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Calculate your heart rate cycling zones

cycling heart rate zones training
Fitness / Gear

Calculate your heart rate cycling zones

The most important thing we need to do when we are embarking on a training journey is to have some way to measure our effort. Calculating your personal heart rate cycling zones is a great way to do this. It is a step forward from the rate of perceived exertion that I have discussed before here, So how do we go about finding our personal heart rate zones?

Methods to calculate cycling-specific zones

I’ve observed numerous techniques used throughout the years, and I believe each has a unique manner of functioning. Peter Keen, Ric Stern, Timex, Association of British Cycling Coaches, Sally Edwards, and Karvonen are all examples. British Cycling has theirs, and Australian Cycling coaches have their own method as well.

So when you want to start, it can appear very complicated. My advice would be to use a method and work with a coach that understands how that system works with many athletes. The key is to understand what you are working with and adapt the training to that effort. There can be quite a big difference in some of the measurements. I wouldn’t use the 220 minus your age method and at the very least work off your tested maximum.

Today I want to show you the method that I use, and it is neither of the examples above. It might be the same or similar to some of the names listed. I haven’t checked in a long time. I don’t know most of those people.

Heart Rate Cycling Zones

It’s vital to note that you use your average heart rate from a test lasting 20 minutes, as I have stated in the calculations below. I’ll continue to support the 20-minute test, and I’ll elaborate on its advantages in future blog posts.

  • Zone 1: <80%
  • Zone 2: 81% to 88%
  • Zone 3: 89% to 92%
  • Zone 4: 93% to 100% 
  • Zone 5: 101% to 105%
  • Zone 6: 106% plus

To finish the test and get your average heart rate over the course of 20 minutes, you must be well-rested. 1-3 days of light riding will suit most people. We will be doing two tests on the same day. It is the same as what I use for power testing. It consists of:

20min WarmUp

6 min Max Effort

14min Recovery Zone 1

20min Max Effort

20min Cool Down Easy Pedalling

What do we get from this test?

It’s a brilliant test to complete and even more so if you have a power meter to accompany your heart rate monitor. For now, we are talking about cycling heart rate zones, and from this you will get your Max from your 6 minute test, and a 20 minute average.

We are going to calculate our training zones based on the average and utilise our maximum heart rate as a benchmark. For example, in times of heavy training load or a busy racing schedule, you will notice if you can get your heart rate up to that maximal level easily or if it is difficult. Sometimes you will be able to beat it and set a new one, especially for beginners.

This brings us to the next very important metric we need to use for training, our resting heart rate. This is super useful to see when you are feeling good, a bit under the weather, sick, or underrated.

Keep a note of your resting and maximum heart rates and utilise these training zones to move your performance to the next level. The value we see on our computer is actually the body’s perceived effort of everything that is happening, including riding the bike. Heart rate is all about feeling.

What does each cycling heart rate zone feel like?

If you are a beginner, it is important to have some level of perception of how each zone should feel. This will ensure that your zones have been calculated correctly. Over time, zones can change, so you can use the rate of perceived exertion to make sure that they are still correct.

Zone 1-Active Recovery (80%)

As the name suggests, this zone is all about recovery, at least for the most part. Riders that have more time will do long endurance rides (3 hrs+) at this level to aid in lactate clearing and build aerobic endurance. This zone is used mainly for recovery and clearing waste products, but it also helps your hard-earned work come through as fitness gains. The effort should feel nice and easy with little effort. It is vitally important that when doing these efforts that you do stick to this easy pace.

Duration: 30 minutes to 6 hours

Zone 2-Endurance Training 81% to 88%

This is the zone of champions and will make up the bulk of your training going forward for endurance training. You can converse with another rider while finishing this effort because it is being done at what is referred to as a “conversational pace.” The majority of your rides will be at this endurance level, and your interval sessions will include a variety of efforts within this level. In my experience, this is the zone that most people miss out on completing properly.

Duration: 1 to 4 hours

Zone 3-Aerobic Capacity or Tempo: 89% to 92%

This zone is when you begin to work relatively hard and your conversation will be split up into short sentences. Most people spend too much time in this area. It ought to be used for a limited duration throughout certain phases. This zone is great for bringing on fitness quickly, but too much can lead to underresting and increased fatigue over time. This effort can be broken up into shorter bursts of effort or prolonged steady-state efforts lasting up to two hours. It helps you ride harder and tolerate lactate more in the legs, but too much will leave you unable to recover from hard efforts. It’s important to be able to move the heart rate up and down through the zones.

Duration: 20 minutes to 2 hours

Zone 4-Lactate Threshold: 93% to 100%

You are really getting to the bones of training now by working at this level. This training is also referred to as anaerobic threshold, or functional threshold training, or FTP. You will be down to just a word or two in conversation when riding at this intensity. For beginners, it is best to use this effort for a short duration with plenty of rest in between. You can also train at the bottom end or top end of this zone. The bottom is sometimes referred to as sweet spot training, and the top FTP. I would recommend working mostly at 93% as it isn’t as demanding on the body.

Duration: 5 minutes to 1 hour

Zone 5: 101% to 105% supra-threshold

Supra-threshold is what we would use for 10 mile TT’s and above threshold, so your time to exhaustion is somewhat cut down. You won’t be wanting to speak much here. Most of your concentration will be on putting the power down through the pedals. These efforts are very good in small amounts to really bring on speed and lactate clearance for harder sustained efforts.

Duration: 5 to 20 minutes

Zone 6-Vo2 Max 106% or higher

Everyone has heard of Vo2 max. This is when you are working the aerobic system to its maximum. No talking in these efforts, they will feel like you are at the limit of what you can handle. Most coaches will prescribe these on a hill, as hill repeats for 5 minutes without a heart rate prescription. Heart rate takes some time to catch up once you have started, so it can be hard to pace. The best method, if you only have heart rate, is to go as hard as you can.

Duration: 3–8 minutes

Sprints and other shorter periods that are utilised in cycle racing are not widely discussed when it comes to heart rate training. As mentioned above, it takes time for the heart rate to pick up, and for some intervals they are too short to gauge the effort with heart rate. It is possible with a power meter, which I have discussed here.

How to measure heart rate?

You have all the information on how to calculate your zones, what is the best method to collect the data? As with everything, there are various brands that have devices you can use. My two favourites are Wahoo and Garmin. Polar is a brand I haven’t used, so I can’t recommend it, but it is very popular.

I used unbranded cheap heart rate monitors from eBay before for £20.00, and to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend them. They do work and give you a reading, but they don’t last long in my experience.

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