How to Determine Your Target Heart Rate

Photo from Polar
Forest Frenzy Winter Triathlon

Your heart rate is an “unbiased third party” telling you how hard your workout was. Whether you are training for that multi-day race or just trying to train during off-season, knowing what your target heart rate is, and identifying specific ranges that are regulated to your own make-up and level of fitness, helps your long-term goals.

Taking your pulse and calculating your heart rate during a workout is one of the primary signs in determining the intensity level you and your heart are working. Figuring out your target heart rate will help you determine if you are pushing yourself too much or not enough while you are working out.

First Things First

First, you have to know what your resting heart rate is.  This is the number of times your heart beats per minute while it’s at rest.  The best time to check it is in the morning before you get out of bed.  On average for a well-trained athlete, a resting heart rate should be 40-60 beats per minute.

Finding Your Heart Rate

The best way is to use a heart rate monitor.  There are a variety of these on the market, all with different bells and whistles.   If you do not own a heart rate monitor, you can take your pulse on your neck.  Start with a quick warm up and then go for an all-out effort and sustain it for at least three minutes.  Put your first two fingers on the front of your neck, to the side of the adam’s apple directly underneath your chin.  You can also take your pulse on the inside of your wrist, thumb side, periodically while you’re exercising.  Use the tips of your first two fingers to feel for the pulse on your wrist. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiple that number by six to find your beats per minute.

Determining Target Heart Rate

There are a number of ways to determine your HR zones:

  • Lactate Threshold (LT) Test – Lactate Threshold is the maximum steady state effort that can be maintained without lactate continually increasing. The test involves taking blood samples while increasing intensity.  This test should be done by a trained professional. Tri Right Coaching offers LT testing on both the run and the bike.  If you are local to the Chicagoland area, please contact me to set up an appointment.
  • Time-Trial – The time-trial method of determining lactate threshold pace and heart rate can be done on a treadmill set at a 1 percent grade, on a running track, or on any other flat, smooth surface that’s conducive to fast running. It also requires some means of measuring time elapsed and distance covered as well as heart rate. Be sure to conduct this test on a day when you are not fatigued from recent hard training.  Begin with several minutes of easy jogging to warm up. When you’re ready, start tracking time, distance, and pace on your treadmill or watch and run for 30 minutes at the fastest pace you can sustain for that amount of time. Be careful to avoid the common mistake of starting too fast and then slowing down toward the end of the time trial due to fatigue, which will produce an inaccurate result. When you get to 10 minutes, note your heart rate.  At 30 minutes, stop and note your heart rate again. Calculate the sum of your heart rate at 10 minutes and your heart rate at 30 minutes and divide by two. That’s your LT heart rate. Your LT pace is your average pace for the entire 30-minute effort, assuming your pace was fairly steady.
  • RaceTime – We know that a runner’s lactate threshold pace is a strong predictor of his or her race times. But it also works the other way around: Your race times can be used to estimate your pace at lactate threshold.  Refer to Greg McMillan’s Running Calculator for this purpose. Simply enter a recent race time in the relevant field and press the “Submit” button. Near the top of the results page, you will see “vLT” with some numbers next to it. That is your approximate lactate threshold pace.  To determine your LT heat rate, warm up and then accelerate to your LT pace on a flat, smooth surface. Wait for your heart rate to plateau and note it. That number is your LT heat rate.
Heart Rate Training Zones

Your heart rate zone is a critical element in triathlon training. You need to train at a variety of different heart rates in order to motivate your body to improve the level of your triathlon training. Below are the different training zones and what their exercise benefits are:

  • Zone One – 50 percent – 60 percent of your Max HR
    Easiest, Most Comfortable Zone – Improves overall health and helps recovery
    Exercise Benefits: Improves muscle mass, body fat decreases, blood pressure lowered, cholesterol lowered, muscle mass improvements
  • Zone Two – 60 percent – 70 percent of your Max HR
    Cruise Zone – Improves basic endurance and fat burning
    Exercise Benefits: Gain muscle mass, lose fat mass, strengthen heart muscle
  • Zone Three – 70 percent – 80 percent of your Max HR
    Transition Zone – Improves Aerobic fitness
    Exercise Benefits: Increase respiratory rate, pulmonary ventilation, size and strength of the heart and improvements in cardiac output
  • Zone Four – 80 percent – 90 percent of your Max HR
    Max Calorie Burn Zone – Increases maximum performance capacity
    Exercise Benefits: Max fat burn, but you must be fit enough to train with some oxygen present for additional fat burn. No fat burning if exercising above fat burning heart rate. High total calories. burned during exercise, high carbohydrates as source of calories. Improved VO 2 and higher lactate tolerance.
  • Zone Five – 90 percent – 100 percent of your Max HR
    Peak Race Zone – Athlete Only Zone! Develops maximum performance and speed
    Exercise Benefits: Highest total calories burned, but lowest percentage of fat calories. This zone is only for the very healthy and fit!!! Spending too much time in this zone, even for elite athletes can be painful, cause injuries and lead to over training, which leads to poor performance!

If your heart rate is too high, you’re straining and you need to slow down. If it’s too low, and the training feels too light, you may want to push yourself to exercise a little harder.  The numbers mean something. Watch them.

If you need help with strategizing how to use your target heart rate numbers and training in your perfect heart rate zone, contact me.  I can help you determine the ideal zones to train in so that your training and racing meet your goals.

Train Right, Tri Right!

Coach MJ


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