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Heart Rate Zone Training by Cycling

author image Karen Krieg
Karen Krieg is a National Academy of Sports Medicine and American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer. Prior to beginning her work in health and fitness, Krieg worked as a research and policy analyst and press secretary on political campaigns. She is currently completing her Master of Science in exercise physiology at George Washington University.
Heart Rate Zone Training by Cycling
Senior cyclist on road Photo Credit diego_cervo/iStock/Getty Images

Cyclists are always pushing the envelope when it comes to their training regimen. A heart rate monitor is a critical yet simple tool that you can utilize to help you optimize your cycling training and reach your fullest potential, whether you are a novice or competitive athlete.

Getting Started

To successfully utilize a heart monitor as part of your training, first establish your maximum heart rate, or MHR. Maximum heart rate is defined as the fastest your heart can beat for one minute. There are many formulas and tests available to help you establish your MHR, such as the Karvonen Formula, which is 220 minus your age. Although simple, the numerical formula is a highly unreliable method for determining your predicted MHR.

A better way to establish your MHR is to do a field test. Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes, then perform two-minute intervals that you can sustain for four to six repetitions. Each interval should be performed at close to your peak effort, with the last effort being the hardest. At the conclusion of each repetition, note your heart rate. The last effort, being the hardest, should provide you with a good approximation of your current MHR. After completing the last repetition, make sure that you cool down for at least 10 minutes for proper heart rate recovery.

Heart Rate Zones

Establish heart rate zones to utilize throughout training after you've established your MHR. One of the more basic heart rate training plans for cyclists utilizes three different heart rate zones. Each zone represents a stage in each training session: Zone 1, which is 50 percent to 70 percent of MHR, is utilized during your warm up and cool down portion of your training; Zone 2, which is 70 percent to 85 percent of MHR, builds aerobic endurance and capacity; and Zone 3, which is 85 percent to 100 percent of MHR, is a high-intensity training zone that builds speed. The majority of training--from 80 percent to 100 percent of the total amount of training--should be in Zone 2. Because of the high intensity of Zone 3 training, it should be a small portion of your total training.

Aerobic Phase

Now that you have calculated your heart rate zones you need to apply them to your training plan. The majority of all training should be spent in the aerobic training Zones 1 or 2. Zones 1 and 2 provide you with the most benefits in terms of building the cardiopulmonary system, maximizing the body's ability to utilize stored fats and carbohydrates, and ultimately building overall fitness. The first phase of any training plan should include a dedicated period of time--at least two weeks to six months--to improve your overall aerobic endurance.

Anaerobic Phase

Once a solid foundation and aerobic base has been achieved, you can begin to focus on improving your performance. The anaerobic training phase should last between five and 15 weeks. This type of training simulates the types of efforts that might be encountered during a race, including the final sprint to the finish or the high-intensity endurance efforts throughout the race. Zone 3 training is difficult because of the high heart rate numbers, high level of intensity in the effort and the physical stresses it causes; spending too much time out of a total training plan working in this zone can actually be detrimental to your overall health and degrade your performance. A typical training plan should include no more than one to three high-intensity days separated by at least 24 to 48 hours of recovery. Working in these zones improves performance by improving the body's ability to tolerate lactate levels, increasing cardiac function and improving your overall ability to ride fast for longer periods of time.

Typical Training Plan

The one constant across all phases of aerobic or anaerobic training is the amount of time spent during the warm-up and cool-down phase. In order to avoid injury, it is critical that at least the first and last 25 percent of any training day include a warm-up and cool-down portion.

A sample training day would include 15 minutes of warm-up, followed by intervals performed in Zone 3 for between three and five minutes, followed by a recovery period in Zone 2 for a similar amount of time. Continue alternating the efforts, for a total of four to six sets, between the high intensity and recovery efforts. Follow up the effort with a cool down of at least 10 to 15 minutes. As your heart gets stronger, you can increase either the number or time spent in each interval.

Training and Heart Rate

As your overall fitness level improves, you should see a correlation between the increased intensity of your workouts and a drop in the effort of the heart during those intensity efforts. Recording your efforts will help you know when your training is effective, or when your body requires more rest and recovery. Your training plan should include progressive changes in the total volume and intensity of training, with a recovery week built in every four weeks. For example, increase the total volume of training by 10 percent week each of the first three weeks in the training cycle. The fourth week then would see a decrease in total volume of training to enable the body to be ready for harder workouts the following weeks.

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