Bumble Bees and BB-guns

Frustrated with your new power meter’s fluctuations? Annoyed with your “slow” heart rate monitor?

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • Hint: It’s not your equipment.
  • Power meters are sensitive and your heart is sluggish. The trick is to ride steady — and be patient.
  • Don’t chase your readings. Learn to be aware of your body.
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]Technology has spoiled us.[/dropcap]

Big time, it has. We no longer have to wait for anything, it seems. Hot water for your tea? Pop that cup in the microwave n’ nuke it. What’s in your bank balance? There’s an app for that, hold please.
The price we pay for all this instantaneousness is — among other things — our patience.

Trouble is, becoming fast and strong as a bike racer absolutely demands that you go through a process, and that process is something that you apply to your body. Your whole body. And getting your body to adapt and change, no matter how quick your wi-fi connection may be, will take time.

“But this new [insert gadget name here] is the latest-greatest, it’s expensive, and it’s supposed to make me faster.”

Fueled with silly notions like that, we strap our heart rate monitors on our chests, calibrate our new power meters, and take off for workouts expecting quick miracles.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”] Remember what I said at the beginning about what we’ve lost with all our technology? This is perhaps chief among them all; our cumulative inability to recognize just how hard — or how not hard — to go, when the workout or race calls for it.[/callout]

But one of the first experiences you may have with your new bio-measuring equipment is a great, big disconnect. Your equipment is telling you exactly what your heart is doing right now, and how much power you’re pushing out moment by moment. However, the way you feel may not line up with those rapidly dancing watts, or those sluggish beats per minute.

“I’ve been riding now for 15 minutes. Why does it say my heart rate is so slow? Guess I’ll ride harder…”

If you’re new to training with measurements and on a tight-isn budget, you may have a heart rate monitor, but no power meter. You may have noticed that your heart rate, regardless of your age, seems to take it’s bloody sweet time to “warm up” at the beginning of a ride. Meanwhile, much later, towards the end of the ride, it’s up there — and it’s happy to stay “up there,” thank you very much. What gives?

Stay tuned. We’ll get to that, after we handle this other complaint.

“I hate this power meter. The numbers are so twitchy. How am I every supposed to ride between such and such watts? I can’t get the danged thing to sit steady no matter how hard I try!”

Power meters are super-sensitive. (That isn’t to say heart rate monitors aren’t. Keep reading.) Your fancy, swanky new crank, or pedals, or rear hub is detecting every single fluctuation in power as you lay down power to the back wheel. Those wild spikes you’re most likely seeing (unless you have the buttery smooth stroke of a Tony Martin or a Bradley Wiggins) are how inefficient you are.

If you’re like most all of us, especially when we’re new to training, your pedal stroke isn’t very round. You’re not applying power equally to the pedals, rather, you’re putting more power down around 2 o’clock on the stroke, and carrying it until around 6 o’clock or so on the bottom, then it gets a bit herky-jerky from there until you’re back to the front of the rotation.

And this assumes you’re on flat terrain. Things get even wonkier when you’re climbing or descending.

Your heart rate, on the other hand, assuming the batteries are fresh and your computer is reading the signal clean, is what it is at that moment. You’re experiencing what Joe Friel eloquently divides as “input versus output.” Power applied to the pedals is an “output” measurement; it’s literally what you’re putting out. But your heart is the engine; it’s the input part of the equation.


To have a razor-sharp inner perception of how hard — or not hard — you’re riding is the gold standard.


At the beginning of a ride, you’re fresh. You’re most likely not under stress (unless you’re at the beginning of a race and the adrenaline is keeping your heart rate up higher than it’d normally be while just standing astride your bike.) When you get going, it will take a while for your heart to “come up,” as it were. This is why you need at least 10 minutes of warm up. In 3×25, I advocate at least 15 for nearly every workout in the program. Often, it’s a good idea during warm up to toss in a couple of all-out, fast as you can churn sprints (albeit with a fairly low gear.) This is to encourage your heart rate to come up a bit quicker, and helps get certain components of your blood secreted to help deal with the excess lactate your workout will generate, later.

It’s also one of the reasons why, if you’re training exclusively with a heart rate monitor and you’re doing hard intervals (timed bouts of specific intensity — such as speed or heart rate) that some coaches may actually disregard the first and often the last interval of your data, depending on other factors during the ride. The heart rate may have not come up quickly enough for the first interval, and because of a phenomenon called “cardiac drift,” it’s relatively high compared to your actual effort for the last.

So. Your watts zip up and down like bumble bees, while your heart rate is one bb-shot at a time that drifts off with a stiff breeze; hard to control, at best.

“So what’s a newbie with a measuring device supposed to do?”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re first doing structured workouts and they call for you to be in Zone such-and-such. These pointers will be applicable regardless of if you’re new to heart rate or power:

  • Strive for fluidity. Evenness. What the French call, “supplesse.” This term is usually reserved only for describing a fluid, smooth pedal stroke. However, when your whole body is relaxed and even, you can see a reduction in the roller coaster that is “the numbers.” Additionally, this even-keeled approach will ultimately reveal itself in greater endurance; efficiency is the killer secret to all kinds of success in cycling.
  • If your head unit allows you to display both your Zone and your “actual” measurement (for example, your heart rate zone and your actual beats per minute, or your power zone and your actual watts) then be sure to place them side-by-side. Start to get an intuitive understanding for what Zone 4 (threshold power) is, by seeing the live numbers next to “4.3” and so forth.
  • Understand the “lags.” With a power meter, for example, when you shift to a lower or easier gear, you may be surprised to see that for several pedal revolutions, your power goes up. But consider this: if you drive a stick shift, and you want to pass someone on the highway, you don’t shift into a bigger gear, you shift into a smaller gear, then you mash on the gas. The opposite is true: shifting into a bigger gear will see your watts go down, at least until you get back “on top” of the gear.
  • Your heart rate is the King (or Queen) of Lags, as we’ve already discussed. You may be working hard at the beginning of a workout, but it’s going to take a bit before your heart rate comes up to show that effort. So when you’re supposed to do, say, a cruise interval for 6 minutes at Zone 3.8 – 4.2, get in an easy but steady warm up, toss in a pair of easy-gear, all-out 60-second sprints, then start your cruise interval. Don’t start your 6-minute timer when your heart rate comes up to 3.8; start it when you begin to ride hard! When it finally responds, settle in, relax, and crank it out.
  • The high art of cycling involves knowing your own body and it’s effort level while you’re cranking along. This is known as RPE or “rate of perceived exertion.”  Remember what I said at the beginning about what we’ve lost with all our technology? This is perhaps chief among them all; our cumulative inability to recognize just how hard — or how not hard — to go, when the workout or race calls for it.

I hope this helps you down the path of integrating technology into your cycling, rather than furthering the ill of relying on it.

See you out on the road!

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: Power? Heart rate? Feel? What’s your favorite workout intensity guide?[/icon_box]

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Email Address *


Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Email Address * First Name Last Name