Heart rate zone training with wearables

Most people who exercise will tell you they want to lose weight or simply get fitter. Not many people, however, know what their heart rate is, or where it really should be. This means that often, they are not training in the most efficient way to achieve their goals. All top athlete’s heart rate train, as they know this will help them to reach their top potential in the shortest amount of time possible.

Essential reading: Guide to lowering your resting heart rate with wearables

The human heart beats more than 3.5 billion times in an average lifetime. The heart rate is not a stable value and it increases or decreases in response to the body’s need in a way to maintain an equilibrium between requirement and delivery of oxygen and nutrients. A number of different metrics can be used to describe heart rate:

  • Resting heart rateThe basal or resting heart rate is defined as the heart rate when a person is awake, in a neutrally temperate environment, and has not undergone any recent exertion or stimulation, such as stress or surprise. The typical resting heart rate in adults is 60–100 beats per minute. For endurance athletes at the elite level, it is not unusual to have a resting heart rate between 33 and 50 bpm.
  • Target heart rate: For healthy people, the Target Heart Rate or Training Heart Rate (THR) is a desired range of heart rate reached during aerobic exercise which enables one’s heart and lungs to receive the most benefit from a workout. This theoretical range varies based mostly on age; however, a person’s physical condition, sex, and previous training also are used in the calculation.
  • Maximum heart rate: The maximum heart rate (HRmax) is the highest heart rate an individual can achieve without severe problems through exercise stress, and generally decreases with age.Since HRmax varies by individual, the most accurate way of measuring any single person’s HRmax is via a cardiac stress test. In this test, a person is subjected to controlled physiologic stress (generally by treadmill) while being monitored by an ECG. Adults who are beginning a new exercise regimen are often advised to perform this test only in the presence of medical staff due to risks associated with high heart rates. For general purposes, a formula is often employed to estimate a person’s maximum heart rate. The most widely cited formula for is: HRmax = 220 − age.

Another way to test your heart rate is by getting a VO2 max test done. VO2 max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. It is measured in millilitres per kilogramme of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). The test can cost upwards of $100.

The new Fitbit Charge 2 has added VO2 max functionality so represents a potential alternative, as does the Microsoft Fitness Band 2 and some Garmin trackers. These are, however, estimated values that are calculated using your user profile and resting heart rate.


Heart rate zone training

Exercise_zones_Fox_and_Haskell.svg[1]Your body has 5 heart rate zones:

  • Moderate activity (50-60% of HRmax): Warm-up.
  • Fat burn (60-70% of HRmax): Builds aerobic endurance and teaches the body to burn fat as fuel.
  • Endurance training (70-80% of HRmax): Builds cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. The top of this zone is your Anaerobic Threshold or the point at which your body stops burning fat and starts burning glucose. If you are trying to lose body fat, its important not to train too hard.
  • Hardcore training (80-90% of HRmax): Increases performance speed.
  • Maximum effort (90+% of HRmax): You can usually only stay in this zone for less than one minute at a time.

When you train, you don’t burn just fat calories – your body burns glucose as well. If you are looking to burn fat, the trick is to train in a way where you are burning the most amount of fat calories possible. To burn the largest amount of fat calories, you need to work out in zones 2-3 for the majority of your work outs. To move your Anaerobic Threshold up and improve cardiovascular endurance you need to train in zones 4-5 a couple of times a week.

Want to work on speed? Pick up the pace. Looking to blast fat? Ease up to drop back into your “Fat Burn” zone.

In order to heart rate train you need a heart rate monitor. If you are very serious about heart rate training, a chest rate heart rate monitor is the way to go. You might also want to supplement that with a dedicated GPS running watch.

For the rest of us who only find time to run occasionally, there is an increasing number of activity trackers that track heart rate during exercise. It is best to assume that at high intensity activity most wearables dish out ballpark estimates of activity levels. Its worth noting, even if faulty readings occur only once in a while, they can still be dangerous because they can cause people to overexert themselves while believing that their pulse is normal. With that in mind, here are a few of our favourite fitness trackers that will help you to heart rate train.


Fitbit Charge 2

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Fitbit’s latest fitness tracker is a sleek looking device that delivers solid improvements on its predecessors in a few areas. The tracker carries over all all of the features found on the Charge HR, and upgrades it with an OLED display that is four times as large.

The Charge 2 has an embedded optical heart rate sensor and its heart rate tracking is continuous and fairly accurate. The device will also keep track of your resting heart rate throughout the day and display the result within the app.

Using your Fitbit tracker, start a workout as you normally would. As you begin moving, you’ll see three things, no matter which PurePulse-enabled tracker you own: Your heart rate value, a heart, and two dashes. The location of the heart in relation to the dashes (or dots) tells you which zone you’re in.

After logging a workout, your Fitbit app shows you a colorful graph depicting how much time you spent in three heart rate zones. Knowing a little bit about how these zones were created can help you make the most of them.

Plus there are a few new features that tap into your heart-rate readings. The most interesting and potentially useful one is called Cardio Fitness Level. It gives you a snapshot of your fitness level using a personalised Cardio Fitness Score, which is based on your VO2 Max. The Cardio Fitness Level shows how you compare to those of the same age and gender, and ranges from poor to excellent.

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Mio Alpha 2

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Dont confuse the Alpha 2 with a daily activity tracker. It was not built for this purpose. Its strengths are that it is water resistant, comfortable and offers accurate heart rate tracking from the wrist at performance levels.

Alpha 2’s heart rate readings are more accurate compared to most other wrist monitors, and work continuously no matter what type of exercise you are doing. Therefore, if you are looking for a sports watch and are really into heart-rate training, Alpha 2 represents an excellent choice.

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Garmin Vivosmart HR+

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Garmin has joined the crowded market of wrist based HR fitness trackers with its Vivosmart HR+ tracker. Launched in late 2015, the fitness tracker features a crisp new screen, GPS, a heart rate monitor, activity and sleep tracking and smart notifications.

The device goes further than the company’s previous fitness bands in that it includes, for the first time, an internal optical HR sensor, 24×7 heart rate recording (continual resting HR, and average resting HR based on a 7 day rolling average), barometer to count stairs and intensity minutes. As was the case with the first generation device, the tracker is water resistant up to 50 metres.

The Vivosmart HR+ is great when it comes to heart rate zone training. When you are done, the smartphone app will provide you with minute detail, including pace, heart rate (ave and max), time spent in zones, cadence, elevation and more.

If you are into multi-sports, you can opt instead for its big brother, the Vivoactive HR. Or for that matter – any of its running watches.

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Apple Watch Series 2

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The fitness tracking information on the Apple Watch is comprehensive in that it wants you to exercise for 30 minutes per day, stand for at least a minute for 12 hours and burn enough calories every 24 hours. It’ll also tell you steps and distance travelled, which is a staple of the tracker.

The Apple Watch Series 2 delivers solid improvements over its predecessor, including water proofing up to 50 metres, on-board GPS, a 50% faster Duel-Core processor, a better display and a few other updates. The inclusion of GPS this time around, means the watch will record precise distance, pace and speed for outdoor workouts such as walking, running or cycling, without needing an iPhone.

Apple’s optical heart rate sensor is one of the best on the market. If you want to heart rate zone train, there are many third-party apps such as Runkeeper, Strava and Runtastic – that show your heart rate info as you exercise. They also come with fully featured smartphone apps for more detailed information.

The Apple Watch offers many other things in addition to being a fitness tracker. Its health and fitness features should, therefore, be viewed as a bonus rather than the main reason for purchasing this device. As a fully featured smartwatch, there are few wearables on the market today that can rival Apple.

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