Women and men have different anatomy so this month we are going to discuss heartrate zone training for women. Firstly, I want to outline exactly how men and women are different, and what this means for heartrate zone training.
These are probably the most notable differences between male and female hearts, but there are others too.
- Size: By ratio, a woman’s heart and some of its chambers are smaller.
- Density: The walls that divide some of the chambers are thinner, and the veins are finer.
- Function: A woman’s heart pumps faster than a man’s, but a man’s heart ejects more blood with each pump.
- Stress Reaction: Stress causes a woman’s heart to beat faster and pulse rate to rise, leading to more blood being pumped. the stress response in men is for arteries to constrict, leading to a rise in blood pressure.
Calculating max heart rate
For years the general rule of thumb formula for calculating max heart rate has been 220 – age. Althought this formula has been used for years it is flawed for a number of reasons, including that it does not account for differences between men and women. In one particular study that analysed more than 25,000 stress tests, researchers found significant differences between men and women and developed an updated formula to reflect those nuances.
Their study reveals that although everybody’s peak heart rate declines with age, the decline is more gradual in women. As a result, 220 – age overestimates the peak heart rate younger women can achieve and underestimates the peak heart rate of older women. They recommend the following formulae be applied instead:
- Women 40 – 89 years: 200 – 67% of age (For women younger than 40, the formula is still to be determined).
- Men: 216 – 93% of age
If you’re using the Myzone Switch to track your heart rate, then the Myzone algorithm will detect patterns and tweak your heart rate zones to match your individual heart rate measurements.
So I am 41 years old, and female. Using this formula, 67% of my age is 27.47, so my max heart rate would be 200-27.47 = 172.53
This means my “red” zone” (90-100%) is 155.3 beats per minute or more – this zone is really for peak interval and maximum effort training. It should be a struggle to hit and hold for longer than 30 seconds. The myzone will adjust if you can maintain that intensity, and tweak to your individual needs.
My “yellow” zone (80-89%) is 138.02bpm – this state is high intensity, unless you’re already highly conditioned, in which case you may be able to cope with this zone for steady state exercise, otherwise this zone is for interval training.
My “green” zone (70-79%) is 120.77bpm – this zone is good for moderate, steady state exercise, or as the recovery phase during interval training. You may be breathless in this zone, but should be able to hold a converstation.
My “blue” zone (60-69%) is 103.52 – this zone is good for establishing a fitness base, for recovery, or low intensity steady state exercise including weight/strength training.
My “grey” zone (50-59%) is 86.27bpm – this zone if good for warming up, recovery, and cooling down.
Once you know your max heart rate you can work out your percentages like I did above (or if you have the MZ-Switch it will work it out for you and adjust according to your individual patterns and give you guidance as you work out).
Women will use their zone much the same as men will, however there is one important caveat: for women, stress already increases their heart rates. So it’s better not to hit the 80% zones when they’re already stressed, or if they do, make sure it’s in an interval training context and their heart rate is fully recovered before hitting it again.
Heartrate zone training advice from Myzone
Heartrate zone training for women during the menstrual cycle
Another issue with heart rate training for women is the effect their menstrual cycle can have on heart rates. Where they are at in that cycle will determine their most appropriate zone for training (generally), and it will also mean their resting heart rate is different, depending on circulating hormones.
Their resting-heart rate will be significantly higher during the ovulatory (middle) and luteal phases (second 2 weeks) than during the menstrual (bleeding) and follicular phases (first two weeks). Likewise, there’s a rise in their basal body temperature after ovulation. If they are stressed it will also be higher no matter where they are in their cycles.
In studies completed on athlete’s performance measures across their cycle, most report no changes in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max).
However, several other studies report a higher cardiovascular strain during moderate exercise in the mid-luteal phase. During prolonged exercise in hot conditions a decrease in exercise time to exhaustion is shown during the mid-luteal phase, when body temperature is elevated. Thus, the mid-luteal phase has a potential negative effect on prolonged exercise performance through elevated body temperature and potentially increased cardiovascular strain.
So, whilst your performance isn’t impaired by your cycle, there are subtle differences across it which will make it easier to train different zones, and different environments.
When you’re menstruating and the first week or two until you ovulate is the best time to hit high intensities, for short or long intervals, or even high intensity steady state exercise. You can regularly hit the yellow and red zones during this phase.
Since any good training program has “off” weeks and down training periods, women should time theirs to coincide with ovulation. From the moment of ovulaiton rising progesterone levels, strain has already been added to the heart, respiratory, and circulatory systems. At this time it’s better to train in the blue and green zones. Sessions should reduce in intensity but can be of linger duration.
Patterning and cycling the intensity of training like this will make it easier to maintain motivation and consistency. Good training can still lead to faster and stronger outcomes, probably even faster and stronger than if the training was in the red zone all the time. Our bodies love variety, and women’s bodies in particular need safety to respond well. Periods of rest and restoration are vital.
So, If I were doing Power Plate burpees in the first two weeks of my cycle, and hitting the red zone in 30 seconds, when I get to ovulation I might do 45 seconds and reduce the intensity. By my mid luteal I might do a minute on each side of a stepping burpee, and when i’m just about to menstruate I might just lie on the floor and breathe….
Heartrate zone training for women during peri-menopause and post-menopause
Firstly, let’s clarify what happens when Oestrogen levels drop:
- Blood pressure rises – When Oestrogen levels drop, heart and blood vessels become stiffer and less elastic, which can increase blood pressure.
- Cholesterol rises – again, because of the drop in Oestrogen, your good cholesterol (HDL) may go down, and your bad cholesterol (LDL) may go up, which increases your risks of heart attack and dying from heart disease.
- Diabetes risk increases – When women go through menopause, they can also become more resistant to insulin, the hormone needed to convert blood sugar and starches into energy for cells to use.
- Atrial fibrillation – Sometimes, hormonal changes can cause a slowing of the heart and heart blockages that can cause symptoms, including dizziness; more commonly, the change in hormones causes faster heart rates. Atrial fibrillation can also be brought on by high blood pressure, which is more common after menopause.
- Weight gain – because Oestrogen affects where women store fat and how it is burned, menopause can cause the metabolism to slow, which contributes to weight gain.
So that’s the bad news, but the good news is that regular moderate exercise can reverse/prevent/mitigate/and negate these changes. Women who exercise regularly tend not to get the blood pressure increases, reduce their risk of diabetes, and gain less weight.
It becomes more important than ever to begin or maintain an exercise program if you’re a woman in her 40’s – and it is never too late to start one, including lifestyle modifications. The benefits are many, most important being maintenance of muscle mass and thereby the bone mass and strength.
Your program should include at a minimum endurance cardio exercise (aerobic), strength exercise and balance exercise; you should aim for two hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. On top of this, strength training should be performed 2 x per week, and balance and/or breath work 1-2 times a week as well! Your target heart rate zone for moderate training is the blue and green zones, but you can hit the yellow and red periodically (but no more than 3x per week). Hitting high intensities more often than that can have a harmful effect on our health, and in this way – more is not better – balance and variation is better! If you regularly hit those high zones, then adequate recovery is key – including fuelling properly, sleeping, and time between bouts.
Now a program like this will not only protect you from disease, it can reduce the frequency and intensity of your menopause symptoms as you progress through the change too!
So if you’re not currently exercising, start with walking and build up to 30min, 5 x per week thereafter, because even jst this will lengthen your life and quality of life significantly! Once you’ve achieved this, add your strength training, balance training and breath work.
You can also do you cardio, strength, and balance training on the Power Plate machine.
To summarise let’s revisit the zones, and take another look at the theoretic purpose of each one.
Zone 1 – Grey Zone
Percentage of max heart rate: 50–60 percent
Good for: Overall health and recovery. It’s long, relatively slow, enjoyable, healing, oxygenating, movement. It’s the walk before coffee with one’s girlfriends, the dip in the ocean.
Zone 2 – Blue Zone
Percentage of max heart rate: 60–70 percent
Good for: Basic endurance training and “fat burning”. “Fat Burning” in quotation marks because you won’t necessarily use more fat than one would working in higher zones, it’s just the primary fuel source. It won’t make one skinny in one session.
Zone 3 – Green Zone
It’s still long, but will lead to being warm and breathless. It’s like a warm-up or a cool-down — normal conversation should be possible in this zone.
Percentage of max heart rate: 70–80 percent
Good for: Getting sweaty, and building endurance. Is sustainable for around 30min, and it’s still aerobic (using oxygen as cell energy). It feels challenging but doable, one is starting to “push” but it’s achievable and maintainable.
Zone 4 – Yellow Zone
Percentage of max heart rate: 80–90 percent
Good for: At about 84 percent of max heart rate one’s body starts burning fuel without oxygen. This is called Anaerobic exercise. One can spend about 10min in this zone, but the metabolism will stay elevated for up to 60 minutes post interval – this is called Post-Exercise-Energy-Consumption (EPOC). It feels like one is going all out on the dance floor at a wedding and the sweat is dripping, but one knows one can push through it because one is killing it. It’s hard, and unsustainable for long periods.
Zone 5 – Red Zone
Percentage of max heart rate: 90–100 percent
Good for: Giving it your all. This zone is only possible for bursts of a few seconds, up to 2 min for very conditioned people. This zone is where one feels the limits of one’s lungs, sometimes nauseating, an all out sprint.
Now, just because the final two zones give you a long EPOC, doesn’t mean they’re the best thing to do everyday. They are also the two zones that are most likely to lead to over training, injury, and stress – so wield them with care.
The key to using heart rate zones well, if you’re exercising for generic fitness and health, is VARIETY. “Building block” sessions should be firmly in the green zone, but slipping to blue if one is under the weather, grey when one is sore and tired, or bumping up to yellow when one is feeling amazing. The red zone can be hit 1-3x a week, under the following conditions:
- Have slept well
- Have eaten enough calories and are across one’snutrition
- Are well hydrated
- Are not stressed, emotionally, mentally, or physically
- Have had at least one day rest since the last red zone hit.
- Are feeling energised
Remember, when working in those yellow and red zones, hit them for only a few seconds, then back off.
Some examples include Tabata – where the red zone could be 20sec, with a 10 sec back off period, repeating for 4 min. Alternatively 2min on, 1min off is a good method for building speed endurance, or 30 sec stair sprints followed by 3 min slow walk down is great for developing explosive power.
If training for a specific purpose, rather than general health and fitness, then work with your coach to determine when and how your heart rate training zone can work for you.