Trainright Guide to Heart Rate Training for Cycling

Although cycling power meters are widely available, heart rate is still valuable and useful as a training tool. If you don’t have a power meter, you can use heart rate training zones to target specific aspects of fitness and performance

And if you do train with power, heart rate provides important context to your workouts. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced cyclist, here’s what you need to know about training with heart rate.

Trainright Guide to Heart Rate Training for Cycling

How heart rate can be used in cycling training

Many athletes are familiar with using a heart rate monitor during exercise. You can either use a heart rate strap paired to a cycling computer or watch, or you can use a wrist-mounted monitor like an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or Garmin. Be aware, however, that the wrist-mounted options may not be as accurate as chest-worn monitors. That said, heart rate has multiple uses for athletes:

Heart rate as an intensity gauge during exercise
This is the most common use case and the one that will be discussed in greater detail below.

Heart rate variability
The interval between heartbeats is not constant, and variability in this rhythm can be indicative of the sensitivity level of your parasympathetic nervous system. Heart rate variability is described in depth in this article. Briefly, higher HRV indicates greater responsiveness to acute stimuli, which means you’re likely more rested. Lower HRV may suggest heightened fatigue. (Resource: Heart rate variability)

Resting heart rate
Resting heart rate is typically measured immediately after waking but before you get out of bed. From day to day, resting heart rate should stay relatively constant. Over time, an endurance athlete’s resting heart rate may decrease, but a low resting heart rate shouldn’t necessarily be a training goal. Elevated resting heart rate may be an indication of fatigue and is often observed in athletes struggling with overtraining. However, it can also result from dehydration or altitude exposure.

Training with heart rate vs. power

Cyclists are fortunate because power meters provide a method to directly measure work performed on the bike. That leads some athletes and coaches to mistakenly dismiss heart rate as irrelevant or passé. It is more accurate to say heart rate is not as reliable as power for gauging training intensity and workload. Can you train effectively without a power meter? Absolutely. Heart rate training works and has worked since heart rate monitors became widely available 40 years ago.

For many cyclists, training with power and heart rate are not all-or-nothing propositions. It is common for cyclists to have a power meter on one of a handful of bikes, plus maybe a smart trainer that has an ergometer function. As you incorporate multiple bikes into your training, heart rate is a convenient and lower-cost way to consistently gather data.

Factors that affect exercise heart rate

The following section was adapted from “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, a book I co-authored with CTS Coach Jason Koop. It should be noted that Rating of Perceived Exertion (described later) is the preferred intensity gauge for trail runners.

The heart rate value on a cycling head unit is an observation of your body’s response to exercise. It’s not a direct measure of the work being done. Instead, the work is being done primarily by muscles, which in turn demand more oxygen from the cardiovascular system.

Because oxygen is delivered via red blood cells, heart rate increases as demand for oxygen rises. It’s an indirect observation of what’s happening at the muscular level. Research has shown conclusively that there’s a strong correlation between heart rate response and changes in an athlete’s workload, and that research allowed sports scientists and coaches to start creating heart rate training zones back in the 1980s.#

As sports science evolved over the decades we learned that many factors affect an athlete’s heart rate. Those factors reveal significant disadvantages to using heart rate response as a training tool. The following factors are known to influence exercise heart rate:

Core Temperature

As your core temperature increases, heart rate at a given exercise intensity will increase. Your circulatory system carries heat from your core to your extremities to aid with conductive and radiant cooling.

Caffeine and Other Stimulants

When you consume caffeine, either from your morning cup of coffee or from a caffeinated gel during a training session or race, your heart rate increases.


A race is an exciting event, and that causes an adrenal response that increases your heart rate. Other emotional responses, including frustration, anger, and anxiety, can also affect heart rate.

Hydration Status

Although heart rate changes due to hydration status are often with or concurrent with impacts from core temperature, your heart rate can increase from dehydration with or without a rise in core temperature. As your blood volume diminishes, your heart needs to beat faster to deliver the same amount of oxygen per minute.


Most athletes train within a small range of elevations in their local area, but goal races may feature dramatically different elevation profiles. Your heart rate response to exercise will change as you reach and exceed about 5,000 feet above sea level. The effect of altitude on performance and heart rate response increases as you go higher. Heart rate and respiration rate increase at elevation. The reduced partial pressure of oxygen in the air you’re breathing means there are fewer oxygen molecules in each lungful of air. More details are available for preparing for events at altitude and the pros and cons of altitude training camps.


While many of the factors that impact heart rate act to increase it, fatigue often suppresses it. When you are fatigued, your heart rate response to increasing energy demand is slower and blunted. A tired athlete will see heart rate climb more slowly at the beginning of an interval or hard effort and will struggle to achieve the heart rate normally associated with a given intensity level.

The factors that affect exercise heart rate don’t negate its usefulness as a training tool. Rather, they mean you must consider them when you observe heart rate values that seem higher or lower than normal.

The above is a short excerpt from the full CTS TrainRight article, to read the full article, please visit:

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