Heart Rate Training and Cycling: a Powerful Combination

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All of us have, at times, felt winded on a bike ride. I know, I know, that’s a big controversial statement :-) but think about the times when you’ve been out of breath, felt your heart pounding, and just knew you couldn’t keep going at the same high pace, whether you were cranking hard, going up a big hill or just pulling into a strong wind.

This is true no matter how strong you are, and it is captured in one of my favorite quotes. It comes from cycling champion Greg Lemond, who said, “It never gets easier; you just go faster.” And this from a guy who won the Tour de France three times.)

What happens when you get winded is that you’ve reached the limit of your cardiovascular endurance. Your cardiovascular endurance (sometimes referred to as aerobic fitness) is the maximum capacity of the heart, blood vessels, and lungs to bring oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles so that energy can be produced. The higher the endurance, the longer the person can put out physical exertion before becoming fatigued.

One way to develop your cardiovascular endurance is through indoor cycling sessions (also known as “Spinning® in its specific trademarked brand of classes. These allow you to very specifically and intentionally utilize heart rate training under controlled circumstances.

If you don’t already have a heart rate monitor, the first step heart rate training is to get one, and the good news is that decent models can be obtained at pretty reasonable prices.

Being aware of these heart rate numbers and what they mean is very important information in improving your performance. For instance, if your resting heart rate is high, or stays elevated during low-intensity exercise, that’s a sign that you have been working out too hard and need to take a break. Your numbers will also show you when you are working at the right intensity and if you have made progress in your training. A heart rate monitor helps you stay focused and take that mind/body connection to a new level. What a great motivational tool!

Heart rate training and indoor cycling offer a great opportunity for cyclists to continue training, particularly in the off-season. The reason I say this is to do it properly takes a lot of concentration on the numbers and keeping them where you want through relaxation breathing techniques. This is best learned in a controlled environment and not on the road where you can be affected by wind, weather, terrain, the pace of your companions, scenery, etc., etc.

There are five generally accepted heart rate zones that measure exertion during training:

  • Endurance: 65 to 75% of MHR. Offers a great way to raise your energy, metabolism and burn fat.
  • Strength: 75 to 85% of MHR. Builds strength, endurance, and mental focus to fly up those hills.
  • Interval: 65 to 92% of MHR. Trains your heart to recover quickly from work efforts.
  • Race Day: 80 - 92% of MHR. A challenge to even the most well-conditioned cyclist - test your inner Lance Armstrong!
  • Recovery: 50 to 65% of MHR. Allows you to relax and regain your energy.

In heart rate training, the challenge is to keep your HR within a certain number of beats during any certain period of time or terrain. (Related article: How to find your target heart rate) For example, a very challenging profile might be an Endurance ride where the riders would warm up for the first eight minutes and then add one heart beat every four minutes until they reach 75% MHR (maximum heart rate). You can just imagine the amount of focus and determination this would take to finish. Better yet, can you imagine what that would advantage that would give you in the spring when you take it out on the road!

Here’s another way in which it will translate to the road: hills! This training session would simulate an ascent (using adjustments to the resistance on the bike) which culminates an intense 12 minutes of riding at 85% MHR. The focus would be on relaxation of the upper body, good posture on the bike, deep and controlled breathing and HR so the climb doesn’t take you out. You start out at 60% MHR and every four minutes, kick the resistance up a notch until you are 20 minutes into the ride and your HR reaches 85% MHR.

Then, the simulated terrain levels off to a flat road for 8 minutes, and until next you are out of your saddle for 5 minutes. It then becomes a seated climb for the next 12 minutes during which you can come in and out of the saddle as much as you wish. When the time hits 32 minutes your HR should start to hit 80% of its maximum capacity for four minutes, and then drop it to 75% of max heart rate for the next four minutes. Finally, mercifully, you hit a nice flat stretch and come on home.

This type of ride would train your body to increase its lactate tolerance and go easily from an aerobic zone (where your muscles are fed with a nice steady supply of oxygen by your heart and lungs) to anaerobic zones, where you’re cranking hard, putting out more exertion than your heart and lungs can sustain other than for brief periods.

As you can see, knowing and paying attention to your cardiovascular endurance numbers by using a heart rate monitor to track effort as a percentage of your maximum heart rate is a powerful tool. Especially when you are intentional about this and train up to these numbers in a controlled environment like indoor cycling, you’ve got a way to develop your body’s capacity in this area. This is a very powerful strategy in overall health and fitness, and a tremendous way to develop your strength and endurance on the bike.