To get faster or go longer (or both!) on the bike, one smart strategy is to turn to your heart. Heart rate training—or monitoring your heart rate through your workouts—can help you gain more awareness of your efforts and how hard you’re working as you cruise through different speeds and distances, says Adam Pulford, C.S.C.S., CTS pro level coach and USA cycling and triathlon level 1 coach.
“If you have a goal of weight loss, general fitness, or performance, [heart rate training] helps you get grounded in whatever your plan is for the day and can help you achieve your goal,” he says. “In terms of accountability, it also helps you stay on track and see how far you’ve come with your training.”
What is heart rate training exactly?
Simply put, heart rate training means monitoring the body’s cardiovascular response to your workout, says Pulford. From the moment you start moving, your heart pumps harder to get blood and oxygen to working muscles, and the more intense that movement, the higher your heart rate.
To properly perform heart rate training, you of course need to wear a heart rate monitor, which will track your beats per minute (or BPM). Most smartwatches do this now via a wrist sensor, including Apple Watch and Fitbit, but you can also opt for a chest strap, like one from Polar or Wahoo, since they are proven to be more accurate.
By training in different heart rate zones, you train different energy systems of the body, Pulford explains. And while they all work together, how you train makes certain systems work more efficiently. These energy systems include the phosphagen stage, which pertains to really short bursts of efforts, up to about 30 seconds. There’s also the anaerobic phase, which refers to hard efforts usually lasting around three minutes. And finally, the aerobic energy system, which correlates to longer, steadier efforts.
Heart rate training and working through different heart rate zones will help you focus on one (or all) of these energy systems, Pulford says, depending on your experience level and goals.
How do you find your max heart rate and training zones?
The simplest way to find your max heart rate is with the age-related formula such as subtracting your age from 220. But that’s definitely not the most accurate.
To really pinpoint your max heart rate and ideal training zones, Pulford suggests completing a field test on your bike, either outdoors or inside on a trainer. This takes about an hour to complete, as you start with an easy warm-up.
When you’re ready to go, you’ll do an eight-minute effort, during which you ride at a speed that you can barely maintain for the full eight minutes. You should reach that top speed about 45 to 60 seconds into the eight-minute interval. After that eight-minute push, you’ll ride at a slow, recovery pace for 10 minutes. Then repeat that eight-minute, can-barely-make-it effort before you cool down.
To calculate your training zones, first look at your average heart rate through the two eight-minute efforts and focus on the higher number of those two average heart rates. Multiply that number by 0.93 to get your threshold heart rate—this is the point at which you’ll reach fatigue. Once you know your threshold heart rate, follow these percentages to pinpoint your heart rate training zones:
- Zone 1: Recovery: 0 to 68 percent
- Zone 2: Endurance: 69 to 83 percent
- Zone 3: Tempo: 84 to 94 percent
- Zone 4: Threshold: 95 to 105 percent
- Zone 5: VO2 Max: 106 percent to max
“Because you take a percentage of your highest heart rate, your max heart rate zones will be above 100 percent,” says Pulford. “For example, if you do the field test and find your max heart rate is 195, your starting heart rate will be about 181. Your Zone 4 heart rate will then be between 172 and 190 and your zone 5 (or VO2max) heart rate will start at 191.”
A cycling coach can help you determine these numbers and design a plan that tailors to your training zones and goals, likely factoring in your power output, too. If you’re on your own though, keep in mind that your threshold effort (zone 4) is the tipping point at which if you go harder, you’ll become more fatigued. If you stay at that effort or go under it, you’ll be able to ride for longer.
How to get the most of heart rate training
“The most valuable thing about heart rate training isn’t necessarily the number, but correlating your effort with that number,” Pulford says. As you ride through these different zones, you want to pay attention to how it feels, thinking about the rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1 being your easiest effort and 10 representing your all-out, zone 5 or higher effort.
To really chase your goals, you want to train in particular zones. For example, if you’re looking to improve general fitness, you should hit all zones in your training, but you’ll want to spend many of your workouts in the threshold and tempo zones, Pulford says. This will build up your aerobic capacity.
For those looking to better their competitive performance, it’s smart to incorporate more VO2max training into your workout schedule. You’ll work through intense, quick intervals to not only improve your aerobic capacity, but also your anaerobic, and you’ll improve your speed.
If you’re someone who wants to use cycling for weight loss, your focus should go to burning the maximum number of calories in a workout. You’ll want to hit all heart rate training zones, but spend the majority of your time in threshold and tempo. “They offer the most bang for your buck, because they burn a lot of calories without producing as much fatigue higher efforts,” Pulford says. That means you can do them more often, too.
The benefit of using heart rate training for fitness and performance (and even for weight loss) is that you can see your improvements over time, particularly if you re-take the field test and realize you end up going farther in the same amount of time. Or if your heart rate doesn’t spike as high when you reach certain power levels.
“If you’re seeing that you’re going longer or faster, that means you have more blood pumping per beat, so more oxygen is going to your working muscles,” Pulford says. “The important takeaway is that you can see more about what’s going on under the hood of the car.”
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