Heart Rate Bike Training

Heart rate training for cyclists
Cardiovascular health is important for cyclists, but it is not sufficient!

Any who becomes serious about bike training will get into heart rate bike training and there is no doubt, it does improve your training approach. However, there are serious weaknesses training based solely on measurements of your heart rate. In this article I will look into the benefits and drawbacks of heart rate bike training.

I have been training off and on with a heart rate monitor since the mid 1990s. Now, my heart rate bike training is more serious, educated, and methodical. I have been regularly using a heart rate monitor in all of my physical activities since the fall of 2014 (this includes, cycling, gym workouts, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing).

Heart Rate Bike Training — A Word of Warning

When it comes to physical training I am a complete and total layman. I have no medical background and I base this article on my training experience and reading on training.

Before you start a program of exercise please consult with your doctor first. Also, it is best to start slowly and gradually work your way up to your limits. Athletics is about making a gentle but unyielding push to improve.

Heart Rate Bike Training — Inexpensive

There is no doubt about it in comparison to other training tools heart rate monitors are inexpensive. You can purchase a heart rate monitor for under $100 which is a bargain in comparison to the most inexpensive bike power meters. The heart rate monitors can pair up with most smartphones and you can record your heart rate while you workout and many of the exercise machines also pair up to and can display your heart rate.

This means heart rate bike training is accessible to beginning cyclists or exercisers. Monitoring and recording your heart rate is an excellent way to get started with a training program. It is a solid measure of your aerobic health and watching your heart rate over the long term can help you discern improvement in your fitness.

Heart Rate Bike Training — An Objective Measurement

Your heart rate is an objective measurement and I do not dismiss subjective measures of fitness, but numbers are solid. Remember, what you can not measure you can not improve.

What should your heart rate be? This is not an easy answer and there are formulas to help you determine what your maximum heart rate should be. The most sure way is to go in to a sports medicine center and get tested.

Be aware that heart rates are a very individual measurement, that is because I may have a maximum heart rate of X beats per minute the maximum heart rate of another man similar to me could be 1.125*X beats per minute. In short, do not compare your heart rate measurements to other people!

Heart Rate Bike Training — Improvement

Two winters ago I started to attend the weekly Wednesday Spin Class at my local YMCA. I wore my heart rate monitor and started to monitor and record my heart rate during spin class. My first session is pictured below:

Heart Rate Bike Training -- my heart rate recording of a spin session
Achieving a maximum training+ is “easy” when you are out of shape!

This is a pretty intense workout. However, as the winter wore on and I continued with my spin class achieving a “maximum training+” workout became less and less common and now it is nearly non-existent. Why is this? Most likely due to increased fitness.

This improvement is noted on the road as well as in the studio. I continue to set Strava PRs with heart rates that are less than they were on my previous PRs and attempts. In fact, I no longer consider my cardiovascular fitness a limiting factor in my cycling and my limits are based on leg muscular strength. In fact, I know my power over longer time frames is good (cat-5 levels) but my short term power (maximum, 5 second, 20 second, and 1 minute) power numbers are poor and this is not a cardiovascular problem!

Heart Rate Bike Training — The Weaknesses

Heart rate bike training does have its weaknesses. Think of our heart this way (and here I’m drawing from Joe Friel’s An Introduction to Power Meter Training book) it is a fuel pump. The fuel pump is important but it is not the whole story.

To push the analogy, think of taking the fuel pump from a Lambroghini and fitting it into a Honda Civic. It will perhaps help the Civic to achieve more horsepower, but we all know the fundamental limit on the power is the engine and not the fuel pump. Similarly, you may have well developed cardiovascular fitness and endurance, but if you do not have the strong and enduring legs your engine is weak.

Heart rate meters provide no insight onto how fit your muscles are for cycling. You may have been in cycling training sessions where the instructor is working intervals and orders you to a 20 second all out effort. Heart rate monitors can not provide numbers to assure you, your effort was all out. In fact, your heart rate will be far from its all out effort by the time the interval is complete.

Heart Rate Bike Training — The Advanced Cyclist

In fact, I am starting to pay less and less attention to my heart rate. Most training guidelines instruct us to pay attention to our power levels. The only time I see heart rate as an important guideline is during base aerobic training where the suggestions are typically to take long rides and keep a steady and low heart rate (zone two of five) and then when your ride is complete, study how your power and heart rate correlate. When your power and heart rate stay in sync for the entire ride then you are aerobically fit and ready to move out of base training.

All other training plans I have seen focus on power and power alone! Even those regimens designed to increase VO2 max and similar benchmarks.

Heart Rate Bike Training — In Summary

Yes, by all means obtain and train with a heart rate monitor. However, keep the following in mind:

  1. Heart rate patterns are unique to each person
  2. Do not become dismayed because you perceive your buddy’s heart rate as being different and therefore more ideal.

  3. Heart rate is a basic component of cycling fitness
  4. Again, if you have the cardiovascular fitness of a world class marathoner but no leg strength you are limited.

  5. Heart rate is a lagging indicator of effort
  6. Your heart rate will catch up with efforts if the efforts are long enough, but it may not get into the proper zone by the end of the interval.

  7. Heart rate can fluctuate based on your health and fatigue
  8. I’ve seen much that indicates that day in and day out variables affect the heart rate. So the same effort on different days may show different heart rate characteristics.

  9. Still, it is worth it
  10. Given the inexpensiveness of most heart rate monitors there is no reason you should not be using one!

Do you train with a heart rate monitor? If so please share your thoughts with us!

Good Stuff!

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