A Simple Explanation of Heart Rate Zones for the Endurance Cyclist

Are you wearing a heart rate monitor to look cool or do you actually know what it tells you about your training? Do you know how to train effectively using heart rate zones? Do you even know what a heart rate zone is?

Many of us purchase a heart rate monitor with our funky new Garmin watch and strap it on to record our heart rate whilst we work out. Our coach may tell us to do a session using a particular heart rate zone. There are 5 commonly used heart rate zones. This article explains what the five heart rate zones are and gives you some quick tips to figure out your zones.

The zones are defined using a % of maximum heart rate or as a % of your lactate threshold heart rate. The latter is actually easier to determine in a home test than maximum heart rate. (You may have heard of the formula 220 minus your age as a method of calculating your maximum heart rate. This is a load of old bunk so ignore that and get testing.)


If you don’t want to spend heaps of money on a fancy laboratory test then it is possible to do a test at home. We use an indoor bike trainer to do a simple and quick home-made lactate threshold heart rate test rather than outdoors where conditions are hard to control. You may have to do it several times over the first few weeks of your training plan so you can learn just how much effort to exert throughout the test.

  1. Warm up for 10 mins
  2. Pedal in time trial mode for the next 30 minutes. Try not to blast out too hard and exhaust yourself. It should be a hard pace to maintain but not impossible.
  3. Press your interval start button 10 mins into the test. Continue for a further 20 mins and then stop the interval timer.
  4. Continue to pedal for a further 10 minutes after the completion of the test to cool down.
  5. Your LTHR is the average heart rate you maintained during the 20 minute test.
  6. Calculate the rest of the zones accordingly using the above OR by popping them into Training Peaks software (or having your coach do it).

If all the above sounds rather technical then simply use the last column to help you determine if you are working hard enough. For example, if your bike coach asks you to do a power interval at RACE PACE intensity and heart rate then push hard enough that you can barely speak but could utter 1 or 2 words from time to time. If you are finding that you could hold a longer conversation you are likely not trying hard enough.

However, out on your weekly ‘recovery ride’ ensure you chat whilst you pedal. If you find yourself breathing very hard and cannot hold a conversation then its likely you are going too hard – and therefore NOT RECOVERING like he or she asked you to!

Whatever your interest level in testing vs. feel then use this article to learn more about heart rate zones – remember, you gotta train SMART not HARD.

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