When I started racing ultra-distance in the 1980s riders were just starting to use heart rate monitors. Now they’re ubiquitous. Healthline just published a review The 10 Best Heart Rate Monitor Watches of 2022. Some of the fancier so-called smart watches give you training zones based on your maximum heart rate. Walk into a gym and there’s probably a chart on the wall with training zones also based on your max heart rate. Both the watches and the chart use the formula of (220 – your age) to estimate your max heart rate. The formula is based on averages and not very useful. The averages are derived from a cross-section of people ranging from coach potatoes to life-long athletes. Even among similarly fit cyclists max heart rate will vary because it is largely a function of genetics.
Coaches Don’t Use Max Heart Rate
Andy Pruitt’s Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists explains, “As the intensity increases, your body reaches a point at which it can no longer remove lactate as quickly as it is produced, and lactate begins to accumulate in the blood. This is called the lactate threshold (LT). … Coaches or physiologists prescribe specific exercise intensity training zones based on LT.” [pages 118-119] Lactate threshold is also called the anaerobic threshold.
In the 2009 Cyclist’s Training Bible Joe Friel gives training zones based on Rate of Perceived Exertion(RPE) and on Lactate Threshold (LT). [pages 44, 48]
Cutting Edge Cycling by Hunter Allen and Stephen S. Cheung, PhD. cites Friel’s zones. [page 44]
Training zones are defined by RPE, LT and Functional Threshold Power (FTP) in Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan Ph.D. Introducing their training zones they write, “Determining the appropriate number of levels [zones]… is somewhat tricky; the number is bound to be arbitrary because the physiological responses to exercise really fall on a continuum, with one intensity domain simply blending into the next.” [pages 52 – 54]
My Training Zones
I train by RPE and depending on my clients’ preferences I define their workouts by perceived exertion, heart rate or power. My training zones are based on Allen and Coggan’s zones. RPE is on a 10-point scale. 1 is barely moving and 10 is riding flat out. RPE numbers overlap because intensity is a continuum. Lactate threshold (LT) is the highest average heart rate a rider could sustain for a one-hour time trial. Functional threshold power (FTP) is the maximum power average power rider could sustain for a one-hour TT.
|% of LT
|% of FTP
|Easy spinning; active recovery.
|2 – 3
|Classic long slow distance; continuous conversation.
|69 – 83%
|56 – 75%
|3 – 4
|Hill climbing and headwind pace. Can talk in short sentences but not whistle.
|84 – 94%
|76 – 90%
|5 – 6
|Can’t talk. Racing a TT or up a sustained hill
|95 – 100%
|91 – 100%
|6 – 7
|Classic hammering pace.
|101 – 105%
|101 – 105%
|Maximum effort for a few minutes with eyeball bulging out.
- Why I Coach by Intensity explains the important benefits of training at different intensities.
Heart Rate Isn’t Everything
With smart watches riders tend to focus just on heart rate. Friel writes, “With heart rate monitors, many athletes largely ignore their RPE and focus solely on what their heart rates are. Although it can be useful to know your heart rate when training, heart rate is not the only metric that should be monitored. In fact, doing so can actually cause problems. Why? For one thing heart monitors do not give you a complete picture of the body’s workload. Nor do they necessarily even give you an accurate picture, as many factors besides the workout itself — such as heat, diet and stress, to name a few — may affect heart rate.” [Cyclist’s Training Bible, pages 44-45]
Friel gives a number examples of the importance paying attention to RPE as well as heart rate. These examples are from my own coaching experience.
Bill writes, “My watch said I wasn’t recovered so I skipped the workout.” I ask, “How did you feel?” “I felt fine.” “You should have ridden.”
“Sam says, “My resting heart rate was up this morning so I wasn’t recovered and starting to overtrain.”
Allen and Cheung write about overtraining, “HR measures cannot be used as a single indicator of overtraining.” And “The reliability of heart rate recovery from either maximal or submaximal treadmill exercise has proved to be low, making reliance on it as a diagnostic indicator of recovery problematic.” [Cutting Edge Cycling p. 109]. Your smart watch hasn’t read the literature on overtraining syndrome (OTS).
- I wrote a column on 12 Tips to Avoid Overtraining.
Al a 65-year-old prospective client says he’s in good shape because his max heart rate is 165 bpm. Test a dozen couch potatoes his age and one or more will have a max heart rate near 165 bpm because genetics are the primary determinate of max heart rates.
I start working with Joe who tells me he’s been doing intervals at 155 bpm. Without more information I don’t know if this is good performance or not. Periodically I test each client to estimate the client’s lactate threshold. Joe’s LT is 160. Joe is doing very hard intervals near the top of zone 4, which would be appropriate if he’s a racer. But Joe is a recreational endurance rider.
Allen and Coggan use the Sweet Spot in addition to their zones. Training in the SS is the optimal way to increase sustained power. The Sweet Spot is 4 – 5 RPE and the rider can talk in short phrases but not complete sentences. The SS is 93 – 97% of LT and 88 – 94% of FTP. “We encourage the athletes we work with to train heavily in this area at the beginning of racing season before moving into training right at their FTP [my zones 4 and 5].” [pages 81-82]
My column last week was Anti-Aging: Train in the Sweet Spot.
Joe’s training high in zone 4 is great for chasing down breaks. However, as an endurance rider Joe should ride less intense but longer intervals to develop sustained power. And he can skip the harder zone 4 intervals.
- My column on 6 Kinds of Intensity Training explains the different kinds of intensity training. Each of the six kinds brings about different adaptations. This column explains how to pick the right kind to meet your goal(s).
Doug tells me he quit his intensity workout because he couldn’t get his heart rate up and he thought he wasn’t recovered. “How did you feel?” “I felt strong.” “You should have done the workout.” Or the opposite, “I couldn’t keep my heart rate down in the Sweet Spot and I was afraid I was overdoing it.” I then ask, “Were you gasping for air and about to barf?” “No. The SS repeats were hard but didn’t feel any harder than last week.” I told Doug, “You were in the SS as long as the intervals felt about like last week; you could still talk in short phrases. You should have kept going.”
I tell clients on an endurance ride they should be in zone 2 on the flats and climb in zone 3 as much as possible, not harder. Mike was supposed to do his longest ride so far: 50 miles. “I quit after 35 because I couldn’t keep my HR down in the zones unless I was just crawling along.” I explained cardiac drift can occur on endurance rides. As your heart fatigues it doesn’t pump quite as much blood per stroke so it has to pump faster to keep suppling oxygen and nutrients. Unless he was struggling, he should have kept pedaling.
Maximum heart rate doesn’t indicate fitness. Zones based on lactate threshold (anaerobic threshold) are useful in combination with perceived exertion. Depending on why you ride and any specific goal(s) the appropriate levels of intensity training are a function of your goals. You don’t need a heart rate monitor or power meter — perceived exertion works.
- My column Training by Perceived Exertion explains the advantages of using RPE instead heart rate
- After you’ve decided what kind of intensity training is best for you, my column Intensity Training for Maximum Benefit explains how to do intensity training.
You can download from my website under Free Downloads a free spreadsheet Training Zones to determine your training zones.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond.
The book explains why intensity training is important for older riders. It includes how to do intensity exercise and different intensity workouts. It describes the pros and cons of gauging intensity using rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and power.
It explains how to get the most benefit from your endurance rides. It has sample training plans to increase your annual riding miles and to build up to 25-, 50-, 100- and 200-mile rides. It explains why both endurance and intensity training are important and it integrates endurance and intensity training into an annual plan for optimal results.
Anti-Aging describes the importance of strength training and includes 28 exercises for lower body, upper body and core strength illustrated with photos. It includes an annual plan to integrate strength training with endurance and intensity training. It also has 14 stretches illustrated with photos.
Anti-Aging includes an annual plan to put together all six of the aspects of aging well: cardiorespiratory exercise, intensity training, strength workouts, weight-bearing exercise, stretching and balance. The book concludes with a chapter on motivation.
Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook is $15.95 ($13.57 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.