Heart Rate Based Training

Heart rate based training is a popular training method in which individuals can objectively monitor their training and approximate workload. Heart rate monitors, such as the Polar heart rate monitor we offer here at the Movement Performance Centre, are an accessible way in which clients can monitor their heart rate and track exercise intensity relative to their own fitness levels. So how does one use heart rate data for training?

The first step would be to determine heart rate max. The age-predicted heart rate max formula is 220 – age. This is the simplest way to obtain an estimated heart rate max without using stress test data. For example a 40 year old would have an approximate heart rate max of 180 beats per min (bpm).  Heart rate max for a 40 year old = 220 – 40 = 180 bpm. Heart rate monitors often calculate heart rate max automatically from data the individual enters.

To determine a training intensity based on individual heart rate, the Karvonen formula can be utilized. This formula is often used to prescribe personal exercise programs and exercise intensity zones.

 Exercise intensity HR = % of target intensity (HR max – HR rest) + HR rest

From the Karvonen formula we can determine “training zones” in which the individual should work. For example, if we wanted a high intensity training zone (90%) for an individual with a HR max of 180 bpm and a HR rest of 60 bpm we would use the Karvonen formula.

Target HR = 90% (180 – 60 = 120) + 60
Target HR = 168 bpm

This formula allows for exercise prescriptions to be tailored to the individual. The individual would then target approximately 168 bpm to achieve a 90% work load capacity. Polar has created “sport zones” to guide heart rate based training. While some guidelines slightly differ in how they categorize the exercise intensity, the same general principles are present.

Visit Polar’s website to learn more about their heart rate based training zones:

Heart rate based training does have its limitations. An individual’s heart rate has been shown to be variable day-to-day (Lamberts et al.). For example, dehydration, smoking, some medications, and even stress can affect both resting heart rate and heart rate while exercising. Therefore, individual heart rate variation needs to be considered when using it as a marker of training status. Additionally, the heart rate max equation (220 – age) can be subject to error (Tanaka, Monahan, & Seals). Stress tests in a laboratory are the gold standard method for predicting heart rate max, however, this may be costly and time consuming.


Lamberts, R.P., Lemmink, K., Durandt,. J.J., & Lambert, M.I. Variation in heart rate during sub maximal exercise: implications for monitoring training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004, 18(3), 641-645.

Tanaka, H., Monahan, K.D., & Seals, D.R. Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2001, 1(37), 153-156.

Author: Evelyn Graham