Target Heart Rate Zone Training


Target Heart Rate Training is a systematic method of improving your cardiovascular fitness.

The body’s organs and muscles change in response to the demands placed on it. By exercising at sufficiently intense levels, you can overload your cardiovascular system. During rest, your body adapts to strengthen the cardiovascular system. Over time, your heart becomes more efficient at delivering the oxygen and fuel required by the muscles to maintain this higher level of performance. The skeletal muscles also become better at extracting oxygen from the bloodstream. With continued consistent exercise, the cardiovascular system continues to consistently improve.

Knowing your maximum heart rate will allow you to estimate where you can train to bring about cardiovascular improvements.

But since a stress test isn’t practical for most individuals, physiologists have developed a number of formulas for estimating maximum heart rate without actually requiring you to take your heart rate up to potentially dangerous levels. The maximum heart rate formulas provide an approximation of your true maximum heart rate. But by estimating conservatively, you can use these estimates as the foundation for monitoring your exercise intensities.

Once you’ve determined your estimated maximum heart rate, you can construct a “target zone” for your workouts.

Normally, trainers specify “zones” for you to work in. This is because the human heart rate changes continuously. It would be virtually impossible to maintain any selected heart rate. In addition, it takes a while for the heart to “come up to speed.” For these reasons, a “target heart rate zone” has evolved to become the most practical method of measuring exercise intensity.

Target heart rate training provides a scientific approach to tracking your improving levels of fitness.

With a decent heart rate monitor, it becomes easier to monitor your workouts. It allows you to measure exercise intensity independently of what activity is being performed by focusing on heart rate as the measure of exercise intensity. If you haven’t been making the kind of progress you know you are capable of, you might consider this methodical approach to improving fitness.

Target Heart Rate Training
© 2002 Curb Ivanic, Ultra Fitness

Determining Maximum Heart Rate

Before you can determine your heart rate training zones or target heart rate zones (THR), you’ll need to determine your maximum heart rate (MHR).  There are a number of ways to calculate MHR.  The simplest but also least accurate is the Estimated Maximum Heart Rate (EMRH) formula, which is (220-age) for men and women.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to do the other methods discussed below then use this one, it will give you an approximation.  There are other variations to this basic age formula but once the final THR calculations are done the difference is small so I stick with this one when estimating a maximum heart rate. The most accurate way to calculate MHR is to get a treadmill exercise stress test.  This method is costly and inconvenient since you have to book an appointment at a testing facility, assuming you can find one where you live.

Resting Heart Rate

Before calculating target heart rate zones (THR) you need to determine your resting heart rate (RHR).  To do this simply take a reading with your heart rate monitor or take your pulse first thing in the morning before getting out of bed.  If you need to use the bathroom do so and lie back down for a minute, then take your HR as a full bladder can increase your heart rate.  Take your HR for at least three days then average it out.
RHR is also useful information to monitor your health and training.  With improvement in your fitness level you should see your RHR decrease.  Likewise a RHR 10% above your normal level usually indicates you are overtraining and/or sick and some rest is required.  Take a day off or just do an easy workout.  Listen to your body!

Checking your Pulse

To take a pulse check, there are 2 ways to count. The first is a 10 second count , the other a 15 second count . To figure the beat per minute, the 10 second count is multiplied by 6 and the 15 second count is multiplied the 4. (You can also count the number of beats for a full minute)  The two places to take your pulse are at the carotid artery (on the neck) and the radial artery (on the wrist).  Be sure to use your index finger and middle finger only, the thumb has a pulse of it’s own.

Target Heat Rate Zones

My preferred method for calculating target heart rate zones or THR is the Karvonen method.  It is also known as the Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) formula.  Simply, the Karvonen method uses the following formula to find the appropriate HR for any intensity level.  The formula is:  HRR x Intensity % + RHR (resting heart rate) .

To calculate your HRR take your Maximum Heart Rate as determined by a test or Estimated Maximum Heart Rate determined by (220-age) and subtract your Resting Heart Rate.  In terms of a formula, HRR=MHR or EMHR – RHR.  Now that you have your HRR we can calculate your THR or training zones.

To keep things simple use five zones or training intensities:

  1. Easy/Recovery = 60 – 70%
  2. Endurance/Strength = 71 – 80%
  3. Strength/Long hills = 81 – 85% (just below LT)
  4. Intervals/Hills/Race pace = 86 – 90% (race pace for races < 3 hours)
  5. Speed/Racing (short) = 91 – 100%So now you have all the information to calculate the lower and upper heart rate limits for each zone.  The following table summarizes the calculations.

Table 1: THR Zones Using Karvonen Method



Calculated HRs


Lower limit = HRR x .6 + RHR
Upper limit = HRR x .7 + RHR

Lower = _______ bpm
Upper = _______ bpm


Lower limit = HRR x .71 + RHR
Upper limit = HRR x .8 + RHR

Lower = _______ bpm
Upper = _______ bpm


Lower limit = HRR x .81 + RHR
Upper limit = HRR x .85 + RHR

Lower = _______ bpm
Upper = _______ bpm


Lower limit = HRR x .86 + RHR
Upper limit = HRR x .9 + RHR

Lower = _______ bpm
Upper = _______ bpm


Lower limit = HRR x .91 + RHR
Upper limit = HRR x 1.0 + RHR

Lower = _______ bpm
Upper = _______ bpm

Glossary of Abbreviations

HR – heart rate
MHR – maximum heart rate
EMHR – estimated maximum heart rate
THR – target heart rate
HRR – heart rate reserve
RHR – resting heart rate
bpm – beats per minute

Word of Caution about Heart Rates

Many factors affect both your morning pulse and training pulse.

  • Stress (work, emotional, etc.) will increase your HR.
  • Nutrition, especially hydration levels, will also greatly influence your HR.  Dehydration will skyrocket your HR.
  • Heat will also increase HR until your body adapts to it; usually 7 to 12 days.
  • Altitude will affect your HR as well.  You will have a higher HR for the same level of intensity at higher elevations so give your body 3 weeks or so to adapt.


Let’s take a look at this simple formula using Jane B. Fitt:

Step 1: Jane will need the following stats to begin

  • Age – 38
  • Resting heart rate (RHR) – Jane did this by taking her pulse and counting the beats per minute for one full minute as soon as she rose out of bed one morning. The average resting heart rate for men is 70 beats per minute while women have an average of 75 beats per minute.

Step 2: Calculate age predicted Maximum heart rate (MHR)

  • 220 – age = predicted max heart rate(MHR)
    220 – 38 = 182

Step 3: Calculate resting heart rate (RHR)

  • True resting heart rate is taken for 1 full minute as soon as you rise out of bed. Jane’s resting heart rate is about average at 72.

Step 4: Subtract resting heart rate from maximum heart rate to get heart rate reserve (HRR)

  • MHR – RHR = HRR
    182 – 72 = 110

Step 5: Multiply HRR by 60 – 80% of your maximum heart rate which will set your upper and lower range limits:

  • Multiply your heart rate reserve (HHR) by 60% and 80% and add your resting heart rate back in:
  • Low end of range is HRR X .60
    110 X .60 = 66 + 72 (RHR) = 138
  • High end of range is HRR X .80
    110 X .80 = 88 + 72 (RHR) = 160

RESULT: Jane’s beginning target heart rate training zone is:

138 ———————-> 160

target graphic