Road Cycling Heart Rate Training Zones Explained

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I think there are few people who have a hobby who don’t desire to become better at it or at least to learn to enjoy it more. We are, after all, a breed of pleasure seekers (is it just me?) and we live for our free time, the fun things in life and the activities that give us joy!

For most of us road cycling is a hobby. Yes, many would argue that it’s a way of life, a calling or a vocation but, most of the time it’s something that we do that gives us pleasure and satisfaction. That’s not to say that it’s all plain sailing and sometimes there’s no gain without pain and this is where learning to use road cycling heart rate training zones comes in.

Imagine, if you will, your own idea of a hedonistic cycling heaven. A place where all of your cycling dreams and fantasies come true. It might be that you visualise yourself cycling on bowling green smooth roads under an azure sky, your bronzed body effortlessly and powerfully propelling man/woman and machine forward in silent, slick grace. Maybe you want to get faster, get fitter, climb higher, cycle longer, do 100 miles, lose weight, gain confidence or maybe just simply return from a bike ride without feeling like a sweating heap of breathless jelly!

My friend, the answer lies in the mystic and dark art of zone training for which there is a multitude of often conflicting advice on the internet.

I am here to cut through the cycle training zone confusion, guide you towards a state of higher understanding and equip you with the knowledge with which to attain your cycling dreams.

……that sounds like a bit of a tall order so we had better get started!

Why do cycling training at all?

That’s a very good question!

Why can’t you just pop on your bike two or three days a week have a bit of a pootle around, go fast when you feel like it and slow when you don’t, stop for a cake when you want and stay in if it’s raining?

Of course you can do this!

It’s your life and you can do the wherever and whatsoever which way you fancy. I give you permission to do what ever you want on your bike! You’re still a road cyclist even if you only ride for 10 minutes a week to look at the view. If you derive complete happiness and satisfaction from popping out on your bike whenever you fancy and having a ride around then, well frankly you are wonderfully, blissfully lucky.

Or completely in denial!

If you can 100% genuinely, hand on heart, cub scout’s honour, cross my heart hope to die say that you are utterly and completely happy in your road cycling performance, that you don’t have any desire to go faster, no ambition to ride further or longer, that you feel that your body is at exactly the stage of fitness and that you are completely happy with it……….then read on no longer for you have achieved, in cycling terms at least, the equivalent to the key to life, the zenith of human achievement.

You are the Yoda of road cycling! Farewell and may your joy and fulfilment long continue!

For the rest of us mere mortals we are gripped by something very common called the “human condition” where we are never bloody happy with what we have got and the grass is always greener on the other side. We yearn for improvement, are motivated by “getting better” and derive pleasure and gratification from our achievements.

To achieve these wicked mortal desires we need a cunning plan. A plan so cunning that it could out wit a black fox in the dead of night wearing silent slippers and having in his possession the key codes to the locks of every chicken coop in the neighbourhood.

So, at last getting back to the question – we need a training plan because for most of us it will be the quickest way to improve our cycling!

Our bodies naturally adapt to what ever we throw at them so, to a certain extent if you just “go out cycling” on a regular basis you will get better. That could mean a bit faster or you will over time be able to cycle for longer.

In the early days of the road cycling adventure this will be fine and a beginner road cyclist will probably find that they make progress relatively quickly. You do though, after a while, hit a bit of a plateau and start to feel as though you can’t go any further. This period can also coincide with the time when you have explored most of the available routes in your locality and the initial excitement of the whole road cycling idea has started to wear off a little bit.

At this point you really do need to sit down and think about what happens next. Assuming that you aren’t going to be happy just to “tread water” as above you have, as far as I can see two choices.

The first one involves pretty much continuing as you are. You will however get bored with your fairly random cycle rides, you won’t feel as if you are making progress and probably inevitably you will become disheartened, ride less and less, sell your bike on Ebay and try another hobby.

Fine, no problem. ‘Tis your life and choice and road cycling may not be for you in the long haul.

The alternative is to set some goals. Put in some structure to your cycling time. Give it a point and a purpose, set some challenge and excitement. Hurrah! Now the blood’s pumping through the old veins and we have something to chase after! Yes, I feel alive again!

The point is, we all want to improve our cycling. We can take a random approach, get better incredibly slowly, possibly get bored and give up. OR we can take the bull by the horns, start working on a cunning plan, get some structure into our training sessions, make the very best use of our limited time and get some results.

And boy does that feel good!

Now at this point you might, in principle, be thinking that this is great but you do however have that nagging annoying voice of whining and whinging reason ringing in your ears with some questions like:

Won’t this take up a lot of my time?

Let’s think of a list of all of the annoying things that we have to do that take up all of our time and don’t give us enough time for virtuous activities like cycling training……..for example work, children, family, cooking, eating, walking the dog, watching the Wire, Netfix, Amazon Prime, going to the pub, Game of Thrones, worrying, bathing, sitting on the toilet, sleeping……….etc etc. Yes, yes, you get the idea – we are all very, very busy!

The whole point of a training plan is that it will achieve what you want it to achieve in the most time efficient way possible. In fact, the whole point of a good training plan is that it fits around your lifestyle and allows you to be as time efficient as possible. You have the choice on this and you need to get away from the “one size fits all” internet download training plans because they are probably very good but they will only broadly fit your training needs and, most importantly your time schedule.

“Training” isn’t that for pros or fanatics

NO! It’s interesting how your mindset changes when you start to consider your bike rides as “training” rather than just…erm…..bike rides. If you’re following even a vague pattern of rides with intention or if you have a goal in mind then you are training. You are an athlete. I don’t care how slow, how much extra weight you are carrying or how far off your ideal level of fitness you are. If you are getting on that damn bike with intention then you are an athlete and you are in training.

Hats off to you! You are training, you are an athlete and, with that mindset you can make great things happen.

Is this going to hurt?

Yes. I’m afraid so. No pain, no gain.

However, if you know why you are pushing yourself and you always have the wider picture in mind it makes it much easier.

Plus which, the feeling you get in a post tough ride hot shower and then with a mug of steaming tea in your hand is pretty amazing!

Will I ever be as good as Mr Swish bike fancy fast lycra pants over the road?

Don’t know, don’t care. This isn’t a competition against anybody apart from yourself. It’s useless and pointless to compare yourself against others (unless you are into serious competition cycling obviously!). We all have our own personal mountains to climb, it might be as tough for one person to cycle up a one mile hill as for another to do 100 miles in five hours. The level of personal achievement could well be the same and that’s what counts.

Is it OK to bury my head in the sand?

Yes if it makes you completely happy. If not use this post as a proverbial kick up the butt!

Setting road cycling goals

First of all a disclaimer, and that is that I passionately hate all of this “pseudo corporate speak” of goals and targets. Cycling isn’t a job description for heaven’s sake but, despite my preference for all things random and arriving effortlessly at my destination via a wildflower meadow of meandering self discovery……….having goals and targets is the most efficient and satisfying way and I can’t think of any alternative vocabulary to use so, well…..here goes.

Why do I need a goal? Can’t I just train like a normal person?

I don’t think it’s absolutely imperative to have a goal in mind but it helps an awful lot. You are basically saying (by having read this far!) that you’re interested in following a training plan. Not having a goal or an end result to that training plan is a bit like agreeing to follow a great, personalised and well laid road (rather than randomly off roading – although that does sound appealing) but you haven’t chosen where the road is going to.

How’s that for a corporate sounding analogy!? Hang on a minute whilst I find a white board and power point presentation……

Yes, it’s nice going along the purposeful road but not knowing what’s at the end isn’t very motivating. And hang, on there’s some fast food joints along the road and now it’s a bit cold and rainy, not sure where I’m going so I’ll just have a bit of a rest here and a burger……..

The point is that goals are good and that they are motivational. You can also quantify your achievement, give yourself a treat or metaphorical pat on the back and also it makes your training look a bit more sane when you can say to your nearest and dearest “I’m just going out training for the sportive” rather than “I’m going out for a bike ride” – …erm…..why?

Long, medium and short road cycling goals

I think this is important and it doesn’t really matter if some of the long term goals are a bit vague. You need to know what’s motivating you, why you get your leg over your bike and what the end result is going to look like. These may well be completely different for different people.

Just for a giggle let’s use me as an example.

My current short term goal is to get fit and fast enough to keep up with a specific club run in the Spring. This is currently about two months away and I have some quantifiable facts and figures to work with and aim towards.

In the medium term there are a number of sportive events in different parts of the country that I want to try. I want to have a go at cycling in more hilly terrain and I would also like to do a hill weekend ride/event. I also am pretty clear about how I would like to raise my fitness level another couple of notches. I can see how I would progress onto using a faster bike and also getting rather sadly sucked into using a power meter and getting fairly deeply into stats. I have it on my mind that having a professional bike fit might be a good idea as I am constantly looking for ways of I improving my comfort on the bike – this is also linked to improving my overall core strength and flexibility.

Long term I just want to avoid becoming an overweight middle aged heart attack risk. My over arching goal is to be as fit and healthy for as long as I can be and to reap the benefits that this has on my physical and mental health and well being. I want to feel as good as I can for as long as I can and enjoy my life as much as possible – for me cycling is key to this.

Well that was interesting! It really is good to just sit and think for a while. Go on, do it now.

No, don’t just skip on – do it now. Work out what your long term over arching motivation is. Where would you like to be in the medium term and what small achievable goals might you reasonably be able to achieve now?

Remember, it’s important to be realistic and to remember that you are just in competition with yourself. Stretch yourself a little bit, dream a little. Maybe you want to ride further, improve your hill climbing, be able to ride a certain distance, do a sportive, try time trialling, lose a certain amount of weight. Make it a little challenge, make it personal and make it quantifiable.

What’s your cycling goals?? You will feel awesome when you achieve them – guaranteed!

Ok, we now know where we are going and that we need to follow a plan to get there.

What’s the next step?

A bit of training theory

First, there’s good news……..and that is that you don’t need to go all out, hell for leather, full speed or die during every training session to make progress. Despite how much Strava encourages you to beat segment records on every ride it really isn’t the best and most economical way and it will lead to exhaustion and burn out.

Why?

Well, the body responds to a pattern of stress and recovery in that, after an intense session and during a period of recovery, the body rebuilds itself a little bit stronger. That’s a nice thing to know isn’t it because on those lazy “rest days” that we all spend snoozing on the sofa (!) we are actually getting fitter and stronger doing nothing.

Amazeballs!

So, does it not stand to reason that every session should just be a little harder, faster and tougher than the last and, during the recovery time in between we will just get fitter, leaner and meaner incrementally bit by bit until we are busting with muscle and vitality?

Well not quite because if you do that without some lower intensity sessions in between and you train at the wrong intensity for too long you will soon find that you’re flat on the floor with exhaustion with your legs a glutinous mass of jelly and you will be prone to catching every cold, virus and germ that comes your way.

No, you need to incrementally crank up the stress over a longer period of time, you also need to ensure that you are working at the correct intensity (not too high or too low) and mix in some low intensity endurance sessions and some tapering as well.

It’s all to do with something called periodisation. Broadly speaking this means looking at your training and goals over a long period of time ie several weeks and building in time for creating a solid base of anaerobic fitness, building on this by using high intensity workouts and then tapering before the big event to aid recovery. In more detail this would allow you to plan weekly sessions within the context of possibly a three or six month overview.

Plan my cycle rides six months in the future!!! You must be joking!!!

Ok, so what do we know……?

Well, we don’t need to go all out every session to improve.

We need a mixture of intensities of training sessions with a lot of them being at low intensity so that we can really go for it on the high intensity ones.

We need an overarching plan so that we can see broadly where we are going and that we are working on the right building blocks at the right time.

How do I know what’s the right training intensity?

….and this is the crux of the matter! If you train at too low a level your body will just say “thank you very much, don’t need to do much building after that pathetic effort” and you won’t improve.

Similarly if you train at too high an intensity you risk exhaustion.

You need to get the intensity of the training absolutely right in every training session so that you know where you are and this, at last, finally and after all of the preamble above IS WHAT TRAINING ZONES ARE FOR!!

Are you in the zone?

Not very helpfully there are several different versions of this depending on where you look. Essentially the differing amounts of effort you can put into your cycling are divided up into zones. Basically the higher the zone the more it hurts! Zone 1 is pootling around without any real effort and zone 5/6/7 (depending on which system you are using) is sweating blood with your heart about to burst out of your chest.

How pleasant!

To get to a real appreciation of how the zones work we need to understand that basically the body has three different energy systems that work together at different times and in different ways – Aerobic, Lactate and Anaerobic.

Let me now point out that you are reading a scientific/biological explanation written by an Arts graduate using the analogy of car engines. Yeah! That’s my type of blog post!

Engine one – Aerobic

This is a big chugging away petrol engine. It burns fat with oxygen and can produce a reasonable amount of power for an extended period of time. It’s the engine you use when doing endurance rides.

Engine two – Lactate

The lactate energy system comes into play when things get a bit more demanding and you start to break down carbohydrates to produce energy. The body has a limited supply, usually about 2000 calories worth which can be used up in 90 mins – 2 hours of riding. Think of the lactate system as being a small extra tank of super unleaded fuel for the overall engine.

Engine Three – Anaerobic

The turbocharger! It doesn’t use oxygen and can burn at very high intensity for very short amounts of time. It hurts but gives you power to sprint.

So, we can see that there are two thresholds here. The aerobic threshold where your body starts to draw on it’s lactate energy system and also your lactate/anaerobic threshold at the point of booting up the turbo charger.

Interestingly enough this equates quite nicely to our periodisation discussion above. There’s little point in turbo charging a weak engine before it’s ready ie you need to get a base level of aerobic fitness established before you start ramping up the training.

So why not just have three nice simple zones? One below aerobic threshold, one between aerobic and anaerobic threshold, and one above?

Some example zone systems

All of the different zone models are based around these two threshold anchor points. They do, in essence use three zones but just divide those three zones into further subdivisions for improved targeting and accuracy. There is a large number of confusing variations around but to cut a very long story short and to save you a lot of confusion I would recommend the systems below depending on how you are going to measure your efforts (more on that in this helpful post here)

Zones if using a heart rate monitor

If you are using a heart rate monitor then use the five zones below which are calculated using your maximum heart rate as a starting point:

Zone 1 Recovery 50 – 60% MHR

Zone 2 Endurance 60 – 70% MHR

Zone 3 Tempo (aerobic) 70 – 80% MHR

Zone 4 Threshold 80 – 90% MHR

Zone 5 Anaerobic/VO2 90 – 100% MHR

Zones if using a power meter

If you are using a power meter then use the seven zones below which use your Functional Threshold Power as a starting point:

Zone 1 Recovery less than 55% of FTP power

Zone 2 Endurance 55-75% of FTP Power

Zone 3 Tempo (aerobic) 76-90% of FTP Power

Zone 4 Threshold 91-105% of FTP Power

Zone 5 VO2 106-120% of FTP Power

Zone 6 Anaerobic 121-150% of FTP Power

Zone 7 Neuromuscular Power More than 150% of FTP Power

So When do I use each Zone?

Zone 1 Active Recovery – As the title suggests this zone is all about keeping active whilst recovering from a more strenuous ride. Often the body will go into super slow down recovery mode and you will feel a bit stiff and sluggish. Riding in Zone 1 is great for keeping everything loose and moving without adding any fatigue.

Zone 2 Endurance – Riding in Zone 2 teaches your body to burn fat and you should in theory at least be able to ride in zone 2 for a number of hours as long as you keep well fuelled and watered. Obviously Zone 2 is the area for building up “base fitness” or getting that basic engine shipshape ready for the turbo charger!

Zone 3 – Tempo – This is a happy little zone as it feels as though you are zipping along, nicely out of breath but manageable over a longer period of time.

Zone 4 – Threshold – This zone works on your anaerobic threshold and is from a little bit below it to a little bit over it. The idea being that working in this zone will, over time, allow you to push your anaerobic threshold up. Working in zone 4 is tiring and often involves interval training – joy!

Zone 5 – VO2 – Leg burning intensity and used for short bursts of speed such as sprinting or getting over the brow of a hill.

Zone 6 – Anaerobic – A maximum effort for maybe two or three minutes at at time.

Zone 7 – Neuromuscular Power – Sprint power and insanity!

A good starting point is to use a heart rate monitor and to just concern yourself with the five zones above. In some future posts we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of measuring your power output with either a heart rate monitor or a power meter. We will then go on to see how to find out your maximum heart rate and also your functional threshold power. We will then use these to calculate your own personal zones! You can read a slightly more potted version of all of this in my post here.

The following posts follow on quite naturally from this one and are intended to be read together!:

Cycle training with Power V heart Rate Monitors

How to Use Your MHR and FTP to Set Your Cycling Training Zones

Build a Personalised Cycle training Plan

Training Sessions bank

What a lot of lovely information! Of course the ultimate goal of all of this new found knowledge will be to use it to create a personal cycle training plan and that’s exactly what we will be doing here!

If you have found this helpful or have any further advice to add, if I have got anything wrong or not explained anything very well then leave a comment below! I would love to hear from you!

 

road cycling heart rate training zones

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