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Ask Levi: Is my Heart Rate Lower Than Normal?

Today’s question is from a cyclist who is training hard but seems to have a low Max Heart Rate…

My coach was telling me my heartrate is lower than normal. During time trials and all out sprints I can only get up to about 170. I am 17 years old, and I don’t know if age has to do anything with it. Is it just that I need to push harder, or is it that I just have a slower HR. Any tips on how to get it up during a TT?

Thanks,
Hearty Henry

Hi Henry,

A typical Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) will be around 195-210 for most athletes. It depends on the individual. Age may play a very small role, but it’s not very important.

Stay far, far away from any “220 – your age” formula for determining MHR!

It is possible that your MHR is 170, but it’s unlikely. 170 is more in the range of a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR.)

It’s hard to answer your question concretely, but here are a few things to consider:

1. Time Trials and Sprints

You mentioned that you’re not seeing a MHR during time trials and all-out sprints. Well, you’re not going to see your MHR does these workouts. During a Time Trial, you’ll be using a hard but sustainable pace for an extended period of time. You’ll be riding at or near your LTHR, not your MHR! (If you hit your MHR, you’d probably collapse.)

Sprints are different because they’re more intense, but they are also very short. During an 8-12 second sprint, your heart doesn’t even have a chance to start beating faster. Your HR will be elevated shortly after the sprint, but you still won’t be seeing your MHR.

So seeing 170 bpm during these activities is not unusual.

2. The Maximum Heart Rate Test

The workout you didn’t mention is the “maximum heart rate test.” This field test requires you to go out and ride hard, upping the pace every two minutes until you’re in a lot of pain. Once you think you’re going to pass out, you give it one last sprint and then, if you’re still conscious, you see what your heart rate monitor says.

The test is very painful and can be dangerous, and it has fallen out of favor in recent years because it’s not vital to know your MHR. But the point is, that’s about the only time you’ll ever see your MHR.

3. Over Training

A low heart rate during intense activities is a classic sign of over training. Your body is resisting you telling it to go fast because it knows it needs the rest.

If you were doing a MHR test and only hit 170, you could probably rest for a week and then get your HR closer to 200 in the next test. (But like I said, 170 is normal for a Time Trial.)

4. Increased Fitness

The thing with HR is that it can mean so many different things. It needs to be analyzed in the context of other factors.

So check your resting HR. Is your resting HR higher than usual?

If your resting HR is high, but your HR during intense training is low, that could be a bad sign (as in, it indicates overtraining.)

But let’s say you have a low resting HR, you feel good, and you’re riding stronger than usual, that lower HR could be a good sign. It means you can ride just as fast and produce as much power as before, but your body isn’t working as hard to do so.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors at play, and it’s hard to diagnose anything based on one number, especially when that number is affected by so many factors.

If you look at heart rate in conjunction with power output or perceived exertion, along with your general sense of well-being, you’ll have a much better idea of what is going on with your body.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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