HomeGeneral TriUltimate Guide Heart Rate Training for Athletes

Ultimate Guide Heart Rate Training for Athletes

Today, heart rate monitors are being used in all forms of exercise and have earned their place in the training world as a legitimate training aid.

And why are they so popular?

Because they work!

About Your Heart

The heart is the battery of our complicated human body, much like a 12- volt battery is the heart of an automobile.  And like an automobile, when our “battery” fails to operate everything else ceases to function, regardless of how well the working parts are capable of performing.  

Since the introduction of the heart rate monitor, athletes have been able to evaluate their health, fitness and athletic performance simply by the beat of their heart.  This watch-like instrument coupled with a chest strap can play the role of doctor, physiologist, training partner and even coach.

Do you have a cold or flu?  Are you stressed out about work?  Are you overtrained?  Did you sleep poorly last night?  Are you running too fast?  Are you cycling too hard?  Combined with a little common sense and deductive thought, the heart rate monitor can answer all of these questions. And its accuracy is remarkable.

Heart Rate Monitoring for Athletes

Therefore it is no surprise that this wonderful little tool has been so widely accepted among triathletes all over the world. With the physical demand triathlon places on the human body, the heart rate monitor has proven to be an essential tool for a successful, well-balanced training and racing program.

Typically, triathletes use the heart rate monitor as a means of keeping tabs on their aerobic system.  But it can also come in handy during anaerobic training as well.

Whats the difference between aerobic and anaerobic?

A good question and one that should be addressed before we continue.

As triathletes in training and utilizing every ounce of energy our body can produce, it is necessary to understand the meaning of such terms and their place in the training world for an effective training program.

Aerobic Training

Today, the term aerobic has become somewhat of a buzzword synonymous with long, easy, “steady – state” training.  And when exercising aerobically, all internal systems are operating in synch.  Fat becomes your source of energy.  

You take in just the right amount of oxygen, which feeds the blood, which is pumped throughout the body by an efficient heart, feeding the muscles, ideally allowing you to exercise endlessly without fatigue.  Of course, you must have the physical strength to keep pace with your aerobic system and this is where proper base training and weight work comes into play.

Anaerobic Training

By contrast, anaerobic training refers to exercise with a much greater effort and is often synonymous with hurried, fast activity. When training anaerobically, your internal systems become somewhat out of balance as oxygen debt sets in.  As you increase the intensity of your training, breathing becomes labored.

You are taking in less oxygen, reducing the amount of “food’’ for the blood.  The heart is forced to work harder in order for you to maintain your pace and to continue to pump this blood to the muscles.  Fat no longer becomes the source of energy.  Rather, the glycogen stored in your muscles becomes the fuel.  

Unfortunately, the glycogen stored in your body get used up rather quickly. As the glycogen is burned up or used up, within your muscles, it leaves behind a byproduct in the form of lactic acid.  As the lactic acid builds up, you begin to feel its effects via that “burning” sensation in your muscles.

But anaerobic training does have its place in a successful training regimen. Adding anaerobic training to your workout in the form of quality or speed work, will help develop  your “fast twitch” muscles (fast moving) as well as help increase your aerobic capacity allowing you to run faster while remaining aerobic.

How do I incorporate aerobic and anaerobic into my training plan?

To best answer this question let us take a look at two of the leading methods of heart rate training.

Today two methods of HR training have emerged as the most widely used among athletes in training.  One is an updated version of the older 220 method and the other is Phil Maffetone’s 180 Formula.

The 220 Method

First let us begin with the older and still popular method or heart rate training sometimes referred to as the 220 method.  This method is based on your Maximum Heart Rate and at what particular percentage of this heart rate should you train. Your maximum heart rate represents the highest number of beats your heart will beat per minute when training or racing as hard and fast as you can (are you thinking anaerobic?) Therefore, the first step is to find your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR).

Some programs will have you run several laps around a track at full speed, or ride a bicycle uphill (a long hill at that) to determine your Maximum Heart Rate.  And yes these do represent the most accurate means of achieving this figure, but they can also be the most detrimental causing injury to someone new to the sport. Thus, the 220 method will solve this problem by giving you a close enough reading to your maximum heart rate without the risk of injury.

Finding Your Maximum Heart Rate

By subtracting your age from 220 you arrive at a number that represents your Maximum Heart Rate. Once you determine your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), you multiply a particular percentage by that figure to reach a specific training level or zone. Refer to the formula below:

Maximum Heart Rate x  % of effort = Training Heart Rate (HR) in beats per minute

In this method, there are four levels of training and each represents a particular training zone (range). In our examples, we will use the figure 180 as the Maximum Heart Rate when determining these zones. On the following page, we will illustrate how to find these training zones.

60% to 70% of your MHR

180 x 60% = 108 beats per minute

180 x 70% = 126 beats per minute

This would represent a training range of 108-126 beats per minute. This level represents easy, relaxed training.  Ideal for long runs and long rides.

70% to 80% of your MHR

180 x 70% = 126 beats per minute

180 x 80% = 144 beats per minute

This would represent a training range of 126-144 beats per minute. This level represents your aerobic zone.

80% to 90% of your MHR

180 x 80% = 144 beats per minute

180 x 90% = 162 beats per minute

Welcome to anaerobic training!  Workouts are of a greater intensity such as interval based training. For running, this would include track workouts or fartlek runs.  For cycling, a time trial.

90% to 100% of your MHR

180 x 90% = 162 beats per minute

180 x 100% = 180 beats per minute

This is maximum output.  Usually represented by short bursts such as the end of a race.

One note: If you read and research heart rate training you will find that these percentages will vary.  For example some consider the aerobic zone between 65%-75% of your maximum heart rate. If such discrepancies leave you frustrated than stick to the middle of each zone and you should be fine.

The 180 Formula

Another method of heart rate training that has gained popularity over  the past several years is the 180-Formula introduced by Dr. Phil Maffetone.  Unlike the 220-Formula, this particular method is not based on your Maximum Heart Rate but rather your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR).  And there is a difference.

For example, my Maximum Heart Rate on a run is about 185 beats per minute. My Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, based on the 180-Formula is 132 bpm.  Once you determine your MAHR, you must then determine your base aerobic zone. This zone will act as a base or foundation from which a more specific zone can be determined based on your current fitness level. To find your base aerobic zone, simply subtract 10 from your MAHR and the result will yield a number that represents the lower end of the zone.

For example: my MAHR based on my age of 48 years is 132 bpm or 180 – 48. This number also represents the upper end of my base aerobic zone. Now, subtract 10 from 132 and you get 122. This figure represents the lower end of the base aerobic zone. So, in this example, my base aerobic zone would be 122 – 132 beats per minute. This means if I keep my heart rate in this zone during exercise, I am maintaining an “aerobic” pace. Anything over this zone or 132, and I cross into anaerobic training. Now, let’s explore this in greater detail.


Determine Your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate and Base Aerobic Zone

The first step in this process is to find your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR) and base aerobic zone.  According to Dr. Maffetone’s formula, this figure is achieved by subtracting your age from 180.  For a 40 year old adult, the Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate would be 140 or 140 beats per minute (bpm): 180 – 40. This would also mark the upper end or maximum rate of this individuals base aerobic zone.  But in order to create a “zone” we must now determine the lower end. To do so, simply subtract 10 from the MAHR and you have it! (140 – 10 = 130)

So for a 40 year old individual, the aerobic zone would be 130 -140 beats per minute (bpm)

Now, this “zone” acts as the base or foundation for determining a truer aerobic zone based on current fitness levels. Below we will look how to reach your truer aerobic zone.

Adjust your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate to your Current Fitness Level

The next step is to adjust the base aerobic zone to your present fitness level…

  1. If you are currently ill or are recovering from an illness (heart problems, operations, hospital stay etc), or are on any regular medication you will want to adjust your entire zone down 10 beats from your base figures.  For the 40 year old adult the results would be an aerobic zone of 120 – 130 bpm.
  2. If you have not exercised before; you typically exercise but are currently injured; have cut back on your training; or often suffer from colds, flu’s or allergies, adjust your aerobic zone down 5 beats from your base figures. For the 40 year old adult, this would result in an aerobic zone of 125 – 135 bpm.
  3. If you have been exercising for up to two years without any real problems; have been making progress in competition and have remained injury free, no adjustment is necessary. For the 40 year old adult, the aerobic zone would be 130 – 140 bpm.
  4. If you have been exercising for more than two years without any real problems; remained injury free, but have noticed that your progress has reached a plateau, you can adjust your figures upwards by 5 beats.  For the 40 year old adult the resulting aerobic zone would be 135 – 145 bpm.

Remember, these numbers representing your aerobic training zone with the upper or higher number of the zone being your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, not your Maximum Heart Rate.  These numbers are also expressed in beats per minute or bpm.

Also be sure to check out our top heart rate monitors for Triathletes for the best way to track your heart rate. Good luck and train smart!

Rating: 5.00/5. From 1 vote.
Please wait...
Hazen Kent
Hazen Kent
As a former All-American swimmer, Hazen has spent many years as a competitive triathlete and coach of both triathletes and swimmers.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -
- Advertisment -