Chris Carmichael, coach to Lance Armstrong, never had a heart rate monitor available to him in his peak competitive years, but for the past several years has been using them to chart the progress of his athletes.
"It's like having your own full-time coach," he says. Whether you're a NORBA champion, or competing on the local race circuit, or just your basic weekend fat-tire cyclist, you'll get more out of your training using a heart rate monitor.
There are many ways that you might use a heart rate monitor to provide you with feedback during off-road training outside of measuring exercise intensity. Let's explore a few of the techniques employed by some America's leading coaches and cyclists on how to use a heart rate monitor in training and to gauge recovery from hard training and illness.
Mike Kloser, a former professional cyclist and member of Team Vail and past winner of the Eco Challenge, uses heart rate monitoring during long climbs to prevent going into lactate debt via extended periods at a high heart rate.
Kloser states: "By not over extending yourself too long and hard on a climb, you may be able to save yourself from 'blowing up,' which will enable you to catch the group on the descent. It is very difficult to descend efficiently when you spend the entire time trying to recover aerobically."
Heart rate is a good indicator of how recovered you are from a hard workout or race. Occasionally, sleep with your heart monitor on and compare your morning heart rate for successive days.
"Your mind may say you are rested, but your heart rate may actually be elevated upon waking," cautions Skip Hamilton, coach to several top ranked off-road cyclists and senior coach at the Davis Phinney-Connie Carpenter training camps.
"This is a sign that your body is not fully rested and something is amiss," Hamilton says. "This is not a time to take on any hard training."
You can also test your recovery during training. You can use your heart rate with perceived exertion the feeling of effort. By using a heart rate monitor you learn to associate what specific intensities or paces feel like and you can use this in training and racing to guide your performances.
Second, you can use a heart rate monitor to signal overtraining, or lack of recovery. For example, during an interval session your heart rate during a standard effort should be 170-180 and the effort should feel hard. If you are not recovered, the same level of perceived exertion may correspond to a heart rate of let's say 150-160.
"This is a good sign that you are not ready to take on a hard training session," Hamilton says. "Sometimes I see this happen when a cyclist has just had an excellent weekend of racing, and feels good, but during the next hard session his heart rate is lower for the same perceived effort, I tell him to take an easy day. Heart rate is a true barometer to how recovered you are and when you can take on more training."
"After coming back from an illness or injury you are usually putting out a minimal work output, but your heart rate may be reading high during these efforts," Hamilton says. "You cannot know this without a heart rate monitor. Back off the pace for a few days until they match, that is, your heart rate is back to the perceived level of exertion of effort when you are healthy."
Find a hill about 1/2 to 1 1/2 miles long. Ride the hill in your normal climbing position, gearing and cadence. Time yourself and record your average heart rate during the last half of the course. Ride the hill again with a different technique. Use a bigger or smaller gear, pedal at a higher or lower cadence, climb in or out of the saddle, and try to keep your heart rate in the same range or lower, and time yourself again.
By using this method in training you will determine the most efficient technique for climbing (the fastest method for the same energy expenditure).
Edmund R. Burke, Ph.D. is professor and director of the Exercise Science Program at the University of Colorado. He served as coordinator of sports sciences for the U.S. Cycling Team leading up to the Olympic Games in 1996 and was a staff member for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Cycling Teams.