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Training Using Heart Rate
Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.
Setting aside hydration, illness and heat, thus assuming a well-rested and well-hydrated body, here are general training guidelines for training according to heart rate.
Aerobic training — train at 65-75% of your max heart rate, with short efforts to 85%. Spend most of your training time in this range, typically 70% of your hours should be in this range. The level of intensity should be near 65% of max heart rate zone for beginners, but may be raised to the 70-75% level as fitness improves. The effort level should be sustainable for least two hours.
Anaerobic training — push yourself for several minutes into the 80%-90% range, dropping back to aerobic level for some minutes, then repeating. Spend a total of 20-30 minutes in a workout at the 80-90% range, trying to learn where the “burn” starts— this is just above your anaerobic threshold*. Do this sort of training about once a week, and it will push your fitness level up considerably as your anaerobic threshold rises.
Threshold training — maintain a pace near where your legs start to feel the burn, oscillating just over and just under this pace. This is more advanced training, and should be done only with a very deep aerobic base of at least 3-4 months.
* anaerobic threshold is the point at which the body is making most of its energy without oxygen, and thereby generating approximately 4 millimole of lactic acid— the “burn”.
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Advanced and personal notes
Heart rate is a variable thing— when well rested and well-hydrated the heart rate “revs” freely. When overtrained or not rested, it rises sluggishly as if reluctant or sleepy— pay attention to such clues.
After some years of cycling, I found that key changes occurred in my fitness that altered my training regimen significantly. These only apply to a very high level of fitness gained over multiple years, and even then only by mid-season when I’m back in excellent condition:
- When in peak shape, I rarely ride at less than about 72% of max heart rate. It’s just not a problem to ride at 75% or a little more as a matter of course, even for long rides (but early in the season I might still be at the 70% or so range).
- Simulating race pace can only take you so far. I found that the best way to train for the Everest Challenge was to incorporate multi-hour rides at a steady race pace of 80-85% of max heart rate.
- Coping with heat— I learned to ride in hot and dry conditions similar to a race, often in the 90-100° F range. The Climb to Kaiser one year had my Polar heart rate monitor reading 125° F, with a vicious headwind (real temp was probably 115-118°F). Only by training in some difficult conditions can one tolerate such extremes, and even that is difficult for very long. Under such conditions heart rate is what it is— slow down, take in cold fluid and douse yourself with water and/or ice packs at a rest stop at every opportunity.
- When I reach peak condition, it became possible to ride for extended periods at what some misinformed books will tell you isn’t possible, but what I first learned from triathlete Mike Pigg, who told me that he raced at 90% of max aerobically. For example, I rode at 92% of max for 45 minutes one day. And I could ride at 88-90% of max for 90 minutes. What this means is that aerobic fitness can nudge right up towards the 90% of max heart rate level with enough training. Some context here— I recorded about 17 mm/liter lactic acid on a VO2 max blood test, which is quite a bit higher than most riders can tolerate (14 mm/l or so). Individual physiology varies.