I recently started training with a heart rate belt. However, my heart rate zones seem completely different from the information I could gather online.

First, I'm in my mid-thirties but have a maximum heart rate of 197, which is much higher than it should be. However, it seems for many people this can be the case.

Second, more importantly, my heart rate zones differ a lot from standard percentages. Cyclingweekly stated that 82-89% should be for efforts lasting a few minutes but it is ok for me to hold the mid-80s for several hours. 89% and above only works for a few minutes. I don't seem to have any heart rate zone to target for a 20 minute effort.

Third, the indicator about speaking seems completely inaccurate. At 87%, speaking one sentence at a time (usually zone 2) is possible.

My question is how should I approach cycling practice based on zones if I fall out of the regular categories? I would also like to know possible reasons why the zones can be off, especially in case this relates to health issues or lack of training in some respect.

  • How do you meaasure the heart rate? Such a heart rate for several minutes is quite interesting, but experts will probably explain it as an individual feature. The high top is quite possible, the individual variation is very large. I suggest caring more about your functional threshold, rather than the top, unless you are a sprinter. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 5:32
  • Using different HR belts yielded the same results.
    – HRSE
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 5:37
  • Yes, I meant it is a feature of the human individual, not the feature of the instrument. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 6:17
  • Max HR of 220-age (or other formula) works for some people. Zones based training (with one of many formulas) works for some people. The intersection work well enough for most people most of the time. Your not most people and its not most of the time, and (as already suggested) HR training may not be for you. I am finding (now in my 50's) HR Training is no longer as accurate and effective as it once was for me (My Max HR at 30 was over 200 and my zones were compressed into the space above 160).
    – mattnz
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 6:36
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    @mattnz I think you're overstating the accuracy of 220 - age max HR formula. IIRC the standard deviation on the data used to create that formula is almost 15 bpm - it's literally the same as measuring NBA players and jockeys and saying as a whole they're average height. It may be true, but it's a worse-than-worthless statement. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 11:32

4 Answers 4


Max HR isn't a particularly useful metric. Not only is it particularly difficult to measure/estimate, but it can't be used to accurately define training zones, as there are large variations between individuals with regards to % of MHR they can sustain for various durations. It can even change for an individual based on their current state of training.

Basing zones on Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is a much more useful metric for determining appropriate training zones. The most common way to determine LTHR is by performing a 30 minute solo time trial as if it were a race, and taking the average HR for the last 20 minutes of the effort. https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/joe-friel-s-quick-guide-to-setting-zones/

  • 1
    How is maximum HR difficult to measure?
    – ojs
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 9:19
  • 2
    @ojs Because its hard to push yourself that hard on a bike - even a 20-30s max sprint isn't going to be enough. To start with, you need to begin the ride really fresh - any lingering fatigue and you won't hit max. Then you need to do a set of intervals that push your HR progressively higher but without draining your explosive power too much. And finally, you need to sprint off the end of the last interval. Get it slightly wrong and it'll likely take a full week before you are fresh enough to try again.
    – Andy P
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 9:30
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    I should also note that depending on your fitness and relative strength it may even be impossible to hit max HR on the bike. I recall from my own training between 2010-2012 that I focused too much on riding long threshold intervals. The end result was I got very fit and could ride super strong on a 1 hour climb, but lacked the explosive power to push my HR anywhere close to max - when I tried to go hard my legs always gave out long before my HR and breathing were taxed.
    – Andy P
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 9:38
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    The final zinger is that for someone is trained well enough and capable to be able to perform the max HR test properly, by that time, they'll be able to recognize what zones they're in just by feel, which in many respects renders the whole test unnecessary. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:06
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    @WeiwenNg i don't have a source to link, but fairly sure I read that the ramp test typically gets close to maxHR but falls short by ~5bpm (so a fairly reasonable estimate to base zones off)
    – Andy P
    Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 9:01

You also may just be especially fit. For example, Dale Stone, one of my favorite MTB YouTubers, has a max heart rate of 208 or so, and is still capable of talking at 180BPM and higher. Heart rate guidelines are just that: guidelines, and there's no guarantee that you fall within them.


I take it you know or feel what your optimal cadence is. If not, somewhere between 70-90 rpm usually is a good starting point to experiment with.

Find a gear in the back while on the big chain ring that you can peddle at between 70-90 rpm and that you see your heart rate stay flat for the duration of your ride. Again a good starting point for a new rider is 10-15 miles and eventually growing that number to like 20-25 for a short ride. If it continues to increase to your max, you are pushing too hard of a gear so shift down one cog.

Keep doing that until you can ride 25 miles in that gear without your heart rate reaching zone 5 or let's just say for you about within 15 to 20 bpm of your max heart rate.

If you want to go faster, now ride 50-75% of the same distance with the next smaller gear and try to keep your cadence above 65 rpm. You will notice your heart rate rising, but that is just helping your body adapt. You will also feel your muscles hurt more, but that is again adaptation.

Keep doing that until you are cruising around at 28 MPH and then go buy some wheels, kit, aerobars, 53 tooth chain ring, etc.

Hopefully that helps and always make sure your heart is healthy enough for exercise and all that other liability stuff.


In regards to your heart rate. Maximum heart rate is different for many people because there is a combination of factors, and those most important factors are the age of individual and size of the heart.

As we age, every year your avg/max HR goes down by about 1beat per min. With the size of heart, smaller heart achieves higher max HR and opposite. HR also changes based on fatigue, dehydration etc. note that having higher max HR then other people is no indication of better fitness.

There are many heart rate zones standards because many people have different approaches and methods to training. Choosing heart zone standards will depend on what training program or workouts you follow. You can check these training zones that have been working for 100% of my athletes.

However if you don't follow any structured training, what you need to focus on instead is your heart rate threshold (or power threshold, if you have power meter). This is the most important metric when determining the training zones and your training. You can determine it by doing 30min full effort and last 20min take avg HR. If you have power, you can estimate your FTP here and check your cycling level.

Once you know the threshold HR, then all training should be based on that. Each training day you should focus on a different aspect of your fitness, so, for example, Tuesday focus on zones that are below your threshold, wed you can focus on at threshold HR and slightly over, and Thursday can be super intense above your threshold 120%.

Lastly, your threshold heart rate can change with your fitness, so make sure you monitor this at least every 2 months.

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    – Criggie
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 7:43
  • Yes it is my website Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 5:21

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