How to Use Your MHR and FTP to Set Your Cycling Training Zones

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In the last couple of blog posts we have looked at why it can be a really good idea to develop a training plan, what training zones are and how it’s possible to measure the amount of effort and power you are producing using a heart rate monitor or a power meter.

The final goal of all of this rather serious (rather than the ride, take in the view and eat cake in a cafe tone I normally take!) is to have the know how to make a personalised training plan.

And, for this noble and lofty aspiration we need to know what our personal training zones are. Therefore, in this post we are going to look at how to determine your zones and how to get some specific numbers tailored to your own athletic (or not in my case) abilities.

First off we need to determine a starting point from which to calculate our zones. These differ depending on whether you have decided to use a heart rate monitor or a power meter for your training. Unfortunately both methods of determining your zones are not the most pleasant experiences you will ever have on your bikes but, as they say “no pain no gain” but before we get into the technical stuff you can, of course, start with the cheap and cheerful “perceived effort” method which will give you a rough estimate of which zone you are in by describing how out of breath, sweaty and in pain you are:

Zone 1 Recovery – no real effort felt. Very gentle pedalling.

Zone 2 Endurance – Some effort and this is a pace that you can make reasonable progress at and that you could keep up for several hours with fuelling stops.

Zone 3 Tempo (aerobic) – Much more effort, slightly out of breath all the time but able to hold a clipped conversation.

Zone 4 Threshold – Gasping for breath and able to speak in broken sentences. Legs will start burning, sustainable with great effort for an hour in theory.

Zone 5 Anaerobic/VO2 – flat out, heart pounding, can’t speak.

Obviously these “perceived” zones are open to some personal interpretation so, for a more scientific approach read on!

Using a heart rate monitor to determine your cycling training zones

As you are previously aware there are five training zones to consider if you are going to be training using a heart rate monitor:

Zone 1 Recovery 50 – 60% MHR

Zone 2 Endurance 60 – 70% MHR

Zone 3 Tempo (aerobic) 70 – 80% MHR

Zone 4 Threshold 80 – 90% MHR

Zone 5 Anaerobic/VO2 90 – 100% MHR

To enable us to accurately determine where each of the zones is we need to know what our maximum heart rate is. As ever there are several contradictory methods for working this out, all of which have some element for inaccuracy! Basically they fall into two categories 1. A mathematical calculation that can be undertaken from the comfort of your sofa with a nice cup of tea. 2. Getting on the bike and going at it as hard as possible until you can go no longer and your maximum heart rate is achieved.

Naturally, as any sane person would agree, number one is by far the most preferable option so lets grab a pen and paper or, if you are really lazy a calculator and get going.

Method 1

This is the oldest and possibly least accurate method and involves subtracting your age from 220. This, in theory at least, will give you an indication of your MHR. This method was apparently developed and tested on young men and it is less accurate for women and also for older people as it possible under estimates your capacity.

Method 2

This looks to be a bit more scientific and goes a bit like this: for men – 214 minus 0.8 of your age and for women 214 minus 0.9 of your age. Again this should give a (possibly more accurate) estimate but is though to generally be a bit on the conservative side.

Method 3

This is probably my favourite as is seems so silly and a bit convoluted but here goes: 210 minus half your age, subtract 5% of your body weight in pounds and then add four for a male and zero for a female.

Method 4

Yet another variation on a theme is 208 minus 0.7 of your age.

Method 5

Or, how about 206.9 minus 0.67 of your age?

It seems that there are numerous variations on this depending on where you look. Each writer seems as serious and convinces at the last that his/her way is correct so I guess it’s just a case of maybe doing all the methods and looking at them together and taking a reasonable average.

In my case the results all came out reasonably similarly apart from one anomaly at 180 bpm with 173, 175, 180, 174, 174. From this I would take my MHR to be 174bpm – I didn’t use decimals as it seemed a bit unnecessary gives the amount of variation in the methods of calculation!

OK, so now onto the less pleasant methods of doing this which should, in theory at least be more accurate.

Before we go on I should say that, if you are going to do any form of strenuous exercise, you need to make sure that you take reasonable precautions and consult with your doctor first. Particularly as we get older it just simply isn’t a good idea to not exercise for ten years and then jump on a bike and cycle flat out to try to find out what your maximum heart rate is! Be responsible and make sure that you are up for the job!

So, on your bike with your heart rate monitor running there are a few ways of arriving at a MHR figure.

Method 1

Warm up thoroughly for at least 15 minutes. This is really important as you will not perform at your best otherwise, put undue strain on your heart and also risk strains and injuries to muscles as well. Find a long steady hill to ride up without any interruptions from traffic lights or junctions. Start off at a reasonable speed and try to gradually increase your effort continually for five minutes. You should stay seated and the key to this, which does take a bit of practice, is consistency of the increase of the effort over the five minutes. Try not to start off too fast and try to pace it so that you can keep continually increasing for the full duration.

As you go on watch your heart rate increase. After five minutes stand up and sprint as hard as you can for the final 15 seconds hopefully still up hill. You then need to remember what the maximum heart rate number was. This could occur after the maximum effort as it can take the heart a little time to catch up with things.

After the sprint try not to just stop and collapse but continue pedalling and gradually slow down your heart beat before having a good cool down.

If you are really keen you should repeat this three times during a week with a day off in between and then work out what your average is. Those of us who are a little less enthusiastic about this sort of self sadomasochism will probably say “sod it! That will do!” after doing it once and be very happy with that number!

Again the number you arrive at might not be 100% accurate as it depends on how hard you are prepared to push yourself, if you really can be bothered and how committed to this bloody cycle training rubbish you really are. (All thoughts that went through my mind when doing the five minute test!) but objectively it’s only five minutes of pain and having a number that is a good reflection of your MHR is really important in terms of using it to inform your long term training.

Method two

Is basically a slightly more mathematical variant on method one and involves having your chain ring on the biggest ring. Starting off on the smallest sprocket on the back and then, keeping your cadence at a steady 90rmp, move up each sprocket in turn every 30 seconds until you have been riding for 5 minutes then sprint as above. It’s a very similar method to the one above but is a bit smoother and evens out the effort a little bit. Also, breaking the effort up into 30 second chunks helps as well.

Some people also say that, having determined your MHR as above you should then add on 5 bpm. I’m not sure, have a look at it in relation to your paper calculations and make an informed decision.

So, you now have a reasonable idea of what your MHR is. You now need to work out your own personal training zones using the percentage figures above. Write out your own personalised table.

Using a power meter and doing an FTP test

FTP stands for FunctionalThreshold Power and is basically the amount of power, measured in Watts with a power meter, that you can sustain for an hour. Again, just like with your MHR above once you have a personalised FTP number you can use it to work out all of your training zones which, if you are using a power meter and FTP will be as below:

Zone 1 Recovery less than 55% of FTP power

Zone 2 Endurance 55-75% of FTP Power

Zone 3 Tempo (aerobic) 76-90% of FTP Power

Zone 4 Threshold 91-105% of FTP Power

Zone 5 VO2 106-120% of FTP Power

Zone 6 Anaerobic 121-150% of FTP Power

Zone 7 Neuromuscular Power More than 150% of FTP Power

So, how do you do an FTP test?

In an ideal world you would cycle as fast as you could sustain for 60 minutes but, in many ways this is not practical – particularly if you are doing the test on a road rather than on a turbo trainer so, thankfully, you can also do it over a 20 minute period instead.

Again, a thorough warm up is really important and it’s recommended that you try to find a traffic free and interruption free stretch of road that, ideally has a slight uphill gradient. Remember that average speed isn’t important it’s the average amount of power that you are producing so gradient and weather conditions aren’t really that important. You do, however, need to try to find a course that will allow for 20 mins of continual cycling without stopping.

After your warm up cycle as hard as you can sustain for 20 minutes recording your power output onto your bike computer or phone app. Again it’s important to really go for it and to cool down gradually afterwards. If possible aim for a continuous sustained effort and try not to go all out at the start of the 20 minutes. This does take a bit of practice.

After the test take your average power output of the 20 minutes, subtract 5% to give you your FTP and then you can work out your training zones as above.

Great stuff! If you have gone out on the road and done a physical MHR or FTP test then give yourself a pat on the back. If you have opted for the paper calculation then no problem – the important thing is that we now have some reasonably accurate information on what our individual zones are which means…

drum roll………

..that we now have all the information that we need to start building a personalised training plan!

Finally, it’s worth noting that your zones will change as you get fitter and over time anyway as you get older. They are certainly not set in stone and, to get the best out of your training plans you should retake your test and adjust your zones if necessary every few months.

You can find the full set of related posts below. Read them all as they all fit together!

Road Cycling Heart Rate Training Zones Explained

Cycle training with Power V heart Rate Monitors

Build a Personalised Cycle training Plan

Training Sessions bank

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