Q&A: How Will Elevation Change From Sea Level to Altitude Affect Heart Rate?

Q. Hey Gale, Would you mind commenting on my situation? I'm traveling from sea level to race in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race this year. I've used your book Training Plans for Cyclists to help me plan my training for the event and to establish some guidance for heart rate for the upcoming race.

Yesterday I went through a battery of tests to determine my overall heart health and ability to perform on a bike. I did a 15-minute ride to maximum effort on an indoor trainer and had a heart rate of 174 at the very end. My average heart rate for the 15 minutes was probably around 166.

Results summary: 1) My heart health is much improved. 2) My ability to ride at distances is that of an average trained cyclist. 3) My sprint strength is really very poor.

Using the heart rates I achieved, as a sea level dude I recognize some shortcomings in my plan. First, my heart rate and cardiovascular system are going to get screwed around when I go to altitude. Second, an indoor test does not translate perfectly well to maximum performance outside.

I think these two concerns are mitigated somewhat by my objective (finish under 12 hours) and also by adjusting resting heart rate as a baseline measure.

I will be trying to ride in a zone associated with good performance over a long duration. I'm thinking mid-Zone 3 to 4, while trying to prevent lots of spikes into the high intensity Zone 5 range that gets close to anaerobic performance. Medium and steady is the objective.

I will also measure my resting heart rate here at sea level over the next week or so and when I get to Leadville, using the resting heart rate percentage to adjust my zones up or down. Is this scientifically sound?

Also know that I am arriving at the Copper Mountain / Leadville, Colorado, area about four days before the race.

What do you think?

A. First, congratulations on your improved heart health and endurance fitness. Second, thanks for trusting my work to help you train for Leadville.

I typically like people to do a 20-minute time trial, but we'll work with 15 minutes that you've already accomplished. I am guesstimating (some guess work and reasonable estimating as well) that based on your average heart rate of 166, that your lactate threshold is somewhere around 161. (I got this by dividing 166 by 1.03. My typical 20-minute average is divided by 1.02 so I fudged it a bit. There is not that much difference in actual numbers anyway.)

That calculation puts your training zones at:

Zone 1:  106-129
Zone 2:  130-143
Zone 3:  144-150
Zone 4:  151-160
Zone 5a:  161-164
Zone 5b:  165-170
Zone 5c:  171-176

The numbers are important data points, but your rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is just as important. You will need that relative calibration for when you arrive in Leadville.

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