If you seriously want to get fit on your bike, you need to consider how you are going to monitor the intensity of your workouts. Our advice is to consider getting a decent heart rate monitor. This post includes a chart so that you can use perceived rate of exertion to start getting fit. However, we recommend that you use the precision of a heart rate monitor to take it to the next level.
Ways to Monitor Your Exercise Intensity
There is a range of ways to monitor your exercise intensity, ranging from very easy to very technical. And also from free to expensive!
Aerobic Training Zones: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and Related Heart Rate Percentages
The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is the easiest way to measure exercise intensity. In the chart below I have added in the heart rate percentages as well (more about that further down in this article). The RPE table used here is a simplification of the Borg Perceived Scale of Exertion.
|Zone 1 (Low intensity)||1 to 2||Light||I'm so comfortable I could do this all day!||Strengthens your heart. Contributes to reducing body fat, cholesterol, and blood pressure.||50% to 60% of maximum heart rate|
|Zone 2 (Weight Control)||3 to 4||Moderate||I can feel that I am exercising, but I feel good and can easily carry on a conversation||Strengthens your heart and your mitochondria (the powerhouses of your cells). Contributes to reducing body fat, cholesterol, and blood pressure. 65% of calories burned in this zone are calories from fat.||60% to 70% of maximum heart rate|
|Zone 3 (Aerobic)||5 to 6||Intense, but not exhausting||I am a bit breathless now, and I don't want to talk||Great zone for weight loss, strengthening muscle, and general fitness. Burns 50% carbs and 50% fat.||70% to 80% of maximum heart rate|
|Zone 4 (Anaerobic)||6 to 8||Intense and exhausting||Breathing is labored, and talking is not an option unless in cases of emergency. Most people should only do this in short spurts, 2 to 3 days per week||Improves both endurance and fitness. Cannot be sustained for long enough to be significant for weight loss.||80% to 90% of maximum heart rate|
|Zone 5 (Maximum)||9 to 10||As Intense as is Physically Possible for You||In this zone, you can only focus on the activity, such as cycling or running as fast as possible. Talking is out of the question. Loud grunts might be possible (think power lifting competitions).||Can only be done in short bursts, around 1 to 2 minutes. It is used to improve athletic performance, but comes with a high risk for injury. Mainly used as a training tool only by competitive athletes.||90% to 100% of maximum heart rate|
Using the above scale, an exertion level from 1 to 3 will keep you in the low middle of your aerobic training zone, and would be a good place for a beginner to start with aerobic exercising such as cycling.
Precision is Better than Guess Work
The chart above is based on your self-perception. Unfortunately, that can sometimes be way off. Personally, I used to under-exercise based on self-perception. I thought I was working way harder than I actually was!
So, if you seriously want to get fit, you should have a higher level of precision than just your self-perception. It’s better to actually know that you are in the correct training zone. It is also pretty much essential to be able to record how long you stay in the correct zone.
That’s where equipment such as a heart rate monitor comes in, or a smart watch, such as the Garmin Forerunner 745. This is an awesome tracker that gives you detailed daily workout suggestions based on your recent training load. It will also report on the intensity and volume of your seven-day training load, which is very helpful to prevent over-training.
That said, I get by just fine with my old Garmin Vivoactive Smart Watch, which is usually a lot cheaper than the Forerunner 745.
Video Showing How to Use the Garmin Vivoactive Activity Tracker
Here’s my video of how easy it is to use the Garmin Vivoactive smart watch. It has a built-in GPS and heart rate monitor to make monitoring your rides and heart rate a snap! I use my Garmin smart watch every day of my life, tracking everything from my steps to my bike rides to my swimming workouts to my hikes to my workouts. Thanks to this watch, I have records of my fitness activities dating back many years. I love that I have all these records. I find it very motivating.
Heart Rate Monitors are for Average Cyclists Too!
Don’t think that monitoring the intensity of your exercise is only for very serious cyclists and athletes. It is in fact very useful to monitor your cycling intensity, so that you can make sure you maximize your fitness gains for the time you put in. Otherwise, it is just too easy to under- or overestimate how hard you are training. Both are self-defeating. With under-estimation, you risk burning yourself out through over-training and exhaustion; with over-estimation of intensity, you won’t get much fitter.
For example, the last time I started a training routine, my first ride was 1 hour 20 minutes, mainly flat, but with about 20 minutes of continuous uphill. In terms of my RPE (rate of perceived exertion), I felt as if I had spent most of the time in the light to moderate zone (with some time in the heavy zone during the long uphill). So that should have been a reasonably good first training ride.
But then after the ride I checked my Polar Verity heart rate monitor. My heart rate monitor told me I had burned 782 calories (great – that’s a lot of red wine!) and that my heart rate had averaged 145, with a maximum of 174. That sounds great too.
A heart rate of 145 would put me at a training heart rate percentage of 77% , which is a good zone for building cardiovascular fitness. On the table above, that’s RPE 9, Aerobic capacity, very heavy exertion. But wait – there’s a catch. The heart rate monitor also tells me that I spent just 17 minutes and 35 seconds in my training zone. This tells me that I was seriously overestimating this ride as a training ride.
I was actually only getting a cardiovascular workout for 17.5 minutes (no doubt on that prolonged uphill). The average rate of 145 was obviously skewed upwards by my time on the uphill. Most of the time, my heart was probably just idling along.
I might as well have been riding the bus, for all the training I was getting for most of that ride!
A Heart Rate Monitor Can Motivate You to Train Harder
The heart rate monitor readings told me I was going to have to pick up the pace in future training rides – either go faster, or else do more uphills. It was a little depressing, but it was far better to have the knowledge, and pick up my pace, than to spend endless hours exercising while not getting much fitter at all.
In a nutshell, if you want to get the most from your exercise, you need to be quite precise about measuring the intensity of your exercise, which means you will need to spend a bit of money.
Think about Buying a Heart Rate Monitor
These days, good heart rate monitors are compact, reliable, and very affordable too. A heart rate monitor will help you to objectively monitor how intensely you are exercising. You will be able to be certain which aerobic zone you are in, rather than just taking your best guess.
Another big plus is that most heart rate monitors will link up with your fitness app. For example, the heart rate monitor in my Garmin smart watch links up to Garmin Connect, and also to Strava. So I can easily assess how hard I am training, just by looking at my records on my laptop or smart phone.
When you start off training, a heart rate monitor will make sure you are training hard enough to get some benefit, but not so hard that you will over-train. Later, when you progress to more advanced training, you won’t just be going for a bike ride. You’ll be using various forms of interval training, in which you do short bursts of heightened effort. My Average Joe Cyclist Beginner Cyclist Training Plan Part 2 describes an easy way to start doing interval training on your bike.
Consider Getting a Power Meter
It’s close to impossible to accurately monitor the intensity of interval training without at the very least a heart rate monitor. And if you want to get really precise technical, you could invest in a power meter. This is a device that you can fit to your bike that will measure your power output. This tells you exactly how hard you are pedaling. Over time, it is very satisfying to track how you are exerting more power with less cardiac effort.
You need to do interval training correctly in order to get real benefits from it. However, if you do, research has shown very clearly that the fitness training benefits are enormous. Basically, you can get fit much faster doing interval training.
Related Post: Science Shows HIIT on a Bike is the Best Exercise to Fight Aging – And We Show You How to Do it!
Choose a Decent Heart Rate Monitor
As with anything else, don’t buy poor quality. You don’t want something that is going to fail to synch properly, or experience interference from the other electric gadgets around. You also don’t want a cheap plastic strap that is going to scratch your chest. Luckily you can get a name brand heart rate monitor for as little as $90 from Amazon – such as this Polar band that attaches to your arm.
Or Just Get a Smart Watch or an Activity Tracker with an Optical Heart Rate Sensor
For many people, wristband heart rate monitors will be preferable. These are usually inside a smart watch or an activity tracker. These monitor your heart rate using an optical heart rate sensor on your wrist, so that you don’t have to wear a chest strap.
Related Post: 7 of the Best Fitness Trackers for Cyclists
Whatever device you choose, make sure that the display is large and clear enough so that you can read it while cycling. It should have a backlight that you can operate while cycling, even with gloves on. Think about whether all the information you need is on one screen, or if you will have to do a lot of scrolling with a button.
Manual Programming Capacity
It is essential that the monitor you use has the capability that you can manually program in at least one training zone. This will enable you to decide in advance what training zone you want to use. Then, you can set the monitor to give a warning beep if you are out of the zone. This means you can know you are in the right zone while cycling, without having to constantly look at the monitor. This is really not safe on a bike.
What Your Heart Rate Monitor Should Tell You
It’s not enough to just look at your average heart rate after the ride, or to know your maximum and minimum heart rate during the ride. You have to be able to know that you have spent most of the session in the correct training zone. In practice, almost any small device is hard to use while wearing gloves, so you ideally want a monitor that you can just set up and then ride, while keeping an ear out for the warning beep.
Most heart rate monitors will be able to generate a generic training zone, based on your age. Any basic heart rate monitor will automatically calculate your training zone, based on your age.
How to Calculate How Intensely You Should Exercise
Method 1: Let Your Device Do it For You
The basic old-fashioned way of calculating exercise intensity based on heart rate is fairly simple. First you calculated the maximum heart rate you can safely maintain. You did this by subtracting your age from 220. So the maximum heart rate for a 30-year-old would be 220 – 30, that is, 190. From this, you would achieve aerobic training by getting your heart rate to a certain percentage of that maximum heart rate for a period of time. This percentage might be anything from 60% to 80% (see table above).
So for a 30 year-old, the athlete would have to maintain a heart rate of between 114 and 152 to achieve varying levels of aerobic training benefit.
Many heart rate monitors have this exact calculation built in, so they can just automatically generate training zones.
Method 2: Do it Yourself to Make it More Specific and Accurate
However, the calculations performed by fitness devices are very generic. They do not take into account the fact that people may be starting their training plans at very different levels of fitness. This is not ideal, because individuals vary a lot. It’s better to figure out your training heart rate zone yourself, and then manually program it into the monitor.
You can do this with just a little math, and a heart rate monitor that is a little more advanced. A more advanced heart rate monitor lets you manually program in the zones you want to exercise in on specific days. This has the advantage that you can program your training zones, based on your own specific body and your training goals.
Calculating a More Specific Target Heart Rate Zone Using the Heart Rate Reserve Method (HRR)
The heart rate reserve method (HRR) can be used to calculate heart rate zones more accurately. Heart rate reserve uses the range from your resting heart rate to a predicted maximum. Below we show the formula. We use an example of the method for someone who is 55 years old, assuming a resting heart rate of 80 bpm and a training range of 60% to 75%.
- 220 – Age = 165 (HRmax)
- Subtract resting heart rate from HRmax: 165 – 80 = 85. This is the Heart Rate Reserve – HRR.
- Multiply the HRR times the percent that you want to train at. So for example if you want to train at 60%, you would multiply 85 x 60% = 51.
- The you add back the resting heart rate: 51 + 80 = 131.
- This tells you that to train at 60%, you should try to keep your heart rate around 131 bpm.
As you can see, you can get very precise from this. Just do the math, then program your heart rate monitor with a range that matches your desired level of training.
For example, our beginner’s training plan is based on exercising in the 50% to 60% range. This is equivalent to light to moderate RPE, which are Zones 1 to 3 on the chart at the top of this post. To do that, the person above would simply program their heart rate monitor to specify a range of 122 to 131 bpm, get on their bike, and go!
Bottom Line on Monitoring Your Heart Rate to Get Fit
You can try to get fit on your bike just by pedaling as much as you can every day. Or, you can train smartly, working towards planned goals, and monitoring your intensity all the way. Both approaches will get you fitter. However, there is no doubt that the second approach will yield much better results, much faster. It’s up to you. Either way, we wish you luck with your fitness goals
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