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How to exercise more efficiently using your heart rate

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Now that you are a heart rate guru (if you are not, be sure to read my last blog) let's get to the fun part: applying your heart rate to make your exercises more structured and exciting. You can do this by either using your heart rate zones that you have already determined using the field test described in my last blog or using the perceived rate of exertion (PRE), again explained in last blog. Using either one is totally fine. I personally use both depending on what I am doing. Using your heart rate or PRE will not only improve the quality of your exercises, but it also will make it more fun and engaging. And as you will see below, you may actually end up with less intense and more enjoyable sessions than you are currently doing.

Just a brief summary from last blog so we are all on same page:


Z1: super easy, barely exercising.

Z2: mild exertion, comfortable and can maintain for a long time, but definitely sweating and getting an exercise. Can talk in short sentences.


Z3: sweating, working moderately hard, can maintain for minutes to an hour, can talk in 2-3 word sentences.


Z4: near max level. Can maintain for a few minutes. Dont talk to me.

Z5: all out. Can maintain for seconds to a couple of minutes. Don't talk to me, don't even look at me.

So, how do you exercise using your heart rate zones. To start with, let's talk about the 80/20 rule. Research has shown that most elite endurance athletes spend most of their time in Z1,2 and only 20% of their time in the hard Z3,4 and 5. If you are so inclined to read more about this, read Running 80/20 by Matt Fitzgerald (his book is for running, but it applies to all sports).

Spend 80% of your time in Z1,2: easy & fun.

Now this may sound counter intuitive to you: how can I get better and healthier if I am not pushing myself. Well, it turns out that pushing yourself too much does not make you better, it just makes your body more tired. It appears that the 20% hard effort is all your body needs to stimulate itself for optimal performance. The hard workouts stress your bones, muscles and cardiovascular system, the easy workouts allow that stress to turn into better fitness.

So, how do you implement the 80/20 rule? Here are some simple steps:

1) pick a block: for me that is Monday to Monday, you can pick any 7 days, in fact you can pick any number of days. Some athletes I know use a 10 day block.

2) Set your exercises so that 80% of what you do in that block is easy, 20% is hard. We are using time as the measuring stick, for me, I spend 80% of my time in a week doing easy exercises and 20% I am all out.

3) Your easy days should be EASY. Stick with your heart rate or rate of perceived exertion. This may seem too easy. It's ok, trust yourself. I remember when I first did this I had a harder time doing easy workouts than hard ones. It's hard to back off. But now I have become to love my easy days, they are so relaxing.

4) Your hard work outs should be hard. Remember, it's only 20% of your total exercise time, it's short but its HARD. Push push push. Rate of perceived exertion is more accurate in Z4,5 than heart rate since heart rate may take some time to go up (see last blog).

5) Always take a rest day or do a Z1,2 workout after a hard day.

6) If you are new to hard work outs, ease into them, they take a toll on your body. So start with seconds for Z4,5 and 1-5 minutes intervals for Z3 with plenty of rest in between, which brings us to the next point:

7) Always rest between hard sets:

  • Z3 exercises are not as hard, so 1-2 minutes of an easy rest is all you need between each set.

  • Z4 and 5 exercises are hard, take at least twice the amount of exercise time to rest. So, if you go at it hard for 30 seconds, at least rest for 1 minute before the next one. If you need more time, take more time. Just don't rest so long that your heart rate goes back to baseline.

  • Rest does not mean stop or lay down, that is actually not a good way of resting, rather it means to slow down to Z1, so you are still moving. If this is a weight lifting or high intensity set, then rest can be stretching or just walking around. But don't sit or lay down unless you really need to.

8) your hard work outs should always be preceded by a 10 minutes warm up and a proceeded by a 5-10 minutes cool down in Z1,2.

If you are in a group, be sure you stick with your comfort zone. For example, if you are going with a bike group for an easy ride and the group is much stronger then you may have to drop back, otherwise your easy day turns into a hard day. I know, it hurst the ego, it has happened to me many times. But my ego bounces back after a few minutes, injuries take a lot longer to heal. Overtime you will find people who are at same level of fitness and your ego will be saved.

Here is an example of a run and strength training schedule (you can easily replace run with bike, swim, rowing, elliptical, power walking or any other exercise you want).

Monday: easy

Easy Z2 Run: 30 minutes. (optional day off)

Tuesday: hard

Run: 10 minutes warm up Z2, 4x 30 seconds Z5 efforts with 2 minutes easy Z1 run between. 5 minute cool down in Z1.

Wednesday: easy with weight training

​Run/bike/hike: Easy zone 1,2 for 20-30 minutes. 20 minutes strength and core training.

Thursday: hard day

Run: warm up Z2 10 minutes. Z3 intervals: 3 minutes with 1 minute break in Z1, repeat 3-4 times. Cool down Z1 5 minutes.

Friday: rest

Rest day. Optional stretch yoga.

Saturday: easy

Long run: all Z2. It's whatever long means for you.

Sunday: easy with strength training

​Easy Bike/run/walk for 30 minutes. 15 minutes strength and core training.

What if you are going to classes like Orange Theory, Crossfit or Peleton? Then replace your hard days with these classes. If you are purely doing classes, then mix and match to make the 80/20 rule, go to a hard class 1-3 times a week and an easier class other days. Again remember, going hard all the time is not necessarily better.

I use a regimented and pre made plan by a professional when I am training for a specific race, which is usually twice a year and lasts about 8-10 weeks. But the remainder of the year I don't have a specific plan, I just know that I do one hard Z4-5 workout, one moderate Z3 workout and 3 easy Z1,2 workouts per week. From experience I know this comes out to about 80% easy and 20% hard. I also incorporate 2 core/strength sessions on my easy days, about 20 minutes, and stretch yoga on my rest day (if you have access to a hot sauna, try hot yoga, its very restorative). My point is that you don't need to get too obsessive, as long as you do a couple of hard sessions and 2-3 easy sessions it should come out to be 80/20 (remember, even your hard days have easy warm up and cool downs).

If I had to guess from experience, I would say that most of you will find out that you were in fact working out too hard. Thats because most people think they are going easy, but in fact they are above their Z1 and 2, they are in this middle ground called called zone X, its not easy to allow recovery and its not hard enough to make you stronger, so you are not getting any benefit besides getting tired. Going hard is easy, focus on your easy days.

Good luck, send me an email if you need help or more direction, always happy to help.

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