If you’re planning to get fit, or maybe even want to train to do a charity bike ride, consider how you are going to monitor the intensity of your workouts – and consider getting a decent heart rate monitor. This post shows how you can use perceived rate of exertion to start getting fit, and recommends that you use the precision of a heart rate monitor to take it to the next level.
There is a range of ways to monitor your exercise intensity, ranging from very easy to very technical. The simplest way to monitor intensity is to use self-perceived exertion. The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is the easiest way to measure exercise intensity. In the table 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.
Aerobic Training Zones: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and Related Heart Rate Percentages
|1 (Recovery)||1 to 2||Very light||I'm so comfortable I could do this all day!||40% to 45%|
|2 (Endurance)||3 to 4||Light||I'm a bit sweaty, but I feel good and can easily carry on a conversation||46% to 50%|
|3 (Tempo)||5 to 6||Moderate||I am a bit breathless now, but I can still talk||56% to 60%|
|4 (Lactate Threshold)||7||Somewhat heavy||I guess I could talk if I had to, but I really don't want to, plus I'm sweating like a race horse||61% to 67%|
|5 (Above Threshold)||8||Heavy||If you must ask me a question, don't expect me to do more than grunt. I need to stop soon.||68% to 75%|
|6 (Aerobic Capacity)||9||Very heavy||I am probably going to die||76% to 80%|
|7 (Anaerobic Capacity)||10||Very, very heavy||I think I just died||81% to 85%|
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.
However, if you seriously want to get fit, you should have higher levels of precision than just your self-perception. It’s better to actually know that you are in the desired zone, and also to be able to record how long you stay in it. That’s where equipment such as a heart rate monitor comes in, or a smart watch, such as the top-rated Garmin Vivoactive HR.
Here’s my video of how easy it is to use the Garmin Vivoactive activity tracker, which has a built-in GPS and heart rate monitor to make monitoring your rides and heart rate a snap!
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 the fairly basic Polar heart rate monitor I used. 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!
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. I’ll never get in shape for a more challenging charity ride that way!
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 monitor – in a very objective way – how intensely you are exercising. In terms of the table above, you will be able to be certain which zone you are in, rather than just taking your best guess. Below is one of the better heart rate monitors, the Polar FT7 Heart Rate Monitor.
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.
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 technical, you could invest in a power meter.
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.
How to Choose a 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 the Polar Heart Rate monitor I reviewed here.
Women cyclists especially need a strap with a softer, predominantly fabric strap, as it may have to be positioned under the bottom of their bra. Recently wristband heart rate straps have also become available. And of course, you can get yourself a Fitbit, which will monitor your heartrate using an optical heart rate sensor on your wrist, so that you don’t have to wear a chest strap.
In general, if you want to have higher levels of precision than just your self-perception, consider using equipment such as a heart rate monitor, a fitness tracker, or a smart watch, such as the top-rated Garmin Vivoactive HR.
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, of if you will have to do a lot of scrolling with a button.
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, and 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 (which is really not safe on 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. A basic heart rate monitor such as this Polar heart rate monitor (reviewed here) will automatically calculate your training zone, based on your age.
How to Set up a Heart Rate Monitor to Train Smart
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, including the Polar Heart Rate monitor, have this exact calculation built in, so they can just automatically generate training zones. However, this is very generic, and does not take into account the fact that people may be starting their training plans at very different levels of fitness. This is really 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 better than this with just a little math, and a heart rate monitor that is a little more advanced (so you can program in the zones you want to exercise in on specific days). The Polar RS300XC heart rate monitor is a bit more expensive, but has the advantage that you can manually program your zone, based on your own specific body (see below) and your training goals.
Calculating a More Specific Target Heart Rate Zone
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 are the formula and an example of the method for someone 55 years old, assuming a resting heart rate of 80 bpm and a training range of 60% and 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, the beginner’s training plan (see tomorrow’s post) is based on exercising in the 50% to 60% range (light to moderate RPE, Zones 1 to 3 on the table). 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!
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