The 5 training zones and how to apply them to your sessions

If you’re a pro rider, you probably know what your desired power output should be, at any given moment, to the exact watt—to be more specific.

Cycling training zones are essential for cyclists to reach their maximum output and it has to be done correctly. Training zones are also important for riders if they want to compete in races and competitions.


What are training zones?

Generally, training zones provide athletes a predetermined intensity in which they should work during an activity. For example, they may complete intervals at ‘zone 2’ for 20 minutes or train at zone 3’ for 15 minutes.

Using zones for training is essential as it helps riders to push hard enough during intervals. Training zones are important also as ensure riders are racing at a sustainable output for a specific duration.  Training using zones also ensure that riders are pedaling gently on recovery and endurance rides.


How are training zones set?

Training zones can be set in a number of ways—whether by cycling hard for 5-10 minute intervals before transitioning to 15-minute intervals. Training zones can also be established using blood lactate analysis and designing training sessions around thresholds found in labs.

However, the two most commonly used parameters used in cycling training zones are heart rate and functional threshold power.


Setting training zones using heart rate

Setting your cycling training zones using the heart rate is determined by analyzing your maximum heart rate. A rider needs to go a rough test is needed to ascertain his/her maximum heart rate accurately. This can be done by riding four times at maximum effort on a long, steady climb.

The assumption is that the rider will reach his/her maximum heart rate on any of the four ascents.

Setting training zones using functional threshold power (FTP) or simply, ‘power’. 

What is FTP?

Functional Threshold Power (FTP) represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 45 to 60 minutes. 

What is FTHR?

Functional Threshold Heart Rate (or FTHR) is the heart rate you can sustain for a one hour race effort


This training zone is based on a difficult one hour-long session including a 30-minute testing period. This test can be performed on the open road or an indoor trainer. Discrepancies may arise between the two sessions, so for the sake of accuracy, it’s better to do both.


Setting training zones using lactate testing

Lactate testing is the gold standard in setting training zones, but it’s not easy to produce reliable test results. Sure, lactate testing is more accurate and reliable when compared to heart rate and functional threshold power testing, but unless, you have a group of scientists to analyze the results, testing for blood lactate is hard.

Lactate testing is done by taking blood from a finger during a VO2 max test which is then analyzed for its blood lactate concentration.


Establishing your training zones

There are many different theories on the number of zones that should be used and the way they are distributed – but we’ve used a five zone format.


Zone 1:

Easy, requires less effort

Riders can chat freely.

Suitable for warming up or recovery

60-65% of maximum heart rate, 56-76% of FT Power

The physiological changes during and after this training zone are muscles become loose and body temperature rises.


Zone 2:

Steady effort

Riders can speak one sentence at a time

Suitable for longish rides

75-82% of maximum heart rate, 76-90% of FT Power

The physiological changes during and after this training zone are muscles glycogen levels increases and the body’s oxidative system starts working.


Zone 3:

Brisk effort

Riders can speak a few words

Riders start breathing deeply and working hard

Suitable for 20-30 minute rides

75-82% of maximum heart rate, 91-105% of FT Power

The physiological changes during and after this training zone are the body’s oxidative and glycolytic energy systems both start working.


Zone 4: 


Riders can say only one word at a time

Suitable for 20-30 minute rides

82-89% of maximum heart rate, 106-120% of FT Power

The physiological changes during and after this training zone the body’s lactate levels start to increase.


Zone 5:

Very hard

Riders grunt and grasp

Suitable for sprinting

89-94% of maximum heart rate, 121+% of FT Power

The physiological changes during and after this training zone are high heart rate and blood lactate levels. The body’s other physical parameters also start to reach maximum levels.


How to use the 5 training zones in cycling

Once you’ve established what you want to achieve from the training, you need to be aware why and how you are training at those levels.

Ciaran O’Grady, a sports scientist at Cadence Performance has explained the actual meaning of the term ‘threshold’, saying, “There is not just one threshold but many, and they each demarcate a point of change in a person’s physiological response to exercise. The terminology used to describe these thresholds varies, and there’s a big inconsistency between scientifically reported thresholds and what the public interpret.”

“Lactate threshold is where the body is no longer able to use predominantly aerobic means of meeting the exercise demands”, he said.

Most training zones guides have a five zone structure. O’Grady explains: “In a nutshell, not looking at any needs-analysis or specific client data, zones one, two and three would be endurance work, zones three and four would be tempo/threshold work, and zone five high-intensity interval training.”

According to O’Grady, zone one and zone two in are mostly used for warming up and long endurance rides.

Zone three intervals are designed for time trial riders particularly, or for riders training for long road races. Riders training at zone three requires having a high heart rate for an extended period of time.

Training times at zone four are much shorter, lasting two to eight minutes generally. Zone four is suitable for riders planning for road races or amateur riders hoping to increase their FTP by training at an increased power.

Zone five is extremely hard. Training at zone five can be compared to sprint training. This is only road racers, but time trial riders can also train at this level to improve their neuromuscular power.


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