A healthy society begins with healthy individuals
Dr. Mike
08 Nov 2020

Benefits of Heart Rate Training for Exercise and Sport

Exercise is an important component, if not the most important (next to nutrition), to any health and fitness program. But exercise can be a multitude of things. From a general perspective, exercise composes of resistance training, cardiovascular training, and flexibility. While heart rate training can be an asset to all components of an exercise program, I will be focusing specifically on its benefits during cardiovascular (or cardio) training.

Why Cardio Training?

Whether you run, walk, bike, hike, swim, cross-country ski, use some of the cardio equipment you find in the gym (e.g., elliptical, treadmill, stair climber, etc.), or enjoy attending classes (e.g., spin, step, body combat, etc.), the health benefits are enormous. Cardio exercise provides mental clarity, elevated mood or contentment, and immune system support; improved function of the heart, lungs and circulatory system; burns an amazing number of calories; and boosts overall health, fitness and performance.

Cardio training is more than just training the aerobic energy system. In order to achieve the above mentioned benefits to the fullest, you have exercise both aerobically and anaerobically. This is especially true for people who constantly switch between their aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, maximizing performance and minimizing fatigue (such as construction workers who swing picks for 10 to 20 seconds at a time to dig ditches, or tennis players during a match). So whether it is for work, fitness or sport, cardio is powerful.

This post won’t go into detail on how to use heart rate monitoring for specific exercise programming, since that would not be practical given the multitude of activities requiring different heart rate levels. Instead, this post will make the argument that heart rate training, given its many benefits, can help maximize any cardio program. As such, exercisers and athletes alike should take the first step in considering its inclusion into their training program.

What Is Heart Rate Training?

Heart rate training is the ability to take a proactive approach going into a cardio session, using the heart rate as a guide to design the type and intensity of the workout. It requires the ability to calculate, monitor, and manipulate training intensities. Typically, depending on the goal of the workout and of the exerciser/athlete, in order to gain some cardiovascular and/or performance benefit from doing cardio training, the idea is to keep the heart rate between 50-100% of its max. A heart rate of 50-60% is considered a warm-up pace. A heart rate from 60-70% is identified as an easy pace. To get good aerobic benefit from your cardio session, a 70-80% heart rate range is the goal. A heart rate between 80-90% is a range that transitions from aerobic to anaerobic, and is usually labeled as anaerobic threshold.  Anything above 90% is anaerobic. The lower the heart rate the longer you can sustain the activity and the higher the shorter the ability to maintain.

If you ever heard about the type of exercise called high intensity interval training or HIIT, well, the concept behind this type of workout is the ability to raise the intensity (and thus heart rate) during portions of your training session. For instance, you plan for a 30 minute workout that includes a 5 minute warm up in the beginning and 5 minute warm down in the end, while the middle 20 minutes include 7 x 1 minute intervals of elevated intensity followed by 2 minutes of recovery. Warm up, warm down, and rest between intervals are at ~ 60% of max heart rate and the 1 minute intervals are between 80-90% of max heart rate. These types of workouts became (and are currently) popular because training sessions can be much shorter and you can burn more calories and fat than if you trained for an easier and longer period of time.   

Personalizing Heart Rate Training

In order to monitor your heart rate effectively while training, you will need one of three different pieces of equipment.

  1. One of the most popular items is a watch that comes with a chest strap that monitors heart rate.
  2. Another is a watch (without a chest strap) that reads your heart rate (or pulse) right from your wrist.
  3. If you do your cardio training within a gym setting using the cardio machines, no watch is needed. Almost all cardio equipment in fitness clubs come with pulse sensors on the handles.

So how do you figure out your heart rate zones for various intensities? The most popular formula is a combination of the Karvonen and Percentage Methods. See below.

You have to first subtract your age from 220 in order to get your maximum heart rate (MHR). You then want to subtract your resting heart rate (RHR) from your MHR to get what is called your heart rate reserve (HRR). Next you want to take your HRR and multiply it by the percentage of MHR to train (i.e., 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90%). Lastly, you add your RHR back, which gives you your training heart rate (THR). Below is a visual of what this looks like, using an example of a real person determining their THR zones.

General Benefits of Heart Rate Training

Training in the appropriate heart rate zone allows you to progress more quickly. You can maximize the benefits of exercise in a minimal amount of time. You can accurately measure the amount of calories burned. You are able to take more responsibility of your training. You are able train based on current level of performance and state of health. When assessing performance, the heart rate does not lie. And probably most importantly, you take the guesswork out your cardio training program.

Which Groups Can Benefit from Heart Rate Training?

The first timer to exercise is probably the luckiest candidate for heart rate training, since this individual will start off in the right direction. Overweight or deconditioned individuals seem to put all faith (and workout time) into cardio when they begin their journeys, usually at the expense of the other components of exercise. In the end, or say in about two to three weeks, these folks either are too sore to workout, succumb to injury, or get mentally burned out and quit altogether. From my experience, these individuals might need heart rate training the most. What about the dedicated exerciser who trains about five days per week? Why not make every minute count by making the time fun and productive. And we cannot forget about the average exerciser, who only exercises as much as they think they need. Even for this group, they might as well make every minute count. Work smarter not harder.

Folks who are trying to put on muscle mass, such as the weightlifter/bodybuilder, can definitely benefit from heart rate training. Doing cardio at the wrong intensity can break down muscle as well as add/increase fat from working out too hard or not hard enough. Heart rate training for elite athletes helps them reach certain training objectives without overdoing it. These individuals can prevent overtraining by monitoring their training intensities to ensure they have enough rest and active recovery. The cardio junkie, those folks who are “addicted” to cardio-only workouts, can learn to use a heart rate monitor to make all cardio sessions have a purpose.

Sum It Up

While I did include a brief example of heart rate training and its use doing an interval workout (i.e., HIIT), the purpose of this post was not to demonstrate, with specific and various examples, how to use heart rate training. Instead, the intention was to show how heart rate training can help maximize your cardio program. I hope that providing the Karvonen and Percentage Methods to obtaining your MHR and THR for the various training zones was helpful. After all, these training zones will be used when designing a cardio program. If you are not already familiar with heart rate training, my hope is you will take the next step and include it in your exercise or athletic program. Whether you have questions and/or ready to take the plunge, let a qualified Health and Fitness Coach lead the way.

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