Heart-rate monitor training for cyclists

How to improve your speed, fitness and body composition with a heart rate monitor

Using a heart rate monitor for training isn't rocket science; it's just a case of getting in the right zone. Here we explain how to find those zones and how to train within them. 

Eddie Fletcher of Fletcher Sport Science is amazed by how many people have heart rate (HR) monitors and download all the numbers but haven’t a clue what they mean. “Men are by far the worst," he says. "They like to brag about how high their heart rate was during a session and for how long. That’s not good training at all. Find your resting heart rate, get the best idea you can of your max heart rate, and then work your zones out. That way those random numbers will start to have some meaning.”

Finidng your parameters

Resting heart rate

The best way to get your resting heart rate is to take it first thing in the morning every day for a week and work out the average. Make sure you're well rested and not ill or under any stress. Put your HR strap on and just lie there for a couple of minutes, trying to relax as much as possible. Note the lowest figure you see and repeat the procedure the following day.

At the end of the week you’ll know what your resting HR average is and you can confidently use this figure as the basis of your training.

Maximum heart rate

Many believe that you can calculate your maximum HR by using the formula of 220 minus your age. For some people this may be accurate, but for many it will be wildly out. 

The only way to get a truly accurate max HR figure is with a physiological test at a sport science centre, but you can get a reasonable estimate by doing your own max HR test. Only undertake this test if you are fit and exercise regularly, though. To complete the test, warm up thoroughly for at least 15 minutes. On a long, steady hill, start off fairly briskly and increase your effort every minute. Do this seated for at least five minutes until you can’t go any faster while seated. At this point, get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds. Then, immediately check your HR reading or, after the ride, download your data and look for the highest HR number. This is your max HR.

Establishing your training zones

Having established your resting and maximum HR numbers, you're now ready to work out your training zones. While many people use five training zones,  the Association of British Cycling Coaches recommends a six-zone system:

Zone 1 (60-65% of maximum heart rate): For long, easy rides, to improve the combustion of fats.

Zone 2 (65-75% of MHR): The basic base training zone. Longish rides of medium stress.

Zone 3 (75-82% of MHR): For development of aerobic capacity and endurance with moderate volume at very controlled intensity.

Zone 4 (82-89% of MHR): For simulating pace when tapering for a race.

Zone 5 (89-94% of MHR): For raising anaerobic threshold. Good sessions for 10- and 25-mile time-trials.

Zone 6 (94-100% of MHR): For high-intensity interval training to increase maximum power and speed

Some riders find it helpful to tape their zones on their stem for easy reference. You can also program most cycle computers and running watches for your zones.

Beware your average heart rate. You could complete a ride where your average heart rate is 130bpm, which would be a Zone 2 ride. But if you look at the data you'll likely see fluctuations through the ride. Pay attention to your zones during your ride, and look at the data afterwards.

Some example training sessions

As cyclists we want a lot. We want to climb hills like Alberto Contador, sprint like Mark Cavendish and have the ability to time trial like Fabian Cancellara. We’d also like our cycling to fit in around our family and work life, and if we can also shed a few pounds while continuing to eat pies and cream cakes then that would be nice too.

Training using an HR monitor may not turn you into a world-beating cyclist but it will make you an infinitely better all-round cyclist. If you're training for specific events such as a hilly 100-mile sportive or a 25-mile time trial, you can tailor your training to suit. If you just want to lose weight, cycling in the correct zones will burn fat and you’ll shed excess pounds in no time. Here are some key sessions that will make you a fitter and faster cyclist.

Getting started:

Go slower, get faster

It sounds impossible but this is the basic starting point for HR training. Long Zone 1 and Zone 2 rides can be slow and boring, but they train your body to be more efficient. 

Fletcher, who’s an exercise physiologist, is adamant that by going slow you will get faster. He has a mug on his desk emblazoned with the words ‘slow is the new fast’.

Discipline for these slow rides is important, so ride them on your own or make sure your riding mates are on the same program, otherwise it's hard to resist the bait of sprinting for village or city limit signs.

Key session: 3hrs in Zone 2. Stay in the zone and stick to it. Don’t be tempted to push it on the hills.

Burn fat, save time

We all have to manage our work-life balance but don’t think that wanting to burn fat means you have to go out for five or six hours on the bike riding in Zone 2. By using HIIT methods (high intensity interval training) you’ll burn far more fat and become a fitter and faster rider into the bargain. Yes, it’s going to hurt but it will do you the power of good and the whole session will take less than an hour.

Make sure you do a decent 15-minute warm-up and you're ready to go. Depending on your level of fitness, do 4-6 all-out sprints of 30 seconds with 4-5 minutes of easy pedalling in between. During these all-out efforts expect to see your HR rise to 85-90% of your HR max. Give it all you have right through the 30-second burst. Do these for 6-8 weeks and marvel at the fat you’ve lost. 

But don’t think that training hard means you can eat like a pig. Fletcher has a word of warning for those who think they can ignore their diet and just ride to lose weight. “Weight control has to be about diet,” he says. “If you want to lose weight you’d be better off concentrating on what goes in, and concentrating on quality rather than necessarily reducing quantity.”

Key session: 15min warm-up and then 4-6 30sec sprints with 4-5min rest.

Become an endurance monster

Hands up if you’ve got to the last 20-odd miles of a big ride and found that you’re absolutely done in and can barely turn the pedals. That sinking feeling can be attributed to a number or factors such as going off too fast, insufficient fuelling or hydration, or just too many hills. But the main culprit is likely to be a lack of endurance, which is where targeted HR training comes in.

What you need to do is LSD – no, not the mind-altering drug, but long, steady distance. By doing one session of 3-4 hours in Zone 2 and another session of 2 hours in Zone 3 every week your endurance will come on in leaps and bounds. Add a few long intervals once your base is more established and you’ll develop both endurance and speed.

Fletcher cautions those who think unfettered big miles will produce endurance no matter what. “It’s amazing how many cyclists do lots and lots of junk miles,” he says. “It’s all about getting the balance right between the length of the session and the zone you're riding in.” 

Key session: 3-4hrs in Zone 2 with 10min burst of Zone 3-4 every hour.

Easy does it

Many of us are guilty of not knowing when to back off. We figure that if some hard training is good, more hard training is better. This can lead to all our training days being mediocre as we fatigue. The key is to make hard days very hard and easy days very easy. Make sure you have at least one rest day per week off the bike and another day that is a really slow recovery ride done in Zone 1 or even lower.

Key session: 1hr flat ride with HR constantly below Zone 2.

Testing, testing…

As you get fitter and stronger, your cardiovascular system will become more efficient so that you can do more work for the same effort. This means you will be able to ride a set distance faster as at a given heart rate. One of the most well known of such aerobic improvement tests is the Maximum Aerobic Function, or ‘MAF’ test, named by heart rate training pioneer Dr Phil Maffetone, and it’s a great way of proving to yourself that all those long hours of winter base training are actually working.

Regular testing might also reveal any performance drop-offs that can be the early warning signs of overtraining or impending illness. Maffetone suggests planning a route that initially takes about 30 minutes to complete and then, after a warm-up, riding it at a precise heart rate, while timing yourself. “The important thing is to pick a heart rate that falls within your base training zone and to stick to it,” he says, “both throughout the test and in every subsequent retest.” This submaximal aerobic effort is typically 65-75% of your Max HR – in Zone 2.

“Perform the test regularly to chart your fitness progress,” says Maffetone, “perhaps once a month. Doing it more frequently won’t realistically reflect your progress and might lead to obsession with the results, while any less frequently means you’ll miss out on the other benefit of this kind of test, which is to flag up any underlying health or overtraining problems.” 

Key session: Time this monthly test ride over a set distance at a set aerobic heart rate in Zone 2. Record your times so you can chart your progress over the months. 

Session:

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