When you’re trying to improve your riding, what’s more important – how far you ride, or how fast? Those new to mountain biking and road cycling will improve just by riding more frequently and gradually building distance. However, after a few years further gains from that approach become harder to find, and the intelligent use of intensity and training zones in a structured cycling training plan assumes much greater importance.
The Specificity Principle
Part of the reason for this is the specificity principle: you need to train in ways that mimic the effort required, in order to stimulate the physiological adaptations needed to meet the demands of the event. Racing is almost always highly intense. It is never long slow distance. As a result, as you get closer to the event you need to include some higher intensity work in your weekly program. You won’t find that great performance just by logging lots of kilometres.
Equally, races – unless they are road or velodrome time trials – are never steady state efforts but have periods of widely varying intensity and recovery. Mountain bike races usually start with a wild and hairy sprint to be as close to the front of the queue as possible before the single track starts, followed by an attempt at recovery while still at race pace. Surges soon follow on the climbs to break the conga line into smaller groups. Descents form brief periods of recovery, as it is often difficult to pedal due to the technical nature of the terrain, and this pattern repeats until the finish line appears. Occasionally, there will be a sprint finish to decide between pairs that cross the line close together.
Road races comprise similar efforts, but the surges are not necessarily made on the climbs. There can be breakaways, and selections made on the flats as well as the climbs if the wind is sufficiently strong. The hectic and chaotic group sprint usually happens at the end, so being fit enough to have enough left in the tank is vital, even in age group or grade racing.
Cyclocross seems to be a crazy mix of both, except it’s all over in about an hour with no opportunity to catch your breath until you cross the finish line!
Hard training efforts without allowing time for recovery will inevitably lead to the downward spiral of over training and burnout. This can lead to sickness, injury, poor sleep. With it comes fatigue, poor performance and poor decision-making, the impact of which can hurt our ability to meet work and family responsibilities
It is in fact during the rest period after applying the stress of training that the adaptation response occurs. High intensity days and weeks need to be balanced with easier ones to allow the body to supercompensate, and this applies over the course of major training blocks as well as individual workouts during the week. Good sleep is just as important as good nutrition.
There are three main intensity levels we need to be aware of. They are aerobic threshold, lactate threshold, and speed or power at VO2 max.
Aerobic threshold is the minimum level of effort at which you can go, and still get a training benefit. Below this, experienced riders are engaging in what is known as “active recovery”. Training at this level yields only small improvements in fitness.
Lactate threshold, also known as anaerobic threshold, is the point at which lactate and fatigue start to rapidly build and you find yourself going into the red zone. Training at or near this threshold trains the body to be more efficient at clearing blood lactate. The muscles that aren’t working so intensely convert it back to usable fuel. The closer your lactate threshold is to your VO2 max the faster you will go at longer events.
VO2 max measures the amount of oxygen the body can process at maximal endurance effort. The greater the speed or power that you can produce on say a 5 or 6minute minute steep climb the faster your race time will be. Average heart rate or power over a 6-minute maximal effort seems to be a close approximation for VO2 max according to the sports science.
Is it enough to know just these three zones?
Much like Eskimos and snow, or surfers and waves, coaches like using more training zones as it offers a more precise way of describing the requirements of the workout in order to target specific abilities. Bear in mind that these training zones describe a continuous spectrum. Training at the top of one zone will yield a similar result to training at the bottom of the next.
There are multiple models and this can be confusing. The key thing is to understand what each zone does for your physiology and follow the training zones precisely for each ride, as this will achieve the outcome appropriate to where you are in your season and help you make the most effective use of your limited time.
Calculating your training zones
Some training zones run off maximum heart rate but this is generally regarded as inaccurate. My personal experience is that my maximum heart rates have been recorded when I was least fit after forced time off the bike. I believe this is most likely due to the reduction in stroke volume accompanying inactivity and loss of fitness.
Most leading coaches run their training programs using a measure called threshold heart rate or functional threshold power. These are individualised measures that are different for every athlete. In fact, as you progress through the season your numbers will change, and it needs to be re-tested every 3 to 4 weeks after a few days recovery at the end of your “recovery week”. This makes sure your training zones remain current and relevant to where you are at right now.
- Find a flat or slightly uphill stretch of road with light traffic and no significant downs.
- Can be a straight, multi-loop or out-and-back
- Wear a recording heart rate monitor and stopwatch, or a GPS bike computer with heart rate.
- Don’t eat for 2 hours prior
- Warm up for 10 minutes. Record in your log what your process was for future repeatability.
- This is not a max HR test
- Immediately after warmup, ride for 30 minutes at race pace.
- Start your Garmin or stopwatch.
- 10 minutes in, press the lap button on your Garmin or the start button on your HR device.
- When finishing, note your average HR for the last 20 minutes. This is your lactate threshold heart rate.
- If you have a power meter, note your average power for the last 20 minutes and multiply by 0.95. This is your functional threshold power.
- If your course is less than 20 minutes (no less than 25) start recording earlier to obtain the last 20 minutes of data
What do each of the training zones do?
Active recovery allows experienced mountain bikers and road cyclists to keep the legs moving and flush out waste products. The easy effort promotes blood flow and the transportation of nutrients to assist rebuilding of stressed muscle fibre. It will seem ridiculously easy and it’s essential that the temptation to go harder is avoided, especially when riding in traffic or being passed by a group. It is best done on quiet, flat roads or on a trainer.
This zone teaches your body to burn fat and to use oxygen as efficiently as possible. It is the foundation on which everything else is built. The bigger your base the stronger you will be at the end of big rides. It takes time to build. Despite “The Time Cunched Cyclist”, there are no shortcuts.
The harder you go the more you burn your limited supplies of muscle glycogen instead of fat. The more efficiently and the higher pace at which you can burn fat the more you will have in the tank in the back half of the race or event. When preparing for major events, weekend rides at this pace may run to 3-4 hours or more – start early!
In this zone you are working on your ability to hold a consistently high pace. It is, however, much more tiring than endurance pace. The ability to do back-to back days at tempo is more limited. Riding in this training zone improves your body’s ability to store and use muscle glycogen.
A weekend base endurance ride may incorporate tempo intervals to get the benefit of both.
Training at threshold lifts the pace you can ride at before you go into the red. It produces a lot of lactic acid, which trains your systems to clear it and reuse it as fuel for other muscle groups working at lower intensity. Mentally challenging.
Training at threshold is usually done in longer intervals of between 10 and 20 minutes with a short recovery period in between. A popular session is 4 x 10 or 2 x 20 with recovery of 25% of the interval length. Another is “unders and overs” where 10 minutes is spent at the upper limit, followed by 10 minutes at the lower limit, and repeat.
Consecutive days are possible but not common.
This is the pace typical of surges in races. Intervals are between 2 and 6 minutes with equal recovery time. Commonly used in interval training, more than 20 minutes per session is tough to do. Heartrate is not such a good indicator for this zone due to the lag in response. Rate of perceived exertion is better if you lack a power meter. Back-to-back days rarely a good idea.
Common in mountain bike races, CX and crits. The sessions comprise short intervals between 30 seconds and two minutes long at high output to improve your capacity to go anaerobic and recover. A favourite of masochist spin instructors. Consecutive days of anaerobic capacity sessions are not a good idea.
Neuromuscular or Sprint Power
As the name suggests this is all-out maximal effort. Typically 6-30 seconds long. Sessions usually incorporate recovery between repeats of 6 to ten times or more as long as the effort.
For roadies this often comes at the end of the race, for mountain bikers at the beginning. Be careful with these in training as the risk of injury is high. Consecutive days definitely not recommended.
If you are a self-trained athlete you can use your time in these training zones to estimate your training load. Using the Rate of Perceived Exertion table above, multiplying that RPE number by the number of minutes spent in each HR or power zone and then adding the results together will give you an approximation of training effort for the ride.
My preference is to use TrainingPeaks’ Training Stress Score as it automatically calculates your workload off your entered threshold heartrate or functional threshold power. A useful rule of thumb is to lift TSS or training volume by no more than 10% per week, and allow a recovery week every fourth week, or every third if over 40, to wash out accumulated fatigue. This doesn’t mean doing no riding at all, just focussing on easy sessions. Our forthcoming training plans will show you what to do in this area.
As mentioned above, it is important to do a retest regularly. Every 4-6 weeks, and especially after some enforced time off the bike due to illness or injury, you should test your FTP. This will ensure that you are training neither too hard, nor too easy as you progress through the season.
Time in Training Zones is More Important Than Averages.
Your key to success with a structured program is the time you spend in the training zones intended for the session. Your overall effort levels or averages for the ride are considerably less important.
Recovering properly between interval repeats enables you to hit the next repetition with the prescribed intensity. For example, recovering in zone 3 instead of zone 1 means you will likely struggle to complete the next interval, compromising the overall quality of the session. You may end up with a higher Training Stress Score, but you won’t have achieved the objectives your coach or training plan author intended for the session. You will possibly have wasted the session and impacted the effectiveness of the next session as well.
Zones are also inportant to use in races. Say your FTP is 260 watts or your threshold heart rate is 162bpm. You know that going up a 20 minute climb at 275w or above 168bpm is going to risk putting you in the red, forcing you to back off to avoid blowing up.
Knowing your training zones will help you get the most out of both your training and your racing.