How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal

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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.


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