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Using Heart Rate Zones to Train for Hiking

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Clients usually come to me with this question. They've dreamed, planned, and purchased and then reality hits. The magnitude of what lies before them suddenly becomes real and they wonder if they're ready.

The adventure dictates the training. You wouldn't train for the Grand Canyon the same way you would the Camino. One demands strength and training that considers altitude while the other, depending on the route, is a test of endurance over a long period of time.

There are aspects of fitness, however, that are required no matter the adventure ahead. These components are endurance, strength, and flexibility. Today begins a series on hiking fitness. Let's start with endurance.

Endurance is a measure of the capacity of the cardiovascular system to perform an activity. While it mostly refers to a period of time until you reach exhaustion, endurance also implies an efficiency with which the body works to perform a task and how long it can continue that work. You can train your body to have more endurance by improving the function of the cardiovascular system.

You can measure the rate of work in the cardiovascular system by taking your pulse which you feel each time your heart beats. The heart has to beat faster to perform more work. However, since the heart is a muscle, it becomes stronger through training and ultimately does more with less work. That's the goal of endurance or aerobic training.

The formula for determining the aerobic training zone for your heart has undergone many revisions since Jane Fonda first popularized the concept of aerobic exercise. For women, the currently accepted rule for determining the maximum number of beats per minute your heart should reach while exercising is 206 − [0.88 × Age]. The aerobic training zone is below 85% of your max heart rate, but don't worry about doing the math. There's actually a simpler way to determine if you're training your heart properly!

The Talk Test

When you're out on the trail, there's an easy way to know if you're going at an aerobic pace. It's called the talk test. If you can talk easily, you need to pick up the pace. If you can talk but can't sing, you're getting into the aerobic zone. If talking is a challenge, but you can still chat while taking more breaths, you're at the top of your training zone. If you feel breathless and unable to talk you are above your max and need to slow down or take a break.

The goal is to stay in between the 'I can talk but can't sing' and 'talking is challenging but I can do it taking more breaths' range (see video below for an example). Other variables besides pace can effect your aerobic zone. Altitude, incline, and weather all impact heart rate during activity. As your heart gets stronger, you'll be able to do more - hike faster, further, and carrying more weight- in that zone.

If you want more information about heart rate training or would like to develop an individualized training plan for your upcoming hike, contact me!

When training at the breathy but not breathless zone, you can have conversations like this:

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