By: Christina Vipond
Before I started racing, I used a bicycle computer to tell me how fast I was cruising and how many miles I had ridden. I never wore a heart rate monitor. When I started racing, I began wearing a heart rate monitor, using a power meter and using Zwift for off season training. My data showed my heart rate would quickly pop up to the 180s and even into the 190s during hard efforts. According to exercising heart rate zones, 220-your age, my max heart rate should only be 175.
I was amazed at the number of people who looked at my heart rate during rides (on STRAVA or Zwift) and commented on the numbers; “Look at your heart rate!” “Why is your heart rate so high?” Several people had advice for me, I heard “you haven’t trained enough” (8000 miles a year apparently isn’t enough training), “you are overtrained”, “you are working too hard”, “your heart rate shouldn’t be that high”, “you should go to the doctor to get that checked”. I was assured that my heart rate is just naturally higher when I am riding. Still, I would question how I felt when I was riding with a heart rate of 183. I was definitely working but I didn’t feel like I was going to pass out. I was also embarrassed as others would say, “man, my heart rate is only 130”.
I am now into my third year of training and racing. My heart rate still pops into the 180s with hard efforts. As I was researching “normal” heart rates, I had the opportunity to talk with Mark Olson, Athletic Mentors co-founder and expert in the field of strength and conditioning. I was relieved to hear we have similar heart rates. He explained heart rates are very individual and that there shouldn’t be any comparison to anyone else’s heart rate.
Mark defined the lactic threshold heart rate for me. A simplified definition of Lactate threshold is the level at which the intensity of exercise causes lactate to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed, making it the border between low- and high-intensity work. According to various research articles, lactate threshold for an untrained person usually coincides with 50-60 percent of VO2 max, ranging up to 85-95 percent of VO2 max for an elite athlete. Mark explained that the lactic threshold heart rate is how hard an athlete can ride for an hour. The number is individual and should only be compared to that athlete. For example, if an untrained athlete does a test, trains then does the test again, it is expected the lactic heart rate will improve and increase. Once an athlete is trained, there will be little movement in the heart rate number. He said that the lactic threshold heart rate is really an input number, the power created is the output number. The heart rate number alone is useless.
Together, we looked at my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) rides that I had done over the past 3 years to estimate my lactate threshold. The data from these tests showed that while my heart rate did not change at FTP, my power went up, reiterating that my heart rate number by itself is meaningless and that my training is improving my fitness. This information has given me confidence and the ability to explain that my heart rate is okay to those who have shown concern. I also have insight to the reasoning behind, as well as the importance of training rides of lengths, power and cadence parameters. This information has piqued my interest in the “why” and “how” of training. There is still so much more for me to learn.