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Training with Heart Rate

Phil Bixby

I should preface this by noting that it’s not a “how to” article. I’m not a coach, nor a training expert; it’s just an explanation of how I went about it when I was using a HRM.

Training with HR involves using knowledge of your heart rate to ensure that training rides (or turbo sessions) are done as far as possible at appropriate levels of intensity. Ultimately the power you put out may be the best measure of this, but HR is a pretty useful approximation, and also enables quite closely targeted training at particularly useful levels of intensity.

Training with HR can be a very cheap business – you can pick up perfectly functional HR monitors for a fiver if you hunt around. At the other end of the spectrum you can spend a couple of hundred quid on combined HRM/computers that will give more detailed information, conduct a conversation with your computer, make tea etc.

The important thing to start off with is understanding what are the important figures in relation to your own heart rate. We’re all different, and although there are one or two “rules of thumb” around, for example for calculating MaxHR based on age, they’re woefully inaccurate. You really need to test yourself to work out what your own heart gets up to. Much of the discussion you’ll see on the web, and one or two training manuals, focus on finding your MaxHR and then establishing HR “zones” in relation to this. Finding your MaxHR is a fairly inexact business outside of the test lab, and basically involves finding a seriously long, steep hill and riding up it two or three times as hard as you can with little recovery in between.

Joe Friel – whose book “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” is well worth buying - sidesteps this by focussing on a different significant HR figure. The Lactate Threshold (LT) is the level of exertion at which your body can no longer cope with removing lactic acid from your poor overworked legs. It generally occurs at somewhere around 85-87% of MaxHR, and can be identified by doing a 30 minute TT on a flat course as fast as you can. Note your average HR for the last 20 minutes of the 30, and that’ll be close to your LTHR. Below is an example of mine…

This then enables you to work out training zones which are appropriate for various targeted types of training. So for me…

  • 114-140bpm is “Recovery” for, well, recovery rides and similar
  • 141-153bpm is “Aerobic” for long rides to improve endurance and efficiency
  • 154-160bpm is “Tempo” for improving muscular endurance
  • 161-171bpm is “Sub-Threshold”
  • 172bpm up to a MaxHR of 180-odd is anaerobic.
The latter two zones are important (Friel breaks the fifth down into sub-zones) because you can do a whole lot of specific training workouts which aim to raise your LT, increase your power at LT, and increase your tolerance during efforts above LT.

The trick in making all this knowledge useful is in putting together a training plan which means you’re doing rides or sessions at the right level of intensity (to give the physical changes you’re aiming at) at the right stage of your plan. The general pattern that crops up in most training books is to start with extensive sessions at low intensity (long rides at relatively low HR) and work up towards shorter sessions at high intensity (short workouts at specific, high HR).