Setting up and training according to individual training zones (and keeping them updated) helps you to train effectively and efficiently toward your athletic goals.

What Are Training Zones?

Training zones are a way of categorizing exercise intensity. Depending on how “hard” you exercise, your body will react and adapt in different ways. Depending on what your athletic objective is, you can specifically target those aspects of your fitness you want to improve. You want to ride 100 miles steadily across mountains without experiencing massive fatigue, be a better sprinter, or go as fast as you can for one hour? No problem. The use of properly set-up training zones can get you there.

There are two main “thresholds” in regard to exercise intensity: the aerobic and anaerobic threshold1. The aerobic threshold is the greatest intensity at which you can ride without an increase in blood lactate levels. (Lactate is that stuff that makes you feel the “burn” when you go hard. It’s a by-product of the energy-generating process in your muscles). If you increase intensity beyond the aerobic threshold, lactate levels start to rise steadily. No big deal. Lactate build-up and break down are still fairly balanced. This is until your reach the anaerobic threshold. If you increase intensity beyond the anaerobic threshold, you are going into the “red zone” where lactate build-up becomes much greater than lactate break down. This will lead to fatigue very quickly.

How many training Zones do I need?

Essentially, there are three main training zones: the sub-aerobic zone (active recovery, sightseeing), the zone between aerobic and anaerobic threshold (improving endurance), and the zone beyond anaerobic threshold (riding your guts out). However, physiological adaptation overlap across the intensity spectrum and in order to target a specific one it makes sense to be a bit more precise.

Here is another curveball: Heart rate reacts fairly slow to changes in intensity. It takes several minutes for the heart rate to be an adequate reflection of the intensity. So for short, high-intensity intervals, heart rate can hardly be used for guidance. Therefore, it makes sense to use fewer heart rate zones, focusing on intensities that can be maintained for prolonged periods of time. Power, however, reacts almost instantaneously to changes in intensity. Therefore, it is also a good measure for very short and high intensities. Logically, more training zones make sense as they give you greater precision, when using a power-based approach. We recommend to use six zones for power and five for heart rate.

How Do I Find Out My Zones?

Do a field test. Warm up for 30min and then record your power and heart rate while riding as hard as you can for 20min. Go all out, but also keep it as steady as you can throughout the effort. Then take 95% of the average power and heat rate you recorded for the 20min-effort (multiply with 0.95). The results are a pretty good estimate of your heart rate and power at anaerobic threshold (aka. functional threshold power and heart rate at FTP). Training Zones are calculated as a percentage of your FTP and HR at FTP. This is how we do it:

Name Power, (% of FTP) Heart Rate (% of HR at FTP) Description
Compensation (CO) < 55 < 70 Active recovery, spin super easy on some rest days to help recovery, <1 h
Endurance 1 (ED1) 55 -74 70 - 84 Improving basic endurance, including improving fat metabolism, 1-6h per session, should make up 65-85% of your entire training (upper end of this zone marks your aerobic threshold)
Endurance 2 (ED2) 75 - 92 85 - 95 Improving “high-pace” endurance, training carbohydrate metabolism, 30min-120min, should make up 10-15% of your entire training
Threshold (TH) 93 - 105 96 - 105 Race pace, time trialing, threshold, 20-60min per session, should make up <5% of your training (the middle of this zone is your anaerobic threshold)
Super Threshold (STH) 106 - 120
> 105
is helpful to break away in a race, 2-5min intervaRed zone, developing ability to buffer lactate and withstand urge to ease up, i.e. this ability ls
Maximal (MAX) > 120 Sprinting: Finish line in sight? Chased by a bear? Time for the Max-Zone! 10-30s intervals with long breaks

How Often Should I Assess My Training Zones?

Your heart rate zones don’t change that much throughout a season. You will simply go faster or slower in the respective zone, depending on your fitness level (aka you will generate more or less power in the respective heart rate zone). It’s sufficient to do a field test and compute heart rate zones once or twice a year – if you are using heart rate zones only. When using power zones, however, you should test frequently (every 4-8 weeks). Power output changes in direct relation with you fitness level. So if you use power to gauge your intensity, make sure you are using training zones that are no older than 8 weeks.

Summary

  • Training zones help you target specific intensities, which trigger the specific fitness improvements you need to achieve your athletic goals.
  • Frequently do field tests to assess your anaerobic threshold power (FTP) and heart rate at anaerobic threshold (HR at FTP). Using power zones: Test once in 4-8 weeks. Using heart rate zones only: Test 1-2 per year.
  • Compute your training zones. Decide how every many zones makes sense for you. There are many models out there. (StriveMax computes default training zones for you according to the table above. Just plug in your current FTP and HR at FTP and zones for power and heart rate will be computed automatically. It also allows you to add or delete zones and set up your zones manually).
  • Last advice: Stick to the zones! Don’t get carried away. Make a plan and execute it.

StriveMax "FTP & Training Zones"

We made short a video to show how to set up your Training Zones and FTP on StriveMax.

Keep Striving – with Strivemax
Rich

PS: Questions? Write a comment.

  1. Anaerobic threshold is often referred to as just “threshold”. Also, please note that, scientifically speaking, anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, and functional threshold power are all different. However, from a practical perspective they are all fairly similar and for simplicity we are using these terms interchangeably in this article.