Image source: Garmin

How to set or change heart rate zones on a Garmin watch

Setting up correct heart rate zones and maximum heart rate on your Garmin watch is important. It helps you to properly train and is an important factor in your Vo2Max and other calculations.

Advanced athletes heart rate zone train for a reason. It lets them know if they are doing too little or too much, helping them reach their potential in the shortest amount of time possible while avoiding injury. If these zones are incorrect, it can really mess up your training. It is important to keep these values up to date.

In addition to Vo2max, other metrics on your Garmin watch are also, to a larger or smaller extent, dependent on correct heart rate zone information. This includes Training status, Training load, Training Readiness, Training Effect, Recovery Time, Suggested Workouts and Body Battery

Garmin provides you with several different ways to set your heart rate zones. This includes using your maximum heart rate, as a per cent of maximum heart rate reserve and as a percent of your lactate threshold.

A recent Reddit poll reveals what users typically opt for. Here’s a screenshot that says it all.

Garmin heart rate zones

Let’s go through these one by one.


Per cent of Maximum Heart Rate: This is how it’s typically done

Most fitness trackers and smartwatches will calculate your zones for you by working backwards from your maximum heart rate. This is the highest heart rate you can achieve without potential for severe health problems. At least, that’s the theory.

The best way to measure your true maximum heart rate is via a cardiac stress test. But this costs upwards of $100. Not everyone can afford this or justify the expense. Particularly as the value changes as your fitness level changes. The controlled physiologic stress test is usually conducted on a treadmill while being monitored by an ECG and at least one medical professional.

Working back from your age

An alternative way of estimating your maximum heart rate is by subtracting your age from 220 for males and 226 for females. This is the formula smartwatches and fitness trackers often use as it’s the simplest way of calculating the figure. It is also what is done by Garming during the initial setup and pairing of your watch (or opening of an account).

Essential reading: Benefits of heart rate zone training

The Garmin device also takes your age and gender into consideration to automatically create your heart rate zones. Needless to say, while it may work for the population as a whole – this is not the most accurate method of calculation for an individual.

Manually tweaking the value

You can edit your maximum heart rate and zones manually by going into settings in Garmin Connect. Click on Devices > Settings > User Profile. Now choose Heart Rate & Power Zones > Heart rate.

On this screen you can adjust your Maximum Heart Rate by going into the tab with that name, or by choosing Zones.

But prior to that, you’ll want to figure out the true value of your maximum heart rate to the best of your ability.

You can test yourself using pretty much any smartwatch or fitness tracker that has a heart rate sensor built-in. These days, most wearables fit this criteria.

To start off, make sure you are healthy and don’t suffer from any heart conditions before attempting this. You should consult a physician if you have any worries about your health.

The test consists of running as fast as you can for 3 minutes and then continuing with a gentle run for a further 3 minutes. The final stage is repeating the 3 minute maximum effort. You should hit your maximum heart rate during this last interval. Save your run and consult your smartphone fitness app to see the maximum heart rate value achieved during the run. Its a bit like HIIT, only shorter.

Any half decent fitness app will let you manually tweak your maximum heart rate, Garmin included. Simply change the value in the field provided and your heart rate training zones should adjust automatically. It’s worth taking the time and effort to do this from time to time as you’ll have more precise heart rate zone info.

Let Garmin work out your Maximum Heart Rate

Most of the recent crop of Garmin watches make this easier. They have an Auto Detect feature to automatically record your maximum heart rate during an activity.

Just make sure to toggle the Settings > Auto Detection. On this screen check that Max. HR is set to “on”. This customizes the figure for you and so that it doesn’t rely on population averages. The value is not set in stone and will change as your fitness level changes.

Garmin also lets you manually change the per cent of your Max Heart Rate for each zone. By default Zone 5 is 90-100% of your Max HR, 80-90% is Threshold pace or Zone 4, Aerobic or Zone 3 falls between 70% and 80%, Easy or Zone 2 is between 60% and 70%. Anything below that is considered Easy Effort or Zone 1. You can use any per cent values you like – for example perceived effort when settings these zones. It’s really down to you.

As with everything, changes will be applied to the device after your next sync.


Using per cent of heart rate reserve

The Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) method takes into account your resting heart rate (RHR) when making these types of calculations. Your RHR is calculated automatically each morning and you can find its value in the smartphone app and on your watch. Trained athletes tend to have lower RHR values.

Garmin takes this RHR value in addition to your maximum heart rate and calculates the difference. This way it knows the operating range of your heart rather than some implied assumptions. It then works out the individual heart rate zones.

HRR is not used as much as the Maximum Heart Rate route. Despite this it is considered by many to be a more accurate way of calculating these metrics. This is particularly the case for those with low RHR as the Zone 1 and 2 ranges will probably be adjusted to slightly lower values than by using other formulas.

To enable this method simply go to Settings > User Profile > Heart rate & Power zones > Heart Rate > Zones > Based on. Choose %HRR.


The third option – Per cent of lactate threshold

Lactate threshold is probably the most accurate way of determining your heart rate zones. It is also the one most used for race-pacing or training at race pace. But it is also the most complicated to implement correctly.

Lactate threshold is the value of your heart rate where your muscles start to rapidly fatigue. This is a running pace that you cannot sustain over the long-term.

To switch to this method use the route above, but instead of %HRR choose %LTHR.

There are many ways to calculate your lactate threshold. You can manually enter the value, for example. Garmin allows you to do this.

Or it can automatically make adjustments for you. Just make sure Auto Detection > Threshold is set to on, in your user profile on Garmin Connect.

It is important to note that you will need to train with a heart rate chest strap in order for Garmin to be able to auto-detect your LTHR. As good as wrist based heart rate monitors have become, they are not as good as chest or upper arm straps.

You can also perform a Guided Test. It requires you to have a GPS signal and a heart rate strap around your chest. The watch will then walk you through what you need to do. When doing the test, you may want to do it more than once to ensure the calculated values are correct.

Garmin heart rate zones

Using the web dashboard to set and adjust your heart rate zones

Some of you may prefer to use the Garmin website dashboard instead of the smartphone app to keep an eye and edit your heart rate zone information.

You can do this by signing into your online Garmin Connect account and selecting the picture of the watch in the top right corner. Find your device in the list and select Device Settings.

After that, go to User Settings > Heart Rate Zones. Tweak the values in your user profile information and make sure to select Save Settings when you are done.

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