So You Want To Get in Shape
After a training ride, I texted our average power (watts) to my friend, who joined me.
“Is that good,” he asked.
“For me, yes. For you, I don’t know.”
I wasn’t trying to impersonate Yoda or be some weird existentialist. My friend didn’t use a power meter or know his FTP (functional threshold power), so our average wattage was irrelevant.
Like my friend, many cyclists who are serious about training don’t have a benchmark for their fitness or a plan to increase aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Even if you’re not into metrics and training plans, learning the science behind zone training to enhance your rides, avoid pitfalls, and be prepared for your event. And as I explained in Cycling + Strength Training, combining weight training with zone training is a powerful combination for improving fitness and power.
In this article, I will discuss the merits of zone training, the various types, and the advantages of each. And for the record, my friend just took his FTP test, and he’s gearing up to smoke me!
- Training zones are exercise parameters with varying zones of intensity levels
- Joe Friel is considered the “father of zone training” and helped pioneer this training in the 80s for Olympians and top-tier athletes
- Most cyclists opt for either heart rate, RPE (rate of perceived effort), power, or a combination of the three training zones
- Heart rate training consists of 5 zones and requires a heart monitor
- Power zone training is preferred for racing and high-endurance sports and requires an FTP test before starting.
The Father of Zone Training
Joe Friel is an athlete with a master’s degree in sports science who started training athletes and coaches around 1980 with his 5-zone training method. In 1999, he took his training expertise online with TrainingPeaks.com.
The website helps athletes create a workout plan for swimming, running, or cycling. With over 40 years of experience, Joe is recognized worldwide as a top expert in his field and has been a consultant for major sports companies and Olympic teams. He has been featured in publications like Bicycling, Outside, The New York Times, and American Health, to name a few.
What Are Training Zones?
Training zones are a system in which each zone represents a different exercise intensity. Athletes use either their heart rate, watts, or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for zone training. Some athletes use a combination of heart rate and watts to compare varying data. Many athletes use zone training on an indoor trainer, and if you’re squeamish about riding indoors, check out 13 Benefits of Indoor Cycling Training.
While athletes use zone training for swimming and running, we’ll focus on three training zones popular in cycling:
- Heart rate
- RPE (rate of perceived exertion)
Heart Rate Training Zones
There are five heart rate training zones, each using your maximum heart rate to determine the intensity level of your workout in each zone. You’ll need a heart rate monitor that straps to your chest or a fitness watch or ring.
Next, you need to determine your maximum heart rate. According to the CDC, the best way to find your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t consider your fitness level.
Another test is the maximum aerobic function (MAF) test which gives a more accurate heart rate for tracking exercise. You can read about how to take this test—whether walking, running or cycling—at this website.
You can calculate zone training appropriately now that you have your maximum or MAF heart rate.
Zone 1: Also called the recovery or easy zone, you exercise at 55-65% of your maximum heart rate. Use this zone for warming up and cooling down. It is also a recovery workout if you’re too tired or sore from previous activity.
Zone 2: Aerobic or base shape; requires 65-75% of your maximum heart rate and is used for building endurance. Your breathing should be steady, and you can converse with your training partner.
Zone 3: Known as tempo, Zone 3 uses 80-85% of your maximum heart rate. Use this zone to build speed and power. Breathing is more rapid but controlled, and you can say a word or two if necessary.
Zone 4: Also known as the lactate threshold, Zone 4 uses 85-88% of your maximum heart rate and can only be maintained for about a minute before recovering. Zone 4 combines aerobic and anaerobic to help your body improves exercise efficiency.
Zone 5: Also called anaerobic, you exercise at 90-100% of your maximum heart rate. This exercise builds speed and power and can only be maintained for short spurts. Think of this as an all-out sprint for the finish line.
Heart Rate Training Guidelines
How you use these five heart rate zones will depend upon your fitness level and your training objective. If you’re a beginner or out of shape, ease into your workouts using Zones 1 and 2 for a few weeks.
Once you have established a base fitness, you can use the other zones. For those starting with a good base condition or training for an event, you will utilize all five zones, and your schedule will look something like this:
- Zone 1: spend 30-40% of your time exercising in this zone
- Zone 2: spend 40-50% of your time in this zone
- Zone 3: spend 10-15% of your time in this zone
- Zone 4: spend 5-10% of your time in this zone
- Zone 5: spend 5% of your time in this zone
Remember, the five zones are guidelines that can be customized to your particular activity, event, or fitness goals. You can even find examples of these online or contact a trainer or coach to create one for you.
RPE Training Zones
RPE (rate of perceived exertion) uses ten zones to calculate effort. The benefit of RPE is that you don’t need fancy gizmos or monitoring devices. Another advantage of RPE training zones is that it develops athletes to “listen to their body” to determine how a workout or race is going.
The downside of RPE is that an athlete may not learn the discipline to push through a strenuous training day. But when coupled with another regimen like heart rate or power training, it’s a powerful combination.
Let’s look at an overview of these ten zones:
- Zone 1: minimum effort. An activity you could do all day long.
- Zone 2: non-taxing; you can maintain a conversation for hours.
- Zone 3: comfortable pace; can still converse without getting out of breath.
- Zone 4: comfortable with effort; can talk in sentences.
- Zone 5: progressive pace; requires pushing and effort.
- Zone 6: strenuous activity; labored breathing; can sustain for 30-60 minutes.
- Zone 7: vigorous activity; requires constant effort; speaking is difficult.
- Zone 8: hard intensity; focused effort; can’t say more than 2-3 words.
- Zone 9: challenging intensity; requires focus; difficult to speak; intervals.
- Zone 10: all-out sprint; sustainable for 20-30 seconds.
RPE Training Guidelines
Like heart rate training, most of your training will be in Zone 2-4 to build up your aerobic fitness. As your base endurance improves, begin implementing more intense workouts like Zone 5-8. When your race or event is a month away, sprinkle some Zone 9-10 in to improve anaerobic fitness, power, and speed.
Power Zone Training
I saved the best (in my humble opinion) for last: power zone training! The advantage of tracking watts versus heart rate is that power data doesn’t lag like a heart rate monitor. And if you want to get faster or become more powerful as a cyclist, then training with watts is the best means to that goal.
To complicate things a little, there are a few different versions of training zones (like the 5 power zones), but my preferred version is the ‘Coggan Power Zones‘ which has seven power training zones:
- Zone 1: Active recovery
- Zone 2: Endurance
- Zone 3: Tempo
- Zone 4: Lactate Threshold
- Zone 5: VO2 max
- Zone 6: Anaerobic
- Zone 7: Neuromuscular Power
Before you slap on your helmet and launch into power zone training, an FTP test is essential to determine your fitness level.
As mentioned earlier, FTP is functional threshold power calculated by riding (wait for it!) an FTP workout that’s either a ramp test or a time trial.
The ramp test gradually increases in power, which you match with power pedaling. Although ramp tests are usually 25 minutes long, most cyclists are gassed and stop before that timeframe. But there’s no shame; the app will calculate your FTP wherever you stop.
The time trial test begins with a 30-minute warmup followed by a 20-minute high-intensity ride or time trial. Some apps offer a second 20-minute ride and then compare both events to determine your FTP.
Let me put on my Coach Hat and strongly recommend doing your FTP test on an indoor trainer and not outside. You’ll get a better result and won’t contend with turns, speeding cars, or chasing hounds.
In Best Cycling Apps For Indoor Training 2023, I explained that apps like TrainerRoad bypass FTP tests using Adaptive Training. This is great news for cyclists (like me!) who dread taking an FTP test!
Your FTP number is your benchmark for zone training, as you’ll see shortly. Remember that as your fitness improves, you must reassess your FTP with another test. A sign you need to redo an FTP test is when your zone training becomes too easy. But if you’re using an Adaptive Training plan, the system automatically calculates your FTP regularly.
Let’s dive into each to learn more about them and how to use your FTP number.
Zone 1: Active Recovery
Take a tip from the Old Coach: don’t skimp on recovery rides! When I was young and dumb, I felt I had to hammer on every ride to improve. I never fully recovered, and because I didn’t rest, I didn’t get any faster, either!
Recovery rides promote movement, flush toxins from muscles, and keep tendons flexible. A recovery ride should be 0-55% of your FTP. Use a high cadence, and don’t exceed 45-90 minutes.
Zone 2: Endurance
Zone 2 is the bedrock of endurance or base training, as some cyclists call it. These training rides should be within a two-hour range and be within 56-75% of your FTP. Avoid hilly routes and the urge to push the pace or get competitive with other riders.
Zone 3: Tempo
Many coaches lump Zone 3 into a training “no man’s land” because it’s between the easier Zone 2 and the fatiguing Zone 4. Zone 3 training is ideal for riders doing sportive or a gravel ride. The goal is to be in the 76-90% FTP for up to 90 minutes.
The Wrinkle zone: Sweet Spot
You may have heard of the “sweet spot” zone. It is a grey area that overlaps the Tempo and Threshold zones. It’s ideal for time-crunched cyclists who need the most bang from their workouts. Dubbed “sweet spot” because it feels bracing but not painful, training in the sweet spot prepares riders for long climbs. The power range is 84-97% FTP for up to 90 minutes.
Zone 4: Threshold
With the rise of each threshold comes an increase in pain. Such is the case for Zone 5. Threshold training flat-out hurts because lactate rises and signals your brain to quit. Because Zone 5 is so taxing on the body, it’s best to wait to do these after establishing a strong base fitness. The benefits of threshold training are it improves muscle energy and the circulatory system. The power range is 84-97% for 30 minutes.
Zone 5: VO2 Max
VO2 max is the maximum rate at which your body can convert oxygen into fuel during a workout. While this sounds inviting, such advancement comes with a hefty “pain fee.” And here’s why: your power range should be 106-120% of your FTP in 3-10 minute blocks. Use these sparingly during winter training and add them when you get closer to your event.
Zone 6: Anaerobic
Anaerobic is when the body produces energy without (or in the place of ) oxygen. Some cyclists may never need to train in Zone 7 since this is an all-out effort typically found in track, road, or criterium racing. But if you want the power to bridge gaps (without going red line) or win a sprint, you’ll need Zone 7 training. The power range is 121-150% of FTP at 15 to 120-second intervals.
Zone 7: Neuromuscular Power (Sprint)
Like Zone 7, sprint training may not be necessary for endurance or recreational cyclists but is vital if you want explosive leg strength. Using a big gear and beginning from a slow start or standing start, begin sprinting. Early pedal strokes will require massive amounts of power, which diminishes as speed and cadence quicken. Power range is irrelative since you’re going all-out. Only do Zone 8 sprints for 15 seconds for no longer than one minute segment.
Power Zone Guidelines
Like heart rate and RPE zone training, how you create (or follow) a power zone training schedule will depend on your cycling goals. What works well for a criterium racer won’t matter much to an endurance cyclist, and vice versa. With that said, here are some pointers to consider.
- Follow the 80/20 plan. Develop your cardiovascular and muscular system by focusing 80% of your workouts in Zone 1-3 and the remaining 20% in the higher zones.
- Consider signing up for a training plan. Nowadays, apps like Zwift, Wahoo, TrainerRoad, and Peloton take the work out of creating a training plan. By entering key data (and needing an FTP test), the app can specify weekly workouts based on your focus (racing, triathlon, endurance, recreational) to create zone-specific workouts tailor-made for your event.
- Train for your event. If you’re planning to ride a multi-day event like RAGBRAI, your focus will be endurance and not necessarily power sprints. Conversely, you’ll need power and anaerobic zone training if you’re gearing up for a road race.
- Factor in rest. The advantage of using a zone training plan with an app is that it factors in recovery rides and rest. Don’t skip or skimp on these! They are as crucial to your overall success as not “quitting” on a hard day of intervals.
I hope that no matter what type of cyclist you are, you’ve discovered how zone training can improve your fitness, power, stamina, and confidence on the bike. Let me know in the comments which option works for you and how that influences your training (and riding!).
Try experimenting with heart rate, RPE, and power to fine-tune your training regimen into something you enjoy, which motivates you to excel. While training is imperative for improving as a cyclist, don’t let it rob you of the joy of riding!
Can I use heart rate instead of power to determine my training zones?
Yes, you can use heart rate instead of power to determine your training zones. However, heart rate can be influenced by various factors such as stress, fatigue, and hydration levels, making it less accurate than power.
Additionally, heart rate can have a delayed response to changes in intensity, which can make it difficult to use for interval training. If you do choose to use heart rate, it’s important to establish your maximum heart rate through a test and to monitor your heart rate regularly throughout your training sessions to ensure you’re training in the appropriate zone.
How often should I retest my FTP?
The frequency at which you should retest your FTP depends on your training goals, fitness level, and training volume. Generally, it’s recommended to retest your FTP every 4-6 weeks if you’re following a structured training plan and doing regular FTP-focused workouts.
If you’re not doing FTP-focused workouts or your training volume is low, you may not need to retest as frequently. Retesting your FTP regularly can help you track your progress and ensure that you’re training at the appropriate intensity levels. However, avoiding testing too frequently is important, as this can lead to overtraining and burnout.
Can I use training zones for indoor cycling workouts?
Definitely! Indoor cycling workouts can effectively improve your fitness and performance, and training zones can help you target specific intensities to achieve your training goals.
The same power or heart rate ranges used for outdoor cycling can be used for indoor cycling, but it’s important to adjust your training zones based on your indoor cycling workout. For example, if you’re doing a high-intensity interval workout on a stationary bike, you may need to adjust your training zones to account for the different resistance levels and cadence ranges used during the workout.
Can I use training zones for interval training?
Interval training involves alternating periods of high-intensity effort with periods of lower-intensity recovery, and training zones can help you target specific intensities during both the high-intensity and recovery periods. For example, you might do high-intensity intervals in Zone 4 or 5 and recovery intervals in Zone 1 or 2.
Using training zones for interval training can help you optimize your workouts for your specific training goals, whether you’re looking to improve your endurance, speed, or power. It’s important to adjust your training zones based on your fitness level and goals, and to monitor your effort levels throughout your workouts to ensure you’re training at the appropriate intensity.