How To Use a Heart Rate Monitor for Cycling

A heart rate monitor is one of the most used tools for pacing strategy during intervals or competitions, analyzing of performance and detection of overtraining. Polar heart rate monitor watches make very precise measurement of the current pulse. This information can be very useful for an experienced user who understands the exercise physiology behind heart rate regulation.

Getting started with heart rate monitor training

One of the best ways to learn to use a heart rate monitor is to use one during training. Don’t buy one of the top models e.g Polar Rs800
- this heart rate monitor is not made for beginners. Instead try one of the basic Polar monitors for a beginning e.g Polar CS200. This watch is cheaper and easier to deal with, still very functional. There are also several other manufacturers of monitors and some of them are probably even cheaper.

My point is that for a beginner who has never tried heart rate monitors before, it might be a clever idea to buy one of the cheaper models for a beginning and then buy a more advanced heart rate monitor when you know which kind of data you are interested in. A Polar RS800 is a great tool for experienced riders, but is very likely to be overkill for a beginner.

Notify how your heart rate reacts

When you have bought a heart rate monitor: Get out on the roads! Spend a month with your regular training program, just wearing the monitor, but notifying how the heart rate reacts to the efforts. It is very interesting to study the heart rate and very quickly you will discover that you start to use the monitor for pacing. At this point you are already getting paid back for your investment, since you train harder and are more motivated during the ride.

Watch your own heart rate monitor – not your training partner’s…

The fact is that you can only compare heart rate values with your own previous registrations. The reason for this is that we all have a different anatomy of our cardiovascular system. But these systems are all based on the same physiological mechanisms.

Thus, we can learn from each others’ physiological experiences and adaptations, but we can’t compare individual heart rate values. E.g. your resting heart rate is 58bpm while your friend’s heart rate is 42bpm, still I can’t say which one of you are in the best shape nor have the highest VO2 max.

It is not necessary to use a special heart rate focused training program when you start to use it. As I said, just wearing the monitor for the first month is a very good education. I remember when I started to use a heart rate monitor for the first time back in the mid 90’s. At that time I had read some literature about general exercise physiology and heart monitors, but I lacked practical experience with the monitor.

The result was that I made some target intervals for my heart rate which triggered the alarm system to beep most of the time. After a few of these rides I started to ride without target zones until I knew more about how my heart rate reacted during cycling. The lesson I learned was that you have to be patient and wait a while before you start doing intervals based on heart rate target zones.

Use your heart rate monitor during intervals

When you feel familar with the basics, it’s time to get a step further. You have probably heard about heart rate target zones and maybe how to calculate them. I think it’s good to know maximum heart rate and the best way to test it doing the following procedure: Perform a short warm up followed by a gradual increase in intensity until you reach your maximum heart rate. Sounds simple, but damn hard! Ok, let’s take a little more detailed version of this test:

I have discovered that using a power meter might be one of the best ways to make the increments in intensity just as smooth as needed. Making small increments of 10 Watts every 30 seconds is a successful approach to attain your maximum oxygen consumption. If you don’t have a power meter, visit your local gym and use a ergometer bike. If you want to read more about this test, read more about maximum heart rate here.

How do you determine your target heart rate?

There are several formulas around on the internet that can be used to calculate target heart rate zones. I have seen formulas with more than 6 different target zones, but I normally prefer to use less. You can easily define your own target zones when you use the Karvonen formula. Remember that there are several factors influencing on the pulse, so don’t make the intervals to small.Karvonen’s formula: Target HR = Intensity% x (Max.HR minus Min.HR) + Min-HR

Example: Calculation of Target Heart Rate

Intensity=75%, Max.HR=190, Min.HR=54

T-HR = 75% x (190 – 54) + 54

T-HR = 156

Ok, this was a long story about getting started using a heart rate monitor. I will come up with examples of training programs for heart rate monitor training later. Hope you enjoyed this post! :-)

5 comments… add one

  • joe luna

    what is the best heart rate monitor to buy i have used a monitor in the past i have about 60,000 miles on my leggs i just start to think about training in the different target zonez what do you recomend

  • mike Clements

    Good info on how to use the HRM.
    There seems to be a lot of conflicting info on which zone one should do most of the training.
    I did a 2 hour 11 min ride:
    i spent 1 hour 38 min in zone 5 the remainder split from 1 to 4.
    Is this to long at zone 5, should i be doing most of my training in Z3
    (Must finish the Breacon Beast in 6 hours this time!)
    47 years old

  • mike Clements

    The conflicting info on the web not your blog :-)

  • Robeto Mata

    Hello Jesper
    First of all, thank you very much for sharing your “Know-how”.
    I would like to ask you if there is any version of your book translated for portuguese?

  • dontcoast

    this is the first thing ive read so far that made me understand how a HRM can help me understand my physiological patterns better
    i guess the whole HR zone training program thing fazed me but now i’m interested, so thanks for the advice!

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