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How to Find Your Heart Rate Zones

If you search the Internet for training advice, you’ll find more than just a few words of wisdom about how to get faster. But for the sake of consolidating it all for you, the consensus out there is that, to get faster, you have to go harder. And while long slow distance (LSD) training definitely has its place (especially when it comes to ultra events), it won’t make you any faster. Instead, you’ll just suffer less during your training. So, the question begs to be asked: How do you know how hard to go? Well, that’s where heart rate training comes in.

What is a Heart Rate Zone?

Your heart rate is an objective indicator of how hard your workout is. Whether you’re training for a multi-day race or to lose weight, keeping your heart rate within ranges that are specifically calibrated to your own physiology / level of fitness will help your effort. Let’s take the tempo ride as an example. Not quite an all-out time trial, a tempo ride is ridden at a pace that’s just below your lactate threshold, yet it’s slightly above a pure aerobic pace. In other words, it’s a pace that would be difficult to maintain for hours, but it’s not so taxing that you tire in a few minutes.


Monitoring your heart rate during a tempo ride will help you determine and stay at the ideal pace. And although the term “tempo” has multiple interpretations, in objective terms, coaches place it at a high Zone 3 to Zone 4 — right where your body is able to use lactate (which is actually an energy source, not an evil byproduct) efficiently. This zone is the pace at which your body is burning pure carbs for energy, and coincidentally, it’s also the pace where most riders either go too hard or too easy. So be careful, because going too hard will tax your body and increase recovery time, while going too easy doesn’t push your anaerobic system hard enough to see any gains.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is recovery pace. This is a pace that’s within Zone 1. And while you might not feel like you’re making gains during recovery sessions, it’s an essential part of the training process.

Determining Your Zones

While getting your V02Max measured dictates a trip to the Kinesiology department at a university, figuring out your heart rate training zones is something that you can do yourself. The effort you’ll need to put forth, however, is the same. You’ll essentially be doing a Lactate Threshold (LT) test, only without the pinpricks.

First and foremost, an LT test should only be performed if you’re reasonably fit. If you’re coming straight off of the sofa with the intent to race in a few months, be sure that you put in some solid base miles before you attempt to determine your zones. The reason being is that the test is fairly strenuous, and accordingly, you won’t get accurate results throughout the training period.

Where to Test

You’ll be able to perform the heart rate test indoors. Personally, though, I prefer outdoors, given that it can be hard to motivate yourself for an all-out effort on an indoor trainer. Outdoors, you’ll need to find a relatively flat course that you can ride on for at least 30 minutes without being slowed or stopped. A long “country” road is perfect. If you’re a city dweller, some bike paths are relatively deserted in the middle of a weekday. The test should be done solo. After all, if you’ve raced a time trial, you know that other riders quickly become the rabbits to chase, and you need this test t to be your hardest effort.

What You’ll Need

Next, you’ll need a heart rate monitor. For best results, I suggest using a watch or GPS device that interfaces with a heart rate monitor, while having a lap button readily available. It’s also considered ideal if it has the ability to average your heart rate per lap. If not, you’ll need to download the information and calculate averages via an Excel or other data file.


First do a good 15- to 20-minute warm-up, preferably on the trainer. I prefer to start spinning lightly, gradually increasing my gearing and cadence. The last five minutes should be near to 85-90% of your maximum effort.


Spin your legs out for five minutes and then perform a few “spin-ups,” where, in a medium gear, you gradually increase your cadence until you reach your maximum. Hold it for a few seconds and then spin down. I like to do three sets of these.

Now, take 10 minutes to cool down.

Heart Rate Test

For the test itself, you’ll be doing an all-out, 30-minute time trial. The goal of any time trial is to hold your maximum effort for the entire ride. To that end, make sure that you don’t start out at a sprint effort. Instead, begin with an approximate cadence of 90 RPM.

Ten minutes into your effort, press the lap button on either your watch or computer. The last 20 minutes (essentially one big “lap”) of the effort is what determines your LT heart rate, so be sure that you finish having given everything that you have.

The average heart rate (HR) of the last 20 minutes is your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).

Calculating the Zones

Using the LTHR, use the following formulas to calculate your zones:

Zone 1
Range: 0% <–> 81% of LTHR
Formula: 0  <–> 0.81*(LTHR)

Zone 2
Range: 81% <–> 89% of LTHR
Formula: 0.81*(LTHR) <–> 0.89*(LTHR)

Zone 3
Range: 90% <–> 93% of LTHR
Formula: 0.9*(LTHR) <–> 0.93*(LTHR)

Zone 4
Range: 94% <–> 99% of LTHR
Formula: 0.94*(LTHR) <–> 0.99*(LTHR)

Zone 5a
Range: 100% <–> 102% of LTHR
Formula: LTHR <–> 1.02*(LTHR)

Zone 5b
Range: 103% <–> 106% of LTHR
Formula: 1.03*(LTHR) <–> 1.06*(LTHR)

Zone 5c
Range: More than 106% of LTHR
Formula: 1.06*(LTHR) <–> Max Heart Rate

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