Why should I get a Heart Rate Monitor


Jun 25, 2012
I've only been back cycling since June '12 (looong layoff). I keep hearing the buzz about heart rate monitors, so I did some minor research and found mostly abstract of it's benefit or maybe it's just me not getting it, so I ask the question. Why should I or any rider get a HR monitor. Just to let you know. I am not looking to race. I am just riding as a serious recreational sport. I ride alone and with groups. I ride in organized rides. I am a strong B group rider, but can hang with the A's for short periods. I am trying to be an efficient rider, yet get stronger to be able to complete my 1st century this year. I'd appreciate any advice, guidance or links to some really good reading on HR monitors. Additionally, I have the Garmin 800 with the Ant+ with speed and cadence.

Honest answer, I wouldn't buy a HR monitor if I were you.

And that's coming from someone who trained with one for many years and was coached to HR targets while I trained. It took a long time to come around but in the end I found it did more to hold my training back than to advance my training. Far too many of my workouts were dictated by NOT exceeding a particular HR and I got pretty good at going slow or holding moderate pace but still struggled when the road tipped up or the pace got hot in races.

About seven seasons ago I started training with a power meter and for a couple of seasons continued to wear the HR strap and record both power and HR data. The charts from that training and racing made things very clear. More often than not HR became my limiter and not something that encouraged doing the work. When I ignored HR I trained at higher power and over time my results improved substantially. In time I stopped wearing the HR strap altogether.

If I was starting from scratch and a power meter was not in the budget I'd train as riders did before any of these gadgets were invented. I'd train by tuning into my own Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or basically tune into how I felt, how heavily I was breathing, basically how comfortable or uncomfortable my efforts were during training. On focused days I'd pick durations of interest that target specific systems (e.g. 3 to 6 minute hills or sections of flatter road for VO2 Max intervals, 20 to 30 or even 60 minute sections of road for Threshold time trial intervals, 1 to 3 hour open road rides for Tempo work, longer all day rides for long Endurance work, etc.) and ride those efforts hard but paced to finish the duration without totally blowing up or fading. Yep, it takes some time to learn that pacing and at the beginning folks will tend to hit the efforts too hard and blow up or go too easy and realize they could have ridden harder and faster. But it self corrects pretty fast if you just pay attention to how you feel, and your speed as you do these efforts.

The ironic thing is when I first started getting serious about cycling on the college racing team an older local athlete made almost exactly that same advice. But that was in the mid '80s just as the first wristwatch HR monitors hit the consumer market. And I jumped on the tech bandwagon like everybody else and was sure that wristwatch that recorded my HR was the ticket to much better training and faster racing. It didn't work that way for me and from the coaching I've done in recent years I see that I'm not the only one.

No doubt many folks have used HR monitors to assist their training and many no doubt have been very successful doing so. But IME the data they provide can be very misleading and ultimately somewhat redundant to RPE. So yeah your heart is beating faster or slower today for a similar effort but does that mean back off if you feel good or perhaps slow down if you feel bad? If you tune into your body and develop pacing skills you'll know what to do in those situations regardless of what the HR meter says. And tracking HR over time doesn't really tell you anything about fitness or progress. Sure matching that HR to time up a local climb or typical rolling speeds might, but the time up the climb or numbers on your speedometer already tell you when you're getting faster.

So I personally wouldn't recommend buying a HR monitor. If you have the budget I might suggest a power meter but it depends on how much you're willing to invest in learning how it can help you and how much structured training you intend to do. At least the PM gives you absolute measurements on progress (if you can sustain more power for durations of interest you're getting fitter in a measurable way not subject to the wind direction or the terrain or the road conditions as simply measuring speed often is). But from your description above it doesn't sound like you're in the market for a PM in which case I'd go with a standard cycling computer and RPE.

I think that most experienced riders will agree that power is the gold standard training tool, but the power realm has a steep cost of entry.

When I made the decision to become a better rider, my main metric was the distance ridden. After failing in an attempt at riding a century, I found that my ability to pace myself was lacking. I bought a simple hrm and over a few weeks identified a range of heart rates / efforts that I should be able to sustain. My next attempt at a century was a success. For me, starting out, the HRM helped by because my RPE was not calibrated; but my goals were purely distance, speed was secondary.

Fast forward a few years, now I have a more advanced HRM, better sense of RPE and still do not have a power meter. I do use the HRM data, but more for post ride analysis. I do little structured training, instead I pick a few days a week to ride with fast A group rides or I do a time trial or two on some local stretches of road. On hard rides, the HRM is running, but I ride at the pace the group dictates until the ride is over or I blow up. The other days, I ride according to how I feel.

I can recommend a few invaluable tools to the developing rider on a budget. First, push the limit, find a training partner or group that is faster than you are comfortable riding with, occasionally getting dropped is OK. Second, start logging data. Record your rides, times, miles, how you feel etc. To this end, a GPS device is a great and inexpensive tool. There are some online sites that have nice analysis tools and can track your times over stretches of road that you can define - there are also features that can even turn solo ride into a competitive event. Finally, invest the time in becoming better. Many on this site recommend that training at least 4 days a week is best for developing the physical adaptations beneficial to cycling.
Methodical said:
  I keep hearing the buzz about heart rate monitors, , I have the Garmin 800 with the Ant+ with speed and cadence. Thanks...Al
wow i thought i was back in the 80's ! yes first learn to know your body and gauge your efforts without paying too much attention to HR: like endurance pace, sprints, climbing hard, sustaining long efforts, recovery rides. Since HR is not an exact science so to speak, it could help to use it in % mode: 60% efforts, 70%, 80%, etc. I came to this conclusion by accident because i didn't want to do math every year, since HR diminishes with age, so i set it up in % of maximum HR. if you already invested in a top of the line garmin with ant+ protocol, then why not a on a powermeter, watts it is the ultimate training parameter, and you can use together with speed, cadence, altitude and HR readings,
Interesting responses, some food for thought. I do ride now based on how the body feels, RPE as stated above. I typically like to spin at a cadence of between 80-90 and that's where I feel good pacing, but if I feel good I put more effort into riding a stronger pace, but if my legs or breathing dictates something different then I adjust accordingly. Then, I began reading about the HRM I thought maybe this will help improve things, but I just was not getting it, at least from the articles I've read and maybe it's just me. I'm one of those riders where my legs, lungs, heart and my head needs about 20-30 minutes riding before I get good and strong for the ride and after that and refueling I'm gone. Is this typical or am I just not physically ready to go out the box hard? It's been this way for me since my riding days in the past.

Thanks for the insightful posts. I will read up on a power meter.

Oh, VSPA, why did my comment make think you were back in the 80's - curious.

daveryanwyoming said:
But that was in the mid '80s just as the first wristwatch HR monitors hit the consumer market. -Dave
thats why :) it is also quite common to warm up slowly, we are not teenagers anymore,
Originally Posted by vspa .

thats why /img/vbsmilies/smilies/smile.gif

it is also quite common to warm up slowly, we are not teenagers anymore,
Ahh ok. Yes, we definitely are no longer teenagers.

Btw, I looked at one of the power meters (see below) out of curiosity and I am not that serious enough about racing to justify the cost, so I will just stick with the RPE method and the Garmin 800 for now and continue my intervals (I can see and feel improvements so far). I just want to enjoy my rides with friends and with club groups rides without worry about always being in training mode or this or that. I guess that's another sign that I am no longer a teenager (haha!); 46 by the way.


Thanks everyone, signing off...Al
Much harder to progress if you don't know your current ability. It's much more fun to "get into it", knowing about heart rate, speed, cadence, calorie output, distance, etc.. Not only that, but it can save you. I went to the emergency 3 times last summer for chest pain, and it has been fine ever since I got a heart rate monitor. Note: it's not good to constantly ride at 200+ hbm.

Get one (if you haven't yet), and note how much more fun it is.

--I have Garmin 500... whatever floats your boat, but it's a good choice.