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Q&A: Heart Rate Training Zone


Q: How do I know if I'm in the heart rate training zone? – Lily, Santa Fe, NM

A: Sorry, the heart rate training zone is a myth. Every time I have this conversation with a group, I always get the question, "If this stuff isn't true, why is it plastered on the front of every treadmill?" I can't really answer except to say that it probably came out of the legal department. The truth is that target-heart-rate-zone training is a highly flawed concept that could result in drastically overtraining or undertraining.

It's a flawed concept because the physiologists know that only a small percentage of the population actually fits the formula. Did you know that 70 percent of the population is plus or minus 10 to 12 beats from the theoretical 220 minus age formula? Seven out of 10 people do not fit the mold. Even worse, 30 percent of the population deviates nearly twice that much.

In mathematical terms, for 70 percent of the population, maximal heart-rate actually equals 220 minus age plus or minus 10 to 12 beats per minute. For 30 percent of the population maximal heart-rate actually equals 220 minus age plus or minus 20 to24 beats per minute.

Why is this such a big deal? First, those whose heart rates are on the high end are at little to no risk. All that happens with those folks is that we don't push them hard enough. The problem is with the folks who have an unusually low maximum heart rate. If we were to push a person in the 30 percent group that is minus 24 beats per minute to 80 percent of their theoretical maximal heart rate, we would actually be pushing them to 90 percent. This would be a major error that could have significant ramifications.

The lesson here is that there is actually significant variability in what we seem to think is an accurate and time-honored formula. Your best bet: Buy a heart-rate monitor and monitor how you respond to exercise.

Michael Boyle is one of the world’s leading experts in the area of performance enhancement and the owner of StrengthCoach.com. He is also the author of Functional Training for Sports.

Tags: Cardio, Conditioning, Heart Rate, Q&A