How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal

I like to wear a heart rate monitor while spinning or jogging so I have confirmation for how things are going and can adjust my workout.  Some might call this OCD; I prefer to think of it as positive motivation. Wearing a heart rate monitor helps me figure out if I’m working too hard (almost never the problem) or if I can safely push a little more to get a great workout in as short a time as possible.

Plus it helps keep my mind off the actual exercise.

The trouble is, I have never been able to figure out what my actual target should be.

I’m pretty smart.  I have an MBA.  I like data.  But the information explaining how to calculate a personal target heart rate is laden with, well, far too much information.

HeartRate_Exercise_zonesIt starts out okay: the first step is a very simple formula to calculate Maximum Heart Rate (MHR, which is 220 minus your age). But then things get complicated. To figure out the target percentage you should apply to that MHR, you’re confronted with multi-colored charts with too-many zones labeled with too-many bizarre terms.

I don’t want to consider aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Or VO2 (and isn’t that a hair thing – oh, wait, that was VO5). How am I supposed to know if I want the ‘endurance zone’ or the ‘fat burning zone?’  Or, on the scary heart-rate chart specifically created for spinning, which of the five ‘energy zones’ are for which part of the class.

That’s all way too complicated.

I just want a simple 2-number, rough range of the heart rate I’m shooting for. A range that tells me at the low end what heart rate I need to stay at or above to ensure a great cardio workout, and at the high end tells me when I need to dial back to stay safe.

I’ve tried to calculate this several times.  Finally, I resolved to plow through all the charts and figure out a goal that’s right for me. After a lot of research, here’s the target heart rate I decided on for spin class.  I am going to shoot for 70-85% of my MHR.

The reason I chose a 70-85% target heart rate goal is most simply explained in The Heart Rate Debate article on the American College of Sports Medicine:

“For endurance training and general aerobic conditioning, calculate 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate if you’re a beginner; 60 to 75 percent for intermediate level exercisers; and 70 to 85 percent for established aerobic exercisers. For example, if you’re a 45-year-old beginner with no known health issues, your maximum heart rate is approximately 175 beats a minute. Fifty to 65 percent of that maximum is 87 to 113 beats per minute; this is your starting point for cardiovascular activity.

For weight loss, use interval training to burn the most calories. Short bursts of high-intensity exercise (80 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate) followed by lower-intensity recovery periods (50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate) burns more calories than exercising at a consistent level of exertion for the same amount of time.”

Using these parameters, you can easily set your target heart rate using the simple MHR.  Or if you are more exacting OCD like me, you can use the Karvonen Formula (which is more accurate as it takes into account resting heart rate). A very good online Karvonen Formula calculator is available on Brian Calkin’s site.

My personal target heart rate is 139-154 when using the Karvonen formula and an MHR of 170 (220-my age).  Happily, that fits with my spin experience. It feels like I’m working out at a good, strong pace when my heart rate is around 135, and it feels like I’m pushing too hard when I hit about 150.

Interestingly, my target heart rate using the simpler, non-Karvonen formula netted a range that felt too low to me. Simply applying the 70-85% of my MHR of 170 would be 119–145, and that 119 is not where I feel my exercise sweet spot lies. But the simple method might well work for others – for me, the Karvonen formula feels like a better fit.

Finally, I know what I’m shooting for.  You can too. Here’s how you can establish a simple exercise target heart rate that’s right for you:

  1. Calculate your MHR by subtracting your age from the number 220.
  2. Decide on your target heart rate percentage based on your level of fitness using the American College of Sports Medicine targets explained above. For example:
        1. Beginners should target 50-65% of MHR.
        2. Intermediate exercisers can go for 60-75%.
        3. And if you already exercise a good deal, shoot for 70-85% of MHR.
  3. Determine your specific target heart rate goal by simply multiplying these target percentages by your MHR – or by using the Karvonen method.

So now I’m set for spin… and if my achilles tendonitis ever heals (and if it ever warms up in Connecticut), I’ll apply that same heart rate target range to jogging.


What’s In That Energy Bar?

Recently, I bonked after competing in a grueling (and yet fun! even though we lost!) USTA tennis match. I came home, flopped onto the sofa and realized I was both light headed and so tired I wasn’t sure I could get up.

But I had to get some food in me. Fast.

After carefully getting to my feet and slowly making my way to the kitchen island,  I gobbled several handfuls of M&Ms. OK, 10 handfuls. Then I took the M&Ms bag (it’s big and it lives on my kitchen island. Don’t judge me please) and a glass of water to the sofa.

It was several hours before I felt better.

And yes, I ate the entire bag of M&Ms.

What’s crazy about this situation (other than all that candy) is that I could easily have prevented bonking if I’d eaten during my match.  Like on changeovers – you’ve seen the pros do that on TV right? And I knew that.

In fact, I had a banana in my tennis bag.  TO PREVENT BONKING. And yet, I didn’t eat it. I was caught up in the competition and forgot to… oh who am I kidding? I don’t love fruit so I really didn’t want to eat that banana anyway. And I forgot to reload on my chocolate chip granola bars that usually live in my tennis bag, so ate nothing instead.

Given that I brought the banana and chose not to eat it, clearly I need a better non-bonking food strategy.  One of which is to ‘carbo-load’ before a match.

That got me thinking about the kinds of power bars or protein bars that I could try.

And that led to a surprising discovery: a lot of these so-called nutrition bars are nothing short of candy (including my chocolate chip granola bar of choice).

The horror!

And this, coming from the keeper of giant M&M bags on my kitchen island.

But it is horrifying. Because if I CHOOSE to eat M&Ms that’s one thing. But if I think I’m eating something nutritious (even vaguely so) and it turns out it’s pretty much junk, then that is, well, just plain wrong.

So here’s what I learned about nutrition bars in a nutshell (sorry for bad pun):

  • Some of them are high in fat – saturated fat, the kind to stay away from…
  • Some have a LOT of calories – like a whole meal’s worth of calories. Which could be useful if you were looking for meal replacement, but that’s never what I seek so…
  • Some actually have fiber, which is helpful with cholesterol management!

In a few articles and reviews I found of nutrition bars and protein bars online, here are some guidelines you can use while seeking the perfect bar for you:

  • Look for a low-fat bar: fewer than 5 grams of fat is a decent target. But 10 grams is probably OK if that’s the  bar that works best for you.
  • A bar low in sugar is obviously a good goal: shoot for 7 or so grams or fewer.
  • For a post-workout boost, Ericka Stachura, RD, a registered dietitian in Boston, explains in an article, “Serious athletes who want a post-workout recovery protein bar should look for bars with about 20 grams of protein.”
  • Why not get cholesterol-lowering fiber too? Some bars have up to 5 grams of fiber…
  • Make sure your choice has 150-200 calories, not 300-400+ calories – unless you prefer to take your meals in bar form.

The article, 9 Smart Protein-Bar Picks, is handy as it lists bars with a summary of their calories, protein, total carbs, total fat and sugar.

The Quest bar was mentioned in several articles. I’d never heard of it before and for good reason – I had to go to a GNC store (in a mall!) to buy them. But off to the mall I went because though pricey, these bars are a good choice, it seems.  They have about 200 calories, 20 grams of protein, 17 grams of dietary fiber and only 2 grams of sugar.

I bought three flavors: coconut cashew, white chocolate raspberry, and vanilla almond crunch.  All three sound better than a banana to me.

I’ll let you know if they keep me from bonking.

Another key piece of learning – some very popular energy bars are not so healthy. In several online articles, some of the very popular CLIF and LUNA bars fell into the ‘worst’ category vis-a-vis nutritional value.  That said, the Lemon Zest Luna Bar was in the ‘best’ in one article and ‘worst’ category in another – so it depends what you are looking for. Best to read about what’s in your favorite bar and decide if that works for you.

Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about protein bars or nutrition bars – including several ‘best and worst’ recommendations, check out some of these online articles: