Heart rate for nordic vs bike racing

I mountain bike race in the summer, cyclocross race in the fall, and nordic race in the winter. I’ve noticed that while my perception of effort is very similar across these disciplines (really flipping hard), my heart rate average and peak are significantly lower in a nordic race than in either a cross or mtb race. For instance, in a roughly one-hour mtb race, my heart rate will typically average around 154 and I’ll see a maximum of only a few beats below my peak of 167. For a 45 minute cyclocross rate, I’ll see slightly higher averages and maximum. For a 20 minute short track race, I saw an average of 161 and a maximum of 167. For a 20 minute nordic race, I’m seeing an average of 150 to 153 and a maximum of about 161 to 163. For a recent 45 minute nordic race, I saw an average of 152 and maximum of 161.

Since I’m recruiting a lot more muscle mass for nordic, this relationship to heart rate seems reversed, so I’m assuming it has to do with my being better trained for cycling than for nordic (riding season is longer than ski season), but I don’t really know and my question is: should I expect to see my heart rate for nordic come more in line with my cycling heart rate as the nordic season progresses, or is there simply some physiological phenomenon at work. My approach to training and rough weekly volumes is pretty similar.

Do you find the same relationship at endurance pace? Cycling heart rate higher than nordic? Or do you only see this when going hard?

It’s a good question. As best I can decipher from reviewing some of my files, they track closer to each other at endurance pace, and in fact, my HR average even tracks a little higher for nordic.

But there are variables that are difficult to quantify. Whereas the track for a nordic race and the track for a mountain bike race will tend to be somewhat similar (punchy climbs and lots of transitions) my ride routes, even here in Vermont, are easier to pace than most nordic routes, which are actually over the same terrain as I race. Also, my bike computer is right in front of me, so it’s easy to get check on my effort and shift a gear if needed. With skiing it’s all by feel, and it’s not improbable that I’m jumping above my zone 2 HR from time to time. When racing, I’m pretty much on the limit in both disciplines.

In my opinion, the major difference is that it’s colder in winter, so even if you apply a similar effort, your HR will be lower, especially if the trails are uneven terrain/rolling hills/climbs where you get your HR down each time you’re going downhill. So, even if you work harder on skis, you have more time to cool down.
Training also has some impact - the more you trained, the “easier” you can handle a high load. So, your perceived exertion on a bike might be lower than on XC skis for the same effort which allows you to push harder on a bike than on skis. Hope that helps.

Thank you. It’s an interesting observation, and might be part of the equation. But because I do a lot of cyclocross right up into December and because we’re having a really warm winter, I don’t think temperature tells the full story. I can’t help but feel like there’s an underdevelopment at the muscular level that is preventing the full use of my cardio capacity, but this is not my field and I have no evidence to support this hunch.

Hi, one thing I have seen in some cyclists who do other sports that they don’t have the same abilities is that technique can hold them back from achieving the higher heart rates.

The reason I asked about the endurance pace relationship between cycling and nordic waws because when you are skiing easy, you are likely more comfortable with your technique, it is possible that at higher paces you just can’t push hard enough because your technique is limited.

The other points made are very good, however when you are riding a mountain bike, and cross country skiing in an area where we live the terrain is often similar, so when mountain bike riding the uphill / downhill portion at a relative pace is problably similar.

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Thanks Steve. You must have seen me ski. There’s definitely a technique gap with nordic and the harder I push, bigger the gap. I had assumed that this would only result in the my going slower in relation to my effort, but I never considered it would result in my heart rate being suppressed.

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I do a ton of nordic skiing on the weekends here in MT and regularly wear an HRM for both. I find my HR very similar to that of Mtn biking - with the ascents and descents. I compare overall IF and find that a 2.5 hour endurance skate (not race pace) is very similar to a 2.5 to 3 hour bike ride on the road or mountain bike. Also when looking at my Garmin, I see very similar aerobic effects of 3.5 for both. For me, it is reasonable, that my 2 plus hour skates equate my 2 plus hour aerobic rides. But again, I am never at race pace on skates. I focus more on endurance and the technique side of things. Awesome posts!

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My nordic technique is pretty solid from a racing background in high school and college. I definitely see higher heart rates on skis than on a bike. At a similar RPE, nordic heart rate 10 beats or so higher. Holds true across the spectrum.


Thank you both for the responses.

Chris, when you say, “across the spectrum” are you referring to an intensity spectrum? Do you still race on ski and bike?

What you see is what I expected to see, and was curious why I don’t, and I’ve wondered if I were to build more capillary density in my upper body by doing more skiing (maybe adding some roller skiing throughout the year), if I would close the gap. Of course if the gap is due to technical proficiency, then that would likely improve as well.

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Yes, across the intensity spectrum the same RPE generally yields a higher heart rate on skis. I do still race on the bike, and planned to race on skis this winter but work has gotten in the way, alas. You have plenty of hills in VT which should allow you to bury yourself on skis, but if they’re not quite long might you experience your anaerobic system contributing so much that your aerobic system can’t fully rev up before you hit your next downhill? And even on a long up coordination issues could be keeping your heart rate from getting as high as it otherwise might. Technique is so critical to nordic. Pray for snow!

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Personally I see my highest heart rates while skiing. I’m 52 years old. On the bike the highest hr I’ve seen in the last few years is 168. On skis 176. My ski technique is in ‘development’ (ie it sucks), but I’m convinced that it is a total muscle mass involvement situation.

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