Training: Understanding Heart Rate Zones

Climb stronger and longer by training your heart
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Kevin Corrigan
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Climb stronger and longer by training your heart
Rock climbing heart rate zone training

Photo: Nerissa's Ring/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

Your heart is an engine—it has different gears that offer varying levels of power, speed, and endurance. Cruise through an easy slab in first. Shift up to third as the angle gets more vertical. Lock into fourth or fifth as you power through the crux. High gears can only be sustained for short bursts before you redline and tire out, but fortunately, your heart is also a muscle, meaning you can train each “gear” to have a higher level of performance. This is called increasing your aerobic capacity, so you’ll be able to do steeper approaches, harder moves, and more pitches—all while staying in a lower gear. The key is to focus on training in certain “heart rate zones,” but the tricky part is that this type of training is all about duration, not intensity. Go too hard and you’ll actually sabotage your ability to train successfully. Adapted from the book Training for the New Alpinism, the following info includes guidelines and rules for how to do it right.

Benefits

Heart rate training can help all climbers in a variety of ways. A strong aerobic base means a two-hour approach won’t require an hour-long rest at the base of an alpine climb. Single-pitch sport climbers can target their overall endurance and ability to recover while on a route. Multi-pitch trad climbers will be able to add more pitches to their days before fatigue sets in. Even boulderers can train at their max heart rate for boosts in explosive movements and power-endurance.

Equipment

In order to accurately track your heart rate, you’ll need a heart rate monitor and a smartphone to sync it with. We prefer the chest-strap style of monitors because they’re accurate and affordable (the Polar H7 works great at just $50). Recently, wrist-worn “fitness trackers” have become popular, but these lack the accuracy necessary for optimal training. New optical heart rate trackers provide accurate data in watch form, but expect to pay several hundred dollars for these. All you need is something that tracks your heart rate for the duration of your workout and provides the data in real time.

The Basics

Think of your heart rate zones as a pyramid. Zone one is the base. Zone five is the tip. This is how you should structure your training. Most of your time should be spent in zone one. Very little time should be spent in zone five. The more time you spend in one zone during one continuous session, the greater the benefit. Two hours in zone one is better than two one-hour sessions, which are better than four half-hour sessions. The lower the zone you’re targeting, the less sport-specific your training needs to be. To build a solid aerobic base, you can run, hike, swim, bike—whatever you don’t mind doing at a consistent pace for a long time. The higher the heart rate you target, the more anaerobic the workout becomes, and the more important it is for your training to be climbing-specific, like 4x4s or time on a Treadwall.

Determining Your Zones

Heart rate zones vary greatly from person to person. They’re affected not only by your max heart rate, but your current aerobic fitness level. The percentages listed below are only a rough guide. The described “breath” will be a more accurate real-world gauge of your current fitness. The stronger your aerobic base, the greater the range of heart rate percentages will fall into your lower zones. An elite athlete can work at 85% of their heart rate max and still comfortably cruise along in zone one.

Before You Start: Max Heart Rate Test

Sorry, but this is going to suck. In order to train heart rate zones effectively, you must first determine your max heart rate. The most straightforward test is as follows:

  • You must be rested and recovered before attempting this test or you will not acheive you true max.
  • Spend 15 minutes warming up. The first five minutes should be very easy. Increase the intensity every five minutes, but never go above a moderate effort.
  • At the 15-minute mark, go all out as hard as you can for up to two minutes. The best way to do this is by sprinting up a moderate hill. You may not be able to make it anywhere near two minutes–that's OK–the goal here is really to push yourself until you no longer can.
  • Add five to the highest heart rate recorded within your two minutes of max effort. This is your max heart rate.

Note: This test pushes your heart to the limit and should not be attempted by anyone in questionable health. If you're unsure if this is a good idea, speak to a doctor first. You may experience the taste of blood after performing this test, or feel like you're going to barf. As stated above, it sucks.

Heart Rate Zones

Recovery

Heart Rate: About 55% and below your max heart rate
Breath: You are able to easily hold a conversation

Not a training zone, per se. A light workout in this zone, such as a quick walk around the neighborhood, can actually speed your recovery process by elevating the blood supply to your muscles and providing beneficial aerobic enzymes and hormones. Consider aiming for a short session in this zone on rest days.

Zone 1

Heart Rate: Approximately 55 to 75% of your max heart rate
Breath: You can breathe exclusively through your nose.

This should be the standard for all of your aerobic training. Working at this level of intensity will lay down the foundation of a large aerobic base, allowing you to sustain bigger efforts with less energy. It improves your heart’s ability to pump blood and your muscles’ ability to use oxygen. If you struggle on approaches or find yourself breathing hard even on warm-up routes, you may lack a good aerobic base. Zone one can be the most challenging zone to train because it may feel too easy to be effective training. If your aerobic capacity is low, you may not be able to walk at a brisk pace before your heart drifts up into higher zones. Stick with it, and over time you’ll be able to push yourself harder and harder without feeling out of breath or fatigued. This will carry over into every athletic activity you do. Specificity is not important here. Choose any training activity you enjoy and feel free to switch it up with each workout. The amount of time you put in is most important.

Zone 2

Heart Rate: Approximately 75 to 80% of your max heart rate
Breath: Steady deep breaths. You can no longer sustainably breathe through your nose only.

Training in zone two is generally a poor use of time for climbers. The effort is too high to be considered easy training, and the fatigue you will accumulate is unworthy of the gains this zone provides. Training this zone is better suited for cyclists and triathletes who need to move at a steady pace for hours on end. As you improve your overall aerobic conditioning, your zone one will begin encroaching into your zone two. High-level endurance athletes may not have a zone two at all, and can continue nose breathing right into zone three.

Zone 3

Heart Rate: Approximately 80 to 90% of your max heart rate
Breath: You are only able to speak in short sentences.

This zone relies on equal parts aerobic and anaerobic energy, and provides great training for both. This should be an effort that you can sustain for long periods of time. It should feel like work, but nowhere near your max. Spending too much time training in zone three can have negative effects on your aerobic base because you’ll start relying more on your limited anaerobic capacity. Remember, zone one is the base of the pyramid. Route climbers will spend most of their time between cruxes in zone three.

The benefits of training this zone are two-fold. First, you’ll find that moderate moves leave you less fatigued, giving you more energy for the hard parts. Secondly, it improves your body’s ability to shuttle much-needed energy to your muscles, allowing you to perform longer and recover faster. Both of these factors should give you a major endurance boost. At this level, sport specificity becomes important. Long, sustained easy climbing can be an effective way to target zone three. Treadwall sessions, auto-belay laps (downclimb the routes), and traverses are good climbing-specific ways to target this zone.

Zone 4

Heart Rate: Approximately 90 to 95% of your max heart rate
Breath: Labored. You can no longer talk while training.

In this zone, the majority of your energy is being supplied by your anaerobic system. Training in this zone should be sparse, and your time will be better spent in zones one and three.

Zone 5

Heart Rate: Approximately 95 to 100% of your max heart rate
Breath: This effort can only be sustained for about 15 seconds max.

This zone bolsters your fast-twitch muscle fibers and is very effective at improving strength, power, and endurance. It requires maximum effort, such as pushing through a boulder crux. Training this zone needs to be extremely sport-specific, and climbing powerful boulder problems at your limit is the best method. You’ll see huge gains from training in this state, but the time spent here should be limited because it pushes your heart to its max and requires a long recovery period. Note that heart rate monitors don’t track this zone well because there is lag between exertion and when your heart rate elevates.

Sample Week for an All-Around Climber

Monday
Zone 3: Route laps, 3 rounds of 5 minutes each

Tuesday
Rest day with optional recovery session

Wednesday
Zone 5: Boulder, at your limit

Thursday
Zone 1: Jog, 1 hour

Friday
Zone 3: Treadwall, 3 rounds of 5 minutes each

Saturday
Rest day with optional recovery session

Sunday
Zone 1: Long hike, 2 hours

Notes:

  • Adjust the time spent in each session to your current fitness level. You may need to do less (or more).
  • For zone five bouldering, find problems that require powerful moves at your limit. Take long rests between burns (5 minutes) to fully recover.
  • Remember, it’s about duration. You may need to climb laps well below your limit, or make the Treadwall vertical to stay in the correct zone.
  • After four weeks increase volume by 10%.