Training With a Heartrate Monitor

Have you been thinking about training with a heart rate monitor, but are not sure where to start? Many people buy a heart rate monitor system and do not get past simply setting it up and looking at their total calorie expenditure at the end of the work out. That is perfectly fine if that is all you want to do, but you can fine tune your training and watch for over and under training with this device.



I will speak generally here because there are about as many types of monitors out there as people. I have stuck with Polar for about 20 years, but others love Garmin and other brands. It is up to you.

Strap Type - Current technology still favors the chest strap as most accurate, but radial or wrist straps can still be quite accurate.

Features – Heart Rate monitors can have GPS, lap counters, split time, daily steps, and any number of other bells and whistles. My monitor will even behave somewhat like an Apple Watch and display notifications from my iPhone.

Technology - Make sure that your monitor will connect with ANT+ technology, this will give the most versatile system. With ANT+, you can pair or link up the display system (watch) with any of the ANT+ heart rate receivers. I have 3 different receivers that will pair to the watch.

Charging and Data - Other considerations are battery life, charging and computer link. Most systems will link to your computer for updates to the watch and upload of watch data to a website. This allows you to view your training data in a more robust format. If you like taking in the minute details of a run (where was your heart rate when you ran up the big hill, for example), you may want to have this feature.

Take your time to research to get the system that meets your needs.



  1. Typically, the first step of setup is to pair or link the strap to the watch. The strap is positioned somewhere on the body where your heart rate or pulse can be read. In most systems, the device is simply counting BPM (beats per minute). The harder you are exercising the higher your BPM. This is an over-simplification because there are instances where your body is working hard but the heart rate response cannot be measured quick enough (think low repetition, high weight training). There are other heart rate monitors that will also read other factors like acceleration and/or movement, skin perspiration and/or heat, as well as heart rate variability.
  2. Next, you will need to provide the system with your vital statistics. You can count on having to enter your height, weight and birthdate. These are all pieces of data that all systems need to provide an accurate calculated maximum heart rate and calories burned during activity. Most systems will want to know your level of activity or how often you exercise per week. You may want to set up different profiles for different activities if your system has this function. For example, you may be able to turn off the GPS function when in a cycle class, so you would have a “Cycle Class” profile, but you want the GPS on while running outside, so you would also have a “Running” profile. It is worth reading through your system’s manual to see what is available to get the most out of your purchase.
  3. Some systems have a “Fitness Test” setting. This is an amazing tool that will help set your true max rate based on a close estimation of your Vo2 max as determined by the Fitness Test. Here is a link explaining VO2 max if you need a tutorial:



Many heart rate systems use the concept of training in zones and most use a 5-zone system. There is a wide variety of ways of calculating these zones, but let’s will stick the simplest system. I will be referencing your maximum heart rate which will be calculated by your heart rate monitor system based on many factors that I discussed in last month’s article.

Zone 1 is approximately 50%-60% of your maximum heart rate. This should feel easy and on a scale between 1 and 10 maybe around a 4 or 5 perceived exertion. This actual effort will be dependent on your fitness level. While this may be equivalent to a walk in the park by some athletes, some newer exerciser may find a walk in the park higher on their zone chart.

Zone 2 is approximately 61%-70% of your maximum heart rate. This still feels easy and perhaps not that much different from zone 1. You have upped your exertion level to a good 5 or 6, but you can still hold a conversation.

Zone 1 and 2 training can be used for recovery training. After a hard workout, the next day may require a recovery or zone 1 workout that can be used to let the muscle rebuild and can help avoid over training.

Zone 3 is approximately 71%-83% of your maximum heart rate. This zone starts to feel moderately intense. You still may be able to hold a conversation, but it will start to feel more labored. This used to be called this the fat burning zone, but now is more often referred to as the endurance or aerobic training zone as your body is still using oxygen as an energy source. Perceived exertion is moving toward the 6-7 range.

Zone 3 can be used as an endurance building zone. Tap into this zone on a long, endurance based day. This is the zone that you will use when doing your long run when training for a marathon or on a long day on the bike.

Zone 4 is approximately 84%-91% of your maximum heart rate. This zone is feeling uncomfortable and is often used for high intensity interval training (HIIT). It begins to feel hard to speak in full sentences and perceived exertion is up in the 7-8 range. Especially for non-athletes, this zone becomes difficult to maintain for longer than 3-4 minutes.

Zone 4 can be used for a sustained tempo workout when staying at the bottom of this zone. These sessions tend to be shorter and flirt with the anaerobic threshold. This is also the zone that you will be in during most HIIT training especially when working at a 3 or 4 minutes high intensity with 1 to 2-minute recovery.

Zone 5 is approximately 92% - Maximum heart rate. This zone is highly uncomfortable and should be difficult to maintain for longer than a minute. A conversation is unthinkable and perceived exertion is approaching a 10. You may hit zone 5 at the end of a longer HIIT interval or during 100-meter sprint repeat workout.

Your heart rate monitor system will usually set up your zones automatically based on their algorithm. You should read your heart rate system manual to verify what percentages of max heart rate your system uses for zones. Most systems will let you adjust these zones, if you desire. Most systems will indicate either on the watch face or audible signal what zone you are in or if you are in the desired zone while you are exercising.



Heart Rate Monitor training is a great tool that you can use for any workout. Here are some ideas to try:

  • When going for a recovery run or walk, use it to ensure that you are staying in zone 1 or 2.
  • For a long training run that will not include sprints, use the heart rate monitor to stay in zone
  • If the heart rate starts to creep into zone 4, it may be time for a walking break.
  • For a High Intensity Interval Training session, shoot for zone 4 during the high intensity intervals and do not do the next high intensity interval until the heart rate has recovered to zone 2.
  • he same can be done when doing short sprint intervals, do not do the next interval until recovery has been achieved. Approaching intervals in this way, ensures that you will be able to hit maximum effort after your recovery.

It is important to remember that many things can affect your daily heart rate including medication, caffeine, sleep, sickness and stress. You may also not be able to get your heart rate up if your muscles are extremely fatigued.