Your Guide to the Key Cycling Metrics That Can Make Your Rides Better

Your Guide to the Key Cycling Metrics That Can Make Your Rides Better

My favorite metric has always been feel. I trained for two Ironman, including World Championships in Kona and entire mountain bike stage races like Cape Epic and Brasil Ride tracking nothing but time, distance, speed, and how I felt. I’d trained enough with heart rate and power to know how they worked, but I always reverted to feel.

That said, there have certainly been races where I’ve blown up—where the implosion probably could have been prevented had I been watching my watts. And the times I did spend training with power, there’s little question my sessions were more precise and likely more productive. It can be easier to stay on track with training when you have measurable goals and quantifiable sessions.

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Today, I strike a compromise between luddite and tech-geek, tracking my resting heart rate and heart rate variability with an Oura ring, and recording heart rate for most rides so I can keep an eye on how fatigued and/or fresh I am.

Ultimately, I think that’s the best process when it comes to using data. Start with the basics, then add on as you get more experience. Most riders end up settling on a handful of metrics they rely on most.

Here, a primer to get you started tracking your cycling metrics.

10 Cycling Metrics That Can Help You Improve Performance

Obviously, tracking cycling metrics generally means you need a device to capture that data. Most of the metrics, such as speed, distance, time, and elevation, mentioned here can be captured with a GPS-enabled bike computer like a Garmin, Wahoo, Lezyne, or Hammerhead. The deeper you want to dive into the data, the more sensors you need.

1. Speed / Average Speed

Great for: The satisfaction of seeing your pace pick upEquipment needed: Any basic bike computer

Your miles per hour (or kilometers per hour, depending on where you live) is a fun metric to track, and it can tell you broadly high much fitter you’re getting. The catch: It’s not very reliable to use in training because so many factors influence it. For example, you may be cranking out World Pro-level wattage but if you’re doing so into a 30-mph block headwind, you’re not going to be setting any land speed records.

Your average speed is best used as an indicator of how your training is going overtime: If you are now consistently averaging 16+ mph on a loop that you used to average 15+ mph, you can see you’re getting fitter and faster.

You can track your average time with and without your stopping time factored into the pace. Most people don’t factor stoppage (or “café time”) in because they want to see moving time only. But if you’re training for a big event like a gravel race, it’s important to know your average speed including that stoppage time, because races often set cut offs based on a 10-mph pace, which includes rest stops. Once you see how long those “short breaks” really are, you can learn to keep them quick and avoid missing time cuts. You’ll also know how fast you need to ride to allow yourself the stoppage time you plan to take.

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2. Distance

Great for: Watching your endurance increaseEquipment needed: Any basic bike computer

We all like to see how far we’ve gone, especially on a big ride. Distance can be a motivational metric to track. If you’re averaging 50 to 80 miles a week, can you make it 100? Can you set an annual goal of hitting 5,000 miles or more? When tracking distance, it’s important to take into consideration what type of riding you do. Riding 60 miles on flat roads is very different from 60 miles of singletrack. One might take three to four hours while the other takes the better part of a day.

Distance is also important to track if you’re training for a ride of a specific distance. If you want to ride a century in the fall, you’ll want to work up to it by hitting 50-mile and 75-mile rides as the event approaches.

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3. Time

Great for: Learning pacing for eventsEquipment needed: Any watch will do, but a bike computer can automatically track moving time and stoppage time

Most cyclists train by time because that’s our most finite resource. How much time you have each week to ride determines how to best use that time if your goal is to improve performance. Riders with a tight time budget are best served doing polarized training that emphasizes short, hard interval workouts during the week and longer rides as time permits on the weekend.

4. Elevation

Great for: Bragging rights and building strength (hills make you stronger!)Equipment needed: A GPS enabled bike computer

Elevation gain in cycling is the total amount of feet (or meters) you climb over the course of a ride. Climbing is good training, because your body must work harder in the effort to overcome the pull of gravity. If you’re the kind of rider who routinely avoids inclines, setting climbing goals and tracking elevation can give your cycling fitness a boost. If your goal is to focus on elevations, start by aiming to hit an average of 500 feet per 10 miles. Work up to what some climbing lovers call the “golden ratio” of 1,000 feet of vertical gain per 10 miles of riding. For further motivation, join one of Strava’s monthly climbing challenges.

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5. Calories

Great for: Fine-tuning your fuelingEquipment needed: Apps like Strava will estimate your calorie burn, but for more accurate data, use a heart rate monitor and/or power meter

A calorie is a unit of energy provided by food. The calorie metric provided on your cycling computer or smartwatch is how many of those units you used to complete your ride. But calorie calculations are an imperfect science.

Some devices will provide estimates based on algorithms, which are just that—estimates. Past research has shown that devices can have a wide margin of error: A Stanford study published in 2017 reported that not one of the seven devices they tested—including the Apple Watch, Fitbit Surge, Mio Alpha 2, Basis Peak, Microsoft Band, PulseOn, and the Samsung Gear S2—delivered an accurate number for calories burned. The most accurate one, the Apple Watch, was off by 27 percent. The least accurate one? Off by 93 percent.

A more recent meta-analysis published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine echoed these findings, indicating that though devices that measure your heart rate along with your movement are more accurate, they all have a pretty significant margin of error.

Apps like GarminConnect, Strava, and other training apps might be a bit better, but they’re not perfect, either, and the number they give you depends heavily on the information you give the app. The more detailed data you input about yourself, such as age, height, weight, gender, and max heart rate, the more accurately their internal algorithms can calculate your calorie burn. Wearing a chest-based heart rate monitor that is synced to your device also helps make your calorie count more accurate.

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Ultimately, the best way to know how many calories you burn on a ride is by using a power meter. Power meters measure the work you’re performing and display it in kilojoules, which is a unit of work that takes into account that the human body isn’t 100-percent efficient when turning energy from your fuel stores into physical work, like pedaling a bike.

“Kilojoules and calories burned in cycling convert to a 1:1 ratio,” explains USA Cycling elite coach Daniel Matheny, head coach at Matheny Endurance in Colorado Springs. If your ride file says you performed 800 kJ of work, you can feel confident within a 5-percent margin of error that you burned about 800 calories.

Tracking calories is useful for helping you fuel for rides. Some riders underestimate the number of calories they’ll burn on a three-hour group ride and end up falling off the back on the verge of bonking three quarters of the way through. Properly fueled riders ride faster and happier.

Just note that the goal is not to replace every calorie you’re burning as you ride. Your gut can’t take that. “Replace about half the calories you’re burning per hour for rides lasting longer than three or four hours to keep fuel levels topped off,” says sports physiologist and SkratchLabs founder Allen Lim, Ph.D.

You may also notice that the fitter you become, the fewer calories you burn on a given ride at a given pace. That’s because your body has become more efficient at using oxygen.

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6. Cadence

Great for: Training leg strength and speed; watching fitness improve for new ridersEquipment needed: A cycling computer and cadence sensor

Cadence is the number of revolutions you spin per minute as you pedal. If you have a cadence sensor you can watch your cadence in real time on your bike computer and track your average cadence for each ride.

It’s debatable how useful it is to track and/or train cadence. Coaches used to recommend athletes aim to pedal 90 rpm, but research doesn’t really show benefits from forcing yourself to do so. In 2019, a team of British researchers found that not only did amateur riders not get any added benefit from high cadence cycling, but they also became less efficient, so they were wasting energy.

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Hunter Allen, CEO ofPeaks Coaching Group, and author of Training and Racing with a Power Meter explains that your cadence will be determined by two things: your main muscle fiber type and your level of cardiovascular cycling fitness. The balance of those factors (which, of course, can change over time) determine your ideal cadence.

Newer riders tend to pedal more slowly because their cardiovascular system can’t handle the higher heart rate that comes with high cadences. As fitness improves, cadence generally rises.

While you probably don’t need to track your cadence from ride to ride, if you have a cadence sensor, it can help you do cadence drills, such as low gear/high cadence and high gear/low cadence drills that can help build cardiovascular fitness, leg speed, and leg strength.

7. Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Great for: Learning what sustainable (and unsustainable) efforts feel like and tracking fitness improvementEquipment needed: Your heart, lungs, legs, and brain

It doesn’t get any more basic than RPE, your rate of perceived exertion. Put more simply, it's a measure of how hard you feel like you’re working. On a 1 to 10 scale, 1 is coasting along on a flat road with a tailwind, and 10 is full gas, willing yourself not to vomit.

You can also think of this as your “breath analyzer,” because a monitoring your breathing is an easy way to rate your efforts. Your muscles use more oxygen the harder you push, so breathing rate is a direct indication of work. If you’re able to sing and recite poetry, you’re not working very hard. If you’re gasping uncontrollably, you are maxed out.

Research shows RPE works just as well as any scientific equipment for measuring your actual effort at any given time, but it doesn’t tell you much more. For instance, you may be huffing and puffing and battling burning legs, but barely producing any power; or you could be feeling chainless while cranking out major wattage. Though you can train by “feel” alone, you get a more complete picture of your daily sessions and progress if you pair it with other metrics like heart rate or power.

It also takes discipline to train by feel because you have to remain tuned in, and it’s all too easy to slack off when you should be pushing or push too hard on a recovery day.

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8. Heart Rate

Great for: Creating specific training zones and tuning into your freshness and/or fatigueEquipment needed: A heart rate monitor and compatible bike computer or watch

As your effort increases, your heart pumps more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to fuel your muscles. The result: Your heart rate goes up. Monitoring your heart beats per minute (BPM) with a heart rate monitor will tell you just how hard you’re working.

To use heart rate, you need to first determine your max heart rate (MHR)—or the highest number of BPM you can hit. Forget the generic 220 minus your age formula for determining max heart rate and take a field test instead:

Warm up thoroughly, then do a 10-minute time trial as hard as possible, kicking it into full throttle for the final 60 seconds, aiming to full on sprint the final 20 seconds. Cool down and check your data for MHR. Repeat two more times (with rest days in between) to find your true max. Once you have your max, you can break down various levels of training efforts according to percentages of that number. As you get fitter, you’ll be able to ride faster at lower heart rates.

Overall, heart rate monitoring is an excellent training tool—but there are a few downsides. For one, it’s a little fickle. Your BPM can drift up or down depending on how much coffee you’ve had (caffeine raises it); ambient temperature; your hydration status; your plasma volume; how rested you are; and where you are in your menstrual cycle. It can also drift up within the same ride, especially when it’s hot.

Pairing HR and RPE tracking gives you a more complete picture of your effort. If you’re performing tempo intervals at a target heart rate of 150 BPM and your RPE is around 5, you’re on the money. If you’re performing those same intervals but working at an RPE of 8 to hit that same heart rate, that’s a sign that you’re not recovered and should do an easier workout. There’s also some lag time between the moment you increase intensity and the moment your heart rate reflects it, so it’s not the best tool for high-intensity efforts.

You can monitor your heart rate with a chest strap or wrist-based heart rate monitor via your sports watch. Wrist-based sensors on smartwatches and fitness trackers can be less accurate for cyclists, according to some research. That may be due to the optical sensors having less consistent contact with our wrists as we bend it to grasp our bars.

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9. Power (Watts)

Great for: The most accurate measure of your effortEquipment needed: A power meter and a compatible bike computer

Power equals work over time. In cycling, your work rate is described as watts of energy produced: Being able to produce a lot of power for your size makes you faster on the bike. Monitoring your watts with a power meter gives you instant feedback about how hard you’re working.

Power training generally revolves around your functional threshold power, or the wattage you can produce for a one-hour time trial, which is a fundamental benchmark for fitness. A common protocol for determining your FTP is performing a 20-minute time trial and multiplying that average wattage by 0.95, since your hour-long wattage would be about 5 percent lower, according to Allen.

The beauty of power is that it is absolute: You are either producing 350 watts on those hill repeats, or you’re not. If you’re not hitting your intended watts for a given workout, it’s time to rest.

Though power is more precise than heart rate, it’s worthwhile to combine the two, as heart rate represents your body’s response to the work you’re doing. Your heart rate should rise and fall in line with your power output. When your power is low and your heart rate is high, it’s recovery time. If you’re serious about training to the point that you’ve hired a coach, a power meter is a good investment.

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10. Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Great for: Understanding when you need more recovery timeEquipment needed: An Oura ring, Whoop strap, or specific HRV tracking device

HRV is a relatively new player in the performance tracking sphere. Unlike heart rate, which you watch in real time, HRV is one that you track once a day, preferably first thing in the morning (or if you wear an Oura ring or Whoop strap, you’ll see your average overnight score).

HRV is a good indicator of your recovery and/or readiness. It may seem counterintuitive, but a fit, rested, healthy heart should not beat consistently like a metronome. Instead, it should nimbly respond to input from your sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.

High variability (reflected in a higher HRV score) shows that you’re ready to go and capable of adapting to your environment and respond to exercise demands to perform well. Low variability between beats can be a sign of stress, fatigue, and inflammation—all things that can follow training too hard with too little recovery.

HRV is specific to each person and naturally declines with age. Though high numbers are considered “better,” high is relative to your own baseline. One person’s high HRV might be 125 while another’s high might be 55.

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Referenced regularly, HRV scores will help you track fitness gains. For example, you’ll typically see HRV measurements decrease (become more negative) during long, heavy training blocks. Then you should see a rebound, where your HRV is significantly higher, after a recovery period.An upward trend over time means you’re getting fitter. A downward trend means you’re training too hard and or under too much stress without proper rest and recovery. When using HRV, it’s important not to put too much weight on a single day’s reading, but rather to look at trends and averages over a few days.

You can buy individual HRV monitors like straps and finger clip sensors, but if you’re going to track HRV, you should also track resting heart rate, sleep, and training load and/or activity levels, so you can put it into context. So, a device like a Whoop strap or Oura ring are the way to go, because they automatically put HRV into context of the whole picture. (If you work with a coach, they can as well).

Do you need to track HRV to become a better rider? Of course not. You can generally tell when you need a rest day by feel. But if you routinely train hard and like to dial in your training and lifestyle habits for optimum recovery and training readiness, this is a useful metric to use. It can be especially helpful if you’re trying to establish healthy habits like cutting back on alcohol and getting more sleep, because those types of lifestyle factors show up quickly in HRV scores.

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Putting Your Cycling Metrics Into Practice

All this measuring and monitoring doesn’t do much good unless you apply it to specific training purposes—that is, training at different effort levels to build specific types of fitness. That’s where training zones come in. Different coaches break down training zones differently, but in general you’ll see effort levels spread out over five to seven zones that range from recovery to max effort. For example, here are five classic training zones:

Zone 1/Easy

You need to ride easy so your body can heal, adapt, and get stronger and fitter. Zone 1 rides should feel ridiculously easy. Your only goal is to boost your circulation and promote repair and recovery. These rides hover at one or two on the RPE scale.

Zone 2/Endurance

Zone 2 is all about aerobic effort. Endurance rides require enough energy to feel like exercise, but still let you carry a conversation, cruise for hours, and enjoy the ride. These efforts stimulate mitochondrial growth and build capillaries and fat-burning capacity. Zone 2 rides are done at an RPE of three to four.

Zone 3/Tempo

Efforts in Zone 3 are just above your comfort level, so you’re breathing faster and working harder than you would on a typical aerobic, endurance ride. You’re not working so hard, however, that you can’t sustain your effort for a long period of time. Steady Zone 3 tempo efforts improve your body’s ability to clear and use lactic acid, so they also help raise your lactate threshold. They’re done at an RPE of five to six.

Zone 4/Threshold

If VO2 max is your roof, lactate threshold—the point at which you start working anaerobically—is your drop ceiling. Training in Zone 4, which is right at that point, helps you hit higher intensities before you bump into that overhang. These efforts are done at an RPE of seven to eight.

Zone 5/Max

To raise your VO2max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use, you need to push yourself as far into the red as you can go. Zone 5 efforts are done full throttle—a nine to 10 on the RPE scale. Because they’re so hard, they’re also very short, generally lasting three to five minutes.

Here is a sample of basic training zones that incorporate the metrics above. Some coaches will break these down and expand them further or use other metrics such as percent of lactate threshold heart rate as a guide.

Zone 1 Training Type: RecoveryRPE: 1-2Breathing: light & relaxed%MHR: 60-65%FTP: <55

Zone 2Training Type: AerobicRPE: 3-4Breathing: deep & steady%MHR: 65-75%FTP: 55-75

Zone 3Training Type: TempoRPE: 5-7Breathing: slightly labored%MHR: 75-85%FTP: 75-90

Zone 4Training Type: Lactate ThresholdRPE: 8-9Breathing: rhythmic & short%MHR: 85-95%FTP: 90-105

Zone 5Training Type: VO2RPE: 9-10Breathing: rapid & heavy%MHR: 95-100%FTP: 105-120

Selene Yeager“The Fit Chick”Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, Pn1 certified nutrition coach, pro licensed off road racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at