Cycling is like any other form of exercise; you’ll only get as much out of it as you put in. While a leisurely ride through the country is sure to provide you with plenty of entertainment and fresh air, it won’t have the same effect on your body as a gruelling series of high-intensity intervals.

Fortunately, we’ve a means of easily quantifying the effort we put in, thanks to our heart- rate, measured in beats per minute. The faster the heart beats, the more blood it’s able to pump in a given timeframe. It’s for this reason that our heartrate rises as we exercise – the cells of our muscles demand more oxygen, and thus our heart rate rises to compensate. The harder we work, the greater the increase.

The more powerful the heart becomes, the fewer beats it’ll need to deliver the same amount of oxygen to your organs – and thus you’ll be able to do greater feats of endurance with apparently the same effort as your fitness increases. Whether you’re cycling for weight loss, endurance, or to improve your general fitness, this is important stuff! To build fitness in this way, however, we need to ensure that we’re taxing the heart every time we exercise. To do this, we need to look at training zones.

What are Training Zones?

Cycling heart rate zones are bands of heart rates. As your session progresses, you’ll want to transition between them to reach your target rate.

Active Recovery

If you’ve exerted yourself considerably the day before, you might find that you’re suffering from soreness. To alleviate this, and help your muscles to recover, try a very easy session in the ultra-low- effort ‘active recovery’ zone. If you’re doing intervals, you’ll be interspersing your exertions with stretches at this level, and it can also form part of a gradual warm-up or cool-down routine.


The ‘endurance’ zone is where you’ll be doing most of your long-distance cycling. You should be intimately familiar with the sensation of this amount of work – and you’ll use it as a basis to build to more taxing zones. You’ll be able to maintain a conversation, but not without a little bit of focus.


This is where things get a little more serious. At this level, fatigue will gradually build in your legs until you can’t bear any more. Conversation will start to become challenging. This tends to be the default race-level for more experienced long-distance riders – but it requires concentration to maintain for extended periods, and thus newer riders might restrict themselves to just a few minutes at a time.


Technically speaking, the ‘functional threshold’ is the highest amount of effort you’ll be able to maintain for a solid hour. Of course, knowing exactly where this red line is can be difficult, and you’ll need years of practice (or a monitor) before you’re able to keep it consistent.

VO 2 Max

This is the effort at which you’re taking in the maximum possible volume of oxygen. As such, you won’t be able to speak at all when you’re at this level – you need every breath you can get! At this level, your legs will burn very quickly – and thus you’ll want to restrict each session to between three and eight minutes.

Anaerobic Capacity

Finally, we have your anaerobic capacity. This is the maximum possible effort you’ll be able to sustain for any length of time – it’s reserved for those sprints to the finish line. At this level, monitoring your heart rate is largely pointless, as you won’t be doing it for longer than a minute at any one time, and thus your heart won’t be able to respond quickly enough.

How to Track Your Heart Rate

As you gain more cycling experience, you’ll be able to form a more intuitive understanding of exactly how much effort you’re putting in. But a lot of guesswork is involved here – even if you’ve been in the saddle for decades. Fortunately, there’s a better, technological, solution at hand.

A cycling heart-rate- monitor allows you to keep track of your pulse as you ride, and thus keep yourself in the required zone at each stage. You’ll also be able to keep track of your heart-rate when you aren’t in the saddle, and diagnose problems with a lack of energy. A high resting rate might be a sign that you need more recovery time, while a lower one means that you’re making progress.

Nowadays, heart rate monitors are available in convenient, wrist-mounted form. The Fitbit has been around for several years now, and other manufacturers like Apple are incorporating heart-rate monitoring into their watches, too. Devices of this sort work by pulsing light into the skin and then measuring the reflection, using an algorithm to determine your actual heart rate. They’re great for monitoring your activity when you’re off the bike.

For greater accuracy, however, you’ll want to opt for a chest-strap heart rate monitor. These sample the signal from your heart more frequently, and measure the electrical pulse produced by the heart at each contraction. They’re also less prone to moving around, as they’re clamped into place around your chest. For these reasons, they’re able to measure your actual heart-rate during the session more accurately.

When tracking your heart rate, you’ll want to bear in mind that myriad factors play a role on exactly how fast your heart beats. A warmer environment will produce a higher heart rate, and this should be accounted for if you’re doing interval training during summer. Nutrition, too, plays a role. It’s for these reasons that your resting heart rate will fluctuate over the medium-term, and so it’s best to focus on your progress over months rather than days.

In Conclusion

Whichever sort of monitor you opt for, and however you choose to structure your sessions, the data provided by a decent heart-rate monitor will allow you to make the best use out of each riding session. Riding is a powerful way of bolstering your personal fitness – and paying attention to your heart-rate is a fantastic way of wringing the maximum benefit from each session!
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