Intensity training doesn’t mean hammering. It means simply training at the right intensities to improve your performance, i.e., pedaling somewhat harder than normal.
Intensity training is like prescription medicine. If you take the right medicine you’ll get better. If you take the wrong medicine you won’t get better and you might even get worse! To get better you need to take the appropriate medicine in the proper doses at the correct times. If you take the appropriate medicine incorrectly, at best you won’t improve as much and you might even get worse.
This is the first of a two-part column. In this column I’ll help you decide which type of medicine (intensity training) is best to help you to achieve your personal objectives. In part two I’ll teach you how to take the medicine (do intensity training) so that you improve.
How Do You Want to Improve?
All right – which medicine is right for you? How do you want to get better? In which of the following areas do you want to improve? It’s okay to choose several of them but to get started rank your choices in priority order.
1. Build your endurance — do you want to be able to do longer rides? Or more challenging rides? Or the amount you ride each week, month or year?
2. Increase your cruising speed — do you want to be faster on your endurance rides? Increase your speed by 1 – 2 mph so you can ride with a somewhat faster group of riders?
3. Boost your power — improve your sustained power for climbing or riding into a draining headwind?
4. Hammer better — hang with the big dogs on a weekly ride?
6. Achieve high performance — be one of the better riders at any distance ranging from a 10K time trial to a century or longer, i.e., be one of the faster finishers?
Enhance your efficiency — Improve your pedaling stroke?
Training By Zones
The way to improve for each of the above objectives is to take the right medicine, to train at the right intensity.
There are not discrete jumps in power output. You just work a little harder and one level of intensity becomes the next one. For training purposes coaches and physiologists divide the continuum of energy production into training zones to prescribe different levels of effort. Here are the training zones I use.
This week I’ll use these training zones to describe the ways to improve in each of the six above areas. Next week I’ll describe how to set your personal training zones and how to use the zones in workouts. Because the level of effort is a continuum the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and some other zones blend into each other. RPE is gauged on a scale from 1 (minimal effort) to 10 (maximum effort).
Zone 1: riding at a digestion pace like you would after a breakfast or lunch stop. A Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) 1-2, < 68% of Anaerobic Threshold (AT), < 55% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP).
Zone 2: riding at a conversational pace, RPE of 2-3, 69-83% of AT, 56 – 75% of FTP.
Zone 3: riding like you would into a headwind or on a sustained climb, RPE 3-4, 84-94% of AT, 76-90% of FTP.
Sweet Spot: putting out sustained power like climbing at a brisk steady pace, an RPE of 4-5, 93-97% of AT, 88-94% of FTP.
Zone 4: riding hard enough that you feel like you might barf but don’t, an RPE of 5-6, 95-100% of AT, 91-100% of FTP.
Zone 5: hammering for a few minutes, any longer and you would barf, an RPE of 6-7, 101-105% of AT, 101-105% of FTP.
Zone 6: riding so hard that it feels like your eyeballs are bugging out, an RPE of 8, > 105% of AT, 106-120% of FTP.
Sprints: maximum effort for a minute or less.
Using Zones to Improve Personally
Which zone(s) should you use to meet your personal objective(s)? Although power output is a continuum, exercising at different intensities produces different physiological changes. When you’re driving a car, as you accelerate the engine produces higher RPMs using the same fuel and drive train. Your body doesn’t work this way. As you work harder, you burn a different mix of fuels. You also add different drivetrains. Your muscles have three kinds of muscle fibers, which fire progressively depending on the demand for power:
Slow-twitch fibers, which refers to how fast the muscle fibers contract (not how fast your cadence is). Slow-twitch fibers have great endurance but low power. Slow-twitch fibers burn primarily fat and also some glucose, which is stored as glycogen. The fat can be either body fat or food. (Burning fat doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight — losing weight depends on consuming fewer calories.) The glycogen comes from the carbs you eat. The more briskly you ride the greater the proportion of energy that comes from glucose
Fast-twitch fibers are of two types:
Fast-twitch IIa (moderate power and endurance) muscle fibers burn more glucose. Your slow-twitch fibers continue to work and burn a mix of glucose and fat.
Fast-twitch IIb (high power and shorter endurance) muscle fibers burn even more glucose. Your slow-twitch and fast-twitch IIa fibers continue to fire and metabolize fat and glucose.
Which Zones Should You Train In?
The right zone(s) for you depend on your goal. If your primary goal is to:
1. Build your endurance to do longer or more challenging rides or the amount you ride each week? On an endurance ride you are using some of your slow-twitch fibers and burning a mix of fat for energy. Riding at an endurance pace you train your slow-twitch muscles and improve your fat-burning metabolism. The amount of glycogen your body can store is limited and if you run out you bonk. Training at an endurance pace increases how much glycogen you can store by 20 – 50%. Training your slow-twitch fibers increases your endurance.
You should ride in:
Zone 2 on the flats
Zone 3 when climbing
Not harder! You should be able to talk comfortably the whole ride. Many so-called endurance rides are too brisk to train your slow-twitch muscles and fat-burning metabolism. If you can’t talk easily in full sentences slow down.
The pros spend most of their time training in Zone 2. Why? The slow-twitch fibers have great endurance, which is necessary for a multi-hour race.
2. Increase your cruising speed so that you can ride 1 – 2 mph faster on your endurance rides. Note that you want to increase your speed on endurance rides. This means still training at an endurance pace but spending more time in zone 3 to train more of your slow-twitch muscle fibers.
3. Boost your power for sustained climbing or riding into a headwind. This means training harder and the harder you train the more you’ll improve, right? No! You want to increase the maximum total overload on your type IIa muscle fibers. If you go harder you’re also working your type IIb fibers; however, you can’t spend as nearly much time riding that hard so the cumulative overload on your type IIa fibers is less. To boost your power, train in the sweet spot, which is the top of zone 3 and the bottom of zone 4.
4. Hammer better so that you can ride with fast riders. Hammering means staying with the surges, riding powerfully up rolling hills and also chasing down attacks and riding very hard up short hills. This means training in the sweet spot and up into zones 4 and 5.
5. Achieve high performance to be one of the better riders at any distance ranging from a 10K time trial to a century or longer, i.e., to be one of the fast finishers. VO2 max, also called aerobic capacity, is the maximum amount of oxygen that your working muscles can utilize. The higher your VO2 max the better you can perform in endurance events. This means training in zone 6, which really hurts!
6. Enhance your pedaling efficiency to get more power and speed for the same amount of effort. Your muscle fibers don’t naturally all fire at the same time. This wastes energy similar to when your car engine runs roughly. Sprinting demands maximum power and over time sprinting will increase the coordination of the firing of your muscle fibers. This is like dialing in the timing of your car engine. Sprinting improves the firing of all three of your types of muscle fibers. Even if you are an endurance rider sprinting coordinates the firing of your slow-twitch fibers so you get more power output for the same level of effort.
These are the different medicines from which you can choose the correct one for you depending on what you want to improve. How to take each medicine is different. You don’t take the same dose of all the medicines. Next week I’ll cover how to take your specific medicine.
My eArticle Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness explains in more detail your physiology, which type(s) of intensity training is right for you and how to do intensity training including whether RPE, heart rate or power is best for you. The 41-page Intensity Training is only $4.99.
You can download from my website a spreadsheet to determine your training zones.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Really good info. Thanks. I was wondering how long (time) I would need to spend in zone 2 or 3 to begin to see improvements? Is this something that requires months or year around?
Rob Tesar says
In the same vein as Ron’s question, how do I know when I have done enough base training (zones 2-3) so that I can start training in the higher zones to improve my speed and endurance?
Steve Evans says
Rob and Ron,
These are very good questions. I have sought the appropriate response but certainly do not have the expertise to give a definitive answer. I have tried Dr. Maffatone’s [sp] MAF test and believe that it has some merit. I would like to hear Coach Hughe’s opinion of the MAF test, as well as any other suggestions he may have for an objective means of knowing when there is a sufficient base to move to higher levels/zones.
I would also like to know where high intensity interval training fits into this training. Thank you.
Big Ring Bob says
In a previous post I have talked about how I have modified my training during the last 4 years. I am sure there are other programs out there that may have the same capabilities, but a program called XERT from Baron BioSystems has provided me with guidance that seems to work well. One of its strongest features allows you to select your objective. It then calculates a training regimen to help you achieve that goal. If you are like me, there are many things that can impact (or maybe I just lack the discipline) my execution of a plan. XERT automatically adjusts your upcoming activities to maintain progress toward your goal and warns you if you are overtraining, providing your current state of form and fatigue, as well as projecting what your status will be the next day. I utilize their software to track my performance (hopefully improving), manage my recovery, and plan future activities. You will need a heart rate monitor and power meter to utilize it. Sometimes I use their Garmin apps to monitor realtime data since it displays your training zones and heart rate zones as a color code to let you know what range you’re are in.
Not trying to be a commercial for them, just very pleased with the product and the support they provide.
thanks for your thoughts Bing Ring Bob.
Sounds great, but I don’t have a power meter. Is there anything similar that just uses heart rate?
Big Ring Bob says
This is my understanding (opinion since I can’t verify independently). For precise tracking, a power meter is essential. Not during exercise, but following when an analysis is required. Work (in Physics) is defined as force times distance or power times time. Unless you have a way of measuring these components, you cannot accurately track your efforts and compare them or sum them.
Perceived effort can go a long way in getting a general measurement and is an excellent (and in my opinion) a superior method) for real time measurement. My reasoning is that your body talks to you if you will listen. And if you are trying to be competitive, psychology plays a role on top of physical conditioning, A power meter can’t adjust real time activity with the adrenal rush that comes in competition. when compared to training.
Careful monitoring of your heart rate can help you develop zones of training, and you can design a training schedule based on heart rate zones. This will add specific structure to your training. If you really want to get into perceived exertion, check out some of John Hughes books on the subject.
Both perceived effort and scientifically measureable effort provide the best overall program in my opinion. When I am in a competition, I can almost always exceed my training limits. I will use the power meter to do a gut check that I am not going out to hard early.
Appreciate your thoughts, thanks!