Heart Rate Training and Testing
Monitoring heart rate in training is an important part of biological feedback. Heart rate is a direct reflection to what is happening internally and provides insight into training fatigue and freshness. Heart rate also has a unique relationship with power. When feeling great, rested, and ready to ride hard, heart rate and power have a close relationship. As you build fatigue, either heart rate, power or both measurements decline, also known as decoupling. Both the signs of freshness and fatigue let you know when its time to go hard to maximize training gains or to back off to not overtrain. To understand how heart rate plays a key role in training, it is important to learn how to test for a threshold heart rate, along with a few trends and variables associated with heart rate in general.
The first step is to learn your “threshold” heart rate range. It is important to understand that threshold heart rates are genetic and part nurture. You can read all about that here in my article on Does it Matter if Your Threshold Heart Rate is High or Low? Regardless of age, and for most people, your threshold heart rate will fall anywhere between the mid to upper 150’s, to the mid to upper 180’s. Keep in mind these ranges are for those who have a solid fitness base. A beginner or someone with a lower level of fitness may not be able to average these ranges.
The easiest ways to determine your heart rate training ranges is to perform a 6-10-minute time trial test or study your 6-10+ plus minute peak heart rate averages from a race or a group ride. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being as hard as you can ride, this test effort should fall in the 7-9 range but never all out at a 10. The goal is to see what you can average over that time when going hard. This will give you your threshold value.
The best time to test for heart rates is after a reduced, easier week of training and towards the end of the first week back. This allows you to go into a test rested yet physically primed to see true results. If testing indoors, make sure you have been riding the indoor trainer for at least a month or more so that you are physically adapted to the indoor trainer. I cover the differences between indoor and outdoor riding here, in the article - The Physiological Benefits of Indoor Cycling (and Its Downsides) - If not adapted, it can lead to less power output and an inaccurate result. Regardless of where you test, make sure it’s a safe place to ride. Warm up well in zones 2-3 or with a low to moderate perceived effort, until you feel fluid and ready for a hard effort. Then preferably, choose a climb and time trial a 6 plus minute effort. Recover for 10-15 minutes and if feeling good, repeat the effort to compare results. From here, you can compare heart rates from any ride when feeling good and well rested to verify your heart rate ranges.
With a good test and solid numbers, you can easily set up heart rate training zones. We use Joe Friel’s heart rate training zones for cycling. (LTHR – Lactic Threshold Heart Rate)
Zone 1 Less than 81% of LTHR
Zone 2 81% to 89% of LTHR
Zone 3 90% to 93% of LTHR
Zone 4 94% to 99% of LTHR
Zone 5a 100% to 102% of LTHR
Zone 5b 103% to 106% of LTHR
Zone 5c More than 106% of LTHR
When training with heart rates and using the time trial test to determine heart rate ranges, there is little to no need for zones 5b and 5c. Working past 100% of your threshold heart rate is most times impossible, especially since heart rate has a delayed response at times. For this reason, when you need to achieve intensities beyond threshold ranges, such as for a 10 second effort up to a few minutes, either work off perceived effort or use a cycling power meter.
Once you learn your heart rate training zones, the goal then becomes to increase power and speed within each heart rate range. Your race goals and time of year will determine what training zones to build power within. Its important to be consistent when studying heart rate responses to training. Heart rate is not perfect and at times there are fluctuations due to heat, humidity or cold weather, but these factors only affect heart rate on occasion, not all the time. It is the fluctuations due to fatigue you are seeking, so viewing heart rate trends across weeks and months, targeting efforts and climbs for analysis, is the key to learning the most from it.
Mike Schultz, CSCS