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How To Monitor Your Heart Rate To Become A Better Mountain Bike Rider

One of the benefits of technology is the convenience it offers in managing our health, wellness and activity. A prime example of technology’s ability to help us generate useful health data is heart rate monitors. But why is monitoring your heart rate important?

According to health and exercise expert, Robert Reames, your individual heart rate “is one of the most accurate, vital and realistic ways to indicate and measure your exercise intensity in any given workout.” Reames explains that this information can be helpful “to determine on any given day if your body is compromised, running at your own peak levels and/or exceeding your current fitness level.”

So with these considerations in mind, heart rate info sounds like a pretty valuable component of your training regimen, right? Well if you’re sold on a heart rate (HR) monitor as part of your kit and want to know more about what HR data can do for your riding, you came to the right place. Here we’ll take a look at what to use and how to use it so that you can take your heart rate numbers and convert them into improved performance on your bike.

What to use

While it may not be the first thing you think of on the list of essential mountain bike gear, a heart rate monitor can greatly improve your riding. Monitors come in a number of shapes and sizes, but there are primarily two routes you can take in choosing a monitor – (1.) a monitor only or activity tracker/monitor, or (2.) a GPS system with an integrated heart rate monitor. Here are a few noteworthy options in each category:

Monitors and activity trackers

  • Fitbit – One of the most popular activity tracking wristbands currently on the market is the Fitbit. Fitbit offers several models and some, such as the Charge 2, include a heart rate monitor. From slim wristbands to activity trackers closer in size to a watch, Fitbit has something for everyone.

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  • Suunto Smart Sensor – Marketed as a “comfortable heart rate sensor, perfect for multisport,” the smart sensor takes a minimalist approach while still providing many of the features you expect from wearable technology in this category.

  • Wahoo Fitness TICKR X – Equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, this heart rate monitor can pair easily with a GPS device or smartphone.

  • Polar – A known name in GPS systems and cycling circles, a couple of monitors in Polar’s product line include the A360 and the FT1. The FT1 looks like a watch and features a large display. The intuitive design of these monitors is intended to make “operation a cinch.”

  • Garmin – Arguably the most well-known name in GPS systems, Garmin offers a number of products that feature heart rate monitors, including the Vivofit and Vivosmart. With models ranging from large display, feature-rich monitors to slim, minimal wristbands, there’s something to suit most tastes.

Monitor – GPS combo watches

  • Suunto Spartan Ultra Stealth Titanium (HR) – The name says it all – this stealthy and sleek wrist piece is sure to turn heads. With a color touch screen and attractive display, this combo allows you to easily monitor your heart rate while also keeping tabs on the route.

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  • Polar M200 – A heart rate monitor is just one of the features of this unit, which also tracks speed, distance and elevation. At about half the cost of most other GPS watches, the M200 is also a good value for the more cost-conscious consumer.

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  • Garmin Fenix 3 HR – A “Cadillac” among GPS watches, a heart rate monitor is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Fenix 3 HR’s features…and it is priced accordingly. Elapsed time, distance, speed, compass, barometric altimeter – this watch has it all. So if you’re looking for a GPS watch-heart rate monitor combo that can do it all and you’re willing to pay top dollar, the Fenix 3 may be the solution for you.

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  • TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio – This rubbery wrist wear comes in several colors and features a built-in heart rate monitor. The large display and bike mount available from TomTom make it a device worthy of consideration for MTB use.

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How to use it

While using a heart rate monitor when mountain biking may sound complicated, it’s really not. But like any piece of gear, it’s only helpful if you know how to use it.

According to Eddie Fletcher of Fletcher Sports Science, the key to utilizing a heart rate monitor to improve your riding can be summed up in three steps:

  1. Find out what your resting heart rate is

  2. Determine your maximum heart rate

  3. “Work out” your zones

Following these steps will help give “those random numbers” some meaning.

Finding your resting heart rate

According to Harry Blackwood, the best way to determine your resting heart rate is to “take it first thing in the morning every day for a week and work out the average.” In order to get an accurate resting heart rate, it is important to do this when you’re healthy and well rested as illness, stress and other factors will affect the numbers. Put on your heart rate monitor and lie still for a couple of minutes, relaxing as much as possible. Keep an eye on the monitor and make note of the lowest number that appears. Repeat this process and in a few days, you should know your resting heart rate average and be able to “confidently use this figure as the basis of your training.”

Determining your maximum heart rate

While the only way to get a “truly accurate max HR figure” is with a physiological test at a sports science center or related program, Blackwood says you can get a “reasonable estimate” by performing your own max HR test. It should be noted that such a test should only be performed by those who are physically fit and exercise regularly.

Here are the steps to a max HR test you can do yourself as outlined by Blackwood:

  1. Warm up thoroughly for at least 15 minutes

  2. On a long, steady hill, start off fairly briskly and increase your effort every minute.

  3. Do this seated for at least five minutes until you can’t go any faster while seated.

  4. At this point, get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds.

  5. Then, immediately check your HR reading or, after the ride, download your data and look for the highest HR number, which is your max HR.

Finding your training zone

Once you have determined your resting and maximum heart rate, it’s time to figure out your zone. Keep those resting and max numbers handy for this process – you’ll need them.

As Blackwood says, it’s “just a case of getting in the right zone.” Zones are key when working to improve your riding using your heart rate data. The Association of British Cycling Coaches recommends a six-zone system:

Zone 1 (60-65% of maximum heart rate): For long, easy rides, to improve the combustion of fats.

Zone 2 (65-75% of MHR): The basic base training zone. Longish rides of medium stress.

Zone 3 (75-82% of MHR): For development of aerobic capacity and endurance with moderate volume at very controlled intensity.

Zone 4 (82-89% of MHR): For simulating pace when tapering for a race.

Zone 5 (89-94% of MHR): For raising anaerobic threshold. Good sessions for 10- and 25-mile time-trials.

Zone 6 (94-100% of MHR): For high-intensity interval training to increase maximum power and speed

So there you have it, an overview of heart rate monitors and insight into how HR data can help make you a better rider. Regardless of what option you choose to monitor your heart rate or what zone you find yourself in, you can be sure that mountain biking will get your heart pumping. So get out there and ride, it’s good for you!

Keep in touch and get out on the trails.

About The Author

Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.

Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.

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