Training zones: The Simplest way to understand them

Training zones

We have all heard the term training zones, but what do they actually mean and how do coaches use them in the design of training plans and how do they improve individual zones to optimise a rider in his/her’s discipline.

 

Training zones are quantified mainly in 3 different ways, namely power, heart rate and rate of perceived exertion.

Power training zones

This is the most popular and most accurate way to measure training performance. Power is measured through devices like power meterssmart trainers or indoor trainers like the Wahoo kickr bike. These devices measure the power you push through the pedals and this data is what coaches use to determine your training zones. Every cyclist knows the term FTP (functional threshold power) and this is the most popular term used among cyclists and is mostly the measure cyclists will weigh up to determine who is the fastest or strongest rider. But is this really the way to determine the fastest or strongest rider? We will answer this question later

Heart rate training zones

Next is using heart rate to determine individual training zones. Heart rate is measured using heart rate monitors. Training at different heart rates will induce different physiological adaptations, depending in which heart rate zone you are training in. These measures are quite accurate, but is vastly affected by training state and individual genetics and fitness levels. If you don’t have a smart trainerpower meter or indoor trainer, this will be the go to method for the coach to determine your zones and set your intensities accordingly.

RPE

Rate of perceived exertion is the method used for athletes who do not have access to either a power meter nor indoor trainer. RPE is calculated using the Borg’s scale. This scale has 10 points and the athlete describes how they feel according to the scale. The Borg scale is divided into the training zones to determine the intensity of a training session. This method is the least accurate and will vary vastly from one individual to another. The below table illustrates the Borg scale

BORG’S 10 POINT CATEGORY-RATIO SCALE OF PERCEIVED EXERTION:

 

Perceived Exertion

Description

0

Nothing at all

0.5

Extremely weak

1

Very weak

2

Weak (light)

3

Moderate

4

Somewhat Strong

5

Strong (Heavy)

6

 

7

Very Strong

8

 

9

 

10

Extremely Strong

*

Maximal

Training zones

Now that we have seen the ways to quantify training intensities, let’s have a look at each training zone, what they mean, how they are measured in each of the above categories and how you can improve each zone.

Zone 1

Zone 1 is what we call your active recovery zone. This is a great zone to be in if you have had a few hard days on the bike and need some recovery. Instead of taking complete rest, training in this zone keeps blood flowing and helps to clear lactic acid from the muscles. These sessions feel very easy and that is exactly what they should feel like. You wont train too much in this zone and it will only be used for active recovery days as they do not induce any significant physiological adaptations. The table below illustrates zone one in the different models used: Both power and heart rate are given as a percentage of threshold power (for power based training) and maximal heart rate (for heart rate treaining). RPE is based on the scale itself

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

1

Active Recovery

<55%

<68%

<2

Zone 2

Zone 2 we call your endurance zone. You will spend most of your training in this zone. This zone is great for those long rides and will induce very important adaptations to build a foundation for more intense training. Riding for 4 hours in your endurance zone will adapt your body to burning more fat during rest and training which in turn will save glycogen stores for when you really need that boost of speed in a race or for more intense sessions later on in your training program. Your coach will add this zone in all your training blocks in your annual training program. This zone works your aerobic zone, which is a very important part of being an endurance athlete. During base training, stay in this zone most of the time. This zone is not that hard and you should be able to hold zone 2 for hours. The table below illustrates zone 2 in the different models used

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

2

Endurance

56-75%

69-83%

2-3

Zone 3

This zone is called your tempo zone and is a very important zone if you want to improve those long climbs. This is a great zone to be in to pace yourself for long rides. Theoretically you should be able to hold this pace for at least 2.5 hours. The higher this number can be (power wise) the faster you can go at a comfortable speed. These sessions wont stress your body too much, so they can be used the day after a strenuous session. Spend long hours in this zone in your base training and 1st building phase of your training program, and you will be climbing faster and higher than you have ever before. I love spending a lot of time in this zone, especially during base training and with the current Coronavirus pandemic, this is a great zone to be in to keep improving fitness, but not too stress your body too much.The table below illustrates zone 3 in the different models used

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

3

Tempo

76-90%

84-94%

3-4

Zone 4

The all familiar, FTP zone! This zone does tell a lot about a cyclist, the higher this number, the faster you can go. Increase your FTP and you will be a much faster all round cyclist. This is the power you can theoretically hold for an hour. Back in 2015, Bradley Wiggins broke the 1 hour world record by riding 54.5km in 1 hour, his FTP was measured at 456 Watts for that hour. Recently (16 April 2019), NTT Procycling rider, Victor Campenaerts, did 55km in the one hour. These riders do well north of 6.5 w/kg (watts per kilogram), how do you compare? This zone tells you how good you are in Time trialing more specifically, as most time trial stages/races are about an hour long.

 

Most popular training sessions to improve FTP are the classic, 2×20 min or 4×10 min threshold sessions. These sessions do put a lot of stress on your body, so make sure you get enough rest in between sessions (at least 48 hours). The table below illustrates zone 4 in the different models used:

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

     

4

Lactate Threshold

91-105%

95-105%(may not be achieved during initial phases of effort(s))

4-5

 

Zone 5

Another very popular zone, VO2 max zone. VO2 max is measured in millilitres per kilogram of body mass per minute. I know, a mouth full. Basically it is the amount of oxygen in millilitres that your body is able to utilize in one minute at maximum sustained output. The more oxygen your body can absorb, the more power you can put out. Chris Froome recorded a VO2 max of 84.6 and three times Tour de France winner Greg Lemond recorded 92.5. These are absolute insane numbers and don’t expect to be anywhere near this. A Vo2 max between 50 and 60 is more realistic and at these numbers, you are pretty fit

 

Zone 5 is great for those short punchy climbs, launching an attack or putting in a big effort to catch up with the bunch. These training sessions are usually between 3-8 minutes long and between 106-120% of your FTP. These sessions will hurt and leave you gasping for air. Make sure you have a very good base before attempting these sessions. The table below illustrates zone 5 in the 3 models used:

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

     

5

VOMax

106-120%

>106%

6-7

 

Zone 6

 

This zone is known as you anaerobic capacity. These efforts are short, but very high intensity and last for 30 seconds to 3 minutes. This is the zone where sprinting for the finish line is utilised. With efforts of 121% of FTP or greater, they tap into your ATP energy system. These are all out efforts for short burst. Pro cyclists can push up to 2000 Watts on a grand Tour sprint and track cyclists have recorded 2500 watts on sprints around a velodrome. As with VO2 max training, make sure you have a solid base before doing these sessions. Your legs will feel like jelly after these types of sessions and you should be well conditioned before attempting them. Popular sessions include the 10x 1 min max efforts, 40s:20s or 20s:40s. You wont do too much of training in this zone throughout your program as they are very taxing and can quickly lead to overtraining if you do too much of them. Leave these sessions for the peak phase before a race event to get you in top shape for your event. The table below illustrates this zone in the 3 models used

 

Level

Name

Average Power

Average HR

Perceived Exertion

     

6

Anaerobic Capacity

>121%

N/A

>7

 

Zone 7

The last zone we will look at is what we call your neuromuscular zone. This zone specifically targets specific muscle fiber types and wont necessarily be quantified as a percentage of power or heart rate. The 2 muscle fiber types here are, the fast twitch and slow twitch fibers. Basically fast twitch fibers are recruited during very fast cadences like sprinting and slow twitch fibers when you grind out on a very steep climb. Slow twitch fibers are also very important for endurance athletes

 

As coaches, we use this zone for cycling drills early on on the training program. Very fast spinning will recruit fast twitch muscle fibers and will improve your efficiency at higher cadences. These fast spinning drills won’t have too much resistance, we will save that for zone 6 training. The other end of the scale, very low cadences (between 40 and 60 rpm)  just below threshold are great to build strength on the bicycle for those steep climbs. This will induce adaptations to your skeletal muscular system to recruit more muscle fibers to keep up with the demand.

 

Gym work also falls into this zone, box jumps will improve your fast twitch muscle capability and exercises like heavy squats will strengthen muscles and improve your ability to recruit more muscle fibers in order to produce more power

Conclusion

So now you know what the training zones are and how to improve them. So getting back to the question id FTP really the gold standard when it comes to determining who is the fastest or strongest rider? Answer in short, no. There are a lot of factors that need to be taken in consideration like conditions, type of race or cycling discipline. One rider can have an average watts score of 400 Watts and another 350 Watts, but the rider doing 350 watts can win the race. Going to grand tour races, you will see teams ‘helping’ their sprinters to the line. Sprinters sit in the pack/bunch and draft off other riders, and as they get closer to the finish line, they will move up to the front and unleash those huge sprint numbers. If you have a race with a lot of climbs, riders with big power to weight (w/kg) numbers are usually the riders to reach the top first. At pro and elite level, tactics play more of a role in who wins races. Among beginner or intermediate riders, FTP will probably play more of a role as these riders don’t necessarily have racing tactics and just want to ride as fast as they can

 

Contact a coach and find out how you can improve each metric and peak for a specific race with a structured plan to make sure you get the most out of each zone