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The Wahooligan’s Comprehensive Guide to Heart Rate Training

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Whether you’re new to Heart Rate Training (HRT) or you’ve got a good pulse on how your workout intensity impacts your overall performance, the fact is HRT remains one of the premier ways to gauge your workouts to optimize your fitness.

Studies show that almost any athlete can benefit from HRT, and this is especially true for cyclists.

In a recent article from dailyburn.com, Benjamin Reuter, (Ph.D, CSCS*D, ATC and associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies at California University of Pennsylvania) says, “Heart rate is an easy way to monitor intensity of exercise, and you can use it to design a training program that challenges the cardiovascular system and improves aerobic fitness.”

That’s why we’ve built this comprehensive guide to help our Wahooligans understand terms and zones to mastering their heart rate.

Heart rate (HR) is the number of times your heart beats per minute as it pumps blood through your system. It’s your body’s response to the work you’re doing, so the harder your ride or run, the higher your HR.

Two of the most important numbers in HRT are your resting heart rate (the number of beats per minute while resting) and your maximum heart rate or MHR, (the highest number your heart contracts in one minute).

Finding Your Resting Heart Rate:

The best way to determine your resting heart rate is to take it first thing in the morning, every day for a week. (For most accurate results, do this during a week when you’re not sick or experiencing stress.)

Have a heart rate monitor? Simply put it on and lie down for a few minutes, staying as relaxed as possible. Note the lowest number you see and repeat the next day.

If you’re going old school, you’ll need to find your pulse – either on the inside of your wrist or on your neck – and count the number of beats you feel for one minute (or count for 30 seconds then multiply that number by two).

At the end of the week, average those numbers together by adding them up and dividing by seven. That number is your resting heart rate.

Finding Your Maximum Heart Rate:

Knowing your Maximum Heart Rate or MHR, you’ll be able to determine how hard (or easy) each of your workouts should be. However, It’s interesting to note your MHR can actually vary from sport to sport.

For example, your running MHR is likely higher than your cycling MHR.

That’s because MHR is dependent on the size of muscle groups being used, and running uses the largest muscle groups in the body. As a result, it’s crucial you determine your MHR individually for all of your athletic activities.

While it’s possible to take a stress test at your doctor’s office to determine your MHR, a way easier method is by using our Wahoo RunFit App. This free app takes you through a simple 3-step Heart Rate Validation Test to give you personalized heart rate zones and a base understanding of where you need to take your workouts. No calculations needed! (We’ll talk more about the Heart Rate Validation Test later.)

If you don’t have the app, use this method below as an option. All you need is your bike and a long, steady hill.

After a 15-minute warm-up, complete the following:

  1. Start off at a quick pace, increasing your speed every minute for five minutes, staying seated.
  2. When you can’t go any faster while sitting, get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds.
  3. Immediately take your heart rate for your maximum heart rate results.
  4. Go download the Wahoo Fitness App, which could have made it all easier!

Understanding Training Zones

HR can be segmented into five clear zones, ranging from Zone 1 (Very Easy) to Zone 5 (Max Effort). As you progress through HRT, discover how your body reacts to these different zones and how they’ll impact your workout.

Heart Rate Zone Very Easy RunFitZone 1: Very Easy / Recovery

Intensity: 50-60% of MHR

This is a great zone to burn fat. While low intensity may seem counterproductive to weight loss, your body actually uses fat as the fuel source in low-intensity workouts. Also called “active recovery” workouts, this zone assists in recovery from hard efforts by alleviating fatigue and soreness, and flushing out lactic acid from the body.

Stay in Zone 1 if you’re in recovery or want to ease into a larger program.

Heart Rate Zone Easy RunFitZone 2: Easy / Endurance Training

Intensity: 60-70% of MHR

This should be the foundation of your training and make up the bulk of your workouts, especially if you’re a beginner runner or cyclist. Build your base and burn fat at an intensity you should be able to comfortably hold for an extended period of time – all while holding a conversation and enjoying the scenery.

Zone 2 includes long-distance rides, runs and strength training. Use this zone to build up intensity. You’re working harder than active recovery, but not so hard that it’s uncomfortable.

Heart Rate Zone Moderate RunFitZone 3: Moderate / Aerobic Capacity

Intensity: 70-80% of MHR

Tempo runs, strength training, power and aerobic fitness typically fit within Zone 3 intensity. The best way to describe it is “comfortably hard.” You’re working, and you feel it. But you can keep pushing through.

Heart Rate Zone Hard RunFitZone 4: Hard / Lactate Threshold

Intensity: 80-90% of MHR

Also known as anaerobic threshold, this type of training is for athletes looking to increase performance. Exercises within Zone 4 include high intensity interval training (HIIT) and anaerobic exercises that increase maximum performance capacity, enhances lung capacity and improves high-speed endurance.

You’ll notice an increased burn in your muscles while attempting these workouts. Working into Zone 4 will make you faster and stronger. That said, this type of training is very challenging, it is best used in interval training with periods of active recovery.

Zone 5: Max Effort / VO2Heart Rate Zone Max Effort RunFit

Intensity: 90-100% MHR

This is one of the most intense types of training and cannot be maintained for the entirety of the workout — sustain for maybe 3 to 8 minutes at a time. Zone 5 is ideal for advanced athletes who want to push themselves and break plateaus.

Your legs will burn as you push forward, and you’ll be gasping for air. Your body will need serious recovery time after this very intense workout.

Remember: Like every new training program, it’s important to be mindful of your body’s response; if you notice yourself starting to feel dizzy or lightheaded, stop your workout. It could be a sign of over-exercising or dehydration. An excessive and abnormal spike in heart rate, pain in your chest, nausea, and lightheadedness can be symptoms of arrhythmia. If experiencing these symptoms, call 911.

Looking for a Customized, Effective Solution to HR? Meet the TICKR X.

We’re not sure who it was, but some brilliant weatherman discovered that all snowflakes are different. Each had its own unique pattern of crystals. To which a wise old coach added, “The same seems to be true with our bodies.”

So, we would like to ask: If your body is not like everybody else’s body, why would you want to train like everyone else?

If you’re serious about your fitness, a heart rate monitor is crucial to measuring the highs and lows of your workout and maximizing your workout efficiency to give you your true results, without the hassle.

Heart rate monitors were one of the first technologies runners could use to gauge training intensity, and over the past 35 years technologies like GPS watches, accelerometer-equipped foot- pods, wearable fitness trackers, and running power meters have enhanced the data available to runners and cyclists. The range of available tech has many athletes wondering whether the good ole’ heart rate monitor is still useful?

The simple answer is, yes.

While the old school way of taking two fingers to your wrist or neck does to determine your heart rate gets the job done, it can be difficult to derive an exact number in the midst of a workout – especially for cyclists — where removing one hand to feel for a pulse can be a little dangerous.

That’s where Wahoo’s TICKR X comes into play. Our heart rate monitors can help you adjust your effort so your heart rate falls within a specific zone in real time, every time.

The TICKR X tracks the upper and lower intensity limits of your workout program and then stores the data which can later be analyzed and optimized to help you make changes for more efficient training.

In addition, combining our TICKR X with our GPS bike computer, ELEMNT, allows you to easily view your heart rate – letting you adjust as needed and stay on target. The ELEMNT displays all of the stats you need during your ride, including speed, distance, ride time and a handy clock. You can also link both of these devices to various apps that assist in analyzing your data.

Don’t lose focus on your workout again. Become a more efficient athlete by knowing when to push harder and when to cut back.

This highly personalized approach to your fitness will allow you to become better attuned to your body. Pick out your TICKR and let us know how you feel after a few weeks of HRT!

More Ways to Test HR — Heart Rate Validation and CTS Field Test

Target Heart Rate Validation Test Made Easy with Wahoo’s RunFit App:

RunFit Download App

Looking for an effective way to get the specifics on your heart? We’ve simplified the Heart Rate Validation Test and done all the calculations and heavy lifting within the Wahoo RunFit App. But the science behind it is pretty interesting…

We know that every member of our Wahooligan family is different. The same is true for our hearts. Mother Nature creates differences when she designs the sizes and capacities of individual hearts, and like many other human traits, MHRs are distributed amongst the population along the standard Bell Shaped Distribution curve.  

If so, when calculating your Target Heart Rate (THR), zones may be completely wrong.  This would result in confusing and frustrating levels of effort and pace when working out.

Therefore, to ensure the validity of your THRs, we have developed a simple sub-maximal “stress test” that can help you estimate your own MHR much more accurately.

Our test system is based on a simple 1 to 3 scale that ranks effort from easy (Test Zone #1), moderate (Test Zone #2), and hard (Test Zone #3). The simple scale is matched with simple verbal cues of how you should feel (your perceived effort) at the different zones of work and pace levels.  

Don’t worry friends, this test is more like an “open book” test than a time trial. Take as much time as you need to cover the 1.5 miles while staying within our descriptions of the effort zones below. The RunFit app will take you through the test, capture distances, and heart rate, and do all of the math for you.

By following the test guidelines, you will get a very good estimation of your MHR. Your perceived effort is simply a subjective way of measuring how easy or hard you’re working. Here are the different target zones!

Test Zone #1:  

Slow Jogging at Easy Effort

Cover .75 mile (or 1200 meters) at a slow and comfortable pace, or at an easy effort. During this phase, you should be able to talk easily and barely notice your breathing. At this effort, you should not feel tired unless you went for many miles. The RunFit app will record your average HR over the last 4 minutes of the test. After .75 miles do not stop. Keep going to Test Zone #2.

Test Zone #2:  

Steady Striding at Moderate Effort

Accelerate to a somewhat uncomfortable pace over the next .50 mile to raise the effort from slow and comfortable to moderate. This pace should change from jogging to striding/real running. Your effort should make talking difficult enough to shorten your sentences enough that Hemingway would be proud. You should feel strong enough to sustain this pace for 10-15 minutes. (The RunFit app will record your average HR over last 3 minutes of the test) After .50 mile do not slow down. Move on to Test Zone #3.

Test Zone #3:

Rapid Running at Hard Effort

Pick up your effort to strong and hard as you accelerate the pace over the next .25 mile. This should feel quite fast, but not maximal. This effort should be sustainable for 3-4 minutes without straining or feeling that you are sprinting to the finish line. By the finish, you should have gone over your anaerobic threshold and be huffing and puffing pretty hard. (The RunFit app will record your final heart rate at the end of this 400m.)

Remember, this final lap or .25 mile is not maximal but a steady high-intensity rate. Avoid slipping into the pain, torture and agony levels of a heroic athletic effort. Our humanitarian values and good sense prevent us from letting you push yourself that hard — Besides, we promised that this was a sub-maximal test.   

Before you perform this test, be sure that you have used your heart rate monitor a few times and are comfortable with the data you see reported.

Or, if you’re looking for another alternative, check out the CTS Field Test, and see how just two 8-minute sessions can improve your cycling performance.

You don’t win the Tour de France by sheer will alone. The need to reach measurable benchmarks is crucial to athletes. You strive to lift heavier weights in the gym over time, so why shouldn’t that same logic be applied in cycling? Now, you can figure out your current level of fitness (and where to go from here) in just a few minutes.

Bringing hope to weekend warriors looking for lab-serious ways to track their cycling progress, the CTS Field Test was born from its original publication in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” in 2007.

It proved you don’t need a huge facility filled with sensors, trackers, and scientists; rather, just about 30 minutes, an HR monitor (like the TICKR), and some physical effort, to get real, accurate performance data.

What exactly is the CTS Field Test?

In short, the CTS Field Test is a quick performance exam, very similar to a HIIT workout. The data derived from this test can be plugged into a formula to help you determine your recommended training intensity.

In the book “The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 2nd Ed.,” author Chris Carmichael, explains that while you can output solid data from a 60-minute (or even a 20-minute) time trial, it isn’t realistic. Its difficulty for both professionals and amateur cyclists makes it challenging to maintain full-intensity for an entire hour.

Now with the proper conversion formula built specifically for the CTS Field Test, you can get predictably close to true lab results within just a half hour.

Here’s the simple, three-part CTS Field Test workout:

  • 8-minute, high-intensity start
  • 10-minute, easy recovery period
  • 8-minute, all-out finish

Just Two 8-Minute bursts? That’s it!

Keep in mind, the CTS Field Test initially produces metrics that are roughly 10 percent higher than an athlete’s lab-tested lactate threshold power output.

So no — the raw data isn’t a perfect representation of an athlete’s power at lactate threshold. Thankfully, researchers have already considered this factor; when you plug your data into the formula, you’ll be converting with this variance in mind. At least you’ll get your metrics without needing to pull out your abacus and fancy calculators.

As always, remember these are just numbers. If you’re not pushing yourself and training efficiently, you’ll never reach your goals. Performance metrics can help measure your progress, but it’s the effort on your bike or on the track that makes all the difference!

Other Factors to Keep in Mind When Understanding HR

The original premise behind HRT is that HR increases and decreases in response to the body’s demand for oxygen. At rest, those demands are light, so HR is relatively low. As you go from rest to walking to running – oxygen demand increases — thus, your HR rises to deliver oxygenated blood to working muscles.

An athlete’s HR can be correlated with intensity or pace, which is the basis of establishing HRT zones or ranges. Using a laboratory test or field test, or even data analysis within some watches and apps; you can find your maximum sustainable HR or your HR at lactate threshold.

Remember, this is not your MHR, but rather the HR associated with the fastest pace or highest intensity you can sustain for a prolonged period (10-20 minutes or up to an hour depending on conditioning). Training software can then apply percentages to that value to establish training zones.

Sounds great, right? But there’s just one problem.

HR is a response to the work you’re doing, not a direct measure of work.

A wide range of factors influences HR, for example, when you’re hot, heart rate typically increases. Caffeine and other stimulants increase HR. Improved fitness can reduce HR response at a given pace. Fatigue can suppress HR, and certain medications can either increase or decrease it. Hydration status can also push HR in either direction. Nervousness, stress, sadness, anger – even love – can all affect HR too! And more than one of these factors can influence your HR at the same time.

So, then HR seems pretty useless, right?

Wrong! Just remember to look at your HR in context with your other information. The simplest way to do that is with the triad of heart rate, pace, and perceived exertion.

Where Perceived Exertion Trumps Heart Rate

Just as it’s important to know how to leverage the data heart rate provides, it’s also important to recognize when it’s not likely to be a reliable gauge of intensity.

Trail Running is one example.

HR is a response to actual work, but there is a lag between the work you do and when you can see that work reflected in your HR.

On flat ground, rolling hills, or a treadmill the lag is less of a problem. On trails, the grade, surface, and technical challenges change so quickly that HR can’t keep up. When you charge up a short, steep rise on the trail, your HR will still be rising as you’re running down the other side. Similarly, HR won’t fall as much descending a technical trail compared to cruising downhill on a smooth park path.

Altitude is another factor affecting HR.

At any given effort level HR increases as you travel to higher elevations. This is typically not noticeable until you surpass about 5,000 feet above sea level, but as you go higher, the effect gets progressively greater. A lot of factors combine to determine your individual response to altitude, including fitness level, acclimatization, and hydration status.

For trail running and trips to altitude, perceived exertion is the best available intensity gauge.

Fixing Problems in Real Time:

The great part about using the triad of heart rate, pace, and perceived exertion is that when they indicate something is off, you can often use the same information to fix the problem.

Here are a few examples that demonstrate this. Please keep in mind, these scenarios and solutions may not exactly match your needs.

Ex. 1: 140 beats per minute, 10:00 min/mile pace on flat ground, PE of 7 out of 10

Perceived exertion is higher than normal at a pace that should feel easier, and HR is lower than normal for the pace and perceived exertion. HR may be suppressed by fatigue, meaning the effort required to achieve a 10:00 min/mile pace feels harder than it should. In this scenario, pushing harder to raise the rate to 150 will feel way too hard and is not advised. It is more likely you need some rest.

Ex. 2: 165 beats per minute, 10:00 min/mile pace on flat ground, PE of 5-6 out of 10

HR is abnormally high given the pace and exertion. Assuming 165 is a still a reasonable HR, you may be able to keep running at this pace. At the same time, you’ll want to figure out potential causes for the high HR. Is it hot out? Is your skin or core temperature elevated (even indoors)? Are you dehydrated? Did you eat or drink something with a lot of caffeine or other stimulants? When heat and dehydration are likely causes, take steps to fix the problem by slowing down, dousing yourself with water, draping with cold towels, and consuming cold fluids.

Looking for more?

Check out these other useful blogs to find out more about HRT techniques and workouts specifically designed for you!

The Ultimate Guide to Tracking Your Cycling Heart Rate

Target Heart Rate Test Guide

Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Training

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