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Heart rate zones and aerobic threshold

Heart rate zones and aerobic threshold (AeT)/lactate threshold (LT) are terms you will likely hear in the world of endurance, especially in sports like trail running and cycling. Although there is some overlap between the two methods, we will go over their differences, as well as what I would recommend using for personal reference.

Heart Rate Zones

Heart rate zones are fairly straight forward since it's based on age. You will want to take 220 - your age to get an approximate max heart rate.

I'll use myself as an example:

220 - 30 = 190 bpm

Zone 1: 50-60% of maxHR, or 95-114 bpm

Zone 2: 60-70% of maxHR, or 114-133 bpm

Zone 3: 70-80% of maxHR, or 133-152 bpm

Zone 4: 80-90% of maxHR, or 152-171 bpm

Zone 5: 90-100% of maxHR, or 171-190 bpm

Each zone has a purpose throughout your cardiovascular training. For endurance sports, you will likely spend most of your training in Zone 2 (yay, an aerobic base!). You will also spend a bit of time in Zones 3 and 4 to encourage speed and endurance. Zone 1 is used for recovery, such as with walks or light stretching. Zone 5 is used for short bouts of all out effort, such as sprints. All of these are strategically programmed in KATHLETICS Trail.

It's important to note that watching your heart rate fall into specific HR zones isn't the end-all be-all to your training, but it can be a helpful tool when evaluating your efforts.

Aerobic Threshold/Lactate Threshold

Lactate threshold is an amount of sustainable effort you can give for the duration of about an hour. This is a percentage of your aerobic capacity. Lactate is the bi-product of glycolysis. Blood lactate response tells us if energy is being produced aerobically or anaerobically, which helps us determine a potential duration at an effort. Your lactate threshold must be tested in a lab to receive an accurate reading. Your fitness watch may identify a workout as "threshold" training or similar, but ultimately that's a guesstimate.

Through proper training, you can improve your LT over time by becoming more aerobically fit.

Similarly to Heart Rate Zones, AeT/LT have five zones of training.

Zone 1: very easy; can continue for 30 min-several hours; AeT 20-10%; aerobic

Zone 2: easy-moderate; can continue for 30-120 min; AeT 10%-AeT; aerobic

Zone 3: moderate-hard; intervals 10-20 min or tempo up to 60 min; AeT-LT; aerobic max

Zone 4: hard; intervals of 30 sec-8 min; LT-maxHR; both aerobic and anaerobic

Zone 5: exhausting; above LT; anaerobic

Again, this method is hard to decipher unless you have gone to a lab for testing.

What to use for your training

Not everyone has access to getting their LT lab tested, and honestly, probably 99%+ of the world doesn't need to get this tested unless they are elite athletes or just really curious.

I would recommend using a combination of the heart rate zone training listed above in combination with the RPE Scale. The RPE Scale will allow you to self-assess your efforts while simultaneously referring to your heart rate as needed. I recommend you self-assess during and after a session before checking your heart rate just so we don't get too caught up on a specific heart rate range. Plus, sometimes your heart rate can be low and the effort feels relatively high and sometimes your heart rate can be high and the effort feels relatively low. I use this method with both KATHLETICS Trail members and my 1:1 online coaching clients.

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Katharine Moustakes
Hey, friend!

I'm Katharine.

I'm a personal trainer, running coaching, and nutrition coach who's stoked about lifting, the outdoors, summit snacks, and my dog.


I understand that fitness is not your whole life. Fitness is a PART of your life. I approach training in a way that adds value to your life and longevity, so you can enjoy being active whether you're romping around in the mountains, playing with your kids, or signing up for your first 10K race.

I'm here to meet you where you are, so you can train safely and effectively, and gain strength and confidence both in the gym and on the trails.

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