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Why you need to setup the heart rate zones on your Garmin watch

Most of the Garmin watches come with a wrist based heart rate sensor that can give you additional perspective in your training. In the standard settings, Garmin uses a basic calculation method to determine your heart rate zones. These zones can help you see how hard you are training, but if these zones are incorrect it can also be very confusing. An unproductive training status after a great training session or a three day recovery time when you don’t feel you pushed it that hard. Why is that? I will explain the importance of setting the heart rate zones and how some of Garmin’s advanced features are connected to each other. 

So, regardless of whether or not you want to use your Garmin device’s heart rate zones to enhance your training and target specific training zones, you should absolutely take some time to set your zones up. Your device has features that rely on this as it measures how much time you spend in your different heart rate zones and draws conclusions from that. 

Which features are impacted by your heart rate zones?

  • Training status
  • Training load 
  • Training effect
  • Recovery time 
  • Body battery
  • Suggested workouts
I’ll explain below how your heart rate zones affect each of these features. These are considered advanced features and are not available on all Garmin watches. If these features interest you or you are not sure which features your watch has: this article has a comparison chart with all recent Garmin watches and their features. 

Garmin’s heart rate zones

The standard method of calculating your heart rate zones is based on your maximum heart rate. You can manually adjust this. but it’ll automatically create your zones when you setup your Garmin profile. Your maximum heart rate is unknown at this point, so Garmin will use the calculation method 220 – age. This is not the most accurate calculation method available though.
Available calculation methods for heart rate zones:
  • Percentage of maximum heart rate.
  • Percentage of heart rate reserve. You enter (or let Garmin provide) your maximum and resting heart rate and your zones will be calculated based on the difference between both. It is considered to be more accurate as percentage of maximum heart rate for most people.
  • Percentage of lactate threshold heart rate. There are many ways to calculate this, though the only real accurate option is to get it measured in a laboratorium. Other options range from making an educated guess to using a chest strap to do a self guided test.
Depending on your watch, you might not see all of the above mentioned calculation methods. It can also be possible to setup your heart rate zones for different type of activities.

Training status and heart rate zones

Many Garmin owners have seen the dreaded “Unproductive” training status, or worse: detraining and overreaching. Often it shows up at unexpected times, when you feel you’ve just done a great workout, but Garmin appears to disagree. Why is that? How is the training status calculated and how serious should you take it?

Understanding the Garmin training status
Garmin uses your weekly training load and estimated VO2 Max to determine your training status.
  • Peaking. Your training load is down and your VO2 Max went up. You are becoming fitter, while you’ve reduced your training load. A training plan is coming to an end with a taper and you are ready for race day. Ideally.
  • Productive. Your training load is up or unchanged and VO2 Max increased.
  • Maintaining: Your training load is unchanged or slightly down and your VO2 Max is unchanged. You are maintaining your current fitness level, you’ll likely need to increase your training load to see further improvement.
  • Recovery. Your training load is down and your VO2 Max is unchanged. Your body is recovering from a higher training load, these recovery periods are an important part of your training. You should increase your training load once your body is ready.
  • Unproductive. Your training load is increased, but your VO2 Max has decreased. You might be overtraining and should add some recovery time. Stress, rest and nutrition are a factor here as well.
  • Detraining. Your training load has decreased a lot and your VO2 Max has decreased as well. Increase your training load to see improvement.
  • Overreaching. Your training load has increased a lot, but your VO2 Max decreased. You are overtraining and are losing fitness because of it. Lower your training load to recover.
  • No Status. There is not enough data available to determine your average weekly training load or your VO2 Max.
In conclusion, in order for Garmin to be able to determine an accurate training status, your training load and VO2Max need to be correct. I’ll explain shortly why your heart rate zones are important for these measurements. 

How is VO2 Max calculated?

In order to understand how your watch calculates your VO2 Max and how you should interpret this, it’s important to understand what VO2 Max is. So, to quote Garmin:

VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen (in milliliters) you can consume per minute per kilogram of body weight at your maximum performance. VO2 max is an indication of aerobic fitness and should increase as your level of fitness improves.

It’s not possible to exactly measure this outside a lab, so Garmin uses Firstbeat technology to make an estimation based on your age, gender, pace and heart rate. It tries to determine the most reliable data segments in your workout and excludes segments where it detects traffic lights, steep hills, etc. It also appears to be using your maximum heart rate for the calculations, so ensure that this is setup correct. 

You can read the detailed white paper from Firstbeat here to find out more.

In summary, even though your heart rate zones are not used for the calculation of your VO2 Max, you still need to make sure your heart rate settings are correct to get the most accurate VO2 Max calculation. 

Training load

The training load provided by Garmin watches is a measurement of your training over the last seven days. It takes duration, intensity and quantity into account. This data together comes down to a number, which will fall into a high, optimal or low range and that’s used for the calculation of the training status I mentioned earlier. 

The intensity of your workout is rated based on your how much time you spend in each heart rate zone. The more time you spend in a higher heart rate zone, the more intense your workout will be rated. 

For a more detailed explanation on training load, check out Garmin’s support page.

What does this mean for your training status? If your heart rate zones are set too low, Garmin can determine a run that is actually an easy run for you, is a very intense workout. When your VO2 Max declines at the same time, you can easily get an unproductive or overreaching training status. Your training load increased, while your fitness declines. 

Ultimately the variation in your training load is important for the determination of your training status. It compares the training load of the last seven days to the seven days before that. Small variations in your training can however have a large impact in your training load if your heart rate zones are setup incorrect and your watch thinks you are training in zone 4 instead of zone 3. 

Conclusion: If your heart rate zones are not setup correctly, Garmin can not properly determine your training load and your training status can be incorrect as well. 

Training load focus

The most recent line of Garmin watches also divides your training load into 3 categories:

  • Anaerobic: any activity done in zone 5. This will be most likely be reached through short sprint intervals.
  • High aerobic: any activity done mostly in zone 3 or 4. Moderately high to high intensity activity, like a tempo run.
  • Low aerobic: any activity done mostly in zone 1 or 2. These are low intensity workouts, you should still be able to hold a conversation.

The division between low and high aerobic and the anaerobic load focus is important for the suggested workouts, which I’ll explain in a few minutes.

Training effect

Many of the newer, advanced running watches will provide you with a classification of training effect for each workout, divided in aerobic and anaerobic training effect. It is classed as a number between 1 and 5, where 1 is considered low impact and 5 very high. 

Your watch uses your heart rate zones to determine which training effect is applicable for you workout. 
The training effect is also used as part of the calculations for your recovery time and body battery, which I’ll explain next. 

Recovery time

Many watches provide you with an estimated recovery time after a workout based on the training effect of your completed activity, amount of time remaining on your recovery time countdown at the start of your next activity,

and firstbeat’s algorithm. The recovery time can range anywhere from 0 hours to 4 days.

Newer, more advanced running watches also update the recovery time based on your stress level, sleep quality, aditional training intensity and daily activity levels.

Body battery

Your body battery tells you how much energy you still have a left and can help you to manage your day. It can also be used to analyze what is draining your energy levels.

The calculation is done based on heart rate variability, stress and activities. The higher the training effect of your activity, the more drainage you’ll see in your body battery.

Suggested workouts

The suggested workouts are a newly added feature on some of the newer, advanced watches. It gives you a suggested training based on your current training load, recovery time, sleep data and your recent workouts. If you are lacking anaerobic training and you are well rested, you’ll be given a workout to increase your anaerobic load.

Conclusion: If your heart rate zones are not setup correctly, your device can’t determine your training load focus and it won’t be able to give you the suggested workouts you actually need at a specific time. 

Conclusion

If you want to get the most out of your Garmin watch, it is recommended that you take some time to research and setup the proper settings for your heart rate zones. This can affect all of the above mentioned features and cause confusion and even improper training. 

Using a chest strap on all your runs will most likely give you more accurate results. Wrist based heart rate sensors can have more trouble identifiying sudden changes in your heart rate, for example during an interval training.

4 thoughts on “Why you need to setup the heart rate zones on your Garmin watch”

    1. Thanks! There’s a lot of information on this already online, that’s why I didn’t cover it. But, if you don’t have a chest strap or the ability to get your zones checked in a lab, I prefer the heart rate reserve method. You’ll need your max and resting heart rate, Garmin will do the rest!

  1. My training stats took a dive a few weeks ago with my training benefit consistently below 2. After my run today (11.2k at 5’40/km with average he at 135 which was a little high as it was humid at 25C I guess) I looked at the zones and 5 was set to >187 which was clearly not right for someone in their 60s. My watch had a couple of wobbles about the time it started and reported HRs in excess of 220 for say 10 mins. I am wondering if the watch unilaterally changed the ranges as a result. I have reset to default values based on age now

    1. Hi Doug!
      How do the zones feel now? Based on age does not work for me, but it’s an average, so it’s got to work for someone. Most important is that they feel right, zone 2 should be easy, conversational. Zone 5 should be hard and not possible to maintain for a longer period.
      It’s very possible your zones changed automatically when a new max HR was detected.

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