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Don't Miss a Beat: Your Guide to Heart Rate Monitors

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Article posted: 07/01/2013

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Heart rate monitors have been around now for over 35 years and their introduction was the catalyst for change in the way cyclists trained and still train to the current day.

In 1977 Polar electro brought their first portable heart rate monitor to the market, portable but still with wires to and from the monitor. It was not until 1982 that the first full wireless monitor made its way into cyclists’ hands, but with the fledgling wireless technology came a number of problems.

It wouldn’t be unusual to see a cyclist sat on the ground thinking they have had a heart attack, not realising that the electricity pylon above them was interfering with their heart rate monitor and sending their numbers sky high. Riders also struggled to ride in a group due to monitors cross talking and showing how hard their competitors were working rather than themselves.

Fortunately these issues have been ironed out and heart rate monitors have evolved to become powerful training tools and dropped to a price point that’s affordable to all. We can use heart rate in conjunction with power meters, GPS navigation and use computer software to analyse ride performance.

The majority of junior, academy, and podium GB Cycling Team riders use heart rate monitors in conjunction with analysis software from Training Peaks as their primary of tracking performance and their use is a fundamental component in the British Cycling Sportive Training Plan.

Training Zones

The key to successful heart rate training is the establishing of accurate training zones. These zones reflect different riding intensities and the varying physiological systems that fuel these efforts. To progress your performance in cycling training you need parameters to work within, these parameters with heart rate monitors are called zones. Accurate and personalised training zones are essential in the planning, execution and analysis of your training.

The zones used within the British Cycling Sportive Training Plan are based on your average heart rate from a maximal 20 minutes test. This figure is called your functional threshold and are what the percentage bands refer to. As you train, your threshold will change so you should think of training in threshold zones as a moveable scale. Once your fitness improves your zones move with you so regular re-testing is essential.

The classic method for calculating heart rate training zones is to use a formula such as 220-age to estimate maximal heart rate and then work out percentage bands from that figure. There are other formulas that claim to be more accurate by factoring in resting heart rate but they’re all very crude approximations and, because sedentary subjects were often used to derive them, they usually deliver significantly lower maximal heart rate values than reality and therefore all training zones calculated from them are skewed low. It’s important to note that automatic zone calculator functions on heart rate monitors also use variations of the 220-age formula and shouldn’t be applied.

Some people advocate field testing of maximal heart rate to get an accurate figure. Simply put, this normally involves finding a hill and riding up it as hard as you can until you feel as though you’re going to explode or pass out.

As well as being extremely unpleasant and potentially dangerous without medical supervision, it’s often far from accurate. Very few people are able to push themselves to their absolute maximum and it only takes a fractional drop in your psychological or physiological condition to significantly skew your result.

The zones of British Cycling are detailed below; these are percentages based above and below of your personal threshold for heart rate, this is the average heart rate for a very hard 20 minute ride.

HR Zone

Lower Limit (%)

Upper Limit (%)

Physiology

1

 

<68%

Active Recovery

2

68%

83%

Endurance

3

83%

94%

Tempo

4

94%

105%

Threshold

5

105%

121%

VO2 max

6

 

 

Anaerobic capacity

Anaerobic capacity

Each of the six training zones will give a different training benefit. Becoming a rounded athlete will require training at different intensities at varying times throughout the season; these zones can be calculated through the British Cycling Threshold Calculator.

Below is an explanation of each zone and how they develop your cycling performance:

Active Recovery is for use before or after high intensity training or events. You would use this zone to recover, making sure through increased blood flow that the body removes any harmful training by-products from the muscles. Using this zone for a session can also be very social. You can ride freely without physical strain and talk with others. If you ride with friends make sure they are aware of the pace you need to ride and do not ride outside of the upper limit.

Endurance is for building your bodies tolerance for harder sessions throughout the year. Sessions including this type of zone will improve your basic fitness over time. Higher zones will increase your power to build significant changes in your performance. Riders who are looking for weight loss would use this session to burn fat, increase their stamina, and prepare ready for harder sessions.

Tempo is the zone that the majority of club run rides are based. Tempo is a training intensity that riders can maintain for sustained periods but need to concentrate to do so. This zone is closely related to endurance cycling events as you will use the upper levels of the zone on climbs and the lower end on flat terrain.

Threshold is a hard session, similar in intensity to the 20-minute test, which will significantly improve your overall fitness. This zone is on the border of not using oxygen to create energy for movement and where riders start to really feel a burn in their legs.

VO2 Max builds the body’s response to high intensity work. This session is built into training when you’re rested well and should be able to complete this to your full potential. The duration in this zone will usually be 3-8 minutes long, with more advanced riders completing more intervals per session this zone.

Anaerobic capacity is a 100% sprint effort and, because a rise in heart rate will lag behind such an explosive effort, it’s not used to monitor training at this intensity. This slow reaction to increase in heart rate is because the body will sprint on stored energy that does not need oxygen, after a short while this will run out and the muscles will need oxygen, increasing your heart rate but usually after the sprint has finished.

Buying

When buying a heart rate monitor there are many features you need to consider. Below are five key things you should consider when buying a heart rate monitor:

Programmable Zones

Are needed when using the British Cycling sportive plans. Using the zone calculator you can find your upper and lower limits of each zone, placing them manually into your heart rate monitor. Not all monitors will allow you to programme zones manually; this will impact on your cycling when training with the British Cycling Sportive Training Plans.

Size of display

A large display will improve your enjoyment and safety whilst training, if you need to look at your monitor to stay in the zone you do not want to be taking your eye off the road for too long.

Buttons

In the cold winter weather you might have to use your heart rate monitor to press the lap button or start an interval. Make sure you purchase a heart rate monitor that can be used with gloves, don’t take the sellers word for this, take your set of gloves with you to the shop and try it out.

Compatible

If you’re training with the British Cycling Sportive Training Plan you might want to store and analyse your training. Make sure the heart rate monitor you use is compatible with the software you use.

Versatility and future proof

A heart rate monitor that also allows speed/distance measurement, either using GPS or traditional sensor and spoke magnet, is the ideal training tool. As you’re cycling develops, you might also want to consider training using power. Power meters are currently out of the reach for many at their current price point, but in the future this technology will become cheaper. Buying a monitor which is ANT+ compatible will allow you use it with power measuring hardware.

You’ve now got your monitor and know how to use it. Get out, test for your zones and get started on the British Cycling Sportive Training Plan and begin your journey to becoming the best cyclist you can be.

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