Power Training II: Every Heart is Different
Before you jump into the world of power, it’s first important to listen to your own heart. Or at least, you should understand what your heart rate can or cannot tell you about your fitness and response to training. We explore the inconsistencies associated with heart rate monitoring and how you can use it to your benefit.
In the last article, I wrote about how relying solely on heart rate can often lead to and even encourage improper and inefficient workouts. Therefore, before any of my clients delve into the world of measuring watts, I encourage them to first take the time to learn about and understand the limitations of heart rate data and to understand the uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of the human heart. With that knowledge in hand, when they do incorporate wattage into the equation they will have an even better understanding of how their own body responds to and recovers from training and racing.
Don’t Keep Up With The Joneses
One of the most common complaints I hear from new riders is ‘my heart rate is too high’ or ‘too low.’ There is no such thing. I coach two racers in their mid 30s. I have a standard monthly 5 mile road test (hill climb) which they both complete in about 19 minutes. The only difference? One rider does it at 155 bpm and the other at 205. Same age, similar power output, similar weight, 50 beat difference in heart rate. There’s nothing wrong with either of them, they’re just different.
Tracking Heart Rate Inconsistencies
By this point, most of us know that heart rate is subjective. It’s the whole reason we need power meters which are completely objective. Heart rate can be affected by weather, mood, sleep, caffeine, and a host of other “extraneous” variables. This can be seen to be a limitation of heart rate, but in fact, this sensitivity to external influences is exactly what makes heart rate makes it such a useful training tool. Namely, exhaustion from previous workouts and other stresses placed on the body and mind can also be reflected in heart rate response at rest and during training.
For example, I have several riders (including myself) whose heart rate at a given effort will drop by as much as 20 beats over the course of a 4 week training cycle. On week 4 of a cycle, I’m doing the same amount of work both in watts and in perceived exertion as in week 1, but my body is tired and my heart rate just won’t go up to where it was when I was fresh. After a recovery week, my heart rate will go back up to where it was before and the process starts again. To make things even more complicated, I have another rider whose heart rate goes UP 5 to 10 beats over the course of a hard training cycle! This is less common, but it does happen and you should know which kind of rider you are.
First Thing Every Morning
Tracking your resting heart rate is one of the easiest and most important (but possibly most neglected training tools) the cyclist has to monitor their level of exhaustion. Simply take it each morning before you get up out of bed. Once again, don’t put too much emphasis on the number itself. Just because your training partner has a resting heart rate of 35 and yours is 55 does not mean he’s in better shape than you. What is important, is to watch the flow of the numbers and look at the big picture rather than any individual day.
The general guideline is that a 10% increase in resting heart rate indicates that the body is not recovered from the previous day’s workout. However when you keep your training log, make sure to note other factors that could be affecting your resting heart rate. The stress of waking up at 5 am to a day where you will try to squeeze in a 2 hour training ride so you can make an 8 am meeting and then work through lunch so you can pick up the kids from school at 3, come home, grab a snack and then head out to a night at your in-laws could easily be responsible for a 10% increase in resting heart rate and doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip those hill repeats.
Putting it all Together
The point is that people’s hearts are vastly different in the way they respond to training and there is no simple formula that can be used across the board for everyone. By interpreting the messages your body is sending you, you can learn to tell when you are over-trained and when you are simply over-reaching, or placing a necessary level of exhaustion on the body to create the training effect. By keeping a training journal with not only the heart rate from your workouts and your resting heart rate, but also notations on how you feel and how much distance you cover in your intervals (or wattage if you already have the power meter), you can start to figure out how long it takes you to recover from a workout. I would also recommend noting sleep patterns, daily stress, and dietary intake so you can start to understand how these things affect your heart rate and your performance.
Before you even start to look at Watts, you should be able to look at your training schedule and predict how your heart rate and your workouts will be affected by the level of stress that your body is attempting to adapt to. You should know inherently that on week 3 of a cycle of zone 5 intervals, it may take 2 minutes for your heart rate to actually get into the zone that you are reaching for or that it might not even get into mid zone 4. But by knowing your body, you will be able to tell whether this is an indication of overtraining or whether it is just the natural progression of periodized training. This same understanding can be used to explain why your heart rate during endurance training is lower at certain points of the season and in fact can be applied across the board to all your training.
So why not just run out and buy a power meter and avoid all this confusion and uncertainty? It is my belief as a coach that part of the training life of a cyclist must be spent making mistakes and learning from them. The hardest riders to coach are the ones who make the same mistakes over and over again. They never learn anything new about themselves and therefore never progress to the next level as athletes. Buying a power meter before this process of self discovery has been completed is like combining your base training with your build period. It just doesn’t work that way. In fact, even heart rate at first can be a deterrent to this process. When you come to rely on any device or test to tell you how you are feeling, you start to lose just a little bit of that natural mind-body connection that a good athlete must learn to understand.
When the battery dies in their heart rate monitor and the rain short circuits their power meter, the best athletes can go out and do their training without missing a beat because they know their bodies. By looking within themselves, they can collect and record more data than even the most complex mechanical apparatus.
In part III we’ll discuss how to start incorporating power into your workouts even if you don’t own a power meter.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services check out contact [email protected] or check out his website at