Heart Rate Training for Endurance

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been experimenting with a lower heart rate training than I usually do in my workouts. I’m trying to improve endurance and stamina.

Some people call it exercising in the “Fat Burn Zone.” I’m not convinced that it is burning my fat, but I do know this: it has improved my endurance. It is much easy to keep going and I don’t feel tired or worn out from exercising.

The idea is to work out at the level of exertion where your heart rate stays at the aerobic level. On my FitBit, it is called the fat burning level.

If you exercise just a little harder, you begin to breathe harder, your heart pumps harder and you’ll enter the cardio level. Really push it and then you’ll go into the peak level.

If you’re like me, you have been exercising at the heart rate similar to the charts at the gym. Those are based on 75 to 85% of your maximum heart rate. The charts show subtract your age from 220 to get your exercise number for your heart rate. The vast majority of my running and group exercise workouts have been at those cardio/peak levels. While these high level workouts burn a ton of calories, I find I am really hungry and want to eat up all the burned calories!

Target Heart Rate Calculator This calculator is set up for the 220 – your age. The results show the five workout zones. The fat burning zone may seem ridiculous to be working out in.

The heart rate training for endurance program that I’m following is a different formula. Instead of working out at 85% of my maximum heart rate based on the 220 minus my age, I’m using Dr. Phil Maffetone’s formula of 180 minus your age as my target exercise heart rate. The idea is to hold “that” number during the exercise because that is where your body is aerobic.

Of course this number is different for everyone. You can see from the artwork I’ve attached to this post, my FitBit thinks my magic number is 120. When I go just a fraction harder, it turns to 121 and calls it cardio.

While doing workout in the fat burning level feels like I’m not doing enough to be considered working out, I find that I can keep going a very long time and not get tired. I’ve been going to a double spinning class on some Saturdays where I still manage to burn over 700 calories. Because it hasn’t been a big push, I’m not tired at the end of class.

The idea of building a strong base by focusing on endurance and working out at the fat burning level is supposed to increase your ability to do more work. You build endurance and eventually you can accomplish more at the lower heart rate. Over time the intensity stays the same, but the speed or resistance increases.

I find it is difficult to keep my heart rate at the lower level.

If you’re interested in learning more about this type of endurance training, you may want to learn more about of Dr. Phil Maffetone’s work. He uses a formula to calculate your exercising heart rate. The MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) formula is 180 minus age. (Dr. Maffetone has you add and subtract numbers based on your exercise history and health as well.) He has a lot of information about it – videos, podcasts, books and many articles. Here’s a link to his 2 minute overview video.

Besides improving endurance and performance, he claims that it benefits recovery from high impact exercise as well as stress and protection from metabolic syndrome. I really like this method of exercising because I’m looking for increased endurance and still wanting to keep coming back for more.

While doing my indoor cycling classes, I’ve been using my FitBit watch to monitor my heart rate. However after most of the classes I find I easily still enter into the cardio mode and have to slow down to go back to the fat burn mode.

Heart Rate Training for Endurance

Because I’m 61, my goal heart rate number is to workout at around 120 beats per minute. Dr. Maffetone has different adjustments too. I give myself another 5 points because I have consistently exercising since 2009 or 2010, so my goal is to keep my heart rate steady at 125 while I’m exercising.

I have found that it is very hard to hold a heart number when you’re working out! A motivating instructor and some good music… the next thing you know, I’m wanting to go faster and harder. Plus, going harder is what I’ve been accustomed to doing for years!

Here are some of the ways of thinking that have helped me to stay in the Fat Burn Zone:

  • Focus on my breathing
  • Try to keep two counts in and five counts out
  • When I have to open my mouth to breathe out, slow down
  • If the music speeds up, keep focus on the breathing
  • When walking up a hill, slow down
  • If indoor biking, take off some resistance
  • It is not about “no pain, no gain”
  • It’s not too often that I find it has dipped and I have to speed up, but sometimes that happens if I daydream.

A few weeks ago, I put my phone on the bike so I could monitor the phone instead of my watch and I was able to hold my heart rate more steady.

Although it’s only been about 10 weeks, I’ve found that I enjoy doing more exercise than I used to at a time, meaning I like two hours rather than 45 minutes or an hour. I feel stronger and am noticing that I can go harder with less effort. I’m interested to see when I get back to biking outside if this experiment has made a difference. At the end of March, I’m going to see how I have improved.

Jill asked me if I was also following his eating plan. No, I haven’t. There’s a whole lot more to his MAF program… actually 8 parts (click for his chart.) I was only working on number 5 which is the low heart rate aerobic system training.

While I’ve not specifically been doing his food plan, I have been doing the Veggie Challenge! (Why do I feel like I just said “No but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express!?!”)

Here are all of the 8 steps that he talks about.

1 Carbohydrates
2 Inflammation
2 Vitamin D
4 Folate
5 Aerobic system (Heart Rate Training for Endurance!)
6 Stress
7 Brain
8 Aging

In theory, I’m already doing the other 7 to moderate levels, but seriously, the only change I have made and tracked in 2019 on Dr. Maffetone’s list during the past 10 weeks has been to work on number 5. So if it doesn’t work, maybe I will blame it on the fact I only did a halfway job (or one eighth) job of actually trying his program.

Have you experimented with heart rate training? What has been your experience? Which heart rate monitor do you use? Do you feel like this is all just too analytical for getting exercise? Let me know your thoughts.

1 thought on “Heart Rate Training for Endurance”

  1. An enjoyable read. I’ve always been a fan of heart rate training. I started running about twelve years ago and since I lived in a hilly area when I started running it was the only reliable way for me to ensure I wasn’t overdoing it (because pace would vary so much throughout the course of the run). I tend to run by feel in shorter races, but for 10 miles and above I find it really useful to keep an eye on heart rate because it’s far too easy to push it.

    I’ve just been developing a heart rate monitor calculator for my site, and my research shows that the zones typically prescribed are a bit low for what they claim to achieve. There’s also evidence that fat burning zones are different from zone 2, and that they’re different for men and women.

    Another thing is that all the maximum heart rate formulas are problematic. I’m 45 and have a max HR of 202. Compare that to what the 220-age calculation recommends: 175. If I followed that approach I’d be doing my running far too slowly.

    I use a soft strap for heart rate training since it gives some other metrics as well, such as vertical oscillation. I don’t think considering heart rate zones and the such is too analytical. It’s just another way to try and get the most out of your training.

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