Knowing your cycling training zones is fundamental for any level of performance-orientated cyclist.
These zones are the basis from which a structured training plan is built and they provide a means of ensuring that daily training sessions are precisely targeted and executed towards a clear goal.
Having accurately set training zones:
- makes the best use of your training time
- maximises the amount of fitness you can produce from that training.
A win-win you might say.
Now, it’s one thing knowing what power output or what heart rate range corresponds to Zone 1, Zone 2 etc (a simple calculator will do for that)…
But it’s another thing to understand the PURPOSE of training in each zone.
In other words, what does each zone offer you in terms of a performance benefit, and why should a particular zone have a place in your training programme?
Below, I’ll explain what each zone corresponds to in terms of power, heart rate and RPE (that’s Rating of Perceived Exertion) but crucially teach you the WHY of each zone.
When you’re done, you should have a clear understanding of training structure and why a balanced training programme for cycling is so important.
So, let’s get started in the logical order with Zone 1.
Zone 1 is the first zone in the intensity scale, whether you’re using heart rate zones or power-based training zones.
It’s the easiest and lowest intensity zone in the scale, and corresponds to any intensity below approximately 60% of maximum heart rate or ~60% of FTP or Functional Threshold Power.
It’s about a 1-3 on the RPE or Rating of Perceived Exertion scale too.
PURPOSE OF ZONE 1
Let’s look at the multiple reasons for training (or more accurately, recovering) in Zone 1…
The first is that of active recovery.
What’s ACTIVE recovery?
This is where you ride or cross trains in zone 1 to promote recovery from previous workouts.
At this intensity, you’re typically not trying to stress the body in order to produce an adaptive response.
Instead, the goal is stimulating the flow of fresh, oxygenated blood to the muscles and around the body.
This helps to flush out any waste products that might be lingering in the muscles.
Here’s an example workout I did at Zone 1:
The second purpose of zone 1 training is again for recovery.
This time though, it’s applied to recovery between work intervals within a workout.
As you might know, interval training works by stressing the body in an alternating pattern of high intensity and low intensity, i.e. stress followed by recovery.
Performing the rest intervals at zone 1 allows you to recover effectively from the interval effort, in order to perform another work interval at the required intensity.
Even though Zone 1 is very low in the intensity scale, the upper levels of the zone are still sufficient to improve endurance fitness too.
This is achieved through improving aerobic efficiency by stimulating adaptions such as increased mitochondrial density.
It can be successfully used in conjunction with zone 2 training to build fitness using long duration training workouts.
ZONE 1 SUMMARY
Depending on the phase of training that you’re in, actual training time in zone 1 will likely amount to around 10-20% of your weekly total, which provides a great stress to recovery ratio.
Here’s the video version of how to train in Zone 1:
Next, let’s go onto Zone 2…
OK, so let’s look at how to train in Zone 2.
This is the zone you’ll likely spend a lot of training time in, so let’s see why it’s super beneficial to our fitness progression…
This zone is the second zone in the 6-7 zone intensity scale (naturally).
Zone 2 is generally considered a low intensity training zone.
It’s typically ridden at any intensity in the range of 65-75% of maximum heart rate or for power meter users, an intensity of 60-75% of current FTP or functional threshold power.
This zone starts to introduce the most structure into the athlete’s training.
Well, it’s a zone that requires “intensity discipline” in order to perform correctly, which unfortunately is something that many riders get wrong or misunderstand (not you though, because you’re reading this 😀)
It’s important that we’re clear on why we are spending a considerable amount of training time in this zone, so let’s look at the purpose of Zone 2…
Before we get to that, you might like this:
PURPOSE OF ZONE 2
There are several key reasons to train in Zone 2. They are…
The first is that of making the body more energy efficient by teaching it to spare glycogen.
Instead, we want it to preferentially use a higher percentage of fat for energy when cycling. Zone 2 helps with this.
This is key for endurance athletes, as the body has a far higher storage capacity of fat than of glycogen.
The latter needs to be spared for the end of a race or event when it matters most.
The more time spent training in zone 2, the more efficient the body becomes and the faster the athlete is at that level of intensity.
Let’s say athlete A and athlete B are riding at the same intensity.
If athlete A is more efficient than athlete B, then athlete A will go faster for the same effort.
When training at Zone 2, you’re using your Type 1 muscle fibres.
A.K.A the slow twitch muscles.
By stressing the type 1 fibres, you improve your body’s ability to clear and process lactic acid, which is a by-product of the burning of glycogen that happens at higher intensity exercise.
When lactic acid is produced, it needs to be cleared and transported back to the mitochondria to be used for energy. If not, it will accumulate, introduce a burning sensation in the muscles and force the cyclist to slow down.
Through improving the ability for the body to clear lactic acid, the cyclist can train to ride faster at a given intensity and improve their endurance.
Here’s an example of a Zone 2 workout from my Strava account:
ZONE 2 SUMMARY
As mentioned, Zone 2 requires a considerable amount of discipline to perform correctly.
This is mainly because it is an intensity that overall, feels quite comfortable to the cyclist.
You can find yourself slipping into Zone 1, which in most cases won’t supply enough of a stress to stimulate adaptions.
It’s also easy to drift up into zone 3, because Zone 2 often doesn’t feel difficult enough to improve fitness.
What’s important is to disregard the flawed “no pain, no gain” mentality.
Zone 2 training should be undertaken throughout every training phase and will be present in almost every week of training throughout the year.
It’s essential for consistent and long-term development and is an enjoyable intensity to train at.
Here’s the video version of how to train in Zone 2:
Next, Zone 3…
Zone 3 sits around the mid-point of the intensity scale.
This equates to an intensity of 75-82% of max heart rate and within the range of 80-90% of FTP or functional threshold power.
Let’s find out what the somewhat ambiguous purpose is to Zone 3…
PURPOSE OF ZONE 3
So unlike the first two training zones we looked at, Zone 3’s purpose isn’t as clearly defined and there’s debate as to whether lots of time spent at zone 3 is good or bad.
In theory, there’s not a lot of extra benefit to training in Zone 3 compared to Zone 2. Both zones stress the aerobic pathways in the body, stimulating changes like increased mitochondria and a stronger heart muscle and recruit the slow-twitch muscles predominantly.
Zone 3 also provides little to no superior adaptions in the athlete compared to zone 2, yet requires more effort to perform.
It’s advised then that regular road cyclists and mountain bikers typically avoid lots of time spent training at zone 3, and replace it with more time in zone 2.
There are of course some exceptions…
Zone 3 training IS advised when the rider’s race demands require a lot of Zone 3 time.
Examples include those competing in long distance triathlon such as Ironman and half-Ironman events. In the base period of training though, Zone 2 will still be a better bet, proving you have the time to train for relatively long periods at a time.
Where Zone 3 is most commonly seen is in what are called “sweetspot workouts”.
This is an intensity right at the top of the Zone 3 range, and is purported by some to give “the most bang for your buck” (or if you’re British, “the most punch for your pound”🇬🇧).
I won’t go into the details of sweetspot training here, but I have given my thoughts on it in this video:
Now let’s move onto Zone 4…
Zone 4 is your trusty, rusty Threshold Zone.
This is an intensity range of around 82-89% of maximum heart rate and 91-105% of functional threshold power.
A challenging zone to spend time in, for sure!
It roughly equates to the athlete’s FTP or Functional Threshold Power, which is a power output that can be sustained for up to an hour in a highly motivated situation like a race.
PURPOSE OF ZONE 4
Zone 4 is another zone which provokes debate amongst academics and physiologists. Some argue it’s the best way to increase the power at lactate threshold, and emphasise time spent in this zone.
Others have observed that many world-class endurance athletes spend less time training in this zone than you might expect.
The criticisms surrounding zone 4 are similar to that of Zone 3, i.e. that it’s deemed to give the athlete a large degree of stress and difficulty, whilst not providing a proportionally large fitness boost.
Observations by academics studying intensity distribution have noticed that many top performers across sports like rowing, cross-country skiing, as well as cycling use a more polarised intensity distribution model to structure their training.
This means they replace higher volumes of Zone 3 and 4 work with lots of training in low intensity zones and some in high intensity zones.
It’s just not a zone to spend MOST of your training time in.
What does Zone 4 help with?
IMPROVING LACTATE BUFFERING
Zone 4 is still a great way to develop the lactate threshold when used in the correct doses.
Performing interval sessions like 5x8mins, 2x20mins or 3x15mins within Zone 4 is an effective way to improve your FTP and generate more sustained power. This is key for timetrialists, MTB XC racers and just about any cyclist that’s training for a discipline lasting an hour or more.
Here’s a threshold workout I performed recently:
It’s often forgotten that your endurance can be improved by exercising at high intensity too, and Zone 4 is one of the best zones for improving muscular endurance, another key attribute of a successful cyclist.
Performing the type of workouts mentioned above, you’ll be effectively training your muscles to maintain power in the presence of increasing fatigue.
Since you’re right at that limit before lactic acid begins to accumulate significantly, you can rack up sometimes up to 50-60 minutes of total work time in this zone per workout.
That provides a huge training stress and a great signal for adaption to the body.
Zone 4 should be added into your training plan at appropriate times and in appropriate doses.
Whilst it’s easy to feel like you’re really working hard doing Zone 4 training, be weary that it can tire you out for days to come and thus break training consistency.
When should you be doing the most Zone 4 work?
That’ll come in the early parts of the season to lay a foundation for high zone work such as Zone 5, which we’ll move on to now…
Oh, here’s my video summary of Zones 3 and 4 for you:
The VO2Max zone, the holy grail…
Zone 5 sits at the upper levels of the training intensity zones and is a zone where you’re working HARD!
It’s ridden at an intensity of approximately 106-120% of Functional Threshold Power, and around 89-94% of your maximum heart rate.
Zone 5 is an intensity where your VO2Max comes into play and is therefore the principal zone that you’ll use to improve your ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles.
VO2Max refers to your maximal oxygen uptake level and is usually measured as volume in litres per minute.
It’s an intensity above our lactate threshold, meaning that it’ll create a lot of pain and discomfort.
But I suppose you guessed that already?!
This intensity is a very important zone to train in, and there are a number of purposes for exercising in Zone 5.
PURPOSE OF ZONE 5
Let’s take a look at the main reasons you’ll want to include Zone 5 work into your training programme.
The first purpose is to improve your FTP and lactate threshold that we discussed in the previous lecture.
Isn’t that what Zone 4 is for, I hear you ask?
Well, by going BEYOND your lactate threshold, the body is stressed sufficiently to cause an adaptive response.
Think of it as “pulling up” your lower intensity abilities.
Due to the highly intense nature of Zone 5 training, cyclists can’t rack up as many minutes at this zone, but it still offers a great stimulus.
Secondly, training at this intensity improves the athlete’s ability to consume oxygen at a very high level of intensity, which is incredibly specific to the demands of a race or competitive event, for instance closing a gap in a road cycling race.
When using Zone 5, measurement by a power meter and heart rate combined is preferred over just using a heart rate monitor alone.
This is because with the nature of this training being relatively short, your heart rate may not have enough time to catch up with the intensity and therefore cannot be used to accurately pace the intervals.
Not only does this zone stress the body at this physiological level…
It also allows the athlete to become accustomed to this level of stress and discomfort, making things easier on race day.
If you’re eager to start improving your VO2Max like a boss, this is the guide for you:
Zone 5 training will be present at most stages of the training cycle, as it helps boost fitness in a number of important ways and allows you to avoid lots of time at those middle intensities, or what I like to call the “Stagnation Zone”.
Good zone 5 workouts include intervals of anywhere between 2.5 and 5 minutes, or on/off longer intervals, such as 30S/15S or 40S/20S.
Here’s a good example of such a session in practice, which is one I performed recently:
Here’s the video version of my explanation of Zone 5:
Now, let’s get into the pain cave, the hurt locker or whichever overused suffering phrase you’d like to use and learn about Zone 6.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, Zone 6 is hard work.
These are the type of intervals that make people literally throw up…
Zone 6 equates to approximately 94-100% of maximum heart rate and 121-150% of function threshold power.
This is a very high level of intensity that requires a lot of mental and physical perseverance.
It’s typically known as the “anaerobic capacity zone”.
It requires you to exercise at a level far beyond your lactate threshold, i.e. an intensity that produces a high amount of lactic acid in the working muscles, due to the rapid burning of glycogen.
Zone 6 is typically executed as short interval training, and these intervals can last anywhere between 20 and 90 seconds.
Recovery intervals will typically last around twice to over three or four times as long as the work interval.
The intensity is very similar to what would be experienced in events like a cycling road race on a short, sharp climb, or the effort from one corner to the next in a criterium.
ZONE 6 PURPOSES
Training in Zone 6 has several purposes…
The first of these is to increase the time at which the athlete can exercise in an anaerobic state, which means working at an intensity where the body cannot meet its demands for oxygen.
In essence, this type of training increases the capacity to accelerate to speeds far beyond the lactate threshold, which is important in a race environment.
IMPROVES SHORT-TERM RECOVERY
Secondly, training in Zone 6 not only facilitates the building of the athlete’s anaerobic engine, but also improves the athlete’s ability to recover from such an effort and repeat it again and again.
This is an especially useful skill for any type of competitive cyclist to have, as changes in pace in a race are sudden, often unexpected and occur more than once.
By conducting this type of training consistently, you should see big reductions in the time it takes you to recover between short, sharp intervals.
When executing this type of training, you’ll need to rely on their power meter or intuitive pacing.
Well, since the intervals are so short, your heart rate can’t give any kind of accurate indication of intensity.
It’s very easy to perform the first intervals in an anaerobic capacity workout too intensely, and later fail to hit the required output in the final few intervals. So, it’s always advised to try to speed up as you progress through such a workout, applying intelligent pacing in the earlier stages to ensure you don’t fail before the end of the set.
As an example, a Zone 6 workout might look like 30mins of Zone 2, then 6-8x 1minute @ Zone 6 with a 3-min active recovery interval between each repetition, and then 30-45 minutes of Zone 2 after this main set.
Here’s a ride I did that featured some Zone 6 intervals:
A word of warming for all you eager beavers…
Be very careful not to do too much of this type of training.
It’s incredibly stressful on the body and can reduce your training capacity greatly.
It’s best used in the few weeks leading up to a target event, where other aspects of fitness like your anaerobic threshold and VO2Max should precede it.
Video summary of Zone 6? It’s here:
Finally, let’s look at the sprint zone, i.e. Zone 7…
This training zone is the highest in the scale…
It’s ridden at an intensity of MAXIMUM EFFORT, and doesn’t really relate to any particular range of wattages in the way that the previous zones did.
It’s essentially a sprint zone.
This is the power that you are putting out when you are going as hard as you can for a very short period of time.
Typical duration for Zone 7 intervals is anything from 1-20 seconds each.
Here’s some science for you…
When performing efforts at a Zone 7 intensity, the athlete is using a different energy system as compared to when they perform longer duration intervals.
In the first few seconds of a sprint, the body will use ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate to provide the energy it needs to initiate this maximal effort. After this, the body then switches to CP or creatine phosphate to produce more ATP to maintain the sprint.
Therefore, this type of training is not as complex as some of the other zones we’ve previously examined.
So what’s the purpose to this super-short but super-intense cycling training zone?
PURPOSE OF ZONE 7
The zone is more applicable to certain types of cyclists than others.
For instance, ultra endurance cyclists, and those participating in long duration events such as sportives or charity rides will likely find they have little need for sprinting abilities and therefore little need for this type of training in their plan.
This type of cyclist would therefore be better including other types of training into their program rather than Zone 7 work.
IMPROVES SPRINT/ATTACK POWER
Where Zone 7 will be applicable is in the more intense and competitive cycling disciplines, like mountain bike cross-country, road racing, criterium racing and cyclocross to name a few.
Sprints and efforts in the Zone 7 range are typically used to defend positions, make attacks and launch for the line, so the athlete’s abilities at this intensity zone can literally make the difference between winning or losing.
This might come as a bit of a shock, but sprinting and performing Zone 7 workouts has actually been shown to improve endurance in the scientific literature.
It likely has to do with providing a very potent stress to the muscles and signalling pathways, allowing for a boost in muscular endurance that can be helpful at much lower intensities and in all kinds of endurance-based events.
Maybe it’s training that a sportive rider could use after all?
Experiment with this type of training yourself and see if you can replicate those endurance-boosting benefits.
The amount of Zone 7 training that will feature in an athlete’s plan will be based on the discipline of cycling that they do and at what stage of the training cycle that athlete is at.
As Zone 7 is a very high level intensity zone, it’s training that will need to be underpinned with a solid base of strength and fitness, and isn’t likely to be used all that much in the early stages of the season.
In addition, as sprinting improvements plateau relatively quickly, it makes sense to perform this type of training as your target event approaches.
OVER TO YOU
So there’s a run down of all the cycling training zones of cycling and the reasons why you want to train in each.
Having this kind of knowledge will put you ahead of 90% of cyclists out there trying to improve their performance, and you’ll be able to create structured workouts and training plans that will maximise your training time as well as the fitness you’ll get out of the work you put in.
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