I just finished a YouTube video on how to use heart rate for endurance cycling training and after a quick look on the internet I decided it would be useful to write an article to go with it. I have linked the video in the side bar if you want to have a look.

So, how do you use heart rate to train for endurance cycling? 

You need to:

  • Find either your maximum heart rate or your lactate threshold heart rate. You can do this by either a 6 minute flat out effort to get your maximum, or a 30 minute time trial and taking the average heart rate for the last 20 minutes for your lactate threshold heart rate;
  • Set some training zones using either maximum heart rate or lactate threshold heart rate;
  • Make a weekly plan where you have 2 or 3 hard days and the rest of the time you ride in your endurance training zones, doing 80% to 90% of your time on endurance rides;
  • If you are planning a long event, one of the rides each week should be aimed at building up the duration of your event to prepare for your event;
  • Do the training based on your heart rate zones, making sure you stick to the plan and make adjustments so that you make progress but have enough recovery to avoid over training.

It seems simple!?

Well, training is quite simple most of the time. Skilled coaches and experienced athletes know how to balance hard work and recovery to make the best progress but the principles are the same for everyone and there are no magic formulas. 

Getting fit is a matter of consistency and commitment, combined with working hard at the right times and recovering when you need to. 

Getting the balance right

To get the most out of your training you need to train at different intensities because if you do the same thing all the time, your body stops adapting and your fitness stagnates.

Controlling this variation and understanding it is where using your heart rate becomes useful.

Heart rate training zones

To differentiate between harder and easier efforts objectively, you can set heart rate based training zones. 

You probably know that as you cycle harder, your heart beats faster, but if you haven’t noticed, check it out when you next sprint up a hill and feel your heart pounding. Heart rate monitors measure this variation in heart rate.

To define the different intensities, we use heart rate to create what are known as Training Zones, as shown in the table.

Andy Coggan training zones chart

You can see from the table that the zones are named, Active Recovery, Endurance, Tempo, Lactate Threshold, Max Aerobic (VO2max), Anaerobic Capacity and Neuromuscular Power. 

There are many different sets of training zones, defined slightly differently but I like to use those developed by Andrew Coggan. The figure shows the Andrew Coggan training zones that are reproduced from an article that he wrote and published as a TrainingPeaks blog: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/power-training-levels/ . You will also notice that the heart rate zones are split up using percentage of Lactate Threshold heart rate and I have added a column with equivalent percentages of maximum heart rate, which aren’t part of Andy Coggan Training Zones but may be useful for you.

Anaerobic Zones

Training Zones 6 and 7 are anaerobic training zones, where heart rate isn’t applicable. Heart rate is only useful for measuring your efforts over longer durations, more than say 2 minutes, so these zones can’t really be monitored with heart rate. This doesn’t matter because you don’t need to specifically train your anaerobic zones for most endurance cycling, and if you do, you can just do the efforts as hard as you can and you wouldn’t have time to look at your heart rate monitor anyway.

Endurance zones (Zone 1 and Zone 2)

As an endurance cyclist, it probably comes as no surprise that you will be spending most of your time in Training Zone 2, the Endurance Zone. It is named Endurance for a reason.

Aerobic Threshold (AeT)

There is an important distinction between training zones 1 and 2, and the other training zones. These zones are below what is known as the aerobic threshold, which is the point at which you body starts to use carbohydrates as an energy source in preference to fat.

For endurance sports, this is very important because we have an almost unlimited supply of fat, whereas our supplies of glycogen are limited.

This means that the faster that we can ride at an intensity below the aerobic threshold, the longer we can go at almost any pace relevant to endurance cycling events.

This is one of the reasons that endurance training is most effective when considerable amounts of time are spent in zones 1 and 2. It is also the reason that elite endurance athletes spend so much time training and developing their speed at the aerobic threshold.

Riding in zones 1 and 2 can be performed for long periods of time and at this pace you should be able to hold a conversation.

Tempo (Zone 3)

The Tempo zone is nominally between the Aerobic and Anaerobic/Lactate Thresholds. 

Riding in the Tempo zone requires more concentration than the endurance zones and it is difficult to hold a conversation at this pace. 

There is a reasonable argument for carefully avoiding too much Tempo training because it has shown to be induce similar amounts of fatigue as training in zones 4 and 5 but doesn’t stimulate the same gains in fitness.

I believe that Tempo training has it’s place and it is certainly a zone that you will be riding in during a long cycling event. 

Tempo training is best used to develop the fitness to move into doing harder interval sessions in zones 4 and 5, so part of a building of intensity, a sort of toughening up process. 

Tempo training is also good for event practice, so sometimes I include long rides with the objective of riding climbs in zone 3, as well as some longer interval sessions such as 3 x 20 minutes, building up to a total of 90 to 120 minutes in the tempo zone. 

These workouts develop both physical and mental strength to hold a strong pace for sustained periods and even though they may not bring the obvious gains of zones 4 and 5, I see them as an invaluable part of any endurance cycling training plan. 

Interval Training (Zone 4 and Zone 5)

Zones 4 and 5 are above the anaerobic (lactate) threshold and can only be sustained for short periods of time, typically a few minutes.

Riding in these zones requires focus and workouts are typically based on interval training, where hard efforts are broken by periods of partial or complete recovery. Breaking the workout up in this way allows for more work to be completed in the harder zones, which results in a greater stimulus and bigger fitness gains when combined with appropriate periods of recovery between sessions.

Most people can only handle 2 or 3 hard interval sessions each week. 

How to set your zones

You can base your training zones on either your lactate threshold or maximum heart rate. It doesn’t really matter which you choose, there are pros and cons for each. 

Maximum heart rate is a little easier to determine and keep a track of during your normal training, it doesn’t change much apart from dropping a little as you get older.

Lactate threshold heart rate is physiologically more defensible and if you are new to changing, this value is likely to change as your fitness develops. The Coggan Training Zones described in this article are based on Threshold Heart Rate.

In calculating the zones associated with maximum heart rate, I have assume lactate threshold heart rate occurs at 90% of maximum heart rate, which I have found to be a good rule of thumb, based on a number of physiological laboratory tests and anecdotal evidence.

Before doing any physical activity you should obviously be sure you are fit and healthy enough to do so. If you are unsure, you should seek advice from a medical professional beforehand. Assuming you are fit and well, here is how to test your maximum and threshold heart rates.

Finding your maximum heart rate

Have a good warm up by riding for 15 to 20 minutes at an easy pace and then do 2 or 3 hard efforts of around 30 seconds to get your legs moving.

Have a short break and then ride as hard as you can for 6 minutes. Really dig deep and push through the pain in your legs to do your best possible effort. Your maximum heart rate is the highest heart rate recorded during those 6 minutes. 

You may find this easier to do up a hill or on a slight incline, avoid variations in gradient as much as possible and definitely avoid downhill and junctions that might mean you have to slow down. Finding a safe place to do your testing can be tricky so spend some time and find a place that has what you need, and one that you can use for future similar tests to see if you can get further in you 6 minutes as your fitness develops.

Finding your Lactate Threshold

It is a little harder to find somewhere to test your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate because you need somewhere that you can do a hard effort of around 30 minutes without significant downhills or places where you have to slow down. If you have an indoor trainer or can get to the gym to use a Wattbike or similar, that is perfect, otherwise, do a bit of searching around, or work with maximum heart rate as an interim or alternative measure.

To determine your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate, do a short warm up of 10 to 15 minutes, then do 2 x 30 seconds to 1 minute hard efforts to get your legs moving before having a short break of around 5 minutes.

For the test, ride as hard as you can for 30 minutes and take the average heart rate for the last 20 minutes of your effort. This should be the highest 20 minutes average of the whole ride and is a good approximation of your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate.

Accuracy and variability

There is some variability in heart rate and the respective thresholds from day to day, depending on various factors such as fatigue, weather conditions (cold or hot, humid, etc), hydration, altitude, etc. So it is worth doing repeat tests now and again and settling in an average.

If you use the same course regularly, you can also use it as a way to measure your improving fitness as you get faster over time.

Testing every 6 to 8 weeks is a good way to keep things on track.

Planning your training

How much time you spend in each training zone is an obvious question and having a plan that gets the right mix of training is going to make a big difference.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, endurance training isn’t complicated, the most important factors are consistency and commitment combined with knowing when to take a break.

Choose 2 or 3 days when you will do hard workouts

Choose two, or perhaps 3 days in the week when you will do your harder workouts, in zones 3, 4 or 5 and the rest will be in your Endurance zones (1 and 2). These days should not be consecutive, aim to have at least one day of easier riding or rest between your hard days.

Don’t be tempted to try for 3 hard workouts a week because it seems like more is better. There have been plenty of studies that show too much hard work is counterproductive and there is lots of evidence to show that doing a little less than optimum is far better than doing more. Chronic overtraining syndrome is something you definitely want to avoid and could result in months or even years off training, much better to be on the safe side.

I think it is best to start with 2 harder workouts each week and if you feel very comfortable with that and feel you are making the most out of the 2 sessions, try 3 hard workouts every other week for a couple of months and see how that works for you.

Bear in mind that if you are doing short intervals, of a minute or less, your time in the higher zones may be a bit less than you expect. This is because it takes time for your heart rate to react and consequently, you end up with less time in the target zone.

For details of suitable interval training workouts, you can have a look at our article Get fit for cycling using the 5 pace system.

Other workouts should be in Endurance zones (zones 1 and 2)

All your other riding should be in your endurance training zones. The mix of time in zones 1 and 2 depends on how fit you are an how much training you are doing, as well as the time of year. 

The best way is to go with how you feel but make sure you don’t go above the upper end of Zone 2. 

The more time you can spend in Zone 2 the better but if you find that you are getting too tired to do the harder workouts you should take more rest or spend more time in the recovery zone (1).

To a large extent, the more endurance riding you can do the more gains you will make but with a couple of caveats:

  • You shouldn’t be doing so much that you are too tired to do the harder workouts properly. If you are too tired, your heart rate won’t go up and you won’t be able to work at the required intensity. Build up gradually and be careful. Remember that a little less is much better than a little too much;
  • You won’t get fit by just sitting on a bike, you need to be riding hard enough to induce some stress and create a training stimulus. For this reason, you should be spending at least some time in your Training Zone 2 and review this regularly using your recorded heart rate data. There is no point training just to accumulate hours sitting on a bike.

Review your data

For each workout, you can check how much time you have spent in each of your training zones using a suitable application such as TrainingPeaks, Garmin Connect, Suunto, Polar, Strava, etc, some of which you have to pay for and some are free. A really good training diary and analysis application is Final Surge, which is free and very nice and functional. 

Check each workout to make sure that you are spending around the right amount of time in each zone. 

Check the time in zone for each week to see how your overall mix of intensities works against your plan and make adjustments to your plan based on your needs.

Bear in mind that if you are doing short intervals, of a minute or less, your time in the higher zones may be a bit less than you expect. This is because it takes time for your heart rate to react and consequently, you end up with less time in the target zone.

Remember to give yourself enough rest and recovery, if you don’t, rest properly, your body will force you to, probably when you don’t want it to.

That’s it – get out and train, enjoy it and watch your fitness improve.

Related questions

Should I do strength training? If you have time, doing some strength training will probably help your cycling and certainly should improve your endurance if you ride off road. I have written an article on how to schedule strength workouts within a training programme, which you might find useful. You can find it here: 

How do I know if I am improving? As you improve, you should notice that you are getting faster over routes you ride regularly and your heart rate isn’t any higher, or you are doing certain rides at the same speed, or riding with friends at a lower heart rate. You can also do tests using things like segments on Strava to tests your performance over shorter efforts. Don’t get carried away though, remember you can do too much and particularly you can easily do too much in the higher zones.

Good luck and have fun!

John Hampshire
Post by John Hampshire
April 29, 2020