Finger on the Pulse: Staying Level Headed

In the introduction, I explained the way in which the body derives its energy and the way in which the intensity of exercise promotes different responses in the body. The 'Level' system of training was briefly explained and how Levels 1 through 4 represent the activation of different energy systems in the body.

Unfortunately, many people reach this level of understanding and buy themselves a pulse meter but still manage to make a mess of things. Having three, hour long Level 3 sessions a week perhaps seems like good, high quality training but this isn't necessarily true although it's certainly better than nothing. I can't stress enough that constant, high intensity exercise is not the way to improve your fitness. It will only ever get you to a certain level as all your body gets time to do is repair the dam age caused by training and so is not be able to adapt properly which is what you want. To progress beyond this requires a little more brain rather than brawn. Even in the 'old days', everyone knew that it was important to maintain a good mix of steady base mileage and the really sweaty stuff.

For a start, daft as it sounds, the body actually recovers far better and adapts quicker during low Level 1 rides than by having a day off in front of the telly. Turning the muscles on during these very steady rides ensures that blood flow and cell metabolism are fully operational. Repairs and adaptive changes happen far more efficiently. These so-called 'Recovery Rides' should be an integral part of an riders repertoire - The Sunday plod out to the pub is made for this.

Above all, 'listen to your body' - if you feel knackered, don't do any training, simple as that. Don't be afraid of having a few days off, it does you good. I've gone for a whole week between races without training and not gone any slower for it, in fact the rest usually does me good and I blast away from the start feeling as strong as an ox.

Training at full Level 1 intensity doesn't improve flat out speed necessarily, but it builds 'endurance'. Big long distance rides are performed almost solely on the fat burning system and, if you ask me these should form the core of any rider's training. I say this for a very good reason:

An increased efficiency in the fat burning system brought about by training it specifically postpones the point at which glycolysis is turned on. Imagine two cyclists riding side by side at 25 mph. One has an extremely well trained fat burning system, the other not so well trained. The well trained rider may be employing, say 90% fat power and 10% glycolysis power, the less trained a 50:50 mix. If they both start the ride with identical glycogen reserves, the poorly trained rider is clearly going to burn his up first. If these two had been riding a 50 mile time trial, the trained rider would have totally thrashed the less trained one who would probably have been forced to stop through exhaustion miles before the finish. Also, by lengthening the lower fat burning zone of the aerobic spectrum, the top end power is automatically pushed higher without even training it. Training at a good mix of Levels leads to a telescoping of all the zones in the spectrum, pushing the peak power output even higher.

But the fat burning system is the one that can be 'stretched' the most and it makes good sense to capitalise on this. A very well trained fat burning system will supply power at very high intensities, just look at the speeds that professional riders sus tain for hours upon end in big races.

So, most training should try to stimulate fat burning as much as possible i.e. Levels 1 & 2. Level 2 enables both the fat and glygogen burning systems to be trained simulataneously. Most top cyclists, be they mountain bikers or road time trialists, us e Level 1 & 2 as the core of their training. What's more, the lower intensity of level 2 workouts mean that recovery is much more rapid than when smashing yourself up on Level 3 & 4 rides.

When you're getting started, I recommend a Pyramid type of programme. I call it the 'Pyramid' system because you try to build a stable pyramid of intensities in every training week. On the bottom is Level 1, then Level 2, Level 3, finishing with a bit of Level 4 on the top. You always strive to do more Level 1 than Level 2, more Level 2 than 3 etc,etc. If you want to do a couple of flat-out, smash-up rides a week, it's fine to lose some or all of the Level 2 stuff, but NOT the Level 1. No more than 20 mins Level 4 and 60 mins Level 3 a week mind, otherwise you won't be able to recover properly and you'll be wasting your time. Always keep a wide base of Level 1, if you start to let your pyramid go top heavy, you may find yourself being very tired all the time and you never seem to feel very fresh when on the bike. On these occasions it is best to have a few days off or, better still, do very low Level 1 rides to stabilise the pyramid again, the so-called 'recovery' rides I described earlier.

The pyramid is built of time at each Level, not miles, that is a very important point to make. The best way of keeping track is to keep a log of what you are doing. This is also handy because one day you might go out and feel absolutely awesome on the bike. By knowing what you did the previous week, you can then reproduce the effect again at will by following the same regime. This is an essential component of race preparation, part of the mystical phenomenon of 'peaking' for events. This is covered in detail in the subsequent instalment.

The question you are all frantically asking now is, "But where are these Levels to be found on the heart monitor?" Well, everybody is a little different but my limits are given below. How do I know? Well, experience and one or two other little tricks.

Recovery Rides performed at less than 120 beats/min
Level 1 is between about 120-135 beats/min. Blood lactate <0.5 mM/L
Level 2 " " " 135-155 beats/min. Blood lactate 1.5-2.5 mM/L
Level 3 " " " 155-170 beats/min. Blood lactate 2.5-4.0 mM/L
Level 4 " " " 170+ beats/min. Blood lactate 4.0-8.0 mM/L

I should stress that no two individuals have identical pulse rates at similar intensities, it's as unique as fingerprints. Consequently, the above rates are my personal limits, don't read too much into them and don't assume yours are the same. If you are curious, I have a test in the gym which I can perform to establish training levels and the associated blood lactate and pulse rates exactly called 'Conconi's Deflection Test'. It also makes a nice diagnostic test to see how your training is going. Another trick is to find out what your maximum, flat-out heart rate is and calculate backwards from that. Minus 20 gives you the top end of Level 3, minus 40 the top end of Level 2 and minus 60 the top end of Level 1. Naturally, I don't have to tell you how to find out your maximum heart rate!

Food for Thought

I should stress that you don't have to become totally obsessed to reap the benefits of pulse training. Providing you maintain a stable pyramid, you can quite easily get away with 3-4 hours High Level 1 or Level 2 and a 45 minute level 3 ride every week and still notice considerable improvements, simply because the quality is so good. The club runs on wednesdays and sundays make excellent recovery/Level 1 rides as the pace is always steady. I generally spend about 8-9 hours a week out on my bike at hi gh Level 1 over the winter but if you intend trying a similar volume I would suggest you take slightly more detailed advice as it is very easy to mess yourself up if you don't structure things properly.

Don't forget also that you can only perform exercise when there is adequate fuel available to burn. That means that adequate carbohydrate replacement is essential or you will simply not go. And that doesn't mean you go out and shove a load of Mars Bars down your neck either! It's starchy calories that are needed, lots of stuff like pasta, bread and potatoes which are easily converted to glycogen. Free sugar is not good for any athlete, particularly before races. Big doses of glucose cause something called 'Hypoglycaemic rebound' and, despite an initial surge in blood sugar levels about 10 minutes after ingestion, blood sugar levels fall dramatically, often to lower than they were before as the body floods itself with insulin to get rid of the excess. This effect lasts for up to two hours and is not conducive to riding fast!

This problem is avoided by taking 'complex' carbohydrates which are long chains of sugar polymers such as starch. These do not flood into the bloodstream, but are broken down slowly by digestive enzmes into the simpler sugars and are absorbed at a much slower and more controlled rate. It is these sorts of carbohydrates that are contained in sports drinks such as Maxim or High Five and therefore can be very useful in providing metabolic fuel during long rides, particularly during Level 2 and 3 rides wh en energy consumption is greatly increased. A word of warning though - stick to the recommended dose on the packet. There aren't any nasty effects or anything like that but these drinks are notorious for giving you, well, shall we say very loose bowels if you get too carried away. Two scoops per bottle and one bottle per hour is more than enough. Besides, even the most highly trained body can only process around 120 gms of carbohydrate per hour - there's no point in drinking any more than this otherwise you'll just feel bloated and sick.

Doing it Indoors

If riding in crap weather isn't for you, why not ride a turbo trainer? A turbo is basically the cycling equivalent of the joggers treadmill and is another recent and very powerful training aid to achieve mass sales alongside heart monitors. Naturally, with no hills or wind to worry about, you can pedal along on the turbo at a constant intensity and hold your target heart rate to within a beat or two for hours if you wanted to. I don't have to say that if you know how to use your heart monitor properly, you are looking at absolutely monster training - this is as good as it gets. Just ask Chris Boardman why he spends so long on the turbo.

Some people go completely turbo mad and spend hours and hours on them but beware of falling into the trap whereby not enough Level 1 recovery stuff is maintained. I ride the turbo only to do big Level 3 and Level 4 'viaduct' workouts, that's all. Any more than an hour does my head in, and the turbo is as notorious for giving you a sore arse as Maxim is for giving you the shits. Despite this, they are also extremely good for getting a proper warm-up before a race without the risk of picking up a puncture two minutes before the start. Having said that, I did puncture on the turbo once but that's a long, long story....

The club has a couple of turbos but, as with the heart monitors, it would be best to have an experienced user on hand first time out.

You don't have to take my word for it, but riding technique is very important to performance and nothing is better than the turbo for such analysis and correcting any dodgy technique, especially if you can set yourself up in front of a big mirror. The key to pure speed is a brisk cadence, that is pedalling speed. This also gives you a much improved cardiovascular workout, improving quality further. Pick a gear on the turbo that lets you ride at Level 3 whilst turning the pedals at 100 rpm. This may feel very fast at first if you're not much of a pedaller, but you will find your pulse flying up despite feeling very 'light' on the pedals. This is the key, not just to turbo training but riding and racing in general. Muscular endurance is vastly improved by keeping the gears light and pedalling briskly and you will develop far more power than at an equivalent heart rate on a big, heavy gear. Keep it smooth too - if the fan is going 'whoosh-whoosh' rather than producing a steady roar, you are stamping on the pedals. Keep it smooth by 'ankling', that is, pulling the pedal up as well as pushing it down. Pedalling quickly helps this but if you're having a job coordinating yourself, exaggerate the action by lifting your knees as high as you can at the top of every pedal stroke and you soon get the hang of it. The upward pull on the pedals can add another 20 odd per cent to the total torque on the pedals as well as taking a lot of the load from your thigh muscles.

I find that to start with a good basic turbo session is 45 mins at Level 3 with a brisk cadence. Try stretching this to an hour - if an hour is beyond you are probably Level 4, so next time ease up 4-5 beats/min. The heart rate that you can just maintain for an hour is known as your 'Threshold' rate, that is, you are at the very limit of your aerobic capacity and, as this generates the magical 4mMol/L of lactic acid, you are having a top quality workout. Make a note of it but, be warned, it will move upwards closer and closer to your maximum the fitter you get. Watching the slow increase in your threshold rate from month to month is very satisfying.

Once you have established your threshold pulse, variations on the turbo session can be tried. I will stick my neck out and say that the best session you can do involves about a 10 minute warm up, followed by 20 mins Level 3, followed by 10 mins recovery at Level 1. Do another 20 mins Level 3, recover again for 10 and then repeat for a third time. This is the cat's ass but involves nearly two hours on the turbo. Then again, your body can only handle a smash-up like this once a week, so it's not as if you'll be doing it too often.

Couple this with a brief Level 4 session for maximum impact on your flat-out speed. Again, only once a week, preferably separated from your Level 3 session by 3 days, warm-up and then aim to completely smash yourself up in 20 minutes. You're not quite riding flat-out but it's not far off. Get to know that wonderful 'Level 4 Feeling', this is how it feels to ride a short time trial or chase a break down in a road race! It may take a couple of sessions before you can last until the end of the 20 minutes without losing your leg speed but under no circumstances really hurt yourself to finish. That is a bit silly. Any more than 8-10 beats above your threshold rate is seriously overdoing it.

Okay, so you've got yourself pretty fit. The next instalment describes how even finer tuning of your body before a race yields dramatic short term performance increases, so-called 'peaking'. Seeing as 'you are what you eat', basic nutritional advice for the budding cyclist is also included. And, in this increasingly technical age, the importance of biomechanics and aerodynamics should never be underestimated, so tips for the equipping and setting up of your faithful bone-shaker are covered in some detail. Last but not least, what is bike racing all about? How do I enter events? Am I good enough? All this and more coming up. Stay tuned.

Andy Tyler


by John Swindells on 06 April 2017
Glad you like this article, Lee. It's an old one but a good'un. I don't have any zone analysis tool on this site, but that's a good idea to help you plan and analyse your interval sessions. Watch this space!
by Lee Stoehr on 31 March 2017
Although this article is dated 1995 I'm assuming it still holds true. This explains why I've had trouble increasing my endurance because I was focusing on heart rate. My goal was to stay in Level 3 for as long as possible. The Strava Suffer Score kinda lead me to think that the more you "Suffered" the better you were training. So now I will switch to the pyramid approach as suggested. The Suffer scoring in Strava will allow me to track the percent of time in each zone per ride. I can use excel to manually record and generate the time I'm training in each zone per ride. Unless it's already on and I haven't found it yet? Thanks!
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About the author

My name is John Swindells and I'm a keen recreational cyclist with a preference for long one-day rides. I've also previously dabbled in time trialling and cyclo-cross. See more of what I get up to on Strava!