Heart rate and cycling

4 min read

Heart rate can be a divisive subject amongst cyclists, mainly due to how technical and scientific it can get. We debunk a few myths around heart rate and cycling and give you a digestible explanation for the things that matter most to you, like how to determine your max heart rate when cycling and how cycling affects your heart rate.

 

How to determine max heart rate cycling

Most athletes, both amateur and professional, will need to know at some point what their max heart rate should be when cycling. It’s a useful metric and can help you to know when to push harder and when to ease off the gas. 

One of the most common ways to determine max heart rate is the simple formula: 220 minus your age. This is a great way to find a general benchmark, and if you’re a weekend warrior who enjoys time on an indoor trainer a few times a week with a club ride thrown in at the weekend, this will suit you just fine. 

However, a lot of coaches, athletes and cycling professionals disregard this equation for being too simplistic, and we can’t really blame them. This equation assumes that everyone of a certain age will have the same maximum heart rate, which simply isn’t true. Factors that can affect your maximum heart rate include current fitness level, stress level, genetics, and even the temperature. 

Wattbike heart rate strap

You can determine your max heart rate on the Wattbike Hub app, by completing a performance test. Once completed, the Wattbike Hub will automatically update your profile to adapt workouts to your ability. 

 

1. The Health Assessment Submax Test 

This will estimate your Maximum Minute Power (MMP) and Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) and give you an age and gender-related fitness score. You can use this information to set personalised training zones, give structure to your training and inform your fitness compared to your age grouping.


Suitable for:Anyone, particularly those who are new to their fitness and performance journey. 

 

2. Max Ramp Test

This is the ‘gold standard’ test designed to find and record your MMP and MHR. The test increases the target wattage in set increments every minute until failure.

Suitable for: Those with a high or exceptional level of fitness. The test should not be attempted if you are a beginner or have been recently ill or injured.

 

While it’s true that your maximum heart rate does decrease with age, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing and certainly doesn’t mean you’ll automatically lose your fitness over the years. What’s important is how long you can sustain an effort at MHR (maximum heart rate). This is something you can train for, but even experienced professional athletes will only be able to maintain MHR for a few minutes. Don’t worry - if you try to stay at MHR for too long your heart won’t explode or any other crazy myth you may have heard. Your body will simply slow you down as a form of self-preservation. 

 

Heart rate zones explained 

One of the main reasons for calculating your maximum heart rate (MHR) is so that you can then identify your five heart rate training zones. Knowing which heart rate zone you’re training in is vital so that you can know how hard to push and make sure each training session is as valuable as it can be.

As with the calculation for maximum heart rate, you can get very technical and specific with heart rate zones, but unless you’re a professional competitive athlete, this really isn’t necessary, so we’ll keep it nice and simple here. Once you’ve worked out your MHR, you can use the table below to calculate your five heart rate zones. This table is specific to cycling and may vary to heart rate zones you see for activities like running or swimming.

 

Heart Rate Zone

% of MHR

Perceived Effort

How It Feels

Zone 1

60-65

Easy

You can easily hold a conversation

Zone 2

65-75

Steady

You feel like you could do this all day

Zone 3

75-82

Brisk

You start to break a sweat

Zone 4

82-89

Hard

You start to feel the burn

Zone 5

89-100

Maximum

You are giving it your all

 

How to keep heart rate low whilst cycling

Cycling is different from running and swimming in that there’s the external element of the bike to consider. For this reason, the way cycling affects your heart rate is different when compared with running or swimming. Because of the assistance of the bike against forces like gravity, your maximum heart rate will be lower when cycling than when running or swimming. 

In general, a lower, slower heart rate is an indication of a higher level of fitness. As we all know, the heart is a muscle, and like all muscles the more you train it the stronger and more efficient it becomes. The heart of someone with a lower heart rate will be pumping more blood in one beat, which means the heart can beat less frequently resulting in the lower heart rate. 

In order to train your way to a lower heart rate, you’ll need patience and dedication, as it is a long-term process and not something you can achieve overnight. You’ll need to train your cardiovascular system to become more powerful and ramp up your endurance. Eventually, you’ll be able to cycle for longer at a lower heart rate. 

Two things that will really get your heart pumping while cycling are sprint intervals and hill repeats. If you want to keep your heart rate low whilst cycling, opt for longer, smoother rides with fewer gradients.


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