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 rate: The 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 potential for 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. Luckily, there is now a range of wearables which can provide you with approximate values.
Heart rate zone training
- 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.
- Aerobic/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.
- Anaerobic/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, too. 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 still 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 your readings. And remember, even if faulty readings occur only once in a while they can still be dangerous because they can cause you to overexert yourself.
With that in mind, here are a few of our favourite fitness trackers that will help you stay in the correct heart-rate zone for your goals. Alternatively, you can always go down the GPS sports watch route.
Fitbit’s flagship fitness tracker is a sleek looking device that delivers solid improvements in a few areas. Charge 3 carries over all of the features found on its predecessor, and upgrades it with a bigger OLED display. Waterproofing is another important upgrade. Charge 3 has a water-resistance rating of 5 ATM which means you can dunk it down to depths of 50 metres.
The device has an embedded optical heart rate sensor and its heart rate tracking is continuous and fairly accurate. It 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: 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 the fat burn, cardio and peak heart rate zones. Knowing a little bit about how these zones were created can help you make the most of them.
The Charge 3 also lets you know your Cardio Fitness Level. This is essentially 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.
Vivosmart 4 is a fitness tracker that packs quite a bit of high tech into its slim body. You’ll get the usual step, distance, calories, floors, heart rate and advanced sleep tracking and some more advanced metrics such as VO2Max.
Garmin has also slapped on some new features in the fourth generation device. In additional to all the usual fitness tracking smarts, Vivosmart 4 comes with a blood oxygen sensor and it will keep tabs on your body’s energy reserves to let you know when its time to push hard when to rest.
The fitness tracker 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, Vo2Max and more.
If you are into multi-sports and don’t mind spending a bit more, you can always opt for one if the company’s running watches.
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 4 delivers solid improvements over its predecessor, including a bigger display, ECG sensor, fall detection, performance upgrades and more. In terms of fitness, the device features a next generation accelerometer and gyroscope which can sample motion data 8 times faster. You, of course, get all the great features of the predecessor versions including GPS, all day heart rate and more.
Apple’s optical heart rate sensor is one of the best ones on the market. You can even tap into third-party apps for heart rate zone training such as Runkeeper, Strava and Runtastic. They also come with fully featured smartphone apps for more detailed information.
The Apple Watch is hands down the most advanced smartwatch you can buy today. But with each iteration, its is getting better at tracking your fitness, too. All it needs is a boost to battery life and the likes of Garmin and Fitbit will have lots to worry about.
Not everyone wants a sporty looking fitness tracker strapped to their wrist. Many people prefer a device that combines the look and feel of a traditional watch, with abilities that are evident in today’s smartwatches. This is where Steel HR Sport comes in.
This is the second generation of the device. The upgraded version comes with the addition of Connected GPS, a Fitness Level assessment via VO2 Max estimation and better watch straps.
You still get basic fitness stats and heart rate monitoring. Real-time heart rate info is displayed on the watch during your exercise, and more detailed info including time spent in heart rate zones can be seen in the app. The watch also tracks resting heart rate, one of the most important metrics to assess overall health over time. Its swim-proof, too.
If you are looking for a classy smart device with discreet activity tracking features, the Withings Steel HR Sport is one of the best options out there.
Vivosport is an ultra-slim fitness band. It is slightly more expensive than Charge 3 but in addition to everything Fitbit provides the tracker comes with built-in GPS, all day stress tracking and counts reps and sets in the gym.
Along with your heart-rate zones when running, you’ll get everything you could possibly hope for 24/7 activity tracking. Garmin’s Elevate heart rate technology provides some of the best readings for a wrist-based monitor.
The GPS makes for more precise distance, time and pace tracking, along with route mapping for your runs. Vivosport will track your swims in the pool too.
Vivoactive 3 is the successor to the Vivoactive HR, a Swiss knife of activity trackers. Garmin has realised that it needs to introduce a less bulky form factor if it is to appeal to a larger demographic. On that count the Vivoactive 3 does not dissapoint.
Heart rate zone information is display on its crisp new screen along with other detailed statistics. All in all, you’ll find 15 built-in sports profiles including new ones for snowboarding, cardio, yoga, eliptical and stair stepper. Vivoactive 3 will also let you mix it up by creating customized workouts. Other new features include VO2Max and stress/workout tracking.
Versa is Fitbit’s second smartwatch. The device comes with most of the sensors you’ll find on Ionic, but with its rounded edges, polished look and more compact form factor, it looks much better. The company is clearly learning from its Pebble acquisition and this influence is becoming increasingly evident.
When it comes to features, this is a timepiece that puts fitness first. It includes everything you would expect from a Fitbit device, along with capturing real-time stats on 20 different types of activities including swimming. And you’ll be able to keep tabs on all this in real-time on the gorgeous hi-res 300 by 300 pixel LCD touchscreen.
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