On the bike you can gauge any effort, whether it’s anaerobic threshold or recovery pace with heart rate, power, or even with perceived exertion.
Having some measure of effort is important in order to help a cyclist advance the intensity and multiply the training effect of their workouts.
You can’t have a training plan without first having an understanding of how hard you’re working at any given time.
There are three main options available to cyclists to gauge effort:
- Power – measured in watts
- Heart Rate – beats per minute
- Perceived Exertion – subjective grade based on usually a 10- or 20-point scale
Training with Power: The Gold Standard
Cycling power is the gold standard because watts never lie — 225 watts is always 225 watts no matter if you’re going uphill or into a headwind.
Very concrete goals and levels of intensity can be set to allow for an incredible amount of accuracy in advancing a training program along in a very step-wise fashion.
Using power allows the cyclist to stay in a very tight range for a given interval so that even when effort backs off by 1% it’s noticeable and can be corrected.
For many the down side to power is cost. They can run as much as $5000, but recently prices have been decreasing down to ~$700 for very accurate power meters that weigh little more than a pack of gum.
Heart Rate Tracking
Tracking heart rate is very easy these days. A decent heart rate monitor can be had for around $50-$100, and there are dozens if not hundreds of manufacturers.
Heart rate can be very useful but the data can get a little messy at times.
On the outside it seems simple — work harder heart rate goes higher. And by and large that’s true. But the trouble comes in when factoring in day to day training and, well…life.
The messiness exists because about a hundred different variables can affect heart rate — sleep patterns, hydration status, recovery, stress just to name a few. If you’re a little more dehydrated one day your heart rate may be higher for a given effort level. If you slept poorly the night before last that could cause your heart rate to run lower than normal….or higher than normal! We can’t tell with 100% accuracy why, so on some days you need to take the heart rate readings you’re getting with a grain of salt if they seem off relative to how the effort feels.
Heart rate tracking still requires an athlete to pay very close attention to their effort and how they’re feeling.
With practice and some time to get used to your own individual foibles, you can use it to fairly accurately gauge your effort. It’s not within 1% like power data is, however, so on intense intervals it is very easy to drift 5% or even 10% off your goal effort without knowing.
Part of the issue is the lag that exists with heart rate. When we begin working hard, the heart takes some time to get itself up to pace. So while you may have immediately increased your effort to 300 watts your heart rate won’t get to it’s “300-watt level” for perhaps 45 seconds or even a minute or more — not very helpful when the interval may only be a minute or two in duration.
As stated before, heart rate really requires that you still pay very close attention to how you feel, and estimate just how difficult an effort feels, which is the basic definition of the last technique…..
Perceived exertion (PE) is subjective. Meaning, it’s up to the cyclist to assess how hard they’re working at any given effort. This requires that the rider be consistently taking a mental inventory of their effort.
Certainly there’s a lot of room for error, especially with individuals who don’t have the patience or the body awareness to make accurate assessments of the amount of effort they’re expending. But with the right person and some training and guidance I think perceived exertion can be very useful.
What’s the best way to perform with PE?
Let’s take an example of trying to maintain an effort at anaerobic threshold (AT). Since AT is the effort a rider could maintain for 45 minutes to an hour, the easiest thing to do is for that rider to continually check in with themselves (perhaps as much as every 30 seconds and anytime the gradient of the road changes) and make sure the effort is manageable.
I have my athletes repeat a mantra in their head as they do AT intervals — “Could I keep up this effort for 40 minutes?” Over and over and over in their head. Always paying attention to that will help make sure that they are working as hard as they ought to be.
More practice will make you better at it. If you’ve done many intervals at anaerobic threshold, and if you’ve been paying attention to your effort, it should get a little easier to zero in on the necessary exertion level each time.
Perceived exertion can just as useful, and occasionally more useful than heart rate for short and very intense intervals – like those around 1-5 minutes long because as I mentioned before, heart rate isn’t very helpful for these and what little data you do get from heart rate can distract you somewhat from how you’re feeling. Many times I coach my athletes to ignore their heart rate when they’re doing these types of efforts.
The real Gold Standard
Previously I called training with a power meter the ultimate in accuracy and effectiveness, but this isn’t entirely true. The real king of measuring exertion is…..wait for it………using all three methods.
I find that when athletes use power, heart rate, and they carefully track how they’re feeling, they get very good at getting the most from their workouts and races.
Viewing primarily the power data but then being able to mentally overlay where their heart rate is and how they feel allows for not only the best possibility of zeroing in on the desired effort level, but it also has the natural effect of teaching the rider much more about themselves.
Most importantly it teaches the rider a lot about their level of recovery and fitness at any given moment. It becomes easier to see a progression in fitness on a day-to-day basis (“Hmm, I’m 15 watts higher than normal at this point in the climb, my heart rate is the same, and I feel good still”) as well as how rested and ready for more workouts they might be (“My heart rate is 10 beats higher than normal for this wattage, might need to take it easy today.”)
No matter what method you choose, you can get a lot done with the right guidance.
Want to take this the next step?:
Safely Begin Interval Training Cycling Intervals
Test Anaerobic Threshold on your own AT Field Test
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.