Racing with HR

Phil Bixby

In the previous two notes on training with HR I’ve suggested that a heart rate monitor (HRM) can be a useful tool throughout your training programme. But what about when you start racing?

Much has been written about the pros and cons of using HRMs for pacing yourself during time trialling. As I’ve noted before, I’m not a coach, and nor am I a time triallist. So, I shall leave any further discussion of this to someone who is. But what about road racing?

It’s a fair bet that with riders inches away from your front and back wheels, elbows and other delicate parts, along with varied roads, junctions, occasional traffic plus keeping an eye on who’s just about to head off up the road, you’ll have little time to keep a check on a HRM during a race. So, this is where I split from the “a £5 HRM is a useful tool” line and suggest some further possibilities if you spend enough to get a HRM/computer which records information and allows you to download and view it in detail. I’m talking about something which will give you a graph, not just a race average – they’re increasingly common and increasingly affordable, assuming you’ve got access to a PC/Mac to view the results.

Downloading HR info after a race gives you interesting information. You’ll quickly spot the peaks and work out just how hard you were working on the hills, how quickly you recovered, etc. My own experience has been that my perception of how hard a race was, and how hard I actually worked, has sometimes been wildly different. And, as a result, I’ve been forced to look for reasons – which has been useful.

As an example, here’s the graph from a Cat 2/3/4 race fairly early in the season on an undulating circuit.

Subjectively I felt like I was working really hard to keep in the race – I finished just at the back of the bunch – but the graph shows that my average HR was pretty low, I was spending a large part of each lap taking it pretty easy, and even on the hardest bit of the hills I was only spending maybe a minute over my lactate threshold. In short, I wasn’t trying hard enough. So why did it feel hard?

I came up with two answers. One is that I hadn’t got into the habit of a proper warm-up routine; I now spend nearly an hour methodically building up to the start of races and as a result feel much better prepared when the flag drops. It really can take a while to get up to working temperature, and the first lap or two can feel very painful if you’re still loosening up.

The second answer I came up with – which relates to the first – is psychology. Struggle on the first lap and you spend the whole race trying to shake off the notion that you’re off the pace and you’ll do well to hang on. You’re certainly not going to plan too many escapes off the front unless you’ve got some confidence. As I think some of the York St. Johns sessions on sports psychology have suggested, what goes on in our heads has a big impact on what goes on in our races; some hard facts can be useful to steer that internal debate.

Actually there’s a third answer too, although it’s probably the same for all of us. Road races are much harder than training rides (or turbo sessions) because of the changes in pace and the constant need to accelerate to hold someone’s wheel. So even at moderate HR levels, you can be doing a lot of work.

Sadly I can’t show an example of a late-season race where I powered off the front to romp to a just-below-LT solo victory, but hopefully you’ve got my point – HR feedback from races had been useful and has pointed up some helpful realities about my performance. Even if during races you have to pace yourself on the basis of feel, for many of us it’s useful to have some objective stuff to help calibrate that feel.