Heart rate training can be a vital tool for cyclists. It can help you get stronger, faster and fitter – all while preventing overtraining and burnout. But that’s only if you know what to look for, how to find it, and how to track it. However, before you start tracking your heart rate, it’s important to understand what exactly goes into this type of training.

With numerous training zone models out there – covering both heart rate and power – and terms such as FTP, sweetspot, VO2 max and anaerobic threshold frequently bandied about, understanding and using training zones effectively can be complicated.

That needn’t be the case, though. In fact, using zones can simplify your training by adding structure to your riding, enabling you to hone the precise area of fitness you want to improve.

First of all we need to know our resting HR and our max HR.

Yup, this thing…

Resting HR:

The best way to determine your resting heart rate is to take it first thing in the morning, every day for a week. (Make sure to do this during a week when you’re not sick or experiencing stress.)

  • If you have a heart rate monitor, simply put it on and lie down for a few minutes, staying as relaxed as possible. Note the lowest number you see and repeat the next day.
  • If you don’t have an HR monitor, find your pulse – either on the inside of your wrist or on your neck – and count the number of beats you feel for one minute (or for 30 seconds and multiply by 2).

At the end of the week, average the seven numbers together and that’s your resting heart rate. 

Max HR:

By knowing your max HR, you’ll be able to determine how hard (or easy) each of your workouts should be.

The method below is another option. All you need is your bike and a long, steady hill.

After a 15-minute warm-up, complete the following:

1.     Start off at a quick pace, increasing your speed every minute.

2.     For about five minutes, stay seated.

3.     When you can’t go any faster while sitting, get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds.

4.     Immediately take your heart rate and you’ll have your max heart rate.

We also need to understand the different zones that are used in cycling training to heart rate.


After an adequate warm up, complete an 8 minutes all out effort on your bike. Record your average heart rate. The athletes threshold heart rate will typically about 8 beats below the average heart rate for this test. This can be also be done over a 20 minute test, but the 8 minute test works equally well and less difficult to gauge in terms of effort level than the 20 minute test.


Zones in more detail: 

Understanding the zones:

Zone One – Active Recovery

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – less than 68%
  • Power (% of threshold power) – less than 55%
  • Typical duration – n/a

Should feel very easy with little pressure going through the pedals. Breathing will be light and conversation easy. Usually used after a hard training session, race or sportive to aid recovery.

Zone Two – Endurance

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – 69 to 83%
  • Power (% of threshold power) – 56 to 75%
  • Typical duration – 3+ hours

Conversation while riding should still be easy but your breaths will be a little heavier and more frequent than in zone one. Well-trained riders can ride for three hours (or significantly more) at this intensity with adequate fuelling.

Zone Three – Tempo / Sweetspot

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – 84 to 94%
  • Power (% of threshold power) – 76 to 90%
  • Typical duration – 20 minutes to one hour

Breathing is getting sharper now with more concentration required to maintain the effort. It’s harder to talk and starting to feel uncomfortable.

Consecutive days of zone three training are possible but fuelling is important, especially if you are doing back-to-back days. The duration of zone three blocks depends on the intensity and experience of the rider.

Zone Four – Threshold

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – 95 to 105%
  • Power (% of threshold power) – 91 to 105%
  • Typical duration – 10 to 30 minutes

Regular conversation while riding will be very difficult and your breathing will be heavy, but not strained. You will be feeling ‘the burn’ and it will require concentration and mental determination to stay in this zone, so it’s usually broken down into blocks or intervals of 10 to 30 minutes.

Difficult to ride effectively at threshold for sessions on back-to-back days, but possible with adequate fuelling and recovery.

Zone Five – VO2 Max

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – More than 106%
  • Power (% of threshold power) – 106 to 120%
  • Typical duration – 3 to 8 minutes

This is a hard zone that’s painful to ride at for more than a few minutes, so you should be suffering. Breathing will be heavy and the effort will be difficult to maintain. If you have all the above sensations, you’re in the right place.

It’s difficult to complete sessions effectively and consistently on back-to-back days. It’ll be hard to get your average heart rate right during these efforts, so concentrate on how your body is feeling.

Zone Six – Anaerobic Capacity

  • Heart rate (% of threshold HR) – n/a
  • Power (% of threshold power) – More than 121%
  • Typical duration – Less than three minutes

These efforts are very painful and not far off a maximum sprint. They should only be sustainable for 30 seconds to three minutes. Any longer and you’re probably not trying hard enough!

It will be very hard to do sessions on back-to-back days. Heart rate is too difficult to go by in these efforts because of the lag in response from the effort being undertaken. Basically, it should hurt a lot.

To find your zones, perform either a FTP test, a Ramp test or a Functional Heart Rate test. 


HR training vs. Power Meter

Power meters provide a method to directly measure work performed on the bike. That leads some athletes and coaches to mistakenly dismiss heart rate as irrelevant. It is more accurate to say heart rate is not as reliable as power for gauging training intensity and workload. Can you train effectively without a power meter? Absolutely. Heart rate training works and has worked since heart rate monitors became widely available 40 years ago.


Factors that affect HR:

The heart rate value on a cycling head unit is an observation of your body’s response to exercise. It’s not a direct measure of the work being done. Instead, the work is being done primarily by muscles, which in turn demand more oxygen from the cardiovascular system.

Because oxygen is delivered via red blood cells, heart rate increases as demand for oxygen rises. It’s an indirect observation of what’s happening at the muscular level. Research has shown conclusively that there’s a strong correlation between heart rate response and changes in an athlete’s workload, and that research allowed sports scientists and coaches to start creating heart rate training zones back in the 1980s.

As sports science evolved over the decades we learned that many factors affect an athlete’s heart rate. Those factors reveal significant disadvantages to using heart rate response as a training tool. The following factors are known to influence exercise heart rate:

Core Temperature

As your core temperature increases, heart rate at a given exercise intensity will increase. Your circulatory system carries heat from your core to your extremities to aid with conductive and radiant cooling.

Caffeine and Other Stimulants

When you consume caffeine, either from your morning cup of coffee or from a caffeinated gel during a training session or race, your heart rate increases.


A race is an exciting event, and that causes an adrenal response that increases your heart rate. Other emotional responses, including frustration, anger, and anxiety, can also affect heart rate.

Hydration Status

Although heart rate changes due to hydration status are often with or concurrent with impacts from core temperature, your heart rate can increase from dehydration with or without a rise in core temperature. As your blood volume diminishes, your heart needs to beat faster to deliver the same amount of oxygen per minute.


Most athletes train within a small range of elevations in their local area, but goal races may feature dramatically different elevation profiles. Your heart rate response to exercise will change as you reach and exceed about 5,000 feet above sea level. The effect of altitude on performance and heart rate response increases as you go higher. Heart rate and respiration rate increase at elevation. The reduced partial pressure of oxygen in the air you’re breathing means there are fewer oxygen molecules in each lungful of air.


While many of the factors that impact heart rate act to increase it, fatigue often suppresses it. When you are fatigued, your heart rate response to increasing energy demand is slower and blunted. A tired athlete will see heart rate climb more slowly at the beginning of an interval or hard effort and will struggle to achieve the heart rate normally associated with a given intensity level.

The factors that affect exercise heart rate don’t negate its usefulness as a training tool. Rather, they mean you must consider them when you observe heart rate values that seem higher or lower than normal.


Training Progress:

Aerobic training begins at about 66% of an individual’s maximum heart rate. To maximally train the aerobic system, riders need high-aerobic work—80% to 85% of maximum heart rate.

Once you have built a decent base, you can aim to train at this intensity two or more times per week. Aim for a cumulative total of two or more hours per week.

Endurance may be improved by training at lower intensity levels, but maximal oxygen uptake may not increase. Spending more time training at high-aerobic levels may be productive during some training phases. During these phases, riders may train at high-aerobic levels up to six-eight hours per week.

There is a limit as to how much time riders can spend at high-aerobic levels because there is a limit to high-aerobic energy sources. Intramuscular glycogen is a limiter. There is also a neurohormonal limiter. High volumes of high-aerobic work should not be performed routinely because of overtraining risk.

Racers need training at 86% to 92% of maximum heart rate to reach the limits of their aerobic potential. Training near this level overlaps with anaerobic training at times; this is threshold training. When training at such very-high aerobic levels, reduce the overall volume of aerobic work.

High-level aerobic training is not required for everyone. Riders are commonly able to complete successfully a hilly century without maximizing their aerobic training.


Common Qs regarding training to HR:

  • Does maximum heart rate matter?
    From an exercise standpoint, not really. Cardiac output (stroke volume x heart rate) matters because that determines how much blood you can circulate. Ideally, a high stroke volume and high maximum heart rate maximizes cardiac output. But a lower maximum heart rate with higher stroke volume works, too.
  • Does maximum heart rate change with age?
    Although there is a lot of variability between people, your individual maximum heart rate is highest as a child and gradually decreases as you age. But again, stroke volume and muscle mass change over the course of a lifetime, too.
  • Why isnt my maximum heart rate 220 minus my age?
    The equation: ‘HRmax = 220 – age in years’ is perhaps the most well-known heart rate formula by the general public. It may be simple and convenient, but it is not accurate, especially for athletes. Endurance training alters the structure and function of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and nervous system. As a result, your maximum heart rate is affected by more than your chronological age.

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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