Ask the Experts - Still having trouble sticking to heart rate zones

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

We regularly hear from riders, usually fairly new to cycling or coming back after a lay off, who make the decision to begin following one of our training plans, conduct the all-important Threshold Test and then find that the Zones prescribed, especially Zones 1 and 2, seem ludicrously easy and impossible to stick too.

We’ve previously covered this topic with this question on and this one on but, having received another query about this recently, decided that we should revisit it.

British Cycling Member Peter e-mailed us with the following question:

Im having a little trouble with my training. To set the scene a little. Im a 49 year old male, I used to cycle a lot as a teenager but nothing between then and when I got back on a bike about a year ago. I bought a heart rate monitor in April so I could use heart rate to aid both my training and sportive pacing. I have performed the British Cycling threshold test (FTHR)  and got a result of 165 bpm. British Cycling training plans and advice for pacing long rides is to ride predominately in Zone 2 which, for me, is 112-136 bpm. The problem I am having is that I find my minimum heart rate when trying to cycle at an easy pace is 136 bpm. This means Im never cycling in Zone 2, other than on downhill sections or where I have to stop.”

There are a few possible reasons as to why you might be struggling to stick to your heart rate zones.

The first is to ensure that the test result you achieved was accurate or did it yield a low FTHR, therefore skewing your zones? Double check that you followed the protocol accurately.

Did you conduct the test indoors on a trainer or outdoors? Many people find that they’re unable to elevate their heart rate as high on an indoor trainer relative to the same perceived effort. Lack of cooling, lower motivation or boredom and less engagement of trunk and upper body musculature are all possible reasons for this phenomena but it’s not fully understood and varies massively between individuals. The differential can be non-existent but can be as much as 10-15 BPM. It would be a good idea, if you did conduct the test indoors, to repeat it out on the road, see if there is a difference and produce two sets of training zones.

Also, it’s possible you might have had an off-day for your test. A low lying bug or virus might have flattened your heart rate, you might have been slightly fatigued or were distracted from not quite giving the effort your all.

If you repeat the test and find that it was accurate, you may have to approach your riding differently and redefine your definition of easy pace. You need to back right off, forget about average speed, use your gears and find a pace that allows you to sit in your lower heart rate zones.

Avoid hills and, if necessary, ride with a friend and sit on their wheel. Set an alarm on your monitor to alert you at 130 BPM and ease back when you hear the alarm rather than allowing it to climb all the way to 136 BPM. It takes real discipline to stick to a lower heart rate zone but to develop the base economy to successfully ride sportives, it forms the foundations of your fitness. Stick with it and you will be able to maintain a Zone 2 effort and be able to build your pace at that level. You’ve got to give it time though as physiological adaptation is a slow process.

One method that some riders find effective for developing base economy is to perform regular fasted morning rides for a period of time. With low sugar in your bloodstream on waking, if you go for an easy (Zone 1 / low-mid Zone 2 ) ride, you force your body to mobilise its fat reserves and, without the blood sugar readily available to fuel higher intensity efforts, you have to stick to lower heart rate zones. You only need to ride for 30-60 minutes but it’s imperative that you stick to the heart rate zones and have breakfast when you return from the ride. You can drink water while out and some riders find a pre-ride coffee helps the process but obviously no milk or sugar in it. You can do the ride on an indoor trainer and may initially find it easier to hold a constant heart rate while doing this, especially if you live in a hilly area. Perform three of these rides a week consistently for 6-8 weeks and you will see your average speed increase for the heart rate zone and, usually within 4 weeks, notice that controlling your heart rate is easier. Many riders also see additional fat loss benefits from these sessions. Because of the very low impact and training stress of these rides, they can be done in tandem with one of our training plans, with higher intensity sessions done in the afternoon or evening, but build up their duration gradually and be watchful for signs of fatigue.

Great Britain Cycling Team kit 15/16