Effective training results from riding in the proper zones (plural). One of the biggest mistakes my new clients made before working with me was always riding at about the same level of effort. (The other was riding too many miles!)
In the last two newsletters I wrote about Should You Do Intensity Training This Winter? – Part I and Part II. I used as examples a 76-year-old woman training for sustained speed and a 62-year-old man training for power. Each of them needed to ride enough base endurance miles before starting any intensity training. Base miles prepare the muscles, tendons and ligaments for harder intensity riding. After logging those base miles then each rider continues endurance riding and adds some training in the sweet spot.
This week I’ll discuss how two other clients are improving their endurance this winter by staying in the right zones and not going harder.
Coach Hughes’ Training Zones:
I use the following training zones:
- Zone 1: Active Recovery. Digestion pace, riding as if you’d just finished a big meal. A Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) of 1-2 on a 10-point scale, under 68% of anaerobic threshold (AT) also called lactate threshold, under 55% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP).
- Zone 2: Aerobic Pace. The classic conversational pace. RPE of 2-3, 69-83% of AT, 56-75% of FTP.
- Zone 3: Tempo Pace. Riding into a headwind or a sustained climb, you can still talk comfortably but can’t whistle. RPE of 3-4, 84-95% of AT, 76-90% of FTP.
- Sweet Spot: Power Pace. You can talk in short phrases but not short sentences, RPE 4-5, 93-97% of AT, 88-94% of FTP.
- Zone 4: Sub-threshold (Sub-barf). You’re about to throw up but not quite. RPE 5-6, 95-100% of AT, 91-100% of FTP.
You can download a spreadsheet to calculate your training zones from my website.
My clients are all endurance riders and spend a lot of time in zones 1 – 3. Depending on the rider’s goals the rider may also do sweet spot training and a few may train in zone 4.
Increases in training effort are along a continuum, not discrete jumps as implied by the concept of training zones. Other coaches may divide the continuum into different zones; however, we all use zones to gauge effort and have clients train in different zones depending on the desired physiological changes.
Benefits of Endurance Training
In my column on 8 Tips for Endurance Training This Winter I describe the ways base endurance training improves:
- The endurance of the cycling muscles by increasing the number of mitochondria where energy is produced in the cells.
- The respiratory system, providing more oxygen to the blood supply.
- The efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to the muscles.
- The capacity of the liver and muscles to store carbohydrates.
- The neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling.
- The capacity to burn fat during long rides.
- The thermoregulatory system by increasing the blood flow to the skin.
I’ve started coaching two new clients Dean and Joan. They’re both in their 70s and are planning to ride across the country starting June 17 and finishing August 19. Their typical days will range from 50 to 80 miles; however, they also have 11 days of 100+ miles. They’ll be riding self-supported, staying in motels as much as possible but also carrying minimal camping gear.
In 2018 Dean rode 2,400 miles and 1,800 miles in 2019. Joan rode 1,800 miles in 2018 and 1,100 miles in 2019. Their endurance bases are thin for a transcon so the goal from now until June 17 is to build endurance.
I ask each new client to perform a baseline time trial, from which I can estimate the rider’s training zones. Dean and Donna suffered through the TTs. Dean’s estimated AT is 154 bpm and Donna’s is 111 bpm. The big difference is not because Dean’s in much better shape. Dean’s genetics result in a naturally higher heart rate. Each rider’s AT is what it is – the current Anaerobic Threshold – on which I set the training zones. Here’s how they’re currently training:
- Recovery rides in zone 1 and 2:
- Climbing in zone 3
- Flats in zone 2
- Tempo rides warm-up in zone 2, tempo in zone 3 and then cool-down
After the first week Joan wrote, “I am, however finding it impossible to ride in zone 1 no matter how easy and slow I go. To ride in zone 2, I have to go slow and in an easy gear. I am mostly in zone 3 and if going up a significant hill I will reach zone 4.”
I responded that she and Dean are training for an endurance ride and they need to train in endurance zones, i.e., zones 1 – 3. They live in a hilly part of the country, which does make staying in the zones more difficult.
They should ride primarily in zone 1. They should almost be embarrassed to be seen on their bikes! Because it’s hilly where they live they may go into zone 2 on climbs. However, if they can’t stay in zones 1 and 2 they should either drive to flatter area for recovery rides or go for walks for their recovery activity.
I explained that on an endurance ride if she climbs in zone 4 she will inevitably get more fatigued than if she climbed in zone 3 and she’ll have to slow down. Because staying in zone 3 on the hills is difficult she needs to get a lower gear.
Last year my 66-year-old client Don initially reported that when he rode in zones 2 and 3 and not higher then younger riders dropped him. When he learned to discipline himself and stay in his zones he was catching and passing these rabbits partway through the ride.
Dean and Joan like to train together, which is fun. However, he is stronger and if he’s riding an endurance pace then she’s pushing harder to keep up. They have these options.
- Don’t train together. However, they’ll be riding the transcon together and need to learn to pace themselves together.
- Joan drafts Dean. Dean needs to constantly be aware of whether she’s on his wheel. A mirror helps but the easiest way is to pay attention to his breathing. If his respiratory rate picks up he needs to check if she’s still on his wheel and probably slow down.
- Dean rides ahead and waits; this works particularly well when they’re resupplying at stores en route. They can ride together and then Dean can ride ahead and do the shopping. When Joan gets there he shouldn’t take off immediately. He’s had a bit of a rest and so should she.
- Dean carries more stuff. Instead of each of them carrying two bottles and food, she carries just one bottle and a snack and he has the rest. He carries any extra clothes. He also carries a couple of spare tubes, a pump and all the tools. She carries just one tube, tire levers and a pump in case she flats when they aren’t together. On the transcon they’re carry enough gear to camp if necessary and to even out the pace Dean can carry more.
- Dean does a mixed kind of ride. They can start together, Joan riding in her endurance zones and Dean in his active recovery zones. After a while he can turn around, ride the back on the course in his endurance zones, and then turn around and ride back up to Joan still in his endurance zones. He can ride at his recovery pace with her for a while. I suggest he ride back on the course for a couple of reasons. First, he’s carrying some of Joan’s gear so if she has to stop he’ll catch up to her rather than riding off ahead of her. Second, she isn’t trying to chase him.
- Dean can pre-fatigued himself with a tempo ride just before the endurance ride with Joan.
- Dean can do side trips. They can plan a training route with branches so that he can take off, do some extra miles and then rejoin her.
Training in different zones brings about different physiological changes. To recover you need to ride slowly enough that you’re not really working your muscles – just spinning along. To get the benefits of endurance riding (listed above) you need to ride at an endurance pace. If you ride harder you won’t bring about these changes. For me the easiest way to do endurance riding is always to be sure I’m talking comfortably with my buddy.
My eBook Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes sections on how aging affects your cardio-respiratory fitness, how you can do endurance exercise to slow down or in some cases reverse the loss of fitness, how to gauge your levels of effort, how to get the most benefit from endurance rides and how to recover so you’re ready for the next ride. Anti-Aging includes a plan to build up to longer endurance rides and a plan to increase your annual miles. It also explains how best to combine endurance riding, intensity training and strength training for optimal results. The 107-page Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process.
My three-article bundle Endurance Training and Riding explains in detail how to train to achieve the above benefits. I originally wrote the articles to help riders doing 100K, 200K and longer rides; however, all of the principles and training programs also work for roadies doing shorter rides.
- Beyond the Century describes training principles and different training intensities and how to integrate these into a season-long program of endurance rides.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond provides you with the information you need to fuel your engine before, during and after endurance rides.
- Mastering the Long Ride gives you the skills you need to finish your endurance rides.
My Endurance Training and Riding bundle totaling 50 pages is just $13:50, a 10% savings off the full price of all three eArticles.
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 nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.