Training zones enable athletes and coaches to achieve precise physiological adaptations from their training. In essence, training zones tell the athlete how hard or easy to pedal in a workout or on a training plan.
FasCat uses the seven training zones below and really there are two types of intensities within those seven: as hard as you can (zones 4-7) and not as hard as you can (Training Zone 1 – Sweet Spot). It’ easy to train in all these zones with a powermeter, a heart rate monitor (or both) or without either by using your rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
Training Zone 1 / Active Recovery / Easy:
Most often referred to as training zone 1, this is the recovery zone, easy riding, conversational pace, low heart rate, power, etc. The purpose of a recovery ride is to deliver oxygenate blood to tired muscles and carry away by-products of exercise metabolism (like lactate).
Compared to complete recovery (a.k.a. not riding) an active recovery ride increases lactate clearance after maximal exercise (Martin, 1998). So by riding easy between intervals, or the day after a hard effort, recovery is improved compared to complete rest.
My rule of thumb for active recovery rides is that they last 1 hour or less, are over flat terrain and involve the small ring only. They may be done on the way to a coffee shop and should never be ‘forced’ i.e. ridden in ‘not fun’ weather.
If you are an athlete with a family and career, don’t stress about finding the time for an active recovery ride. Instead, devote your rest days to other areas of your life and in the long run, your riding will benefit just as much as it would with an active recovery ride.
Training Zone 2 / Endurance / Base:
Training zone 2 is your all-day endurance pace: 59-75% of your FTP [FTP =Functional Threshold Power] and is extremely valuable for your training. Being able to ride 2-6 hours in Zone 2 is the first step in an athlete’s training for being able to compete in races or events of similar duration. By riding in zone 2, athletes can train their body to burn fat in preference of muscle glycogen.
Substrate utilization (i.e. fat vs. carbohydrate) varies individually, but as a rule of thumb, as intensity increases energy supply from carbohydrate increases, while supply from fat decreases. Therefore it is important to not go too hard in zone 2 training. For long zone 2 training rides, often the magic and ‘fat adaptation’ doesn’t begin until the last hour of the ride ( hour 3 of a 3-hour ride).
Training Zone 3 / Tempo:
Tempo training is prescribed as sustained 7 – 60 minuted efforts. An example tempo workout is 3 x 10 minutes ON in Tempo and 5 minutes OFF. It’s more difficult than training zone 2 training and therefore achieves more physiological adaptation (see table above). Often times road races begin with a lot of tempo and therefore athletes need to be able to put out 60-240 minutes of tempo power while still being able to go harder afterward. For more rationale on tempo training read the blog post we’ve published here.
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Sweet Spot training occurs between 84 – 97% of your FTP and there are many many ways to achieve “the sweet spot”. Sweet spot training achieves more physiological adaptations than tempo (see above table) with less need for recovery than threshold training. The intensity balances training benefits and recovery time, thus ‘the sweet spot’. While sweet spot training achieves less training adaptations than threshold training the recovery consequence
While sweet spot training achieves less training adaptations than threshold training, recovery is generally easier, and therefore, athletes can do more training as a whole. More “bang for your buck”. Prior to sweet spot training, riders would perform threshold intervals and be too tired the next day for meaningful training.
With sweet spot training athletes can repeat the next day and therefore achieve more training adaptations over the course of a training block (2-4/5 days). Like tempo, brisk road races contain a lot of sweet spot, therefore athletes need to be able to race at sweet spot intensities and then still be able to make higher power during or later on for the crux moments of the race.
For details about how much sweet spot various levels of riders should be able to do in a race and therefore incorporate in their training please read “How Much Sweet Spot“. I’d put the upper limit of sweet spot at 5.5 hours based on 2016 Paris-Roubaix winner Matthew Hayman’s race data!
Training Zone 4 Threshold : FULL GAS
Maximal sustained efforts 8 -30 minutes in length. Threshold intervals come in the following forms:
- 3 x 10 min ON 5-10 min OFF
- 2 x 20 min ON 5 min OFF
- 3 x 15 min ON 7.5 min OFF
Threshold intervals are beneficial for all cyclists especially time trialists, mountain bikers, and climbers. Read how to perform threshold intervals here. This training tip keys in on the importance of going as hard as one can but also using their powermeter or interval ‘pacer’ to do them properly from start to finish.
Training Zone 5 / VO2 Max : FULL GAS
These are very intense efforts, characterized by maximal power ranging anywhere from three to six minutes, 106 – 120% of FTP. The efforts are extremely hard, generate fatigue, but are also some of the most beneficial and race specific. VO2 Max intervals are full gas max efforts and should follow rest days on one’s training calendar. Our classic VO2 interval workout is:
Training Zone 5: 2 sets of 3 x 3 min ON 3 min OFF; with 6 minutes of rest between sets
Here is a How to Perform VO2 Intervals Guide
Training Zone 6 / Anaerobic Capacity : FULL GAS
Anaerobic intervals are critical for racers all cycling disciplines especially mountain bikers, criterium racers, track and road racers. Often times the difference between a cyclist and a bike racer is their ability to deliver short bursts of power anaerobically. Fortunately, with this training, a ‘cyclist’ can become a good ‘bike racer’ by incorporating anaerobic intervals.
Similar to threshold and VO2, anaerobic intervals are maximal, full gas efforts performed greater than 121% of one’s FTP. A beginner, intermediate and pro level Zone 6 interval workout looks like the following:
- Beginner: training zone 6: 3 x 1 min ON 1 min OFF
- Intermediate: training zone 6: 2 sets of 4 x 1 min ON, with 5 minutes OFF in-between sets
- Pro Level: training zone 6: 3 sets of 7 x 1 min ON 1 min OFF, with 5 minutes OFF in-between sets
I have personally done the later and to this day remember the hill, time of year and taste of lactate in my mouth! In-between the beginner, intermediate and pro level zone 6 interval workouts there are several possibilities, each one specific to the athlete.
Over six weeks athletes may progress from beginner to intermediate or intermediate to pro with a dedicated training plan. The term ‘capacity’ comes from the athlete’s ability to do more and more anaerobic efforts. The more anaerobic capacity and athlete possess the better they’ll perform and race. As a coach I strive to improve athlete’s anaerobic capacity measured by their ability to complete & improve from one anaerobic workout (3 x 1 min = 3 min total)) and to a greater anaerobic capacity workout like 2 sets of 4 [ 2 sets of 4 x 1 min = 8 minutes]
As a coach I strive to improve athlete’s anaerobic capacity measured by their ability to complete & improve from one anaerobic workout (3 x 1 min = 3 min total)) and to a greater anaerobic capacity workout like 2 sets of 4 [ 2 sets of 4 x 1 min = 8 minutes].
Training Zone 7 / Neuromuscular : FULL GAS
Sprinting and efforts just beyond a sprint, up to 20 seconds. Training zone 7 efforts are very short, under twenty seconds, and of the highest intensity. I/we prescribe them as sprints or 20 second Tabata Intervals. Sprint training forces the physiological adaptations to increase neuromuscular power, recruit more motor units, hypertrophy of more type II fibers, and improve recruitment synchronicity (Lucia, 2000)[see table above]. Sprinting is a technical skill so sprint training is a 2 for one workout.
Interval training is highly effective training for bike racing. It should be custom tailored to the type of event(s) the athlete is training for. I/we call that race specificity. However, sometimes you just can’t design workouts to achieve everything you will face in a race and that’s why racing is the ultimate form of training.
Bike racing is also done with one zone and one workout…in fact, most races are a combination of all zones 2-7. Therefore do your sweet spot and base training but also incorporate anaerobic and sprint intervals. Make your training well rounded. In addition to structured zone based intervals, group rides and motorpacing rounds out the best training plans.
LINOSSIER, M. T., Dormois, D., Perier, C., Frey, J., Geyssant, A., & Denis, C. (1997). Enzyme adaptations of human skeletal muscle during bicycle short‐sprint training and detraining. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 161(4), 439-445.
Lucía, A., Hoyos, J., Pardo, J., & Chicharro, J. L. (2000). Metabolic and Neuromuscular Adaptations to Endurance Training in Professional Cyclists. A Longitudinal Study. The Japanese journal of physiology, 50(3), 381-388.
Martin, N. A., Zoeller, R. F., Robertson, R. J., & Lephart, S. M. (1998). The Comparative Effects of Sports Massage, Active Recovery, and Rest in Promoting Blood Lactate Clearance After Supramaximal Leg Exercise. Journal of Athletic Training, 33(1), 30–35.
Perry, C. G., Heigenhauser, G. J., Bonen, A., & Spriet, L. L. (2008). High-intensity aerobic interval training increases fat and carbohydrate metabolic capacities in human skeletal muscle. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 33(6), 1112-1123.
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Frank is the founder and owner of FasCat Coaching in Boulder, CO. Frank and the FasCat Coaches have been prescribing intervals to athletes for over 15 years. To talk about your interval training fill out a New Athlete Questionnaire to schedule a Coaching Consultation.