How to set up your heart rate training zones. (Premium access)

In this article, I’m going into more detail in how to set up your heart rate zones. I will give you all the information you need, to accurately set up your heart rate zones, to monitor and manage your training intensities correctly to train in a smart and intelligent way.

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Introduction to energy systems

To be prepared to reach your potential as a Masters Rower, your personal training plan, should detail how to develop your body’s energy systems, specific to the demands of rowing races. In this article, I’m sharing how I set up heart rate zones for training. It will cover how training with heart rate can help you to target the development of energy systems specific to rowing.

Main energy systems

We will go through the main energy systems now, and throughout this section, there will be reference to heart rate zones and percentages of heart rate maximum. Below is an overview of the 5 heart rate zones and corresponding percentages of heart rate peak used to define each zone. We will cover heart rate zones in more detail after this section on energy systems.

Aerobic endurance Zone 1

Aerobic endurance, in simple terms, is the output of work by the muscles (e.g. in watts) that can be supported by the heart-lung system for long periods without stress. This is the system we rely on for non-fatiguing aerobic work and is the basis that will support the higher intensity work required to row fast. It is limited by the efficiency and strength of our slow-twitch muscle fibres and our heart -lung system’s ability to deliver oxygenated blood and fuel to the muscles, and to remove co2. This system usually works at around 70/75% of your heart rate peak.* So, producing sufficient training stress for aerobic endurance adaption doesn’t take intense work, just lots of time training in zones 1 and zone 2. By training in zones 1 and 2, you will increase your body’s ability to produce more power, for longer, while the heart stays below 75% max heart rate.
*Heart rate peak, also referred to as maximum heart rate, is the highest number of beats per minute your heart can pump under maximum stress.

Aerobic threshold Zone 2

While this is a subset of aerobic endurance, many top rowers have found benefits in training at or around their aerobic threshold for long periods at a time. It raises the maximal power they can row at without producing considerable fatigue and builds the mitochondrial* (see note below) network required to be efficient. This is at the upper end of your heart rate zone 2 at around 75% of your heart rate peak.

*Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, and use oxygen and carbohydrates (sugar), to produce the energy (product) that makes your heartbeat and your muscles perform. The more of these powerhouses the better.
Tip: Working at your Aerobic Threshold may mean you need to slow down on the ergo or on the water, to maintain the heart rate target of 75%.  Don’t panic! What you will find, as your aerobic base develops, and as you get more and more aerobically efficient, you will be able to produce more power, for longer, while staying below the 75% heart rate limit. You will be going faster, for the same percieved effort.

Intra-threshold/lactate clearance Zone 3 ‘The Black Hole’

Is the range between our two thresholds (aerobic & anaerobic) is referred to as ‘threshold’. In this zone, our bodies can achieve a steady state for a time, but will ultimately fatigue. In the struggle to maintain balance, our bodies will rely on multiple energy systems. It makes training in this range all the time exhausting. Dr Steven Seiler, Ph.D. considers this training area as “no man’s land or black hole training” claiming it provides no additional gains over lower intensity aerobic endurance work and leads to burnout due to the increased load on the body. In reviewing the way that the world’s best endurance athletes train, they all spend very little time in zone 3 and they focus on building the aerobic base (zone 2) and their anaerobic threshold (zone 4).

*Anaerobic is a level of power output that is beyond the ability of the heart/lung system to sustain when using purely aerobic metabolism to turn carbohydrates (sugars) into work, by using oxygen, and giving off co2. If the heart is not able to provide sufficient oxygenated blood to sustain a certain level of work, then another energy-producing system kicks in that does not rely on oxygen. This system in called anaerobic. It produces toxic waste-products like lactic acid, that if allowed to accumulate, reduce the ability of the muscles to produce power. Sustained anaerobic activity leads to fatigue, then death. 

Anaerobic/lactate threshold Zone 4

Training your Anaerobic/lactate threshold is fundamental to rowing. This is the maximum power we can produce and sustain without crossing the aerobic-to-anaerobic threshold. To be successful, you will spend a lot of time racing at your anaerobic threshold, so you need to spend somewhere around 20% of training sessions developing your Anaerobic threshold to be effective.

Tip: Our aerobic and anaerobic thresholds tend to improve and detrain with one another. Training one helps the other and they also take the longest to see substantial gains, making them good targets for your pre-season training.

Aerobic capacity/VO2max (VO2) Zone 5

We can still produce more power aerobically beyond our lactate threshold, but not for long. Our VO2max is your maximum short term aerobic output. A lab can help you find your Vo2max power, yet the 6-minute all-out effort on the Concept2 is also a good estimate. A major adaptation of training this system is to ‘teach’ or train typically anaerobic muscle fibres to work aerobically. This work is at the top of your zone 4 & in zone 5 at around 95% of heart rate peak.

Anaerobic capacity Zone 5

Any work above VO2max is done entirely through anaerobic pathways. Whilst rowing is predominately an aerobic sport, you only need to spend that last 300 metres of a race trying to stay at the front of the field or sprinting to the line to understand the value of a well-developed anaerobic energy system.

Neuromuscular recruitment Zone 5

The ability to recruit your muscles in a synchronized firing pattern affects both your efficiency and economy, so you require less energy to produce the same power. Training neuromuscular recruitment aids all your energy systems.

Next steps

Now that you’ve learned the fundamentals of energy systems, it’s time to take a look at how to set up your corresponding heart rate training zones. The next sections will build your understanding of the training zones, and briefly introduce, the polarised approach to training that will take you to the next level of race performance and fitness.

Heart Rate Zones

Key points in this section

  • How to identify your heart rate peak
  • How to identify the two key training thresholds
  • How to set up your heart rate zones for a polarised training approach

Targeting your training with zones

It’s possible to target one or two of your body’s energy systems, such as your anaerobic power or aerobic endurance systems through focussed training at an intensity that stimulates the targeted energy system. As a rule of thumb, training in each zone stresses one or two energy systems while minimally impacting others.

Tip: Training harder all the time is not always better. If you only do intervals on the ergo or in crew sessions, you may build great anaerobic and lactate threshold systems, but your aerobic endurance will suffer and you can run the risk of building up excess fatigue.

All effective training zone models centre on two key metabolic events that occur as we increase our intensity. The two events are commonly called thresholds.

The higher threshold, often called the anaerobic or lactate threshold, represents the highest power or heart rate that can be sustained aerobically. The lower threshold, called the aerobic threshold, is the point where blood lactate levels begin to rise above 2 mmol. It is the point at which we begin to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Heart rate zones

It is important to pay attention to your Heart Rate during training so that you can monitor and manage the intensity of your training sessions. This way you can manage your intensity when you are supposed to be in any particular zone, especially when you are rowing alongside or with your crew mate. Discipline is key.

Many physiologists use 3 zones, delineated by the two metabolic thresholds mentioned earlier. In reality, our physiological zones overlap, so for training purposes, we will be using a 5 zone model.

Here are the 5 zones that I use.

Zone 1: Below aerobic threshold. Targeting aerobic endurance

Zone 2: Below aerobic threshold. Targeting aerobic endurance and fatigue resistance

Zone 3: The range between the thresholds. Targeting lactate clearance

Zone 4: Lactate threshold. Targeting maximal sustainable power

Zone 5: VO2max, anaerobic capacity, and anaerobic strength. Targeting anaerobic pathways and maximal capacities.


Identifying your heart rate peak

First things first, you need to know what your actual heart rate peak is. It is not just 220 minus your age! This formula works reasonably well at the population level but it’s unreliable at the individual level.  Typically rowing will give a higher heart rate peak than other sports and the way you can identify this heart rate peak, is through a hard 6-minute test on the ergo. 

The 6-minute test is very very hard. You must be well warmed up and both mentally and physically ready to race. From the start to the finish, you need to row as hard and as fast as you can over the duration. It means high rate and high watts. You need to complete the test knowing that you have given everything, and have nothing left to give.

Now that you have identified your heart rate peak, this number sets the top end of zone 5 at 100% max.

Tip: If you are using Garmin device, you can run a heart rate max report on your the last 3-months activities from the Garmin Connect website. 

Estimating the first lactate or aerobic threshold (zone 2)

If you want to find the first lactate turn point, you ideally need to measure your heart rate and power/pace at the point when your lactate level reaches lactate at 2 mmol/L and identify your heart rate and power/pace at this point. However, as this course is to arm you with pragmatic solutions and actions you can use now, a reasonable educated estimate of your aerobic threshold is the amount of work you can do with your heart at 75% of your measured heart rate peak. This will put you at the top of zone 2.

If you really are in zone 2, you should not see a big drift in your heart rate during the session. The heart rate you have after 15-minutes should be the same as at 60 minutes. If you’re drifting up a lot there’s a good chance you’re working at a higher intensity than you think you are or you are getting dehydrated.

Tip: When training in zone 2, Slower can make you faster. check the ego at the door! Learning discipline will be one of the best things you do. Make absolutely sure that you do not exceed 75% of your heart rate peak when you are training in zone 2.

Estimating the second lactate threshold (zone 4)

Now you have your heart rate peak (top of zone 5) and your aerobic threshold (zone 2) all sorted, now you need to determine your anaerobic threshold (zone 4). To determine this threshold point, I generally recommend doing an hour of power on the ergo or in the single. 

The hour of power is a 60-minute test, at the highest possible effort that you can sustain over the course of 1-hour. This is a continuous, uninterrupted hard effort. Rate as high as you can with the highest possible power for an hour. Before you start, make sure you have your heart rate monitor on, and to take your average pace and heart rate for those 60 minutes. You can use both of these numbers as your zone 4 threshold for heart rate and pace. This is the marker between zone 4 and 5 and generally is around 94% of your heart rate peak.

Research shows that well-trained subjects can generally hold maximum lactate steady state for an hour, so this test is a reasonable surrogate measure for your anaerobic or lactate threshold.

When you do an hour of power, your average heart rate for that hour will probably be around 90% of your heart rate peak. By the end you may be at 95% of heart rate peak, but that’s heart rate drift. The moment of truth comes around the 40-minute mark – you know your body will start wanting to quit here, so you need a mental strategy for how you can get past this.

Tip: With the right training you will see the what you can sustain at your anaerobic threshold improve. It’s not always about doing more power, it’s about being able to do the same power for longer, and feel comfortable with this. This means you have a bigger aerobic base. The only way to get this is to do the hours over time. There are no shortcuts.

Setting Your Heart Rate Zones

In theory setting up your heart rate is essentially the same for all sports because the physiology is the physiology!

Below in the graphic you will see the 5 zones laid out using 185 as an example heart rate peak. The two main thresholds (Aerobic & Anaerobic) used in the Polarised Training model, are clearly identified in zone 2 (Aerobic) and in zone 4 (Anaerobic). These are the two thresholds you really need to pay attention to in your training.


The zones above and in the tool, reflect the Polarised Model in the literature by Dr Seiler.

You can set up your Garmin, Polar or other heart rate monitor using the zone percentages or values calculated by the spreadsheet tool.

Next steps

Take a moment to download the heart rate tool via the link below, and enter your heart rate max.

Make a plan for when you are going to do the 6-minute VO2 Max test on the ergo. Take into consideration what you do the day before and how you will fuel and approach the test. Get familiar with your heart rate monitor and set up your machine. Make sure you are mentally ready and GO!

When you have your heart rate peak from the test, enter it into the heart rate tool and use the new data to program your heart rate watch. Trust the process and the data. It is personalised to you and your current situation. Let me know how you get on too.