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Interval Training

How to Use Cardio Zones While Training

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Other than a solid, mood-boosting sweat session, what do you want from your cardio training efforts? Is it heart health, stamina, endurance, physique, sport performance or something else? Your answer determines what you’re about to do with the cardio zone training workout plans that follow.

What Are Cardio Zones?

Cardio zones are more than an interesting stat your fitness watch uses. They’re also more than the “fat burning” versus “performance” dichotomy pictured on cardio equipment. Cardio training zones are dividing lines that show us which heart rates align to each of our training goals. 

Whether you subscribe to the idea of three, five, or seven zones, all of the methods have something in common. They all create divisions in your target workout heart rates by accounting for the anaerobic threshold. The anaerobic threshold is the exercise intensity at which your body changes from mostly aerobic to mostly anaerobic training. 

Aerobic training occurs at low-to-moderate sustainable workout intensities. If you can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in one breath, your intensity is aerobic. You can continue at this pace for minutes to hours without slowing down. Aerobic training improves heart health, increases endurance and stamina, and burns more fat per minute than anaerobic training. 

Anaerobic training occurs at higher workout intensities. If you can barely utter a word in one breath, your intensity is likely anaerobic. Anaerobic training intensities can only be sustained for a few seconds to minutes, which necessitates interval training. Anaerobic training improves heart health, increases sport performance elements like speed and power, and can help you break through body transformation plateaus. 

Anaerobic training, however, tends to be more taxing on your joints and tendons. It also increases stress on your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. These increased stresses explain why we need 72 hours between high intensity sessions to minimize hormonal imbalances and injury risks. 

Cardio Zone Training Myths

Myth 1: You must do traditional cardio exercises.

Aerobic and anaerobic training simply refer to the intensity, or amount of effort you put out during any type of movement or exercise — not just traditional cardio training. This is reflected in your heart rate

Myth 2: You must have a heart rate monitor to benefit from cardio zone training.

Training zone benefits are not exclusive to those who own heart rate monitors. If you don’t have one, you can estimate your heart rate during your workouts by taking your pulse with your index and middle fingers for 6 seconds, then add a zero to the result.

Example: You feel 10 pulses in 6 seconds. Add a zero; your result is a heart rate of 100 beats per minute. 

How Do I Find My Anaerobic Threshold?

If you want to know your training zones, you need to estimate your anaerobic threshold first. You can easily estimate your anaerobic threshold with the Maffetone method. Simply take 180 and subtract your age, then write down the result.

Example: If you’re 30 years old, 180-30 = 150 beats per minute as your estimated anaerobic threshold. 

If you’ve been regularly training most days of the week for the past 3 months, add 10 to your result.

Example: Adding 10 to your result of 150 = 160 beats per minute as your estimated anaerobic threshold.

If you haven’t been training much in the past month, subtract 10 from your result.

Example: Subtracting 10 from your 150 result = 140 beats per minute as your estimated anaerobic threshold. 

How Do I Create My Cardio Zones?

Now that you have your anaerobic threshold, you can create your cardio training zones. While many methods exist, follow these steps to find training zones in less than one minute:

Calculate Zone 2 First

Create a heart rate range by adding and subtracting 10 from your anaerobic threshold above.

Example: 150 + 10 = 160. 150 – 10 = 140. Now you have a range of 140-160. Call your result “Zone 2.”

Zone 1

All heart rates under Zone 2 will be your Zone 1.

Zone 3

All heart rates above Zone 2 will be your Zone 3. 

Pro tip: If you’ve done an actual metabolic assessment that provided your training zones, use those direct measures instead of these calculations as you use the rest of this article to plan your cardio program.  

What Do I Do With My Cardio Zones?

Now that you’ve estimated heart rates for each training zone, let’s use them to plan your workouts!

Workout 1: Zone 1 Steady State

For the entire duration of your cardio workout, keep your heart rate within Zone 1. Zone 1 workouts commonly include using any cardio machine, yoga, Pilates, light circuit training or going for a walk. 

Workout 2: Zone 2 Intervals

Zone 2 intervals focus on alternating Zone 1 with Zone 2 intensities for the duration of the workout. 

Use the chart below to progress through the Zone 2 workout levels. There are four levels, and you should try to complete at least three workouts at each level on non-consecutive days before progressing to the next level. 

Start every workout with a 5-minute warm-up in Zone 1 and end with a 5-minute cool-down in Zone 1.

Time in Zone 1 Time in Zone 2 Repeat the Interval
Level 1 4 minutes 1 minute As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 2 3 minutes 2 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 3 2 minutes 3 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 4 1 minute 4 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows

Workout 3: Zone 3 Intervals

Once you’ve done three workouts at Level 4 in the above chart, it’s time to level up with Zone 3 intervals. You’ll know you’re in Zone 3 because you’ll be going all-out!

After a 5-10 minute warm up in Zone 1, challenge yourself to work on the Zone 3 interval progressions below. 

Start each interval by going “all-out” and simply continuing on as strong as you can. This will create a natural Zone 3 to Zone 2 transition. Then, consciously change to Zone 1 for the noted time. Repeat that process for the duration of your workout, and remember to leave time at the end for a 5-10-minute cool-down in Zone 1.

Start with Level 1, and complete each workout a minimum of three times on non-consecutive days before progressing to the next level. 

Total time Zone 3 then 2 Time in Zone 1 Repeat the Interval
Level 1 1 minute 4 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 2 2 minutes 3 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 2 3 minutes 2 minutes As many times as your workout duration allows
Level 4 4 minutes 1 minute As many times as your workout duration allows

Which Workouts Should I Do?

Wondering which of the three workout types are for you? This is where your training experience and goals come into play.

Workout 1

If you meet any of the following criteria, Workout 1 is for you:

  • Trained less than 20 days in the past month
  • Returning to training after a 2-week or longer training layoff
  • Primary goals are solely heart health, low-intensity endurance or building a good cardio base
  • Your medical team has advised you to only perform low-intensity workouts

Your first cardio goal is to exercise using the Workout 1 formant for at least 30 minutes, 5 days each week. 

Workout 2

If you meet all of the following criteria, Workout 2 is for you:

  • Trained at least 20 days in the past month
  • Able to sustain 30 minutes of low-intensity cardiovascular activity 5 days per week
  • Have mixed goals including heart health, stamina, physique or performance

Your new goal is to train in the Workout 2 format on three non-consecutive days each week. On your other days, use Workout 1, or focus more on resistance or other training. 

Workout 3

If you meet all of the following criteria, Workout 3 is for you: 

  • In overall good health
  • Completed three sessions in Workout 2, Level 4
  • Have a sports performance, speed, power or physique goal

Your new goal is performing exercise that falls under Workout 3 twice a week. On your other days, use the Workout 1 or 2 formatting, or focus more on resistance training or sport-specific training.  

Next Steps

Take a few moments to calculate your cardio zones and map out your training plans. Be prepared to get more than just a great sweat session as you leverage your zones toward your specific training goals. 

Try to resist the temptations to skip steps or perform too many high intensity workouts on subsequent days. Giving in to these temptations is more likely to lead to overuse injuries that sideline your progress, as opposed to helping you achieve your goals. 

Before you go, also be sure to bookmark this page so you can re-design your programs as you progress, or your goals change.