Using a heart rate monitor to calculate cycling training zones

A heart rate monitor (HRM) is an invaluable training tool for cyclists. It helps you measure improvements in fitness and can assist in developing training plans. It isn’t fool proof and HRM training isn’t as accurate as using a power meter but it is much, much cheaper. If you have an HRM, it’s easy to calculate cycling training zones.

With power meters costing in excess of £500 and an HRM costing around £50, as long as you have a cycle computer or smartphone that can work with it, you’re golden. However, having HRM data is pointless unless you know what to do with it all.

Baseline data

Before you go using an HRM for cycling, you need two pieces of information. You need to know your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate. With this information, you can build your cycling training zones. These zones are essential in any training plan to improve your cycling fitness.

First we need to find your resting heart rate and maximum heart rate.

Resting heart rate

Pick a day where you’re not ill, tired or stressed and put your HRM on while sitting or lying down. Give if five minutes and record the lowest figure from that period. Use that as your resting heart rate.

Maximum heart rate

The only really accurate way to get your maximum heart rate is with special equipment and a sports science centre. Otherwise we have to make do by doing intervals or a hill climb test. Go somewhere quiet on your bike, warm up for 15 minutes or so and then gradually increase the pace until you’re at the maximum effort you can deliver while still sitting in the saddle.

Then, get out of the saddle and give it everything you’ve got for 20 seconds. Record the highest heart rate in that final sprint for your maximum heart rate.

Calculating cycling training zones

Now you have your baseline heart rate readings, you can calculate your training zones. Most coaches use five training zones but new guidance from the Association of British Cycling Coaches now suggests six.

  • Zone 1 is 60-65% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 2 is 65-75% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 3 is 75-82% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 4 is 82-89% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 5 is 89-94% of your maximum heart rate
  • Zone 6 is 94-100% of your maximum heart rate

So if your maximum heart rate is 185 bpm, zone 1 would be between 112-120 bpm, zone 2 would be between 121-139 bpm, zone 3 would be between 140-152 bpm, zone 4 would be between 153-165 bpm, zone 5 would be between 166-174 bpm and zone 6 would be between 174-185 bpm.

Once we add the zone type into the zones, we have a better understanding of what each means. My training zone plan would then look something like this:

  • Zone 1 – Active Recovery 112 – 120 bpm
  • Zone 2 – Endurance 121 – 139 bpm
  • Zone 3 – Tempo 140 – 152 bpm
  • Zone 4 – Lactate threshold 153 – 165 bpm
  • Zone 5 – VO2max 166 – 174 bpm
  • Zone 6 – Anaerobic Capacity 174 – 185 bpm

So what’s with the extra words in the middle?

Active Recovery – Helps increase fat metabolism, nerve and muscle efficiency and strengthens tendons and ligaments. Prepares the body for harder zone training.

Endurance – Improves the oxygen uptake of muscles and helps increase power and efficiency.

Tempo – Works carbohydrate metabolism and defines both slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibre growth. Improves sustainable power output.

Lactate threshold – Works carbohydrate metabolism and improves lactate threshold. Causes some fast twitch muscles to transfer to slow twitch. Helps improve sustainable power output.

VO2max – Develops the heart, oxygen processing, waste processing and overall aerobic ability. Helps you to manage sustained high output while staving off fatigue.

Anaerobic Capacity – Develops top-end muscle power and technique while under stress. Can help with sprinting and sustaining high output.

Now you have the information, you can build some effective training plans that can achieve the goals you’re looking for. We’ll cover zone training in another post.


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