Using a heart rate (HR) monitor isn't rocket science, it's just a case of getting in the right zone. Here, Harry Blackwood – who finally cracked HR training after returning to cycling at the age of 50 – explains how to do it.
Training with a heart rate monitor really couldn’t be simpler as long as you understand the basics. There are many ways of structuring HR training plans, but all of them employ the basics of training within personal zones.
Eddie Fletcher of Fletcher Sport Science is amazed by how many people have 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 HR was during a session and for how long. That’s not good training at all. Find your resting HR, get the best idea you can of your max HR, and then work your zones out. That way those random numbers will start to have some meaning.”
I ’ve used an HR monitor to try to improve my performance in three different sports – running, rowing and cycling. The experiment was a miserable failure in two of them and it’s fair to say that I very nearly managed a dismal hat-trick. I dabbled with an HR monitor during a long ‘career’ as a club runner and used one occasionally in my training for rowing, so it was no surprise that when I returned to cycling four years ago, I turned to my trusty Cardiosport monitor. No surprise either that I almost fell at the ﬁrst hurdle.
The problem with HR training is that it requires discipline. The bigger problem is that it demands even more humility. Last September, when I embarked on what I’d decided would be my ﬁnal attempt to use an HR monitor properly, I was only a few weeks into my programme when I very nearly threw the towel in. I was doing a four-hour base-building session and trying to keep my HR between 121-131bpm when I heard whistling behind me. I glanced over my shoulder to see a bloke on an ancient Dawes touring bike complete with tatty old panniers coming past. Then I noticed the sandals…
I was mortiﬁed. Here I was astride a beautiful carbon ﬁbre racing bike, kitted out in the ﬁnest clobber, and I’d just been blown out the back door by an extra from Last of the Summer Wine. This is where that huge amount of humility I mentioned comes in. Every sinew in my body was telling me to blast past him, but somehow I resisted. I swallowed my pride and continued training. That’s the discipline I was talking about.
I’ll always remember that day as the day I learnt to train properly with a monitor, and it’s fair to say that I’m a convert: I’ve been training with one religiously for 12 months and the improvements in my cycling are obvious. I’m ﬁtter, faster, leaner and stronger. What’s more, blokes in sandals don’t blast past me any more.
The best way to get your resting HR 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. But don’t be fooled by thinking that having a low resting HR means you are super-ﬁt. “Generally speaking, a low resting HR is indicative of a well trained athlete,” explains Fletcher, “but it’s not always the case. There are people who have a genetically low HR regardless of ﬁtness.”
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. I’m 54 years old so, using the formula, my max HR should be 166 (220-54). It’s actually 178, which is a big difference when training in very tight zones.
A much more accurate formula is 210 minus half your age, then subtract 5% of your body weight in pounds. Add four for a male and 0 for a female. The only way to get a truly accurate max HR ﬁgure is to get a physiological test at a sport science centre, such as Fletcher Sport Science, 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.
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. At this point get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds. Stop and get off the bike and immediately check your HR reading. This is your max HR.
“Don’t forget that your max HR ﬁgure is sport speciﬁc,” says Fletcher. “This means that your maximum on a bike will invariably be much lower than it is when you're running because the bike is taking some of your weight.”
Having established the key numbers (max HR and resting HR) you're now ready to work out your training zones. There are lots of calculators on the web and, while many people use ﬁve training zones, I prefer the six-zone system prescribed by the Association of British Cycling Coaches. Fletcher is also a big fan of the six zones, although he points out that there is actually a recovery zone as well which is important. “If athletes are to perform well they need to recover well,” he says. “I monitor every session my athletes do and I can tell very easily when they need to recover and how long that recovery needs to be.”
Zone 1 (60-65% of maximum heart rate): For long, easy rides, to improve the combustion and storage 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
Beware your average HR. I’ve come back from two-hour rides and my HR has been an average of 130bpm, which would be a Zone 2 ride. But far from it. Looking at the graphs I can see that I’ve actually had several peaks during the ride where my HR has been over 150 and sometimes over 160. Not the ride that an average HR ﬁgure would suggest. ake sure you discipline yourself to spend 90-100 percent of your ride time in the right zone. This may mean getting off and walking on the hills in the early days. Stick with it. You’ll be amazed at the results.
As cyclists we demand a lot from our training. 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.
Go slower, get faster
It sounds impossible but this is the basic starting point for HR training. I started off by doing long Zone 1 and Zone 2 rides. It was slow, boring and tortuous at times. What happened over a period of months was amazing. In a nutshell I was still riding in Zone 2 but I was zipping along compared with when I started. By going slower I’d made my body more efﬁcient. It was like a light being switched on: if I can go this fast in Zone 2 then just how fast could I go in the higher zones?
Fletcher, who’s an exercise physiologist, is adamant that by going slow you will get faster. The Evesham-based coach even has a mug on his desk emblazoned with the words ‘slow is the new fast’. But he has some sage words for anyone who thinks that HR training is like waving a magic wand. “Training is boring. Anyone who says they can make base training sessions more entertaining and can introduce fun is kidding you. Just accept it that those long, steady rides on the bike will be boring but they will bring results. There are no shortcuts and no quick ﬁxes.”
Because discipline for these slow rides is so important, it’s probably a good idea to ride them on your own, without the temptation of trying to keep up with faster mates, or rising to the bait of village sign sprints or trafﬁc light grand prixs. Key session: 3hrs in Zone 2. Stay in the zone and stick to it. Don’t be tempted to push 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 you're going to do 4-6 all-out sprints of 30 seconds with 4-5 minutes of easy pedalling. 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. Try it – it really works.
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: 5min 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 sportive 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, it’s not a mind-altering drug, it stands for ‘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.
This is an area Fletcher specialises in. Endurance training is his forte and he 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
I have a confession to make: I’ve spent a lifetime as a serial over-trainer. I’ve trained too hard at every sport I’ve ever done, which means I’ve suffered loads of injuries and too many lacklustre performances. For the past few years I’ve been training smarter, though: my hard days are very hard and my easy days are very easy. In the past the easy and the hard seemed to blend into one. I know that riding at a very low HR is actually doing me good by allowing my body to recover. Make sure you have at least one rest day per week and another day that is a really slow recovery ride done in Zone 1 or even lower.
A common cause of poor discipline in moderating efforts is riding with stronger, faster riders, says Fletcher. “Many cyclists go out on the Sunday club run and try to keep up with the faster riders. Then they probably need ﬁve or six days to recover from the effort – their training is going nowhere.” Key session: 1hr ﬂat ride with HR constantly below Zone 2.
As you get ﬁtter and stronger, your cardiovascular system will get more efﬁcient so that you can do more work for the same effort. In heart rate terms, this will mean at a set HR you will be able to ride a set distance faster as you get ﬁtter. 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.