In our first article on training zones we covered quite a bit of generalized ground on training zones and how to measure them including a few of the tests athletes and coaches use to discover their training zones.
So lets cover the details of the various training zones, what they accomplish and how to recognize a weakness and strength in a training zone. I am going to cover what makes up Heart Rate and Power Training Zones however I will not be covering RPE zones as they are far to subjective to coach against.
Note: The below Zone descriptions have been adapted from the article on power training levels by Andrew Coggan
Zone 01, The Recovery Zone is used for recovery between work intervals and or for conversational riding. This training zone is purely for recovery and will not create physical adaptations. We also use this zone after a race or hard training ride to “Ride The Junk Out Of Our Legs.” This is meant to clear waste products and to ride the legs of lactic acid that has built up during a race or particularly hard ride.
Zone 02, The Aerobic Zone is the zone that is thought of when talking about Long and Steady Distance riding. This zone is also a conversational zone, meaning that you should be able to ride in this zone and hold a normal conversation with out gasping for air. The purpose of this zone is to either build or maintain your base aerobic conditioning.
Zone 03, The Tempo Zone is sometimes referred to as the pacing zone or even the sweet spot zone. In zone 3 you may be able to speak to other riders but it will be in incomplete sentences. This zone requires concentration to maintain alone, especially at upper end of range.
Zone 04, The SubThreshold or Lactate Threshold Zone is most often thought of as the Time Trial Zone. The effort at riding in Z4 is typically the hardest effort that an average cyclist can hold. Effort is high enough that sustained exercise at this level is mentally very taxing – therefore typically performed in training as multiple ‘repeats’, ‘modules’, or ‘blocks’ of 10-30 min duration.
Zone 05, The SuperThreshold or VO2 Max Zone is often described as the hard race pace zone. Typical intensity of longer (3-8 min) intervals intended to increase VO2max. Strong to severe sensations of leg effort/fatigue, such that completion of more than 30-40 min total training time is difficult at best. Conversation not possible due to often ‘ragged’ breathing.
Zone 06, The Aerobic Capacity Zone is made up of a few short (30 s to 3 min), high intensity intervals designed to increase anaerobic capacity. Heart rate is generally not useful as a guide to intensity due to non-steady-state nature of training in Zone 6. Cyclist will have severe sensation of leg effort/fatigue, and conversations are impossible.
Zone 07, The Anaerobic Capacity or Neuromuscular Power Zone Is very short, very high intensity efforts (e.g., ALL OUT, jumps, standing starts, short sprints) that generally place greater stress on musculoskeletal rather than metabolic systems. Power useful as guide, but only in reference to prior similar efforts. Zone 7 efforts are usually only interesting from a power data perspective due to their short nature and the role cardiac drift plays when measuring work intervals with a heart rate monitor. These short efforts should be treated as matches in a race. You only have so many to burn in a race so use them when they count.
Once we have a basic understanding of the zones how do we apply them to a weakness?
To determine where a weakness is we can use subjective methods such as a cyclist complaints regarding perceived performance or we can test. As a coach we need to employee both methods. Listening to an athlete’s subjective first hand account of how he or she may or may not be performing can sometimes be more telling than data. For those not being coached but want to determine your Heart Rate and Training Zones can do tests at home. Here are a few guides that you can try. Please remember that testing is hard and it is suppose to be. So if you are injured, a new cyclist or have been ill you may want to think twice about testing. You have been warned.
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I cannot cover every possible solution for cycling weaknesses in an article so I will look at the most common cyclists complaints. Climbing, Sprinting and Speed.
Climbing isn’t purely an aerobic function it is also about your body weight and your ability to apply force to the pedals. Most cyclists who want to improve their climbing will quickly head to the hills and climb as much as there legs will allow. This will make you a stronger cyclist but it’s going to take longer. You might be surprised that climbing doesn’t have to be done at Attack speed! Instead start climbing seated at a lower RPM (50-70RPM) with a power range of Zone 4-5 and or HR range of Zone 3-4. It may feel slow at first but you will get stronger faster!
Sprinting skills are paramount to mass start race success. Criteriums and circuit races are not decided on a climb but in the last 5 yards in the sprint. This means that the cyclist not only needs to be able to hold on for the duration of the race but be able to deliver the goods in the last final yards. To develop the legs, mind and necessary aerobic capacity to become a good sprinter requires that a cyclist that can repeatedly sprint into Zone 6-7 HR and Power and recover again quickly. A sprint is not a linear effort. A sprint is really made up of 3 distinct efforts.
- The spin up – This is the effort leading up to a jump. This effort is more about positioning and getting into proper gearing and is done seated. You might even think of this as how a sprinter needs to hold on to a lead out. These efforts are often in Zone 5-6 and can last 30 seconds to a minute.
- The jump – This effort is what a sprinter does when they explode out of the saddle when their lead out delivers them to the front. The jump is incredibly short and very powerful, Zone 7 Power, but very short lived, 3-10 seconds.
- The dig – Is what a sprinter has to do right after the jump. The sprinter’s legs begin to fill with lactic acid as they tap into their anaerobic energy system and begin to burn glycogen and not as much oxygen. This is usually thought of as a Zone 6 effort that last usually less than 60 seconds after the jump.
Speed can be confused with going fast or spinning fast. When most athletes think of a top cycling weakness it usually falls into the category of not being able to ride fast enough to keep up. The development of speed comes from consistent and organized training across Zones 3-6. Speed is a byproduct of a riders fitness, power and course variables such as terrain and weather. I often explain to competitive cyclists who compete in mass start races that Average Speed should never be looked at as a performance goal. Instead we need to focus on a cyclist’s ability to produce Top End Power. Time Trial Specialists, Duathletes and Triathletes want to be concerned with Bottom End Power. Bottom end power is what creates higher average speeds in races and training where there are no surges in power or heart rate.
Top end power consists of a cyclist’s best power output at 3 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minutes and 5 minutes. These power numbers are critical to the success of a mass start competitor. Top end power is what makes it possible for cyclist’s to deal with repeated surges, attacks and the ability to recover from repeated efforts. While power data is key in understanding where a cyclist is with regards to determining if top end power is a weakness. However I think we all know from real world experience if we are or are not a good sprinter.
Bottom end power consists of a cyclist’s best power output at 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes and 60 minutes. Having a higher power numbers at the bottom end will show strength for timed races such as Time Trials, Duathlons and Triathlons. Just as with Top end power Bottom end power data is key to knowing for a fact if it is a weakness. We know that if we can’t hold on in the peloton or aren’t making time cuts that we have problem with bottom end power.
There is a middle ground for what is often referred to as the all rounder cyclists. These are the cyclists that compete in multi day events such as stage races and omniums. Their power is some where between top end and bottom end power. They are usually very strong between 5 minutes and 20 minutes. These all rounder cyclists are able to chug along at decent speed, climb most hills and can either break away or get ahead of a sprint. If this is where you want to be you are going to have to structure your training to cover all zones. This type of training is annual in nature.
I hope this series has helped you to become a bit better educated on training zones and how they play a part in your training. I also hope that you may have uncovered what maybe a weakness in your riding and what you need to do to make it strength.
I know I didn’t give exact work outs on how to become a better sprinter, climber, speed demon or all rounder. That’s what our coaching services and training plans are for.
I have created several Training Plans that you can find below that will help you turn a weakness into a cycling strength! I have also lowered the price of my annual training plan for beginning competitive cyclists!
These plans are available via a basic Training Peaks account. Click on the plan below to learn more or order your training plan.
Until next time have a great ride,