A couple of months ago, I was riding with some friends when one asked me, “Do you use a heart rate monitor?”
“No,” I said. “I’m afraid if I saw the numbers, they’d scare me to death.”
My wife got a heart rate monitor a year ago, and used it when she went to workout classes. But lately, she hasn’t been taking it along. So last month, I asked her if I could use it. She fiddled with it a bit, and reset it to what we figured was my maximum heart rate, and I strapped it on and went for a ride.
My initial reaction was pretty much dead on. At the top of a healthy hill, I was at 169 beats per minute, two above my maximum heart rate of 167. Wow. I didn’t know whether to be proud or worried.
Since then, I’ve worn it on most rides (sometimes, I get all dressed and ready to go, and then I notice I’ve forgotten the thing) and I’ve been learning something about how I function. I’ve only gone above 167 once, although I regularly hit the low to mid 160’s. Of more interest to me is recovery time. When I do hit those high numbers, I drop down into the 130’s quickly.
When I bonked in the heat last week, my heart rate didn’t recover at its usual rapid rate. I was waiting for my wife to pick me up, sitting quietly in the shade of a tree, and the monitor still registered in the 120s. I had expected it to get below 100 beats, since, even though I was worn out from the effort, I wasn’t moving around much.
I’ve noticed several of the other guys on our Sunday B ride use HRMs, too. I guess that’s a good thing — at least we’re concerned about our health, and are taking steps to make sure we stay healthy.
But I’ve never really dug into the ins and outs of the gizmo. The “user manual” — a many-times folded over sheet of paper with tiny print — can’t be located, so I’ve never learned just what else I can do with the thing besides notice how fast my heart is beating. I suppose I’ll have to check around to see what kind of resources are available.
So, Noob readers — who else out there uses a heart rate monitor? What are some of the arcane figures I should be looking at besides top end and recovery time? And since my body is pretty good about letting me know when I’ve pushed it too far, do I really need to be using an HRM at all?
Giles from NH says
I guess one of the biggest things to using an HRM is the ‘training zones’ .. which are based on percentages of your max heart rate.. maybe 165-170 is your “zone 5” or maximum effort, whereas a lower range might be what to aim for during a tempo workout, and lower yet for recovery. If you want to make sure you are ‘taking it easy’ then watch your HRM and keep it below, say, 120. If you’re over that, relax, slow down…
That’s just an example, and the numbers I used are totally arbitrary. Joe Friel’s Cyclist’s Training Bible has good information about how to use an HRM.
Noob – I’m 51 and if I use the max HR calculation, I think I’m something like 165. That’s probably innacurate for me and for you as well. Those tables are tweaked for pretty sedintary folks (even in the athletic category). It’s a good idea to go in and take one of those tests and see what your actual HR (VO2) max is. I never have taken the test(like you I’m afraid they’ll tell me I should stick with bowling or something). My race rides usually average over 160 bpm and sometimes hit 190 on the top end (but my resting pulse unfortunatley is pretty high (68-70 bpm). Thats actually pretty normal, but you’ll never get a road rider to admit to that number. All my friends have resting HR’s of 40-45 bpm…..how can that be…everybody on our rides is Lance Armstrong !?? I think my VO2 max is about 188, I usually bonk after sustained effort there.
You are looking at the key numbers with recovery the most important. A bike strong heart recovers quickly after climbs or big exertions. Heat does affect that recovery rate.
Mike Weiland says
I have a book “Training with Heart Rate” that you are welcome to read/use. Since I’ve moved to training with power I don’t look too closely at my HR numbers. It was a good book and it went over the concept on how to train using heart rate and how to put together a plan with suggested workouts depending upon what zones you wanted to train. Let me know and I’ll bring it to the next Time Trial for you.
I laughed at your statement about going over your Max. How can that be if you are able to go over your calculated Max the calculations are wrong.
You need to get one of the books mentioned and observe your Max that will be your Max. I saw mine on the fifth repeat of Loving hill here in Dallas, I know it was my max because I had such tunnel vision I had to search my bars for the HRM. If my maximum heart rate is about that I don’t ever want to go there.
There is a good primer on training with a HRM here:
Note in the article that you don’t need to get a test to determine your max HR…you can get a more accurate value than the rule of thumb simply by monitoring your HR during your hardest efforts. Also note what he has to say about perceived effort (PE) training…and alternative to using a HRM.
Personally, I prefer using a HRM to PE.
When I first started using HRM I followed the instructions and based on my age, weight etc my max HR was supposed to be 172. I now have my max HR zone set for 175 to 190. Since I don’t race, I am very rarely in the 180+ range, and that usually happens when I do interval- and/or hill training.
During the ride I don’t pay attention to my HR, unless I follow one of the workout routines build into my Garmin and the routine calls for staying in a certain zone. But mostly I look at HR at the end of the ride after I upload the info to the computer. I much rather pay attention to cadence, but after a while even that becomes ‘feel’. In summary, often I don’t pay any attention to the gizmo and just ride, and then at home I go:”oh my, look at that”! 🙂
One thing I like to use mine for is making sure a recovery ride doesn’t turn into a training ride. I may have had a couple hard days on the bike, and just want to just loosen the legs up. Or maybe I’ve got a commute I need to do even though I’m tired and I don’t want to get carried away because I’ll be doing a longer ride the next day. So I’ll keep an eye on the HR monitor and try to keep it under 130. I’ll allow short exceptions if a traffic situation warrants it, but then I’ll try to get things back down asap. It’s a good way of keeping myself honest.
Although you can read books and web sites and calculate various training zones different ways, they don’t necessarily match what your body actually does or feels. But if you keep an eye on the monitor, after a while you’ll learn what certain numbers mean for you. Then once you have that knowledge, you can check the monitor to see if you’re going too easy or too hard in a given situation, which depends on what you’re trying to accomplish at the time.
As an example, here’s what I’ve found my body has told me:
180-190: Not going to last more than a few minutes like this. Need to back off or I’ll blow up. 188 is the highest I’ve seen. On a hard interval of 1-2 minutes, I should crack 180 before I’m done.
170-180: Hard hill climbing or trying to keep up with a fast group. Maybe can last 10-20 minutes like this. I tend to be in this range on the 8-mile Mopac time trial.
160-170: My lactate threshold seems to be around here somewhere. Too much sustained riding at this pace (like an hour) and my legs are going to be real sore and stiff later.
150-160: hard aerobic pace. Feels like I’m working.
140-150: easy aerobic pace. Feels like I’m working a little.
130-140: Not really aerobic, but just a touch of effort.
under 130: feels like casual riding. Good limit for a ‘recovery’ ride for me.
I don’t think the heart rate monitor is necessary for me, as I’m not a serious athlete, so I just have fun with it. You’re right that if you know your body, that’s good enough.
Oh, and I’m 40, so supposedly my ‘max’ is 180 (220-age for men). Like TFABL said, the formulas are conservative, so I wouldn’t worry if you are going over your theoretical max since you’re in good shape.