When Heart Rate Interpretation Goes Wrong

Heart rate training is a good way to help riders know the intensity at which they should be riding. It’s not the best; power has that role. But unless you understand the limitations of heart rate training, you could be providing your riders with faulty information.

How much do you know?

This following is from Joe Friel’s blog. He answers a question from a coach about why his rider cannot get his heart rate up. (One has to wonder why a cycling coach didn’t know the answer to this question. It shows you that even the so-called “experts” are often missing some important education.) Indoor cycling instructors also need to know how to address this very common scenario. Below is Joe’s post. (You can also read it on his blog here. I recommend you also sign up to receive e-mails about his blog.)

For some unknown reason I’ve recently received the same basic question three times in emails this week. The question has to do with using a heart rate monitor to gauge intensity. The email senders don’t understand why it is becoming harder to get heart rates higher. I’m afraid we’ve come to assume that a high heart rate is a good thing. Sigh. Sometimes I wish that the heart rate monitor had never been invented. Lots of bad training decisions result from overinterpreting (is that a word?) the data. The latest question comes from a coach, who will remain anonymous, about one of his cycling clients.

Coach’s question: Currently, I am struggling to grasp a problem while training a very talented rider. He is not able to afford a power meter so we are limited to perceived effort, heart rate data, and a number of other markers I’ve built into an Excel spreadsheet. I was wondering if you could help me understand the reason why he is struggling to get into zone 4 for 30-minute efforts, despite being well rested, and fully recovered. Early on it was no problem.

My reply: I’m assuming when you say “zone 4” you’re referring to heart rate. If that’s so then his low heart rate is actually a good sign. The more endurance fit one becomes the harder it is to elevate heart rate. That’s just one of the reasons why power meters are so helpful in training. In other words, if he had a power meter you’d probably see that at the same power output his heart rate is lower. That’s good. The opposite happens when losing fitness. Heart rate is high at the same power output. In fact, the easiest way to get heart rate higher is to simply lose endurance fitness. So an easily rising heart rate or high heart rate at any given power level is generally a bad sign. So I can probably assume from what you are saying that he is making good progress. Keep it going!
~Joe Friel, May 16, 2015

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard similar questions from indoor cycling instructors. They question why they can’t get the heart rate up, and question why a heart rate is “too high.” They over-interpret the results, and/or they can’t give a proper answer because they don’t understand the limitations of heart rate training and the huge number of variables that can affect heart rate. As a result, so many instructors are at a loss on how to interpret the heart rate data their participants are achieving.

Don’t let this be you!

The solution is to educate yourself! Even if you currently do not use heart rate monitors, or have many members who do, your knowledge of heart rate responses to training and to individual effort will dramatically improve your coaching ability, no matter what method you use. Power is the best means of anchoring effort, but it is much more useful when you tie it in with heart rate data. Perceived exertion is excellent, but without heart rate data (or at least a deep understanding of heart rate) it is less effective as a stand-alone.

How to increase your knowledge of heart rate training for indoor cycling

Try to move beyond heart rate training that continues to use a maximum heart rate baseline for setting zones. Spinning® has a fantastic power training program with SpinPower, but is still clinging to MHR in their regular program. To advance as an instructor, you must go beyond what you learn about training using MHR.

I recommend Joe Friel’s book Total Heart Rate Training. He makes it easily understandable. But the book is targeted at independent cyclists looking for performance improvement, so one thing that is missing is how to apply it to your indoor cycling classes. You want to be able to answer the typical questions you get from the average Spinning and cycling class participant. For that (in addition to reading this book), you should look for workshops and content targeted specifically to your craft.

The Indoor Cycling Association has numerous articles and audio interviews to help you understand heart rate training and heart rate responses to effort in much more depth.

Keep it Real

You can purchase the e-book Keep it Real. It’s a small investment for a large amount of information. In addition to providing the reasons why certain popular (and very prevalent) techniques are ineffective and potentially unsafe in your cycling classes, it also has an in-depth discussion on how to incorporate heart rate training based on field tests to estimate your lactate threshold heart rate.



The in-depth education you receive through the articles listed below exemplifies the incredible value of being an ICA member. It’s like constant CED!


The Indoor Cycling Summit

This is the most comprehensive collection of educational workshops ever compiled in one place at such a low cost. You’d have to go to six, seven, maybe even eight or more regular conferences (WSSC, ECA, IDEA, etc.) to come close to the educational content that you will learn from this one Summit. And, you’ll have six months to view the sessions, and 24 sessions (plus 5 bonuses).

There are two 90-minute sessions on Mastering The Art and Science of Heart Rate Training, as well as two 90-minute sessions on Exercise Physiology. And a ton of other topics too! And you get CECs too…

If reading the numerous articles above isn’t your best learning style, watching the Summit presentations (in your pajamas if you want!) will help you really understand the content!

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