HR better than nothing?


New Member
Jun 30, 2006
Getting this out of the way first: I cannot and will not soon afford any kind of power meter. No aspirations of pro or even high cat level. I'll be starting as a CAT 5 next season - for fun.

Given all that - is a heart rate monitor for training better than training with JUST a speedometer? I'm aware of the limitations and variable heart rate stuff but would it at least be worth it for trying to better track my progress? Right now I just ride about 10 hours a week and try to go fast enough to hang with A groups.
Yes, HR is better than a speedometer alone. HR monitors even work indoors for those who ride a trainer. Good luck! :)
Caden said:
... would it at least be worth it for trying to better track my progress?....
That's one of the key problems, you can't really track your progress. Say you do a certain ride and average say 160 bpm for a key portion. A month later you do the same ride and hold 155 or 165 or 170 bpm, that doesn't really tell you anything. You could be better rested, more tired, in a different emotional state, hotter, cooler, the list goes on....

You can pair up your HR with speed for a given section or time to complete a fixed distance or to climb a particular hill. But again the HR won't really tell you anything, the speed or elapsed time might give you clues to fitness but you'll get that info with or without a HR number. Again a higher or lower HR for a higher, lower or same speed could and often does result from a lot of different factors independant of your fitness gains or losses.

And HR is pretty lousy for pacing your training intervals or even time trials. If you do ride a steady pace it takes several minutes for your HR to reach the average for the interval. If you get a bit lazy and ease off mid interval the inherent averaging and slow response of HR can give you a false sense of intensity and encourage you to do "burst and float" style efforts which don't really hold you in level and isn't the best way to train(unless you're doing microintervals). If you attempt to speed up the curve and get your HR up earlier in the effort you'll have to go much too hard in the early part and you'll fade later on when it catches up to you. So to pace an effort well based on HR you'll have to be patient, allow the HR to respond over time and then tune into your breathing, perceived exertion, etc. to make sure you don't get lazy mid effort. IOW, you'll pace the start on perceived exertion and then use perceived exertion to keep yourself honest till the end. Bottom line, you'll be pacing on perceived exertion which doesn't require the investment in a HR strap or give the false sense of accuracy that we get from a digital display and numeric readout.

FWIW, I trained with HR religiously for many years, read everything I could on the subject, attended camps and clinics that pushed the value of HR and payed highly respected coaches that were deeply committed to HR based training. My results sucked! Power training has shown me why but the funny thing is the longer I train with power the more I realize that as much as I like reviewing my power data I don't really need the PM to train effectively now that I know what I'm trying to accomplish.

I've posted this on these forums before, but if I had to do it all over again and a PM wasn't in the budget I'd skip the HRM and pace my efforts by simply chosing interval durations that target specific metabolic processes and riding them roughly as hard and steady as I can while still being able to complete the individual efforts and the sets. So if I'm targeting L6 I'll find a stretch of road that allows a minute to two minutes of full on effort and do it a bunch of times. If I go too hard I'll know it soon enough and if they feel too easy I'll bump up the next effort or the next session. It's pretty much a self correcting process and the power data is nice to make sure I rode them steady but not really necessary. I'm sure not staring at my PM display during an L6 effort, I'd likely crash if I tried that.

Here's some typical durations for various efforts:
- L7 sprints: 6 to 15 seconds
- L6 Anaerobic tolerance: 1 to 2 minutes
- L5 VO2 Max: 3 to 6 minutes
- L4 Threshold: 10 to 30-45 minutes
- L3 Tempo: 45 minutes to 3 hours
- L2 Endurance: 2 to 6 hours

Yeah they overlap more than I've indicated and it's all a continuum but these are pretty typical training efforts for these levels. Do these pretty close to your best effort for the durations listed and you'll see progress. You might have to measure that progress by the time it takes to climb a certain hill, your results from a regular TT course, how much distance you cover in your typical training intervals, etc. but the progress will come from targeting near maximal efforts for the appropriate durations not the tool you use to measure the efforts.

When my PM batteries go dead mid ride I have to remind myself that the only data that really counts is what's recorded in my legs.......

Heresy on these boards I know :)
Good luck,
Try one of those Kurt Kinetic power meters for the trainer. Its not great but it works well for the cost of $40-50.

Good luck.
I think anything is better than nothing.


I will suggest that RACING will be a major training aid. Your legs will start telling you just what they feel like when under race-stress and perhaps you can replicate that feeling in training.

I train and time trial with the powermeter, and I wear the HR strap to see how long it takes me to warm up, and also for after-ride analysis of my physiological responses to the training or time trial. Otherwise I ignore the HR info. I used to train with HR and it was fairly ok, but really did not help me to learn to push my legs. Racing and the PM did, however. I discovered that 175 bpm does not always correlate to the same output every time. It is part of what caused me to re-evaluate my cadence speed and learn to push a big gear.

I might have spent an hour pedaling furiously at over 105rpm in a training session and felt like I accomplished a lot, but in fact was not really doing as much work as my legs were capable of. Spinning those cranks at a fast cadence does have the affect (on me) of causing my HR to go up. This is never more obvious than when I do my spin-out cadence drills (150-160rpm). Those drills can spike my heartrate up above LT so fast it is astonishing. On the other side of the coin, pushing a 53x21 up a moderate hill with the same power output as the cadence drill will not send my HR up nearly as fast (although it might reach the same level if the hill lasted long enough).

On the flats, I sometimes do cadence variations at the same power output, and generally, the faster cadence will cause my HR to run faster, even though the work is the same. All things being equal, I would choose the lower HR if possible (the other factor being muscular strain and potential joint strain, but I have found that not to be the case with a cadence of 80-90). I think there is validity to the concept of doing purposeful workouts at very high cadences and relatively low power outputs, especially earlier in the season, with the goal of working out the aerobic system primarily. These workouts (for me) would cause the HR to be higher than it normally would be for that power output.

I have not used any computer whatsoever in races this year, not wanting any distractions, but I can see the potential of having the powermeter in a race (with the display covered) so I can download the data later.
My short answer is to use both, the stopwatch and HR monitor together. Quality training can still be achieved with only these two ancient pieces of equipment. And yes, HR monitoring is much better than nothing. I'll take it over perceived exertion any day, limitations and all...
Caden said:
is a heart rate monitor for training better than training with JUST a speedometer? .

No it's not. Stick with the speedo and stop watch. The HR will distract you from what's really going on.

Not joking BTW...after re-reading my post sounds sarcastic. It's not.
Ask ten people and get ten answers! :) ( ten shades of black and white).

I guess on a gross level, it's usually helpful but like Dave noted, it's when you get into the finer details that it's readings are suspect. However, you probably don't need an HRM to tell you how to destinguish between gross levels - you can probably do that by PE alone once you get the hang of it.

Here's a situation when the "usually" rule broke down. I remember waiting for the start of a TT at a mid-level US stage race a few years ago. It was hot for us (~96 degrees F, ~34 C), I was freaking out because I had just fixed some major mechanical issues with my bike a few minutes beforehand, my friends and I had been amped for this race (especially this time trial) for weeks and I had too much coffee that morning. I remember looking down at my HRM while in the start house with 15 seconds to go until the start and my HR was 165, 5 beats below AT. No kidding. It made pacing by HR completely useless because everything was elevated and I had no bearings to go by. As far as my heart was concerned, I was moving along pretty well even though I was standing still. :)
I have two heart rate monitors one is to show current HR the other is an s150 which displays average as you train. Indoors the two combined plus RPE give me an indication of how fresh my legs are after the first 20 minutes of riding the rollers from that I can decide if the ride will be a short SST or longer Tempo. If it's 1hr SST I have a 3 minute kick at the end if Tempo I will extend the ride time. Outdoors it helps me keep the pace from falling into L2 when I am going down hill or following some one down hill or on the flats that is slacking. It also helps me control my above threshold time which I tend to over do when outdoors.
I guess after reading the other posts I should go back and qualify/clarify my original response.

Most of the other posts are from the perspective of people who have trained with power data for some time and are going back and looking at HR data alone. My original answer was from the perspective of someone who had ONLY ridden with a spedometer, and was wondering whether adding HR would add any value, and I still say the answer is "yes."

I trained for a few years with spedometer alone for MS150 rides, and was able to achieve a decent level of fitness. I even did group rides with the local clubs and was typically one of the stronger riders. But, it wasn't until I bought a HR monitor and started learning about intervals and training levels that my whole outlook on training changed -- and my results improved dramatically. My HR monitor told me to work harder to get those last few beats and to hang on until the end of the interval -- spedometer didn't do that. I started doing 20-30 minute HR intervals based on posts from this forum and had a lot more success from my training. I got recruited to one of the local racing teams based on my performance on those group rides, and now race Cat 3.

So, there's my anecdote. Now that I've trained with power for a couple years, could I apply the additional knowledge I've gained to train better with a spedometer alone than a newbie on HR? Yeah. Could I have done intervals and levels with a spedometer and stopwatch? Yes, but I *didn't* and don't know a lot of folks who do (except maybe as a 'retro' movement abandoning the HR meter or power meter). Did the HR monitor get me hooked on objective measurement in training and take my training to a whole new level? Definitely. Is it more valuable to a new rider than spedometer alone? In my opinion, yes.
frenchyge said:
My original answer was from the perspective of someone who had ONLY ridden with a spedometer, and was wondering whether adding HR would add any value, and I still say the answer is "yes..
Yeah, that's the perspective from which I was asking. I actually ONLY have a speedometer. I don't own a stopwatch or ANY kind of watch for that matter. So if I was going to time my intervals I may as well do that with a watch that's also tracking my HR (since I have to buy a watch anyway).

As for HR being an "ancient" way to train as another poster stated... God, this sport puts a lot of demands on mere amateurs just to stay in the club. What's next? Will we all be wearing on-bike blood-glucose or fingertip blood oxygen monitors next? Or start doping like the pros?
I'm one of those old-school types. The handlebar is bare of any "numbers". Everything is perceived and instinctive. I fully understand power and heart rate data, but refuse to use it personally. No speedometer either. Racing is guttural and my training reflects that.

That said, I do train others using hr, power and speed, but only because most fella's barely understand how to **** correctly without having some science behind it.

I say go ahead and use the hr monitor, but take heed of the warnings given by others of it's innacuracies. Learn to train and race by feel, using hr and speed only as a reenforcer of what you are learning instinctively. .
I suggest trying what Dave Ryan suggests first. Do those intervals on perceived exertion first -- just make sure you do them as hard as you can for the work period. Maybe you'll find that you improve rapidly this way and you can save your money for a PM, some better equipment or maybe just beer [cheers!]. If it doesn't work out, you could try an HRM and see if it helps. The point is, you really don't need anything special when you first start racing. Have fun!
The challenge with perceived exertion is that it varies *more* during the course of a workout than HR does.

...just make sure you do them as hard as you can for the work period.
Ok, we'll be tired at the end but how does that assure that the pacing is better than one could do with HR data? Think about a 2x20 workout that we'd normally pace by power and then try to explain it to someone who'd only ridden with a speedometer. How would it go? Something like "for the first interval you want to start at a PE of about 6-7 and then have it gradually climb up to 8-9 by the end of the 20 minutes, then for the second one you should get back up to 7-8.5 fairly quickly after the rest and then be at 9.5-10 by the end of the workout."

Unless someone has had a period of time to calibrate their feelings using an objective external source, do we really think PE would provide for a more effective workout than pacing by HR?
frenchyge said:
Think about a 2x20 workout that we'd normally pace by power and then try to explain it to someone who'd only ridden with a speedometer. How would it go?
Before I got the powermeter I did do L4/SST workouts with speedometer and PE. Even I got a HR monitor in the combo I didn't pay any attention to it. Of course I cannot get back and see how correct the power output was and probably it was all over but I don't think following certain HR range would have changed it anyway.

For your question how it goes, explaining interval is quite like explaining a TT for someone without PM: try to hold the first few minutes and not go too hard, then keep the pace. After few times on the same route you learn to pace it well.

I understand the OP's question and need to have "at least something" to follow up, been there done that like most of the forum writers I guess but if asked now I would save the money. But if HR monitor gives n% more motivation in training then why not.
For this newbie training has been evolving from one step to another. Each being good, but when the time would come I was able to make the next step. When I first started I was using a Polar HRM in spin classes and on the road and I found myself limiting my progress because for me personally I would see my HR climb up and think I would risk having cardiac arrest, but the guys here convinced me I wouldn't fall over dead if I pushed a bit harder so I stopped wearing the HRM while training indoors and used Coogan's PE chart. That worked well for a while and then I started wondering if I was even hitting L4 using PE like I thought, but knowing human nature we tend to imagine ourselves training harder than reality. Thankfully Dave helped me into training with a PM a few weeks back and now training is starting to reach toward another level. I still wear the HR strap with my Garmin 305 or PM, but I do not look at the HR data until I get home. Can't help it I just like numbers and charts of all kinds. :p

For me personally I found myself limiting effort when looking at HR data during a ride or training, but I realize a good number of you guys training with HR are probably disciplined and perhaps can use it in a constructive way. If I were to lose the PM I would go back to training with PE, but I would definately be saving the pennies to get another PM.
Caden said:
God, this sport puts a lot of demands on mere amateurs just to stay in the club. What's next? Will we all be wearing on-bike blood-glucose or fingertip blood oxygen monitors next? Or start doping like the pros?
It's a hard sport. I make no apologies for that. The demands of the sport make it such that people are looking for that 1-2% extra that can mean everything. As far as keeping up with the Joneses goes, there are plenty of people around here that train by feel or by HR (I am not one of them). I'm quite sure that this is not an unusual situation and other locales are similar. Rather than be worried about being in the "in" crowd, worry about figuring out how to race, how to train (qualitatively at least) and how to recover. The basics of those lessons will likely not change much with the advancement of technology.