TRAINING TO HR ZONES:
When it comes to training, and measuring performance a lot of cyclists like to use watts as the prime factor in training. However, this isn't the only way to track your training.
Training to HR zones is the tried and tested method, and has been around in numerous sports for years.
This blog will look into HR zones and explain the benefits of training to these.
Why use HR zones:
There are several reasons to train HR zones. The first reason I want to talk about is accessibility. Heart rate monitors are so much more cost efficient than power meters, wattbikes and the like meaning that for a lot of cyclists they are all they are willing to pay for. Using myself as an example.
Why would I spend over £300 on a set of power meter pedals for a mountain bike when I am smashing them against rocks on a weekly basis? I am fortunate to have a wattbike at the gym I am based at, but I would not spend close to £2000 on one of these when I could just buy another bike with that money either.
For me, cycling is about enjoyment as much as it is fitness, and I just don’t find the value in indoor training. So, for people like me training with HR zones is my preferred choice of data.
There is also evidence to suggest that training with HR zones can also help you gauge the amount of recovery that you may need after a session. Your HR is affected by several factors such as sleep quality, current stress levels, carrying illness, fatigue levels and more. Meaning that you can get an idea of your current energy levels and your recovery time by knowing about your heart rate. You can tell on training rides and familiar loops if your heart rate is higher than usual and how your body feels.
For example: My resting HR ranges from 48-55BPM based on what I am doing during the day. If I am ever ill, it raises to about 60-70BPM. When I am about to get on the mountain bike it raises to 60-70BPM due to the mental aspect of being psyched up to ride, the thoughts of descents etc causing it to rise.
Training with HR zones in mind also allows you to tailor your training towards what you want to work on.
As a mountain biker who races in endurance-based events and XC I need to be able to work at both a high but consistent pace. And a flat-out pace. I typically spend a lot of time in the endurance zone and the threshold zone when I ride and run. This is all data that I can learn from my HR monitor and look at ride information on strava SUMMIT.
I know as I have collected data that my HR zones in endurance events range from 90BPM to 150BPM with an average HR of about 140-145BPM.
I know in XC events that my HR ranges from 110BPM to 170BPM with an average of 150BPM over the course of an XC race. XC races are an hour long, and are extremely intense featuring flat out sprints, punchy climbs and descents and are nonstop. Hence the higher HR than endurance events which tend to be more spread out and continuous.
This date then allows me to select a HR zone that I want to work within when I train and aim for that style of ride/wattbike session.
Are HR zones accurate?
The accuracy of your HR zones depends on your attention to detail and the equipment you use. With a chest-based HR monitor being the best way to determine your HR through the course of a ride. However, some people opt to use their smart watch too. The accuracy of these is up for debate but, you can always correlate what the numbers say with how you feel and using this knowledge of yourself, and the data projected get a fairly good understanding of how your HR zones work.
Also: The more you wear your HR monitor and log changes in weight, exercise etc the more accurate your data will be as the more it knows about you.
So, now we have covered the details about HR zones, and how you can use them for training. Let us cover the HR zones and explain what they are:
Myself, conducting a V02 max test with David Stache of HI-PER, in Sheffield.
Heart rate zones:
Heart rate zones may differ from device to device. For the purpose of accessibility, the HR zones below have been explained using STRAVA’s format. However, I have added notes in here based on the research that I have done based on HR zones too.
*Keep in mind HR zones can vary based on the fitness level of the athlete in general. My resting HR will be different to yours, and the next persons etc, for that reason I have tried not to include any numbers in the descriptions below*
Your resting heart rate is that of a relaxed state. Resting heart rate is often used as a means to determine how fit an individual’s cardiovascular system is. However, a true resting heart rate is hard to analyse as the heart is only truly resting when you are sleeping. As explained above factors like stress can influence this so resting HR can be unreliable. For example. I am currently sat writing this, my body is stationary however my mind is ticking as I am thinking of what to write, what I need to re do etc. So, my resting HR may be a little higher than usual.
Your resting heart rate is essentially your heart rate range when you are not exercising.
The endurance HR is a maintainable heart rate that allows you to complete some form of light movement like walking, warming up on the stationary bike or on your bike. Think, pedalling along on a flat smooth tarmac road without putting too much effort in. Your HR will probably range between 70-100BPM depending on your fitness level.
Onto the next phase of HR then, this is the moderate zone. Moderate HR can be recognised as maintaining a faster, consistent pace on the bike. Operating at an elevated heart rate but in a way that you don’t feel like you are pushing your breathing, so you have to drop your pace for a second. Think of when someone describes a cyclist’s performance as “like a metronome. Tick-Tick-Tick”. This is when the athlete is working in this zone and is just ticking off the pedal strokes at a solid pace, but without really gassing it.
Tempo is now going into the typical XC range that I talked about earlier. Having your HR in the tempo zone is when you are operating at a high level that undulates up and down. If you think about a route which is short. Features punchy climbs, short and sharp descents, and fast sections. Probably over the course of 6-8 miles as laps that you work at consistently for an hour. This is where the tempo zone comes into play.
Your threshold levels are when you begin to tape into your lactate threshold. This is the name given to the process of your body working that hard that lactate accumulates in the blood faster than it can be removed. This is when you are working incredibly hard, and your body begins to feel like it is pushing past its limit. You can feel lightheaded and sick. I notice when I am running in this zone as I begin to feel snotty, and I start to think “why am I out running”.
This can be related to cycling when you begin to reach a limit and you start to think to yourself “what am I doing here”. Which is exactly how I felt on my first cross race.
The final level. And one that is very similar to the threshold level above, without the negative drawbacks is your anaerobic zone. This is when your body is working that hard it cannot use the oxygen that is in the system, think of max interval sprints on zwift or when you really put the power down on a section you want to KOM.
Due to the bodies lack of oxygen and the different energy systems used the HR will skyrocket, and you will not be able to maintain an anaerobic zone for much longer than 10 seconds, any longer than this and you will drop into the threshold zone.
Anaerobic work is typically the zone where you will work if you train in intervals, and it is very rare that you will touch this zone on a bike. For example: I hit 172BPM on my bike climbing a pretty steep hill this week and didn’t get into this zone. According to my strava data my anaerobic zone is 188BPM. It is also rare that in cycling you will work at a high level of pace for less than 10 seconds due to the nature of the sport.
When it comes to HR zones. I believe they are incredibly important to work in as these effect how your body and mind feels when riding and competing. If you can condition yourself to be more comfortable with being in a threshold zone for example, when it comes to ride day this wont feel as daunting as it usually is.
Training in HR zones is also great if you are used to using watts as it adds variety to your training, which can only be a good thing.
Give it a try the next time you do a session and see how you get on. Use the information above, think about what zone you want to work in and give it a try.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog. Ride safe.