How To Get The Most Out Of Your Heartrate Monitor

Cycling computers with heart rate (HR) monitors and other high-end features, such as GPS tracking and the ability to collect power information, are becoming more affordable. Strapping a computer on your bike nowadays seems to be as common as adding a water bottle cage. The MBA wrecking crew includes everyone from enthusiasts to hardcore racers, and we know riders at all levels who use $500 cycling computers and heart rate monitors as if they were merely stopwatches. Watching your heart rate go up and down as you ride can be a good learning experience, especially if you are new to the technology, but what good is that information once you get past the novelty of having it in the first place? If you are looking to become a stronger rider and you aren’t using a heart rate monitor, you may be leaving a lot of your potential untapped.


Having heart rate information gives you guidelines for training smarter and making the most of your time on the bike. Understanding what the numbers mean can help you pace yourself during long trail rides to ensure that you don’t bonk miles away from civilization. This information can also help keep your output right on the limit without going over. We have found that we are more likely to use our HR information to tell us to slow down rather than speed up.


If you have a specific event you are training for, an HR monitor can be your best friend. Replicating a race scenario is made easier by taking into account the length of the event and difficulty of the course. For marathon events, the training will be much more focused on endurance than a typical cross-country race or even a downhill race with fast sprint sections, which would be focused on a higher intensity output for a shorter amount of time.

Your overall training workload can be monitored as well. Overtraining can be a common problem if you are especially excited for an event and feel as if you need to do everything possible to prepare yourself. By limiting the number of days you spend training at a high intensity, you’ll leave enough fuel in the tank to go hard on race day.


There are as many theories on heart rate numbers as there are bike companies, and there isn’t one correct approach for everyone. However, a great starting point is to use heart rate zones. The idea of heart rate zones is that by taking a percentage of your maximum heart rate (the fastest your heart can beat during your hardest effort), you can determine how hard you should be pushing yourself on a ride to build your overall fitness.

The first step is to determine your maximum heart rate. The old rule of thumb for this is 220 ? (your age) = max HR. However, this is broad, and more than likely your actual number will differ. There is nothing like real-world testing to find your true maximum heart rate, and here is a good way to go about it.

First, it really helps if you have an HR monitor that will download information to a personal computer. You will find it almost impossible to monitor your heart rate while on the bike and near your maximum heart rate. Why? When your heart is redlined, you are pushing your engine to the limit. This is not an ideal time to leisurely check a monitor on your bar and make mental notes. If you can look at the data after the ride, it will make a lot more sense.

Once you have downloaded and analyzed your HR information on your computer, you should be able to see what your max HR was on any given ride. After several hard rides, or a test where you push yourself up a climb as hard as possible, the number will be evident.


From here we like to stick with the parameters that websites such as Garmin’s training interface, Garmin Connect, use for dividing your numbers into five zones. Each zone represents a building block in your overall fitness. The amount of time you should spend in each zone is determined by what you are looking to accomplish.

Zone 1 (< 60% max HR): Many refer to this as the “recovery zone.” It is important to spend some time spinning the day after a long or especially hard ride. It is often difficult to ride at such an easy pace on a mountain bike due to the nature of the varying terrain. For this reason, we look for flat or gradual fire-road rides.

Zone 2 (60-70% max HR): This zone is usually used for building endurance. Longer hours in this zone are crucial to building a better foundation for your overall fitness.

Zone 3 (70-80% max HR): Zone 3 is where you get into building aerobic capacity and is often referred to as “tempo” or “race pace.” This is where most spend the majority of their time on rides.

Zone 4 (80-90% max HR): This zone gets into building your lactate threshold. Your threshold is the maxi- mum output you can sustain for an hour. It is not often that you will need to put your threshold to the test for a full hour, but training to increase it makes you stronger in shorter durations as well.

Zone 5 (> 90% max HR): Zone 5 is where your maximum effort occurs. The upper end of this scale is most commonly referred to as “anaerobic endurance” and “capacity.” This is the zone where you spend the least amount of time, as it builds your capacity for short, intense efforts.

With these numbers in mind, it becomes easy to start regulating your efforts on the bike. There isn’t one perfect tool for monitoring your output. The human body is complex, and out- side factors (e.g., the amount of sleep you get or your diet) will affect your perceived exertion from day to day, regardless of what your heart rate is telling you. We have found it useful to ride normally for a couple of times out, but with these new numbers in mind. Gaining new insight into your training habits is an important step in making any necessary changes to improve as a cyclist.






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