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Cycling Training With Power vs Heart Rate

As a Cycling Coach I often get asked if it is better to train with power or heart rate and what the difference is. Of course I always say it is better to train with power. But why? And is it really that simple?

When I first started being coached by Matt Bottrill back in the early days of his coaching career I was training on heart rate. Power meters were more expensive then and not as commonly used as now. Training to heart rate was a revelation to me and it is fair to say that by following the training that Matt gave to me (no Training Peaks back then, it came in a weekly email!) I saw some significant improvements and became a better cyclist. I went from having no structured training and my only measurements being speed and distance to following a structured plan where I effectively trained different areas using heart rate measurements, but it did come with some frustrations. Some days it seemed to take much more effort to get my heart rate into the correct zone and hold it there and for shorter efforts the effort was often nearly over before my heart rate had come up to the correct level. And then on other days it almost seemed too easy.

After about a year Matt kindly sold me his old power tap wheel and I started training with power. It was as much of a revelation as going from no structure to training with HR. This is when the big gains started to happen and my results really started to improve. There was and still is no doubt in my mind that training with power is much more effective than training with heart rate. I found that once my zones were set I could more or less instantly be swapping from one zone to the other. Max efforts and recovery took on more meaning, the measurements were there straight away with no delay as with heart rate. I could always hit the right zones, unlike with heart rate, which seemed to change quite often.

The problem with training with heart rate is that it is so easily effected by many other factors. You have a cup of coffee and it will be higher. You have a bad nights sleep and it might be suppressed. You do a hard block of training and it becomes suppressed, meaning that you end up working too hard to get to the right zone, which in the long run could be detrimental to your fitness.

Figure 1 - delayed heart rate response in threshold and VO2 efforts when training with power

Power on the other hand is there straight away and provided your zones are set correctly if you can’t hit the right power you are too tired for that session. You don’t have that certainty with heart rate.

When I started using a power meter Matt also started to use Training Peaks to set my sessions, which also meant that a wealth of data was being collected. He was able to use that data to continually analyse my training sessions and look for strengths and weaknesses to better target my training. And then on race day I arrived with a set of instructions telling me how to pace each stage of the race depending on the course and conditions. This is the process that I learnt from Matt and that I now apply to other athletes with great success as a coach for Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching.

But when is comes to power vs heart rate it isn’t as simple as one vs the other. When used in conjunction and with the addition of some other clever technology it is possible to track progress and recovery effectively and so make a training plan even more specific to the individual. Looking at heart rate decoupling can be a good indication of fitness and efficiency and this can be tracked over time to ensure that an athlete is progressing well. And by adding the use of a Heart Rate Variability sensor and app, such as that offered by Ithlete, an athlete’s recovery can be assessed each day and training altered to suit if needed, ensuring good recovery and proper training.

In summary, heart rate training is still an effective means of training when going from no structure to a structured plan. Power is a much more effective measurement to train and race to and when in the hands of a good coach can lead to significant improvements in performance. But when used in conjunction with one another and with the addition of tools such as Ithlete HRV sensors and apps a training plan can be extremely specific to the individual, considering external stress's such as work and family life and ensuring that adequate recovery is factored into a plan.

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