Cardiovascular Training and Heart Rate

You’ve probably heard the phrases ‘maximum heart rate’ and ‘optimum training zone’, in relation to optimum training intensity for cardiovascular fitness.

Your maximum heart rate is the number 220 minus your age. This is the maximum safe limit of heartbeats per minute for training.

Your optimum training zone is a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Some say 65-80% of your maximum heart rate, but I think that’s a little tame. I prefer 65-85%. So depending on your age, here are the optimum training zones, measured in beats per minute:

age—–MHR—–optimum training zone


You’ll need a heart rate monitor to measure what your heart rate is. I recommend the most simple heart rate monitors without any fancy additional functions. I use the Polar FS1, as it’s simple and effective. The more complex monitors are more prone to malfunction.

Your optimum training zone, as the name suggests, is where you’re exercising at optimum efficiency for cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning. In other words, within this zone you are training aerobically (using oxygen to burn carbohydrates and fat). Above this zone you are training anaerobically (ie-without oxygen), and you will not be able to sustain this intensity for long before you incur an ‘oxygen debt’ – a level of exertion where you have to breathe heavily for a few minutes after stopping the exercise so that the body can take in the extra oxygen it needs to ‘repay’ the working muscles.

There is value in training anaerobically if you are already reasonably fit and want to push yourself to even greater levels of fitness. However, there is little point in exhausting yourself so early in your workout that you cannot sustain it for more than 20 minutes, so work within your optimum training zone for at least 20 minutes when you’re running, cycling, using the rowing machine or step-master or eliptical machine. When you’ve built up a decent level of fitness over a period of months, AND PROVIDED YOU HAVE NO HEART CONDITION, you can then challenge yourself by raising your heart rate a little above the zone.

Don’t forget, cardiovascular training is great for strengthening your heart and lungs, but not so effective for fat loss. Resistance exercise to build muscle is the most effective way to lose excess weight.

Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 11 years’ experience.