Heart rate training

In one of my previous roles working as a strength and conditioning coach for a number of GB rowing internationals, I spent a lot of time reading up on the heart rate training protocols they use as rowing is a very physiology based sport requiring huge contributions from the aerobic systems.

As a result of the time I spent with these athletes, I now utilise heart rate training extensively with my athletes. In fact I would say that a heart rate monitor should be part of any athletes training kit bag!

I tend to work with 5 Zones. These are taken from the individuals maximum heart rate (MHR) and are as follows:

1. 95% MHR or above.

2. 85%-95% MHR

3. 80%-85% MHR

4. 70%-80% MHR

5. 50%-70% MHR

Zone 5 is essentially recovery type work and this should be used for mobility work, active recovery etc on non training days.

Zone 4 is aerobic development. Isolated sparring, drilling and some skill work may fit into this zone. It is also the zone I recommend for weights loss work in athletes who have high volume training programmes as it will not induce large amounts of physical or mental fatigue.

Zone 3 is usually around where your anaerobic threshold (AT) point is. This is where your body switches from producing energy aerobically to producing it anaerobically. It is an important training zone as training around your AT point allows you to develop your heart so that you can maintain aerobic work for longer. This is beneficial as you can sustain this level of work for long periods of time.

Zone 2 moves into anaerobic training and is commonly associated with high intensity drilling and sparring, conditioning games, circuits etc. It is important that this zone is trained extensively for strength and power sports such as MMA, tennis, rugby, soccer etc. My take on this is that you are training to improve your work capacity within these heart rate limits. How much work can you do with your heart rate above 85%? That should then be the goal of the sessions moving forward and it should be measured accordingly.

Zone 1 is fully Anaerobic and can only be sustained for around 1 minute in most cases. It is reserved for extremely high intensity periods of play within your sport. In training it is important to experience zone 1 and attempt to improve your bodies tolerance and the duration you can maintain this work rate as these will be the times when you are under the most pressure.

One of the key points about heart rate training is that yes you need to train your heart to develop and adapt to the demands of your sport, however the methods in which you do so are very important. For example it would not be optimal for an MMA athlete to be continuously performing shuttle runs in order for anaerobic development. When it comes to the crunch the muscles demanded from clinching and grappling may not have been conditioned optimally. An MMA athlete needs to do specific training utilising stand-up, clinch and ground based activities in accordance with their game plan and their opponents style. Shuttle runs are more suited to rugby players, field and court sport athletes although for general preparation type training sprints would be suitable.

Heart rate training can be utilised very effectively in ‘Skills Under Fatigue’ type sessions. Within these sessions if your athletes have heart rate monitors on you can effectively see what type of stress they are experiencing. It is interesting to note the difference between a technical session with and without conditioning. Look at the technical execution of the skills at 70% MHR and compare these to 80-90% MHR. You will initially notice a huge difference but over time it will diminish. When you think about the application to sport of this concept it does make sense……to me anyway!

The other area of importance is the recovery rate and time to recover to a certain heart rate. For example, with the combat athletes I train I like them to get their heart rate back to 75-80% of their max heart rate within the 1 min rest between rounds. So a 200bpm max heart rate would return to 130bpm by the start of the next round. This is extremely demanding and requires some training. Practice different methods of breathing such as 3 seconds inhaling 1 second exhaling or in through the nose out through the mouth. You will find that recovering to 75% MHR allows you to perform substantially more work in the following 5 minutes, therefore it is a key facet in the conditioning process.

Here is a guide to which zones certain sports should be focusing on:

Mixed Martial Arts: Zones 3, 2 and 1. 4 weeks pre fight work should focus on 2 and 1. 8-12 weeks out more so on zone 3. Use 4 and 5 for recovery and technical work. Zone 2 is the zone which I believe most athletes will experience the greatest benefits from training in and should be done with specific circuits/strength training. Zone 1 is best trained with either sparring with new body thrown in every 20-30s or with exercises such as squats, presses and pulls as these are fixed objects and have to be dealt with by the athlete. It is easy to slow down when you have to move yourself like in a bodyweight circuit, its much harder when you have to move someone or something else! Make sure you have technical competency in the exercises you use before putting them into this type of training and keep the reps low on power exercises. You are better off doing several exercises. I do not recommend doing extensive reps on exercises like power cleans or snatches!

Rugby League: I believe Zones 1, 3 and 4 are very important to develop for rugby league. I also think 2 is important as well. The ability to switch repeatedly from aerobic work to highly anaerobic work such as tackling, sprinting etc is very important. Conditioning games as well as more traditional methods such as shuttles, sprints etc work well for rugby players. Conditioning games are easy to cheat on so monitoring the players is important. Contact based games such as sumo wrestling, 2-V-1 wrestling games are also very good and really stress zones 1 and 2 when carried out for longer periods of time and are interspersed with skill based games to keep the heart rates high.

Tennis: I tend to focus a lot of my training for tennis players around zone 4. This is usually med ball circuits, shuttle runs, sprints and specific court work integrated with endurance work or tennis drilling to keep the heart rates high. Tennis players have high volume programmes anyway so spending time working with lower intensities is not beneficial in my experience. Bodyweight or light load power activities are more appropriate as they are not shifting opponents around like fighters or rugby players. However I do think there is a place for that type of work with tennis players as all athletes need to work on mental strength as well.

Thats all for now, let me know your thoughts on this and keep training hard!

Brendan Chaplin


  1. Great read Brendan, I find that the knowledge of training zones is important for the athlete themselves from an educational point of view. They generally become much more involved and interested in the sessions once they understand the importance and reasoning of what they’re doing. Do you find any particular brand of heart rate monitor to be better than others?

  2. Hi neil, cheers for that. Agree that HR feedback does help the athletes know exactly where they are and helps to reinforce why we are doing what we prescribe in training! Also helps us as coaches to tweak and change things accordingly, both programming and in real time within the sessions.
    The best brand I have used is the suunto equipment. You can use their online software and get training effects determined according to activity levels and other factors. Their kit is also linked to the first beat heart rate variability equipment so you have that option as well. But far more importatly to all that…. they look much better too!! :-)

  3. @Brendan Glad to hear you say that, it’s a suunto that I use and it definitely makes me look much fitter! Aside from that it’s pretty reliable, the new belts are really comfortable and like you said about the software compatibility it makes a great choice.

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