How to train with power, heart rate or by feel

Rebecca Bland
7 mins

Whether you’re just getting started on your cycling training journey, or you’re a seasoned veteran, deciding how you want to train, and what metrics to use can have a big impact on your training sessions.

There are three main ways that cyclists configure their workouts, by using a power meter, a heart rate monitor, or going by their rate of perceived exertion (RPE). You don’t necessarily need the most expensive power meters or heart rate meters in the world to get the best out of your training, these things are simply used as a metric to help you tailor your workouts and measure improvements.

It wasn’t even until relatively recently that the professional peloton had access to power meters, but there has been a large amount of research into its use and now, as you’ll have seen if you follow pro cycling, most, if not all riders now use it.

But just because the pro’s largely rely on power data, does that mean you can’t get the same results from your training by using only heart rate or RPE metrics? In this article, we’ll break down some of the myths around training in cycling and help you decide which method is best for you.

Easily select what is your lead training type

What are the benefits to training with power?

Simply put, a power meter is something fitted to your bicycle that measures your power output. These devices are usually attached either via the crank arm, pedals, or in the wheel hub. Each uses a strain gauge to determine your power output although there are varying degrees of accuracy on meters available on the market. So what are the benefits of using power in your cycling training?

For one thing, power meters are really handy for their precision. Of course, this does depend on the model of your power meter, but by using one it means you no longer need to guess or use estimates on your outdoor power. It also means you can identify your power benchmarks and see where you need to improve, and what type of rider you might be. Additionally, power meters can be used to track changes in your form well. You can see your progress in your benchmarks for example, and see how they fluctuate depending on your training.

Power is a constant. Unlike HR that can be affected by a number of variables.

Furthermore, power is a constant. Unlike HR that can be affected by a number of variables. 1 watt will always be 1 watt, whether or not you can put out the same amount of power is down to you. Power data is also better for shorter intervals as it responds instantly rather than lagging behind like heart rate data does. And finally, you can ride to a precise power no matter the weather or incline. You could be riding up Alpe d’Huez on a really windy day, but 100 watts is still 100 watts - and by using a power meter, you can ride to that exact power. Even if it means using your biggest cog on the cassette.

Power data is also better for shorter intervals as it responds instantly rather than lagging behind like heart rate data does.

Rider tip from @cyclecommute.cc - if there is a big jump in power coming, increase the cadence just beforehand.

A summary of the benefits of training with power

  • Precision led data
  • Track your progress
  • Power is constant and isn’t affected by other variables
  • Good for shorter intervals/sprints
  • Still ride to precise power in all weather
A Spoked session led by power

What are the disadvantages to training with power?

Naturally, there are some downsides to using power meters. For example, they are inherently quite expensive. Prices now range from a couple of hundred pounds to well over a thousand. Although accuracy is important, as long as you use the same meter over time it’s the comparison between your personal numbers that matters the most. However, to keep a degree of accuracy it’s important you calibrate the power meter frequently. If not, and you notice the reading it out, it may appear to be bumping or lowering your thresholds without those physical changes being made.

Additionally, once you’ve purchased a power meter and plugged it into your training app after a ride, can you even interpret what the data is telling you? Oftentimes you can get swamped by all the numbers, and feel like you need a degree to unwrap what’s in front of you. And even if you do know how to interpret your data, you might find yourself comparing your numbers to other people. Just remember, everyone is different, and just because someone is putting out 5 w/kg and you’re stuck on 3 w/kg, each person’s data is only relevant to them, not least because of their size and height.

A summary of the disadvantages of training with power

  • Can be expensive
  • Can be difficult to interpret data if you don’t know what you’re looking at
  • Calibration / accuracy is important
  • Often used to compare to others

What are the benefits to training with heart rate?

By training with heart rate data, we are referring to training with a heart rate monitor. The most accurate ones are the chest mounted straps, but you can use wrist based monitors such as those found in smart watches. The benefits of using heart rate data as a training metric are plentiful, but it does work best when paired with either RPE or power. Once you’ve used HR data over the course of a few rides, you will find it easy to interpret the numbers and tell if you’re working in your desired zone. Not only this, but by tracking your HR data you can follow your fitness improve, and your HR decrease at certain powers.

The benefits of using heart rate data as a training metric are plentiful, but it does work best when paired with either RPE or power.

You may also see your resting HR decrease, which, if you keep an eye on, can help you to identify when you’re under the weather or in need of a bit more rest. Additionally, HR monitors are far cheaper than power meters. Sure, you can spend a lot if you want to but even spending £30-50 will see you get a decent tool that you can use in your training.

Rider tip from @velo.dave - Use the terrain to your advantage when training to HR zones. Hit your efforts on the inclines.

A summary of the benefits of training with heart rate

  • Easy to interpret and tell if you’re working too hard or not hard enough
  • Cheap to buy and connect to devices
  • Easy to track improvements as will see decreases in resting HR and HR for a given speed (if no wind)
You can flick between power and heart rate to see your zone targets

What are the disadvantages to training with heart rate?

Contrastingly, there are some downsides to using HR - particularly as your sole training metric. It can be affected by other variables including air temperature, illness, etc. Which means you may see adverse readings if you’re sick, and if you have nothing else to gauge this off, you may believe you’re working harder or easier than you need to be.

Furthermore, your heart rate varies day to day depending on things like how much sleep you had, your hydration, and your caffeine intake. Little things can result in changes that you may not realise can have an impact.

It’s also difficult to use on short intervals as your HR does not necessarily increase straight away. Additionally, it can increase or drift up for the same power output due to dehydration and/or fatigue. Essentially, it’s useful, but works best when you use it with power or RPE.

It’s also difficult to use on short intervals as your HR does not necessarily increase straight away.

A summary of the disadvantages of training with heart rate 

  • Can be affected by other variables such as temperature, illness etc.
  • Highly variable day-to-day depending on sleep, hydration, caffeine intake
  • Difficult to use for shorter intervals as your HR doesn’t necessarily increase straight away so you won’t know how hard you were working
  • HR can increase / drift up for the same power output due to dehydration and / or fatigue mechanisms  

What are the benefits to training with RPE?

RPE or rate of perceived exertion is exactly that. It’s you taking note of how hard you are working at a given effort level. No tangible data, no readings, no electronics. However, like HR training, you can tie the effort level into certain body responses. So things like breathlessness, depending on how hard you’re working. Or even other markers like speed. You probably know what your relaxed pace is, but do you know how fast you go when you’re putting in a bit more effort?

Training with RPE does allow you to become more in tune with your body, once you use this metric over a number of weeks, you’ll begin to recognise what each effort level feels like. It can also be incredibly useful for training by feel, particularly if you don’t need to hit any power numbers (which may not even be possible if you’re tired). Additionally, you can begin to understand how your body responds to different training stimuli and how it responds to recovery.

A summary of the benefits of training with RPE

  • You learn to become more in tune with your body
  • Training ‘by feel’ is beneficial as no need to hit certain power numbers, which might not be possible if tired
  • Learn how your body responds to training and recovery
No power or heart rate? No worries. You can easily train by feel in Spoked

What are the disadvantages to training with RPE?

However, RPE only works as well as you know yourself. If you’ve never really pushed yourself before, you might not know what it feels like to be comfortably uncomfortable, and thus may never get out of your comfort zone in training. You need to be totally honest with yourself when using this metric, as there is no data backing you up. If you think you feel too tired to carry on an interval, are you actually? Or is your mind playing tricks on you? Sometimes this may be the case, but, sometimes this saying may be applicable instead “If there is doubt, there is no doubt”. So if that little voice in your head is telling you you’re too tired, maybe you should listen to it. Same goes for injuries and niggles but that’s for another day.

It’s not easy to track your RPE progress, as there are no tangible markers for your fitness to base it on. Although it has its benefits, as every athlete should be able to listen to their body, it works best when in conjunction with power and/or heart rate.

A summary of the disadvantages of training with RPE

  • Only as accurate as your internal measurements
  • You have to pay close attention and be totally honest with yourself
  • Not easy to track/chart progress as no tangible markers for fitness

How to set up your power, heart rate and RPE training zones?

So now you know what these metrics are and the benefits and disadvantages, how can you actually utilise them in your cycling training plan? Training plans are largely based on training zones. Usually from Zone 1-6, 1 being the easiest, like recovery riding or barely any effort, and zone 6 being a flat out sprint - something you can only hold for a short amount of time. So to determine these zones, you need to conduct some tests.

Rider tip from @velo_athletic - Always start with a test when you're training with zones for the first time. It will ensure you're training to the right intensity.

For power zones, most cyclists do what’s called a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test. The number you get from this test determines essentially how much power you could put out for an hour. Most people get this from a 20 minute test, which involves a warm up and then a 20 minute full gas effort. The result is calculated as 95% of your 20 minute power to account for the drop off in power you would see over an hour. But, there are other ways to determine this number such as ramp tests. These see you ramping up power in minute intervals and the last full minute you complete is used as an average times by roughly 75%.

From your established FTP, check out where your power to weight ratio ranks - view here.

Similarly, with your heart rate, you can determine your Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR) by performing a hard workout or race within which you rode for at least 45-60 minutes at an all-out effort. The average of this figure will be your FTHR.

Within settings, you can check out your power and heart rate zones. Also each zone correlates to an RPE score.

So now you have these numbers, you can apply them to your zones. For power, the zones are calculated in ranges of the % of your FTP. So Zone 1 is when you ride between 0-54% of your FTP.

See below for a more detailed breakdown:

  • Zone 1 = 0% - 54%
  • Zone 2 = 55% - 75%
  • Zone 3 = 76% - 89%
  • Zone 4 = 90% - 105%
  • Zone 5 = 106% - 118%
  • Zone 6 = 119% +

And for heart rate, each zone is a % range of your FTHR. See below for a breakdown:

  • Zone 1 = 0% - 75%
  • Zone 2 = 76% - 83%
  • Zone 3 = 84% - 88%
  • Zone 4 = 89% - 97%
  • Zone 5 = 98% - 108%
  • Zone 6 = 109% +

In terms of RPE and zones, this again comes down to your internal measurements. In Spoked, we use a scale of 1-10 which is the most common across cycling training, with 1 being the easiest, and 10 being a flat out effort. If you train with power or heart rate alongside this, then you can align how you feel to your other zones. For example, if zone 1 HR/power is meant to be super easy, a recovery ride, then you should be able to feel like you’re not putting much effort in, and you can hold a conversation. Whereas, say zone 4 power/HR may feel like a 6-7 on the RPE scale, and you may only be able to get out a few words at a time while you ride.

RPE Zones/correlation:

  • RPE 1-1 = Zone 1
  • RPE 2-2 = Zone 2
  • RPE 3-4 = Zone 3
  • RPE 5-6 = Zone 4
  • RPE 7-8 = Zone 5
  • RPE 9-10 = Zone 6

Once you’ve trained by using any of these metrics for a little while, then you’ll get more of a feel for it. The most experienced riders don’t even need to look at their cycling computers for much of their rides, as they know what to expect and how certain zones should feel.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking to start data led training, then it’s best to combine all three, power, RPE and HR into your plan. Of course, this can be expensive so if you don’t have the budget, stick with HR and RPE. You can still train well and see your fitness increase with just HR or just RPE, it just isn’t as tangible as power data, which you can easily track over time.

If you do only use HR or RPE, other metrics such as speed or Strava segment times will help you to determine your progress. But, how much data you want to track depends on how serious you are about your training, and how much of a budget you have. Although power meters are more expensive, power data is king when it comes to accuracy and tracking ability.

Hopefully this article has taken some of the guesswork out of what these different metrics are and which ones you should use in your training. Luckily, on Spoked, you can use any of the three to get a tailored cycling training programme to you and your goals. Why not give it a try, there is a 14 day free trial? You can download it from the Apple and Google app stores. Or want to leverage the Spoked technology in your business? Read more here.