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A guide to setting training zones for cycling

If you want to improve, eventually you will have to discover zones 5 and 6.

A guide to setting training zones for cycling 02/05 2014 by Pieter Van Pietersen

Cycle training is carried out at different intensities known as zones. Find out how to establish your zones here.

Traditional training is carried out at different intensities to attack different energy processes in the body.
These intensities are known as zones, and can be measured with heart rate or more reliably with power.

For example there is an endurance workout, which is a steady 5 hour ride, or a neuromuscular workout which could be sprints.

Establishing threshold or FTP
You first need to establish your power and heart rate at threshold. This is the level of intensity you can sustain for 1 hour. There are a couple of ways of finding this.

You will need a power meter, a heart rate monitor and a turbo trainer, or quiet stretch of road. A steady climb is an excellent venue.

Note that some cyclists train without power, in which case the power meter is not required. You may prefer to train with heart rate alone during base training.

Also note that heart rate may vary depending on temperature, fatigue and hydration status. As you train more, you will know where your heart rate should be.

For both of these methods, try to be reasonably fresh beforehand, and warm up. Remember to zero your power meter before you start.

Method 1) Cycle as hard as you can for 1 hour. If you are not in a race, you could probably go 5% harder than in training, so the context is important to note. The power you were able to maintain for the hour is your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). The average heart rate you could maintain is your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).

Note that you will score your best power by riding at the same power through the test. The typical mistake is to start too hard, slow down, then surge again, which results in a lower average power. The more you do these tests, the better you will become at them.

Method 2) Cycle as hard as you can for 30 minutes in a non-race situation.

Take the average heart rate from the last 20 minutes to establish your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). Take the average power over the entire 30 minutes to find your FTP (Threshold Power). You could probably go a little harder in a race, but if the test lasted an hour, you'd go slower, so the two cancel each other out.

The 30 minute test is often preferred as it is less painful than the 60 minute test.

A beginner might be able to sustain 200W for 1 hour. A pro cyclist might be able to manage 400W. As you get fitter, you are able to hold a higher heart rate over that hour. For example, if your max heart rate was 200, you might be able to hold 150 for an hour, but as you get fitter you can hold 175.

Now you know your Threshold, you can calculate the zones as follows:

Heart rate zones From To Name
Zone 1 resting 68% of LTHR Active Recovery
Zone 2 69% 83% of LTHR Endurance
Zone 3 84% 94% of LTHR Tempo
Zone 4 95% 105% of LTHR Lactate Threshold
Zone 5 106% Max heart rate VO2 Max
Zone 6 106% Max heart rate of LTHR flat out

Power Training Zones From To Name
Zone 1 freewheeling 55% of FTP Active Recovery
Zone 2 56% 75% of FTP Endurance
Zone 3 76% 90% of FTP Tempo
Zone 4 90% 105% of FTP Lactate Threshold
Zone 5 105% 120% of FTP VO2 Max
Zone 6 121% Max power Anaerobic capacity/ Neuromuscular
Zones as used by H Allen and A Coggan 2010, Training and Racing with a Power Meter Amazon Link.

The zones are different for running and swimming as more or less body weight is supported and the position varies. Generally your max heart rate while running will be higher than with cycling.

Performing the test on the road is difficult as wind, hills, traffic and junctions all crop up, which make keeping a steady wattage difficult. When riding flat out you are at more risk, too.

A turbo is better, but the pedaling dynamic is slightly different to the road and overheating is a strong possibility. You should get used to the turbo before attempting to test on it.

The zones may now be used for your training. For example, if going for a long ride of 4 hours, you will want to spend the majority of it in the endurance zone. A common mistake is to spend too much time in the next zone up, which results in extreme fatigue.

Recent studies show that successful athletes spend more time in the top and bottom zones, and less time in the middle zone (Tempo). The trick is to train endurance while being fresh enough to complete some killer VO2 sessions each week.

Recent research on HIIT training also indicates that it isn't necessary to train at any zone except zone 6. I disagree - hours in the saddle are also necessary.

All good riders will know what pace they can maintain for an hour. As part of knowing your body, it is useful to perform some tests to establish your zone. Remember, testing is training. Enjoy yourselves out there.

The best book out there for powermeter users by Hunter Allen and Coggan Training and Racing with a Power Meter

The Cyclist's Training Bible by Joe Friel

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