Zone training sounds cool! Like getting “in the zone”, training with a purpose, it sounds technical, professional, you probably need complicated data, number crunching and progress charts. Oh, yummy! – How we like to compare date and technical details so that we can impress our cycling or even non cycling mates with FTP numbers, heart rate statistics and training schedules! Road cycling training zones are the perfect conversation killer in any situation apart from when you have a lot of cyclists together!
Help, I’m becoming a cycling nerd!
The truth is that zone training isn’t as complicated as it sounds and, if you are serious about improving your cycling (and “improving your cycling” is a subjective term because it could just mean enjoying your cycling more, seeing nicer scenery or finding the ultimate cake in the cafe half way round!) knowing what your training zones are, and being able to use them whilst training will have huge benefits.
What’s this zone thing all about?
Basically, each zone refers to the amount of effort you are putting in when out on your bike. To a certain extent you are already using them because there will be times when you go fast, times when you go slower, times when you are panting going up a hill and times when you are going flat out to sprint to overtake. All of these activities take a different amount of effort and broadly speaking you are cycling in a different zone for each one. There are easy zones where you are just bubbling along through to medium zones where you are working quite hard and making good progress through to zones where you are making maximum effort and feel like your blood vessels are going to burst!
So how do you know which training zone you are in??
There are three methods, each one getting progressively more accurate and also, yes, you guessed it progressively more expensive as well!
Firstly, you can hazard a bit of a wild guess as to which zone you are in by feel. You can see how out of breath you are, how your legs feel and also estimate how long you could potentially stay in the zone for and that will give you a very approximate guide. This isn’t ideal as doing things by feel is very subjective, one day you might be feeling more positive and energetic than another and the amount of effort you are putting in might feel easier than on more of a lazy day for example. There’s obviously the risk that you either over or under train using this method which, if you are serious enough to want to use training zones and go on to incorporate them into a training plan, seems a bit pointless.
The second method is to use a heart rate monitor. You may well have a cycling computer on your bike already and the chances are that it will have a heart rate monitor function on it. All you might need to do is to get a compatible strap and sensor and you will be up and running. If not, maybe now is the time to upgrade to a computer that does have a heart rate function and will give you a bit more information. The theory behind this method is that in each zone you will be making a certain amount of effort and that your heart rate will rise accordingly. In the lower zones the effort will be minimal and your heart rate only just above it’s resting speed all the way up to the highest zones where your heart will be beating at full output. You can then keep an eye on your heart rate in real time as you are cycling and know which zone you are in.
There are of course disadvantages to this method. It’s more accurate than the “guess and hope for the best” method above but it can be problematic in that it takes our hearts quite some time to catch up with the effort we are making. You know the feeling when you sprint up a hill too fast at the start thinking it feels easy only for your heart to catch up a few moments later! Your heart rate can also be effected by all sorts of variable factors such as body temperature, fatigue and hydration so it’s best to consider it as only an indication of the zone you are actually in.
The best, and very expensive method, is to use a power meter. This is very accurate and isn’t effected by any of the external conditions mentioned above as it measures the actual amount of power transferred to the bike rather than your body’s response to the amount of effort you are making. A power meter is actually attached to the cranks on the bike and measures the amount of effort applied to the pedals. It’s like a sort of torque meter and again it is attached to your bike computer and allows you to track the power you are outputting and the amount of power output correlates to each specific training zone.
Most road cyclists will start with a heart rate monitor as they are relatively inexpensive and, despite a few drawbacks, give a reasonably accurate framework as to where your zones are to work around. You could then save up for a power peter as your fitness increases and it becomes more important to be more accurate. In years gone by power metres were only really used by professionals but as technology is developing and prices are coming down they are trickling into the mainstream a little more as well. However you don’t have to have a power meter to use training zones effectively, most of us are just happy with a heart rate monitor and the guidance that it can give is enough.
Ok, we’ve spent a lot of time explaining what the zones are and how to measure them but what do they actually look like? Annoyingly there are a few different models and some have more zones than others (you are joking me, surely this is complicated enough already!) but here goes:
Zone 1 – Active recovery
This is basically easy spinning, no real effort is required and it is often used, as the name suggest on recovery days or in interval training between efforts. It’s easy to chat and be sociable at this level, you aren’t out of breath at all and you could probably continue doing it all day. On the downside, of course, you aren’t getting any fitter or stronger when you are cycling in this zone – you are just keeping things moving.
Zone 2 – Endurance
This is basically the very moderate type of effort that you could typically keep up for a long time whilst making reasonable progress. You might feel very slightly breathless and have a slight feel of effort and eventual fatigue but it should be possible to keep a conversation going, admire the scenery and also make steady progress in this zone.
Zone 3 – Tempo or sweet spot
This is a great zone as it doesn’t hurt too much and with practice you can keep going in it for quite a long time. You are also going much quicker as this zone is basically a brisk sort of no nonsense pace where you are making a reasonable constant effort and your breathing is more deliberate. Conversation will become more disjointed as your breathing takes precedence and you will feel fatigue in your leg muscles more quickly.
Zone 4 – Threshold
You are pushing harder now and should be able to keep this amount of effort up for, well in theory an hour. Conversation will be in short gasps, you are breathing rhythmically with the effort and your legs will burn moderately as time goes on. This zone takes a lot more mental effort to keep in and fatigue will kick in relatively quickly. Things, in all honesty start to get a bit more physically unpleasant as you will probably start sweating profusely, be in pain in a majority of your body and have to really will yourself to keep going…….or is that just me???
Zone 5 – VO2 Max
Sounds like some sort of exotic shampoo. But, I can tell you it’s not as soft and cuddly, sweet smelling or pleasant. Cycling at VO2 Max is really only possible for a short amount of time. Breathing will be extremely hard and conversation impossible. You legs will burn as if doused in flaming oil, your head will pound, lungs will ache and if you go at it too long you will feel sick. Again that’s my experience – if anyone finds it more pleasant than this please let me know!
Zone 6 – Anaerobic Capacity
Very short sharp burst of maximum effort. Not sustainable over any period of time due to danger of insanity or death. (Only joking!)
Zone 7 –
Zone 7? Really, does that actually exists or is it just in The Hunger Games? I don’t think I personally need to bother myself with the dark heart bursting pain of this lofty and far off world. Needless to say it’s brief and hurts.
Right, well there they are in all their glory.
In order to work out where each zone is for you personally, either in terms of heart rate or power output you need to undertake a very unpleasant and not friendly thing called a threshold test. This will basically give you a number for your FTP or functional threshold ie Zone 4 and then it’s relatively simple to work out your heart rate or power output for the other zones as well. You come away from a threshold test not only with a headache, burning legs and sweat soaked lycra but also with a set of numbers that are personal to you and will give you an accurate indication of where your zones are.
So how do you use the training zones to ….. erm…..train?
Well, imagine if you spent all of your time in zone 1 or 2. You’re only going to get fitter and faster over a very long period of time. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to train for days on end as we have to do annoying things like go to work and look after our offspring so it makes sense to try to maximise the amount of training time that we do actually have. For example training in short bursts in zone 4 and interspersing the periods of effort with active recovery in Zone 2 (ie interval training) can increase our overall fitness level, or the bodies tolerance of making effort much more quickly.
Training programmes are put together with the optimum periods of high intensity zones and lower recovery or endurance zones to most quickly and efficiently achieve the required final goal. A twelve week training plan for a 100 mile sportive will look difference from a plan for a 10 mile time trial plan for example but both will use a combination of different zones to achieve the final level of fitness in the most efficient way.
The key here is to be aware of what your zones are, choose a training plan to help you achieve your goal and stick to it. I know from my point of view that having an awareness of my training zones gave me much more focus and control over my cycling. I felt I was riding with more purpose and understanding and, in combination with using a training plan, I know that my performance (a relative term for a middle aged moderately unathletic specimen such as myself!) improved. Even using the unscientific “doing it by feel” method is useful as it really teaches you to start listening to your body as you are cycling and allows you to start to understand how it is responding to the effort you are making. For me, and this is probably a bit of a bloke thing, I quite enjoy being able to put numbers to my exertions and to quantify my effort. I’m not a number cruncher by nature (in fact I’m an artist darling at heart) but there is a certain comfort in knowing that your body is responding and improving.
So, go for it, work out your zones by whatever method takes your fancy and see if you can apply them to your every day cycling. You can only improve!
One final piece of advice. If you get a bit more serious and decide to do a threshold test give yourself at least a couple of hours to recover afterwards!
You can read in much more detail about how to find and use your zones and how to create a personalised training plan in the posts below.