our heart rate is higher standing than sitting, walking over standing, running over walking, and so on. The harder we work or faster we move, the more oxygen our muscles need to keep up with the demand and the heart rate increases.
Monitoring heart rate can be effective in gauging your fitness improvement. If you run at a 10:00min/mile pace at an average heart rate of 155bpm and two months later your run (under similar conditions) that 10:00min/mile pace at 148bpm, your fitness has improved. Using a heart rate monitor can also make sure you stay in your aerobic/endurance zone for long training sessions. This zone is relatively large so having a “ceiling” or upper limit to stick to will keep your training appropriate.
Increases in heart rate (>10bpm) under similar conditions (ie. resting HR) can possibly indicate potential issues. If your resting heart rate is normally 50bpm and you measure it at 62bpm, it could indicate issues with illness, hydration, or just needing to take a day off from training. Understanding how your heart rate is affected by various stresses is useful.
If we monitor our heart rate while we exercise, we find that certain effort levels (or paces) and breathing patterns are associated with ranges of heart rate. So how can we utilize this?
Exercise physiologists and coaches typically split up heart rates into zones or ranges. These zones work different physiological systems that have different training focus. They can can vary in name, depending on whose “system” you are using to calculate zones, but let’s take a look. I could give percentages, but this varies by method (% max hr, % lactate threshold, % whatever field test result) and there is some overlap so instead I will give approximate perceived exertions. If you train by heart rate, you can calculate your zones based on the particular method you use.

Recovery: This is extremely easy – like walking, or an easy spin on the bike. The benefit of this zone is to increase the heart rate slightly so that there is slightly increased blood flow to your muscles to help bring in nutrients and remove waste. For that reason. recovery workouts can be more “rejuvinating” than simply sitting on the couch. Perceived Exertion: Easy

Aerobic/Endurance: This is the zone where your body predominantly uses oxygen for fuel. Breathing in this zone is either conversational or broken conversation at the top of the zone. This might be broken into the intensive and extensive endurance zone (ie. J. Friel). Perceived Exertion: Light to Moderate.

Tempo: This is the upper end of the aerobic zone (can be part of intensive endurance). You would only be able to hold a choppy conversation, but it is an effort level that can be maintained for a while (specific length depending on fitness). Perceived Exertion: Moderately Hard to Hard

Lactate Threshold: Here’s where the real physiology starts to get interesting. At a certain effort level, our bodies start to produce more lactic acid (which is actually used as fuel) than our muscles can clear. Like filling a bucket with a hole in it, if we fill it slowly, the water level won’t increase. If we fill it too fast, the bucket fills up. Our muscles are the bucket and lactate the water. Training at threshold, which is just slightly above or below your lactate threshold will teach your body to be more efficient clearing lactate. But because it is our threshold, we can’t stay here too long. Athletes often do intervals here, where the recovery interval allows the body to clear lactate. Our breathing becomes a quite a bit more labored in this zone. Perceived Exertion: Hard

Anaerobic Endurance/VO2: This zone works our maximal oxygen uptake – our high upper end. Intervals here are very short and need adequate recovery. Too much time in this zone can lead to overreaching or even overtraining, so one must approach training here with caution. Perceived Exertion: Very Hard

Sample field test:
Warm up well, then do a 30 minute time trial (go as hard as you can go for 30 minutes). Record your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes. This is approximately your lactate threshold heart rate. To get your zones, for example the zones uses by Joe Friel, you would go to a table or Joe’s Quick Guide to Setting Zones. Separate field tests must be done for different sports.
I should also point out some disadvantages to training with heart rate:

  • Many factors affect HR (hydration, sleep, stress, heat, humidity, caffeine…)
  • HR has a delayed response to exercise stress.
    • when effort is increased, HR doesn’t go up right away
  • HR can “creep” so if trying to gauge effort in the upper zones can be difficult.

If you are an athlete that hasn’t been using a specific method for training and want to improve your performance, heart rate training is definitely a good place to start.

Here are some online resources about heart rate training and zones if you’d like to know more:
Joe Friel –
Mark Allen –
Phil Maffetone:
Endurance Corner:
Zones via Heart Rate Reserve Calculation:
Another online zone calculator and explanation:

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole with your questions for the Ask the Coach column on facebooktwitter or via email at

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Nicole Odell


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