How Knowing Your Goals and Tracking Your Heart Rate Can Help You Maximize the Rewards From Your Workouts

There are many reasons to attend a spin class or cycling studio, or to engage in some solo indoor cycling. Cycling is low impact, it’s perfect for improving cardiovascular health, and it’s a form of concurrent training that can burn calories while toning muscle.

But in order to get the most from all these benefits, it’s crucial that you have a plan when you plant yourself down on that bike. More specifically, it’s important to understand how different types of indoor cycling can emphasize different results. If you’re looking to lose weight, then the way that you cycle will be very different from someone looking to compete in a race. If you have no strategy, chances are that you’re not going to capitalize on the benefits that you want.

One of the best ways to address this is to focus on heart rate zones. This means using heart rate tracking technology to monitor your output precisely and to ensure that you’re using enough effort for the goals you have in mind. Only it actually gets a little more complicated than that…

Understanding Heart Rate Zones and Energy Systems

Understanding Heart Rate Zones and Energy Systems

Until recently, cyclists, runners and anyone else looking to lose weight through cardiovascular exercise, would be encouraged to stick within a specific ‘heart rate zone’ – which would be about 70% of their maximum heart rate.

The theory behind this was that staying at around 70% would be slow enough to allow the body to use its aerobic energy system. This is the method through which the body can get energy from fat stores – by using oxygen to break them down and deliver them to the muscles. At 70%, you are placing a high energy demand on the body but you’re not going too fast for the aerobic system to work.

Because once you break a certain threshold, the body has to switch to ‘anaerobic’ energy systems. You need energy too quickly for the relatively slow aerobic system to work and so you are forced to use more readily available energy. These are the ATP-CP system and the glycogen-lactic acid system. The ATP-CP system (adenosine triphosphate creatine phosphate) uses energy that is already stored in the muscles but there’s only enough here for a couple of seconds. The glycogen-lactic acid system uses glycogen – which is also stored in the muscles – but this creates by-products called ‘metabolites’ which cause a burning sensation and force us to stop exercising after a certain point – usually after one to three minutes.

The precise point at which you are going too fast to rely on the aerobic system will vary from person to person, and is called the ‘aerobic threshold’. The point at which you are forced to return to the aerobic system because you have a buildup of metabolites is called your ‘lactate inflection point’.

Zone training means sticking to one of these energy systems (aerobic or anaerobic) by monitoring your heart rate. This is what you would have seen across all cycling studios a few years ago.

Heart Rate Zone training means sticking to one of these energy systems

What Zone Should You be Training In?

Traditional thinking suggests training at 70% because this is the aerobic system that burns fat. The anaerobic systems use energy already stored in the muscles so you don’t lose any weight from it directly. That, and training at a steady pace like this, is the best way to strengthen the heart and to increase the size of the left ventricle, thereby lowering the resting heart rate and improving general health. This is a form of heart rate training.

But recent research has challenged this notion. While it is true that anaerobic training does not burn fat,  it appears to still create a caloric deficit. In other words, the energy still comes from somewhere and that energy needs to be replenished subsequently.

So if you train at 80% of your MHR, your body will continue to burn more fat after the training finishes. Why? Because it needs to find energy to replenish stores of ATP and glycogen. This is what some trainers refer to as the ‘afterburn effect’ and it is quickly becoming one of the more popular ways to train throughout cycling studios.

You’ve probably heard of one type of training that makes use of the afterburn effect: HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). HIIT is a type of training that alternates between aerobic and anaerobic exercise to increase fat burning and improve cellular function. This pushes the body to its limits and will result in a much larger total calorie burn than steady-state aerobic exercise. Virtual cycling classes that use feedback from heart rate monitors can take this concept even further and push athletes to the edge in a way that is safe but highly effective.

But HIIT isn’t for everyone. There are still advantages to steady state as well. Those with weaker hearts for example, should stick to the lower bounds of their heart rate zones, while a steady state is still the best way to lower down the resting heart rate. Steady state is also recommended for those training for marathons and similar events.

In short, the best approach is to define your goals and then derive your plan according to them. Before making any change to your training plans it is highly recommended to consult with your personal trainer at the gym and be clear about your goals. They’ll help you devise the right program for you that takes into account your goals, your performance data, and your fitness level.