POWER ZONES for Cycling

POWER ZONES for Cycling

Power as a measure of cycling intensity has become commonplace and when used in conjunction with effort level (RPE) and heart rate is an extremely valuable tool. Online platforms like Zwift rely on power measurement to gauge your ability within the game and so-called SMART trainers have been produced largely for this purpose. If you have a power meter (or smart trainer) but aren’t sure of how to use it or you’re looking to invest in one then here’s a basic introduction to training zones.

The most commonly used training zone system is based on your THRESHOLD POWER or FTP. I’ve written about this previously; you start by measuring the maximum power that you can produce over a sustained period of time (circa 1 hour). Once you have this number you can calculate your zones:

1.Recovery <60%
2. Aerobic endurance 55-75%
3. Tempo 75-90%
4. Lactate Threshold 90-105%
5. VO2 Max 105-120%
6. Anaerobic 120- 140%
7. Neuromuscular > 140%

1.Recovery sessions are of very low effort and of short duration (e.g. 30-45mins). They can promote greater recovery between hard sessions than full rest days but they are not sufficiently stressful to achieve any physiological (fitness) benefit. Any effort below 60% of your threshold is a recovery one.

2. Aerobic endurance is often referred to as Zone 2 and is a common exercise intensity utilised by endurance athletes and has become synonymous with so-called base training. It is the zone lying between 60 - 75% of your threshold. Breathing is normally controlled and conversations possible (RPE around 4-5/10). This effort level allows for long continuous exercise sessions to be completed. This is typically the zone in which most Ironman triathletes complete the bike portion of their race. Long weekend rides (2hrs +) are typically performed in Z2.

3. Tempo work tends to feel comfortably uncomfortable (RPE 5-6/10) and is often the intensity subconsciously chosen by many athletes during training. However, it is often viewed as the grey area; neither easy enough to allow for recovery or for considerable duration to be accrued and conversely not hard enough to promote strong physiological responses (read up on polarized training for more detail). Long duration intervals are often practiced at tempo and this power level is often achieved in middle distance triathlon races.

4. Lactate threshold is the name for the point where lactate levels in the blood rise exponentially (AKA: threshold, LT2, lactate turnpoint). Threshold training efforts lie between 90-105% are often performed for 8-15mins and repeated for a total of 30-60mins of total work. As FTP has become the single most important number for cyclists and triathletes, training at this intensity level has become very popular. Breathing is laboured at this point and conversation not possible (RPE 7-8/10). Racing at this intensity level is common in sprint and standard distance triathlons.
5. VO2 Max refers to your body’s maximal ability to take in and use oxygen to fuel exercise). This equates to 105-120% of FTP (or the maximum power that you could produce for periods of 3-8mins). Interval sessions at VO2 max intensity are typically 2-5 mins long with a total volume of 15-20mins and roughly equal recoveries (e.g. 5x3mins with 2-3 mins recovery). Effort level is 9-10/10 and both breathing and heart rate close to maximal.
6. Anaerobic efforts are usually of short duration (20-60s) with longer recovery periods. They require the production of energy without the use of oxygen (known as anaerobic glycolysis). Total time at this intensity during a training session would be approximately 10-15 mins. These ‘repeated short sprints’ are n ot commonly used in triathlon training but are of importance for cyclists involved in road racing, gravel racing or mountain bike racing
7. Neuromuscular training involves very short maximal efforts in which the key is to produce force quickly (high rate of torque development). Much like a 100m sprinter the majority of the energy for these muscle contractions some from stored creatine phosphate (which can fuel the muscles for 8-10secs). These muscular power workouts involve efforts of up to 10 secs with full recoveries of 3mins+ (very similar to weight training in the gym). These are used primarily by road and track cycling sprinters.

Now, if you’re ‘keen eyed’ you may have noticed that one effort level that is often referred to isn’t actually listed above: Sweetspot. This is a cycling term used to describe efforts between 87-92% of FTP (upper Z3-lower Z4 above). These efforts are said to produce beneficial effects without the severe discomfort and lengthy recovery periods of threshold and VO2 max exercise, and can therefore be repeated more regularly. Whilst not a distinct training zone I find it very useful for those athletes who tend to push too hard during threshold training, allowing them to accrue many more minutes of hard work without ‘blowing up’. 

I hope that this piece will allow you to understand training zones and perhaps begin to structure your training appropriately. Now it’s time to GET IN THE ZONE!


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