When you pay attention to your life, you are bound to notice that things happen to you for a reason. And it all comes at the right time.
I have been thinking for a while that I would like to learn more about training with heart rate but as I always teach with power zones and nobody in my classes over the years has ever asked me for a guidance regarding heart rate zones, I kind of left it at the bottom of my list.
I revisited the idea a few months back but with the number of classes I would usually teach and the office job on top, and the Parkinson’s project and the book, and the fact that I teach a lot off the bike, using HR monitor on myself did not sound very useful.
However, some of my regulars do use HR monitors and they would often send me their graphs after the classes. It’s always great to see the pattern of the profile clearly reflected on the heart rate graph. I would never analyse it as to what HR zone they reached since I knew they were in the correct power zone, but it was great to see that the patterns of peaks and troughs aligned.
Now that I am stuck indoors without a power meter, I have the best chance I will ever have to ride using a heart rate monitor.
The other day I posted details regarding my set up and limitations of it. Training with heart rate is another kettle of fish entirely and it cannot be approached the same was as power training.
Firstly, HR is influenced by a lot of factors like sleep, nutrition, stress, caffeine, medication, illness etc. I have now done 3 rides using a HR monitor and a profile on Intelligent Cycling that is designed by HR zones. All these 3 rides were LED by HR zones.
WHAT IS YOUR MHR?
The first of these I did had 2 long intervals of 15 min under threshold. So around 87-90% MHR. And here is where the problem starts – what is your MHR? The Polar app that syncs with my HR monitor and the IC app both use some formula. The oldest one is 220-age but that is not accurate and doesn’t work for everyone. Any formulae that treat age as the most important factor assume that every year you get older, you get more unfit. I know a few 40, 50 and even 60-year olds that, especially in terms of endurance rides or runs, are fitter than a lot of people half their age.
In my case my MHR calculated in this old-fashioned way is somewhat lower than what I know I can do so I am currently working on working the max number out and adjusting it.
Today I did a ride that had 20 min warm up followed by 5 x 5 min intervals just under HR threshold with 2-2.5 min recoveries in HR zone 2. I started noticing something interesting during that ride that got me thinking and I will discuss it below. Then a couple of hours after I finished the ride, an e-mail from ICA landed into my inbox – a free webinar on HR training! I mean, what are the chances?
I watched it straight away and everything clicked into place.
THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR WHEN USING HR AS THE MAIN METRICS IN YOUR TRAINING
LIMITERS OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTROL
As I mentioned above, HR is your body’s reaction to workload. It simply shows you what price your body is paying for the work.
It is influenced by all the factors (and more) that I listed above. I have been getting loads of sleep and rest and relatively low doze of stress in comparison to the normal London life before the pandemic. I am therefore confident that these are not limiters in my case. However, I am riding in my living room and after about 30 min I do get really hot and I can see the steam rising from my arms and hands – this will influence my HR the longer I go on.
LIMITERS YOU CAN CONTROL – CHOOSE THE RIGHT PROFILE
The first profile I used for a ride guided by HR, 2 x 15 min, worked my better than 5 x 5 min. Why? Because the recoveries between the intervals at 2-2.5 min are not enough if you ride to heart rate. Let me explain.
Heart rate always lags behind – your body takes a while to react to increase or decrease in effort so when an interval is about to finish, around 30 sec before it does, I need to lower the gear so when the recovery starts, the HR will catch up and I will be actually recovering and not waste 30-60 sec on bringing the heart rate down.
The 2 min recovery is not really 2 min as I need about 40-60 sec (especially in the first two out of 5 reps) to bring the numbers up. Which means it’s not a 2 min but closed to 1 min recovery.
That is why in short intervals or recoveries like 2 min or less (let alone 1 min or 30 sec), following a HR is more of a hindrance then help and will only cause frustration as you won’t be able to hit the numbers.
Power on the other hand is instantaneous. You can be in power zone 1, and know what RPM and what resistance level (on IC7) you need to hit your threshold Z4 so with 2 sec to go you change the settings and off you go: Z4. Your HR zone will follow. At some point.
YOUR BODY IS TRICKING YOU
Let me reiterate the point I stated above: HR is your body’s reaction to workload. It is not equal to how hard you are working.
HR does not measure the actual effort that you are putting out. I found a proof for it in my ride this morning. As you get hotter and more tired, you need to watch for cardiac drift. That’s where you HR keeps going up, but your power goes down so if you were to use RPE it still feels like a 7 but if you had a power meter reading you would see that you are only in Z3. I do not have a power meter, but I now know what gear combination on my outdoor bike and turbo trainer set up I need to get, to hit the requires HR zone and spot on the RPE scale.
However, after being able to hit and hold 88% steady until round 3, I noticed that I would hit 90% or more after a couple of minutes and the only way to bring it down to align with the HR colour zone, was to gear down. That means that I was working less hard in order to stay within the right HR zone according to the profile. That was a great lesson.
I then went back to a few HR graphs that my riders sent me from our power led classes and yes, the peaks and troughs would match the work and recovery patterns but the HR readings would be going steadily up in each interval, especially when there were more than 4 or 5.
Remember: your HR is telling you that you are working just as hard, your brain is telling you the same but only the power reading will tell you the true story.
Therefore, working solely to heart rate zones, you will most probably be under-training.
THE POWER OF FOCUS AND STEADY BREATHING (AND OF STAYING SILENT)
Last year in Blackpool I did a ride with Sarah Morelli called the Art of Endurance. We would pedal within a certain RPM range then she would ask to slightly increase the resistance (I think we started in power zone 2) while keeping the RPM. The HR would respond within 30-60 seconds. Increase in power output, increase in HR. Our task was then to focus on our breath, relaxing our upper bodies and bring the HR back to where it was before the increase. We did that multiple times. Obviously, you cannot do it indefinitely, but my point here is that your HR can be manipulated. That is why if you sit up to take a drink, or say something to someone, or even if your mind starts wondering, you will see a difference in the readings. Sitting up will likely change your power output as well but other than that, if you stick to your RPM and resistance, the power output will stay constant. If you then start talking to someone, your HR will most likely spike, but the power will remain unaffected.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
How can I remedy this in my current limited set up? First, I will have to set up a certain gear, hit a certain RPM and then hold it for the duration regardless of what my HR does. Second, I have to forget about any work or rest intervals shorter than 4-5 minutes.
My plan for the next few rides is to choose a power profile that has long intervals under threshold and a playlist with clear beat. I am pretty good at gauging RPE. I will then ride to it and simply record my HR and see what it looks like later. I will share my results with you so keep an eye out 😊