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Rider: Backcountry Employee Ryan Schoeck. Photo Credit: Ian Matteson
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How to Find Your Heart Rate Zones

If you’re searching the Internet for training advice, you’ll find more than just a few words of wisdom about how to get faster. The consensus: to get faster you have to go harder. Because even though LSD (long slow distance) definitely has its place—especially when it comes to ultra events—it won’t make you faster, you’ll just suffer less. But how do you know how hard to go? That is 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 are training for that multi-day race or just trying to lose weight, keeping your heart rate within specific ranges that are calibrated to your own physiology and level of fitness helps your effort.  Let’s take the tempo ride as an example. Not an all-out time trial, a tempo ride is ridden at a pace that is just below lactate threshold, but it’s slightly above pure aerobic pace. In other words, it’s a pace that would be difficult to maintain for hours, but is not so taxing that you tire in a few minutes. Monitoring your heart rate helps you determine and stay at the ideal pace. And although the term “tempo” has multiple interpretations, depending on who you ask, in objective terms coaches place it at high zone 3 to zone 4–right where your body is able to use lactate (which is actually an  energy source, not the evil by-product we once thought) efficiently. It is the pace at which your body is burning pure carbs for energy. It is also the pace that is most often confused by athletes and many either go too hard or too easy. Going too hard will tax your body and recovery time will be longer, and 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 is within zone 1. While you may not feel like you are making gains during recovery sessions, it an essential part of the training process.

Determining Your Zones

While getting your V02Max measured often requires a trip to the local Kinesiology department at a university, figuring out your heart rate training zones is a bit easier to do yourself, though the effort you’ll need to put forth is the same. You will be essentially doing a Lactate Threshold (LT) test, without the pinpricks.

First and foremost, an LT test should only be performed if you are reasonably fit. If you are coming straight off of the sofa with the intent to race in a few months, be sure you put in some good base miles in your sport, running or cycling, before you attempt to determine your zones, since the test is fairly strenuous, and you won’t get results that will be accurate throughout the training period.

You can perform the heart rate test indoors, although I prefer outdoors because I think it’s very hard to motivate yourself for an all-out effort for any length of time on an indoor trainer. Outdoors, you will need to find a flattish course that you can ride on for at least 30 minutes on without being slowed down or stopped. A long country road is perfect. Some cities even have bike paths that are relatively deserted in the middle of weekdays. The test should be done solo, without the influence of another rider. If you’ve raced a time trial, you know that other riders become the rabbits to chase. You want this effort to be your hardest without any outside distractions.

You will need a heart rate monitor. I suggest using a watch or GPS device that interfaces with a heart rate strap on your chest for best results. It should have a lap button readily available. It is also nice if it has the ability to average your heart rate for laps. If not, you’ll need to download the information and calculate averages via an Excel or other data file.


Warm Up

First do a good 15-20 minute warm-up; this can be done on a trainer. I prefer to start spinning lightly and gradually increase gearing and cadence. The last 5 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”—in a medium gear, gradually increase cadence until you reach max, hold for a few seconds and then spin down. I like to do three of these.

Take 10 minutes to cool down.

Heart Rate Test

For the test itself, you will be doing an all-out 30-minute time trial. The goal of any time trial is to hold the maximum effort you are able to for the entire ride. To that end, make sure you don’t start like it is a sprint effort.

Start out at with a cadence of approximately 90rpm.

Ten minutes into your effort, press the lap button. 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.

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


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
LTHR <–> 1.02*(LTHR)

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

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


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