Cycling Training Zones, Which Ones To Use?!

Why Write A Blog On Power Zones?

I wanted to write a blog about this after the Fast Talk podcast came out with this question posed:

Do We Need Training Zones In Cycling?

This will be a two part series because there is so much amazing information in here that can help you make good choices when it comes to understanding the types of rides you want to do.

In the first article, we’ll cover:

  • Basics of Training Zones

  • No Man’s Land - Zone 3

  • Will I Peak Too Early Training VO2Max

  • VO2Max Perceived Exertion

  • The Mysterious 95% VO2Max

In the second article, we’ll cover:

  • Why Is Polarization Dead

  • Why Should There Be (at least) 7 Levels

  • The Reason For Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

  • WKO4 iLevels - Are They Overkill?

Training And Racing With A Power Meter Discussion

It isn’t often that the top minds lay things out so simply. While Training and Racing With A Power Meter is an excellent book and resource that I continue to use, 10 years after first reading it, it is a little dense for the athlete who isn’t crazy about learning the ins and outs of making themselves faster.

The second edition came out over 20 years ago, so it’s awesome to have a new version available for every cyclist, whether they utilize a cycling coach or not. Even if you do have a coach, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself, so that you can discuss your training with your coach and understand how to provide them with valuable feedback about your training. Communication is crucial to hitting your goals.

So, this blog is serving the purpose of hitting some great points from another fantastic Fast Talk podcast based around training zones.

Some other guests on the podcast are Colby Pearce, Dr. Stephen Seiler, and Sebastian Weber. If you haven’t read either of our polarized blogs, check them out here and here before you continue reading.


So, what do you use for training zones, or levels, or ranges?


What do you base them off of? Physiological markers, FTP, VO2Max? Where do you get these values from: a lab or in the field from a power meter or heart rate monitor?

Skepticism Of Cycling Training Zones

Trevor Connor is a big skeptic of training zones, because he gets irked when athletes say, “Oh, I’m doing zone 2 today”, but they don’t really know what that means. While I agree with that, some athletes that we see think they are doing a zone 2 ride, when it is actually littered with random sprint efforts, surges into threshold, and lots of zone 1 coasting. While all of this could average out to being zone 2 watts, it is not a zone 2 ride.

“What is a Zone Model?” is the question that was posed.

The Origin of Power Zones

Dr. Coggan overheard one of Adam Myerson’s coaches talking about taking heart rate zones and transferring it to a power based system. Coggan wanted others to benefit from the knowledge that exercise physiologists could provide; and so, we have training levels….or zones.

I love how Coggan refers to cycling as a free range activity. I never thought of it this way, but it goes so well with my gripe that cyclist’s coast way too much. I’m shocked that a cyclist would want to go cycle for 2 hours, but coast for 35% of the time. That is the norm more often than not.

If you go out and run, you don’t slow down, because then you would be walking.

If you start swimming and slow down too much, you’re then floating.

Cyclists often crush a hill, and then can coast down the other side. The power output can be highly variable and the exercise intensity can be very variable, unlike in other sorts. This drove him to call them training levels as opposed to zones; you’re not locked into just one zone.

Why Do We Have Cycling Training Zones

This seems pretty self explanatory, but bottom line: zones allow us to understand the intensity with which we are supposed to ride relative to our own capabilities, and it creates a way to communicate between two people. If there were no zones, and we just gave absolute value of watts to each other, it would be skewed as 300W to one person is not the same intensity as 300W to another since they most likely have different functional threshold powers. This allows us to create goals to hit during each session, and ensures that the athlete is training the right energy system to reach the desired adaptation.

Weber says that he doesn’t provide zones, but rather workout wattage ranges, but that’s the same thing. Whether you call it a power zone or a range, it is the same thing.

For the most part, at EVOQ.BIKE, we provide percentages of FTP to target, or a specific power range; both work with in order to provide clarity to the athlete.

No Man’s Land - Training Zone 3, Tempo

I remember hearing older cyclists in my club talking about no man’s land. It was never really defined but they would talk about garbage miles. Interestingly to me though, I thought through every type of cycling ride, and none of them seemed to be in a no man’s land where there would be zero benefit.


Why did I think this? The first few pages of Training and Racing With A Power Meter have what I would call an infamous adaptations chart, where you can see what every zone physiologically does to yourself as a cyclist. These ALL seemed beneficial, and even though one zone was better at one adaptation that another, this was usually because less fatigue was exerted on the athlete (less benefit from less strain, but therefore less overall fatigue to recover from).

This all made sense in my mind, so what the heck is no man’s land?!

No man’s land in cycling is the traditional Zone 3 ride, 75-90% FTP. We, and many other top coaches, largely disagree with this.

What people refer to as no man’s land is where many cyclist’s spend time riding their bike; so it’s an effort level that you actually need to be in, in order to train or race effectively. Thinking that it is going to do damage is an incorrect statement.

No man’s land is the mismatching intensity and duration. Don’t do an active recovery ride for 3 hours. 3 hours at 50% is garbage miles; you’re not recovering and you’re not getting faster. Don’t do FTP work for 5 minutes at a time; it’s not long enough of a duration to boost that energy system.

At the end of the day, the podcasters have made the main point on why there are zones: it provides a framework and guide, and way of communicating between athletes and coaches, to get everyone talking about the same intensity of riding. Physiologically speaking though, it is stress that training is on a continuum. Once you hit 91% FTP, all of the Zone 3 benefits are not turned off and the Zone 4 benefits immediately begin. Clearly, the human body is much more fluid.

Will I Peak Too Early By Training VO2Max In The Winter?

There is a quick comment made regarding cyclists taking these frameworks and guides as gospel, and that is not true. Training in different zones will not do undue damage unless it is done disproportionately.

I (Brendan) was brought up under old school training where you did not do anything over tempo from November through January (with races starting in April in Upstate NY) or else you would peak too early. Is this true?

Dr. McGregor made the comment that you’re not going to do damage to your training unless there is a disproportionate amount of training in one zone, in which case you’ll get an unwanted adaptation in that zone, and de-adaptation in the zone you are supposed to be training.

So, can I do VO2Max in December?

Let’s couple this idea though with the use it or lose it philosophy for anything at 95% or greater. If you training high end threshold or VO2Max and don’t use it for a race, or the training tapers off, the adaptation goes away relatively quickly to training other lower end zones.

So, while you won’t do undo damage as Dr. McGregor mentions, you need to remember to ask yourself: “What is the point of this training? What am I using it for?”


Don’t get fast in December for the sake of being fast; because the opportunity cost is that you’re losing a chance to build a bigger base, that will take your VO2Max training even further when it’s race season, group ride season, everyone is smashing it season.

So, if you love going hard, sure, a few intervals here and there won’t make you peak too soon, but I wouldn’t recommend a steady diet of it.

95% VO2Max - The Gold Standard

VO2Max intervals are HARD. You are VO2Maxing when you can’t catch your breath. That huffing and puffing is VO2Max. So when you think of a 5 minute interval, many athletes aren’t hitting VO2Max right off the bat.

The gold standard from Tim Cusick’s WKO4 Webinars is to hit 12-15 minutes of 95% VO2Max in a hard VO2Max training session, which usually takes most athletes about 20 minutes of prescribed intervals to do so (due to the initial portion that does not provide adaptation at VO2Max).

To clarify, 95% VO2Max is NOT just hitting 95% of your VO2Max power; it is an algorithm created by WKO4 that shows a relationship between your duration at this intensity and the actual watts put out. See this interval below, where I’m well above VO2Max, but it still takes 40s to hit 95% VO2MAX.

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 07.04.27.png

Let’s look below at an another interval, where you can see that it takes 20-30 seconds of a 2 minute interval to really VO2Max. The calculations are in the bottom right hand corner, and the blue line shows when you hit 100% of VO2Max.

neuro 2m.png

Perceived Exertion With Intervals, Specifically VO2Max

Very very very interesting training point brought up by Colby Pearce. I’m not calling him out in this portion of the blog, but dissecting what he says so that it is not taken out of context by a listener just starting off with training with power.

Pearce goes on to say that athletes want to know what range to do the watts at, and this makes sense to me, as many athletes need a target, or carrot, to shoot for.

If he asks them to do 5 minute intervals, for most athletes that will be power at VO2Max. He won’t give them a wattage to aim for, but rather do it by perceived exertion. He states that, “In March these training days are about doing the work. If we want you to do work at the VO2 level, whatever your power is at that day, we want you to do that power. Ride off perceived exertion. On one day, if you’re carrying fatigue, it may be 330W, and on another day it might be 350W. But don’t stop the workout if your first two workouts are 335W and it feels like VO2Max. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t getting constructive work done from the workout, but arguably we could be getting incredible benefit from doing that 20 minute load at that wattage.”

He brings in the related piece of heart rate at the end; if you’re not hitting the watts and your heart rate is flying through the ceiling, you know something is off.

I’d add that it shows that you’re probably too fatigued to be doing this workout, and brings up three points that I want to make about doing VO2Max off perceived exertion.

1) As an athlete, make sure you know what VO2 really feels like. It is huffing and puffing and the feeling that you can’t catch your breath. It is not a comfortable feeling.

When we’re talking about doing VO2Max at 350W in the example below, let’s guesstimate an FTP of 280W for that athlete (350 / 125%). If that athlete is out and it feels like VO2Max but they’re doing 300W, you’re barely training VO2Max; your intervals will be at Threshold, but too short for any meaningful adaptation. I’d suggest you NOT do these intervals, but finish the ride at endurance and head home. There’s no point in using the mental energy to try an complete VO2Max intervals if you aren’t doing them hard enough.

2) If you rely on perceived exertion, make sure you are an athlete that is motivated to go this hard. Most of us will imagine ourselves in a race trying to drop people or ripping up a climb behind another fast racer that we compete with, but some don’t. Some can’t motivate internally to go this hard. If you are that type of rider, it’s not a bad thing, but I wouldn’t go off of perceived exertion: get a number to target.

3) You might be tired. To point number 1, there’s no point in doing in an interval if you aren’t getting adaptation; that is not “doing the work”. Go home and understand why you are tired, try to map a plan to get back to a trainable level, and then hit these hard intervals.


This concept goes hand in hand with many recent podcasts and chats amongst the cycling community: make sure you making “the hard” intervals hard enough. VO2Max intervals require mental grit and a high physical output; these cannot just be done willy nilly on any day if you want to hit that massive 95% VO2Max metric.

All that said, you can do these slightly fatigued if it’s part of a big build or race specific prep, but you’d still want to be hitting 90% VO2Max and at that point, it’s just another way to stack up the TSS before a massive goal, or try to strain the body to work on repeatability. That scenario isn’t developing high end VO2Max power though, which is usually the point of those intervals, so make sure your training is in line with the overall goal.

Conclusion

  • Whatever zone model you use, make sure you are hitting all of them; there isn’t a No Man’s Land; that is simply when you ride in a zone for the wrong duration

  • Remember the use it or lose it principle with VO2Max; you won’t peak too early in December by doing some VO2Max, unless you’re doing too much of it

  • If you’re taking the time to attempt VO2Max intervals, be ready to rip it! They aren’t fun, but getting faster is!