One of the most basic and inexpensive tools you can use as a cyclist, after you have bought your bike of course, is to buy a heart rate monitor. They start from very simple models, up to the Garmin 1000, the Rolls Royce of HRM’s (at the time of writing).
For the beginner cyclist, I would recommend going with one of the big brands, Polar or Garmin. Those that come with a chest strap are by far the most accurate. I would also not recommend a wrist-mounted system (watch) as it can be dangerous and distracting to read whilst riding, especially in a group or around traffic.
So, to cover the obvious point, a heart rate monitor measures our heart rate in BPM, or beats per minute. As a general rule, the fitter we are, the lower our resting heart rate will be. However, it’s critical to remember that each and every person is genetically different, and therefore has a unique heart rate profile. For one person, a resting heart rate of 40bpm will be quite normal, for another, no matter how fit they are, they may never see a resting heart rate as low as 45bpm.
Other things to note, women tend to have higher resting heart rates than men. Some individuals have wider ranges than others, some higher maximums (over 200), others lower maximums in the 160-170 range (Chris Froome for example is known to have a low maximum heart rate, reaching only 164bpm in the 2013 Tour De France and 174bpm in 2015).
Knowing that a lower resting heart rate can be an indicator of fitness means it’s worth logging this down as part of your weekly routine, possibly checking your weight at the same time first thing in the morning, before drinking coffee (caffeine can increase your resting heart rate).
Heart Rate and Zones
Knowing our heart rate whilst training gives us the ability to train within HR zones. These zones correspond to physical changes in our body as we exert more effort over time (as we do more work).
We can determine our heart rate zones by a number of methods:
- Calculations based on age. These have been proven to be very inaccurate, as I mentioned earlier, everyone is unique.
- Ramp test with a heart rate monitor to determine MHR (Maximal Heart Rate). These tests can give a reasonably accurate estimation if correctly performed. However, please ensure you have no pre existing heart issues before considering this form of testing.
- Blood lactate testing, a very accurate method, considered as the gold standard of testing. Samples of blood are taken and analyses at different levels of effort then plotted on a graph, these can then assist in determining HR training zones.
Below is a chart from the Association of British Cycling Coaches that gives a guideline of heart rate zones based on MHR.
|Zone||% of Max HR||Duration of continuous training|
|Intensive||3||75-82||45 min to 2 hours|
|Intensive||4||82-89||30 min to 1 hour|
|Maximal||5||89-94||15 min to 40 min|
|Maximal||6||94+||10 min intervals|
Zones put into perspective
Zones are more than just a way of classifying training intensities, they corresponds to physical changes in our bodies.
Zone 1 – This zone is often thought of as being ‘easy’. Primarily used for warming up and recovery, which makes it very important. This zone puts very little stress on your cardiovascular system, but builds on your muscle memory and pedaling efficiency.
Zone 2 – The ‘aerobic’ zone, during this zone you are using your cardio vascular system, improving the efficiency of your lungs, heart and circulatory system. This should be the foundation of your training, without a strong foundation, you will never reach your peak.
Zone 3 – The ‘tempo’ zone, this zone is still using your cardio vascular system, but you are increasing your blood lactate levels beyond their base levels. However, your body is able to recycle lactate effectively back as a fuel source. This zone is often used as part of a build following base training.
Zone 4 – Often called the ‘threshold’ zone, in zone 4 your blood lactate levels are raised to a point where your body is only just able to keep up recycling the lactate being produced. Any increase in intensity beyond this and levels of hydrogen ions will cause of acidosis in your muscles. The burning sensation often felt in athlete’s legs is attributed to this process.
Zone 5 and beyond – These are known as the ‘anaerobic’ zones. Training in these zones is not sustainable for long periods of time. Your muscles are producing lactate at a faster rate than you are able to recycle it. Hydrogen ions will begin to cause acidosis, causing a drop in performance.