Power vs. Heart Rate Training, which is more effective in cycling?

Power vs. Heart Rate Training, which is more effective in cycling?

Which training system do you use? Do you use one over the other for utility or price? Do you really know what it means to train by watts or pulse? In this article, we’re going to tell you about their similarities and differences. It will be up to you to decide: power vs heart rate (HR) training.

What is power training (W)?

It can be defined as the most widely used cycling training resource, although in most cases it’s only used at the professional or semi-professional level.

Train by watts mtb

Find out what you need to train by watts in this article.

The reason? The medium/high cost you have to invest in the necessary tools to be able to carry out power training.

How to train by watts?

Training by watts (W) is simply understanding the power you’re capable of producing when pedalling for a set or specific period of time.

It’s essential to find out this power through different time tests, which helps you understand your individual power zones and means you can develop the best possible training plan through the watts.

Threshold test in the world of cycling

Threshold test in the world of cycling: watts or heart rate?

Take for example…

Most coaches recommend performing different tests every 4 weeks, in order to match our wattage ranges with the training systems.

The most commonly used test is the FTP test, which can vary in time from 60 to 20 or 5 minutes. Although the most common is usually 20 minutes.

The FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is the calculation of the average power that the cyclist is able to maintain during a specific period of time (of the test).

In this way, and in an individualised way, each cyclist will be able to find out their training or threshold zones, with which both their and their coach will be able to plot the training system and improve their performance. In power training, these zones are divided into… 7, Cohan, AR (2006).

Power training zones

Zone 1 or active recovery
Zone 2 or endurance
Zone 3 or tempo, considered as Fartlek-type training
Zone 4 or threshold
Zone 5 or VO2max
Zone 6 or anaerobic capacity
Zone 7 or neuromuscular power, high intensity, short duration efforts

A recommendation? Put yourself in the hands of a national trainer. The best training will always be individualised, as well as under the recommendations of a professional.

Don’t miss the 20’ test explained by former pro Alberto Contador, on a bike and on the road, not on a roller or indoor.…

What is training by heart rate (HR?)

In the professional environment, it’s the least common training system, as the specificity of the data provided by power training has left it behind in comparison.

In fact, if you ask professional cyclists or non-professional cyclists with a high level of practice, they all agree that HR is a good measure of the level of fatigue when getting up or before training, but it’s not the system they currently use during training.

In medicine, heart rate is the number of times the heart beats in one minute.

For decades it’s been the means of training for athletes (and still is in many disciplines), although technique and technology have developed other more precise and advanced means, which don’t include the variables of training under HR that we’ll see.

HR thresholds

As with any training system, we need to know what the threshold is in order to establish the different training zones.

How cyclists train

Are you a cyclist? Tell me how you train and I’ll tell you your level… Power training vs HR training?

For this, the most productive thing to do is to carry out a HR max test in order to establish the different training zones.

This test can be done on the road, pick one with a steady climb, and with a total duration of 20 minutes. What will you find out from this test? Your maximum HR, which will pinpoint your individual threshold zones.

Although be careful, as depending on the trainer you consult or work with (remember I’m not a trainer and I don’t pretend to be one), they might recommend you do this test on a climb, but also that you do it on a flat area too … Always heed their recommendations.

HR training zones

Zone 1 or warm-up, between 50-60% of maximum HR
Zone 2 or fat burning, 60-70% of maximum HR
Zone 3 or aerobic endurance, 70-80% of maximum HR
Zone 4 or anaerobic threshold, 80-90% of maximum HR
Zone 5 or intervals, +90% of maximum HR

The basic thing is, therefore, to know your maximum heart rate, through the maximums test.

I’d recommend, as I have done throughout the text, that you put yourself in the hands of a national trainer, who’ll be able to set the guidelines for maximum performance.

Which is better, training by power or heart rate?

It’s the great debate for every cyclist starting to or wanting to seriously improve their performance.

The answer is simple: the most effective is training by power, as you’ll obtain more precise results and they won’t vary according to other variable that aren’t fixed according to your performance.

What’s the issue then? That the tools needed to perform this type of training following the watt count are more expensive. It’s clear that a competitive cyclist should invest in them, but should a cycling enthusiast do so? The answer depends on the individual.

Power or heart rate training

Which training allows better performance analysis. Power or heart rate training?

Training by power beats heart rate training with:

  • Greater management and effort control.
  • More control over training loads.
  • Greater reliability, as HR is also conditioned by the following elements: air temperature, fatigue, stress or lack of sleep.

How the professionals train

PRO cyclists, whether on road or mountain bikes, use more advanced tools and systems, which is why their training today is based on watt studies.

Has the heart rate system become obsolete?

Not exactly. Today it’s more used to find out how well the cyclist has rested, or what their stress level is during competition or training.

Moreover, it’s still the favoured system of cycling enthusiasts. Yes, those of us who don’t compete at a professional level and do nothing more than go out to train with our particular ‘group’, where, of course, there is no shortage of unofficial competitions and competitions. 😉

But I’m also going to tell you some secrets from inside the professional pack… such is the precision that power training provides, there are professional cyclists who don’t like it. Yes, you read that right, there are cyclists who even today prefer to ride by feel or pulse. One of them is former world road race champion Alejandro Valverde.

Froome is one of the stalwarts of power training

Froome is one of the stalwarts of power training – he doesn’t miss a beat on his GPS bike! 

Others, however, like Chris Froome, are really ‘hooked’ on the potentiometer, and even during the race don’t stop checking it, constantly looking at their bike’s on-board computer.

What tools do I need to train by watts or pulse?

If you decide to invest in power training, you need to buy a potentiometer, either with a crank or pedals that incorporate it. You can also find it for handlebars or a wheel hub potentiometer..

To this you need to add a receiver or GPS that will show you the watts you’re moving with on the handlebars at the time. Most of the mid-range GPS you can find on the market already incorporate this functionality, so you’ll only have to decide by price or preferred brand.

Potentiometer cycling

 One recommendation – ideally you should use the same brand of GPS and potentiometer. This will give you more accurate measurements.

As I’ve already mentioned throughout the article, the price of a potentiometer is higher than that of a heart rate monitor. It’s up to you to decide whether to opt for this training system or the more economical HR training system.

On the other hand, heart rate training is ideal for anyone who is just starting out in the world of cycling.

Heart rate cycling training

The HR wristband is another option to start training. Power vs. HR training?

You’ll be able to follow this training system with minimum investment. What do you need? A GPS, any of a low-mid range is good, as well as a chest strap with Bluetooth receiver; or a wristwatch that directly incorporates this heart rate meter.


So, which should you do? Power or heart rate training?

In order to choose the best training system, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Your experience and level.
  2. Your aims.
  3. Your budget.
  4. If you’re going to put yourself in the hands of a coach in order to seek maximum performance.

Heart rate vs watts cycling

With pulse or with watts, you’re going to see your evolution on the GPS.

If you have green ticks in all the boxes, you need to invest in the necessary tools for power training.

As we’ve already mentioned, this is a much more accurate system, marking the improvements you can achieve through training. It will measure your performance from the moment you get on the bike and start training, leaving aside other variable aspects according to different conditions.

If you’ve marked any of the options with a negative red cross, you might want to opt, at least to start with, for the tools needed for heart rate or pulse training.

Source Consulted:

Entries related to the topic that you can’t miss:

  • Gym work for cyclists? Read more
  • Muscle Recovery in the world of cycling
  • How to do strength work for maximum performance in cycling
Review of Cycling Training by Power of HR

Training by watts - 100%

Training by pulse - 100%

Which is better - 100%

Conclusions - 100%


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About José Miguel Olivencia
José Miguel Olivencia
José Miguel Olivencia is a professional in communication and sport who relates his training and experience in every post he writes.
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