Heart rate zones

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.”

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.”

Maximum HR

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.”

HR zones

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

Average HR

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.

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.”

Getting started:

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.