Zone-based training is dead! Half of the time...

Training only by zones is a sure-fire way to kill the joy of cycling and your very will to ride. 

Training by zones is extremely effective, and at FasCat we recommend it for about half your rides.

But for the other half of your rides, zone-based training is dead.

We dig into all the details on this podcast with Ben Delaney and Coach Ricky Arnopol, who knows a thing or two about the right way and the wrong way to train for both maximum physiological adaptations and also for what is mentally sustainable in the long term.

Zone-based training is dead ☠️

What this whole clickbait title subject really comes down to training plan design and we are experts in the matter. 

We can safely say that five structured ‘training zone’ workouts per week are not sustainable nor as effective as a well balanced training plan with endurance rides that do not focus on training zones.

Zone-based training is not nearly as effective as ‘riding’ in multiple zones, even all zones from a good old fashioned ride. Unstructured. In other words, if you are following structured interval workouts five to six days per week you are letting your training hold you back. Let me repeat: zone-based training is ineffective if you spend all your time isolating your training to a particular training zone.

  • Related reading: Five Fundamentals for Faster 

Performing in the real world outdoors is all about variable power output - as seen in a power graph that looks like a series of peaks and valleys. That is nothing new to savvy coaches and athletes. And that is why we have variable power workouts, like criss cross and over unders, pyramids, kitchen sink workouts, and more.

Those complex workouts are great, but there’s a problem: they are nearly impossible to do outdoors, in the real world. So riders default to riding their smart trainers indoors controlled by an ERG mode. ERG mode is a phenomenal feature for these workouts taking an impossible to follow workout outdoors to an incredible indoor riding experience.

We prescribe these workouts too. One of my favorites is called “Sprint > Stalk and Catch” like a cheetah catching a gazelle.

This is a killer one-hour workout, and works great on ERG mode. These workouts are great when used properly within a well thought out practical training plan. But you don't want to do this every day!

It's a balance. There is a time and a place for structured workouts and fun rides. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are when we usually build in the structured workouts in our training plans. And on Thursdays and the weekends we want you to ride — no specific time in zones, just get out there and do work and have fun.

Work as in long endurance rides concentrating on duration, miles, feet climbed and the power based metric kiloJoules, TSS and our new OTS.

Now let’s talk about when sticking to those single power zones is beneficial. The base period, when the athlete is creating an aerobic foundation for the remainder of the season, is a great time to follow a structured approach where zones are a bit more limited.

Take our 16 Weeks of Sweet Spot Plan; most weeks you will see structured Sweet Spot interval sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, endurance zone 2 days Thursday and Sunday, and a group ride or freestyle Sweet Spot session on Saturday. That gives you three days of unstructured riding where following an exact % of FTP is not necessary!

Now of course zone 2 rides should be on the easier side with time above zone 2 kept to a minimum. But in the age of workout builder and ERG mode I often see athletes riding the exact same power number for 2+ hours. We want athletes to not only follow a plan and see progress but have fun! And riding at a set wattage for multiple hours sounds not fun.

So join an easy Zwift group ride or try a new course! Mix it up, get out of the saddle, burst up the hills a bit! As long as the overall Intensity Factor is within zone 2 you’re good to go!

One thing we love at FasCat is group rides. Not only are they a fun way to snag Strava segments and beat your friends up a local KOM, they offer race-like intensity that can only be offered in a group ride or race. The anaerobic bursts, sustained threshold efforts, and paceline recovery are impossible to recreate on the trainer or solo. That’s why in most of our plans you will see group rides almost every weekend. Plus they’re just a darn good time!

So are training zones dead? No, not really. They have a time and place and should be a part of an effective training plan. However, for half your riding you should be utilizing multiple training zones to get the most out of your training. So don’t be afraid to turn ERG mode off! Mix up those zones and intensity! Go out with some friends for a group ride! But most importantly try to FtFP!


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About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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