Validation is so…validating!

By Jennifer Sage On August 30, 2012 Under Heart Rate Training, Outdoor Cycling

I’ve validated my threshold heart rate many times over the years, and as a result can usually verify within a beat or two when I am at my threshold. Nevertheless, every time I validate it again, I get a smile on my face and feel so…well, validated! It really works when you pay attention! I did that last week on a long eight-mile climb up Independence Pass in the Rocky Mountains, while riding to watch Stage 3 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I took the photo on the right on the lower slopes, before we got into the steeper parts and the section of the climb that was lined with thousands of cycling fans. Before I describe what I was feeling as I rode, let me give you a little background on that threshold heart rate I’m referring to.

Those who have followed me for a while know that I am a big proponent of teaching indoor cycling using lactate threshold (LT) or ventilatory threshold (VT) heart rates and ditching the Max HR methodology (as in 220 – age = MHR). (My preference is teaching with power if you have it available, but for those who don’t, LTHR is the next best thing. DITCH MHR FOREVER! (Hey, that should be a T-shirt slogan!)

I’ve taught how to estimate LT for years, starting with the very first field test seminar in an indoor cycling class at a fitness conference in 2007 (WSSC) and numerous conferences after that, and in my eBook and in audio master classes on ICA. I added VT estimates at ICA last year.

Once you’ve estimated your threshold heart rate through a field or talk test, it is essential to validate it. How do you validate it? You RIDE at that intensity and pay close attention to the sensations in the chest, heart, lungs, and legs (i.e., perceived exertion), and you do it over and over and over. You feel it intimately, you notice precisely when you start breathing hard enough to feel out of control, when your heart pounds in your chest, when you feel that sense of “oh crap, I won’t be able to continue at this pace…”, and you match those sensations with a certain heart rate. You also know what it feels like to be challenged but not threatened to have to slow down; a demanding but sustainable pace. Then you bring the two of them together and find out where that line of demarcation is between them. This will help you fine tune your threshold. It feels like you are right on the edge, but not falling over it.

I climbed up Independence Pass to watch Stage 3 last week with a friend who was a stronger rider than me. After about four miles of riding together I told him to go on ahead; I didn’t want to hold him back, and trying to keep up with his pace was just not sustainable. Then, while riding by myself, I paid very close attention to my intensity. I wanted to ride as hard as I could without blowing up, without having to push and then back off, push and then back off. The latter is not a good recipe for success on a very long climb like this but it would be an OK strategy for a climb of 10 minutes or less. Better to ride right around threshold intensity when the duration is over 20 minutes, and I estimated those last four miles were going to take me about 40 minutes (it got steeper towards the top).

I tried to keep the same cadence, regardless of the grade. I didn’t have a cadence meter on my bike, but through experience I knew I was pedaling around 70 rpm (and I was using my last two gears depending on the steepness). As the grade changed, so did my intensity. After I assessed the sensations in my body (“moderately hard, I can probably push a little harder,” or “this is hard enough, don’t tempt fate,” or “ooops, too hard, gotta back off”), I’d look at my HR monitor to see what my numbers were. Without fail, it was exactly where I expected it would be. I thought there might be a lesson in this for my blog readers who are instructors or students, and of course for my ICA members, so I decided to take a picture of my HR monitor as I was riding up this climb. Note that this wasn’t entirely easy and I probably risked dropping my iPhone for your sake! šŸ˜‰ Please pardon the blurry photos and odd angles…

When I was starting to feel pretty challenged, but knew I could hold it for a fairly long time, this is what I saw:

I was usually OK until I saw this, then the “oh crap” sensations started. Sure, I could maintain it for a few minutes, but this was halfway up an eight-mile climb of 6%ā€“8% and I wanted to get up there quickly, but not wasted:

When the grade really increased, my heart pounded just a little too much and my breathing cracked just a little bit, and I would see this number, I knew the end would be near if I didn’t back off:

And this is what I was thinking when I saw that last number (someone had written it on the road on the way up. I’d like to think it was for me…but I can’t take that away from Jens Voigt!):

On the other hand, when I saw this, I felt like I could go all day and wasn’t going to get up there as quickly as I wanted to, so I would amp up my cadence just a little bit:

You can see there isn’t a whole lot of difference between those numbersā€”only 6 beats from 157 to 162ā€”but there was a big difference in sensations from one end of the range to the other. In short, this validated what I’ve known for many yearsā€”that I can pinpoint my threshold heart rate at right around 159, give or take a beat or two. It has consistently been this number for the past 6ā€“8 years (my last VO2 max test was about 6 years ago, and it was 158 at that time). It is usually closer to 157 in the winter when I’m not as aerobically fit, and closer to 161 when I’ve been in my best shape.

Now THAT is validation!

I also know when I’m fatigued, stressed, or possibly getting sick, because I see heart rates that do not correspond to the numbers that I see over and over again when I’m healthy. In those instances, I feel the physical sensations of being at threshold, but my HR monitor only says 145 or 150, sometimes even less. There is a big message in that.

Do you know your threshold heart rate with such specificity? You can and you should! I suggest you make this year your year to learn. Start doing field tests with yourself first, and then on your students. Then validate those numbers again and again and again in your classes and in your outdoor rides. [Better yet, determine your functional threshold power if you have access to power meters.]

You don’t validate threshold with short high-intensity intervals above LT; you validate it with longer periods spent at this hard but sustainable pace. Doing so will do more for your and your students’ fitness than almost anything you can do with them on indoor (or outdoor) bikes, regardless of whether they ride a bike outside or not.

The rest of my ride up Independence for Stage 3 of the USA PRO

Thought I’d share a few more photos of that day with you. Here I am near the top of the pass:

And this was our view from where we watched the race, about 300 meters from the top (at 11,200 feet/3,400 meters). This was still a few hours before the peloton came through:

And here is a future cyclist in the making:

I’ve got many exciting photos and videos of the race and pre-race party that I hope to post soon! If you’ve never seen a pro bike race, I highly recommend it. I don’t know anyone who went to a stage of the USA PRO, non-cyclists included, that didn’t really enjoy it.

1 Comment Add yours

  1. Mel
    August 30, 2012
    3:08 pm #comment-1

    Hey Jennifer, great article and pics too, we just dont have long climbs like that here in the middle of the UK. but I do coach a fair bit of long climbs in class. I am off in 3 weeks for the Extra Mile Challenge – this year in Luxembourg, Belgium and France which is a team (4) relay, 3 days, 500 miles – hence the long hill training šŸ™‚ Last year’s destination was Annecy in the Haute Savoie with stunning scenery and climbs.
    I was interested to see your LT is really close to mine which is about 157 – 158.
    I never use the 220-Age as it is, as you say, quite useless, but I tend to use principles set out by Sally Edwards, having done her Heart Zones training some years back, and encourage all my class members to wear HRMs – then we get close to each individual’s MHR to work from.
    I was also really interested that you find your LT is higher in summer due to the nature of your year, albeit just a few beats – i had put my own variation down to having been better rested when i had “a 159 day”
    BTW – when are you coming to London? please don’t make it between now and mid November as i am off to Australia for some R&R after the cycle challenge and i’d love to meet you šŸ™‚

    thanks again – great article

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