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Cycle Training Zones Explained

Pro cyclists know exactly what their heart rate and functional threshold power (FTP) is. They use the numbers to guide their training by splitting their training rides into zones. Zone 1 is a very casual ride, while zone 4 is similar to the power needed to climb a mountain.

Increasingly, it is not just the pros who are crunching numbers to train more effectively. You can too, especially as the costs of the equipment tend to fall with increased competition and patents expiring. If you want to improve your cycling, an investment in either a heart rate monitor or power meter is a good idea.

Once you know your maximum heart rate (MHR) or FTP you can split your training into zones. Using zones rather than how the bike feels on the ride allows you to train more effectively. The better you train, the better your performances in big cycling events such as sportives.

power-meter-heart-rate-monitorUsing zones in your training plan will help you train more effectively

What You’ll Need

You can work out training zones by measuring your heart rate or power for FTP. This is accomplished by using either a heart rate monitor or power meter.

  • Heart rate monitors tend to involve strapping a monitor to your chest as you ride. The data is fed to your phone and cycle computer, which you can review for analysis and monitor as you ride. There are some monitors that read your heart rate from your wrist negating the need for a chest strap. They tend not to be as accurate, however, so there is a trade-off.
  • Power meters attach to the bike often on the crank or wheel hub. It gives you a reading in watts fed to your cycle computer and are downloadable for analysis. Many cyclists prefer power meters to measure how hard they are riding.

Whichever you choose you will need to determine your MHR or FTP. So let’s look at that next.

Determining MHR

MHR is determined by riding intensely to find your maximum heart rate. You can either do this by finding a quiet, steady climb with few junctions or use a turbo trainer. If you opt for the former always take a safety-first approach. When you are ready to begin, do the following:

  • Warm-up for 15-20 minutes. During the warm-up ensure your muscles are ready for seated and standing efforts and climb your chosen hill for about five minutes at a brisk pace. This will give you a good idea of the gear ratios needed to ride at maximum effort up the hill.
  • Main Test: Climb the hill four times. On each climb increase intensity about every 30 seconds up to a sprint speed that you can maintain. Make a note of your hightest heart rate figure for each of the four climbs.
  • Warm down for 10-15 minutes. After you have completed four climbs, spin out your legs to avoid lactic acid build-up.

The highest heart rate reading during the test is your MHR. Make a note.

Determining FTP

Like MHR, determining FTP involves pushing your limits. If you are planning to use turbo trainer to discover your FTP we have published a detailed post about it: Home Trainer Program - week 1 - Power Meter Based.
If you are planning to cycle on the road, safety first please and do the following:


Warm-up for 15-20 minutes. Ride at a steady pace. This should be followed by intermittent efforts for five minutes. Here, pedal hard for 30 seconds followed by 30 seconds soft pedalling. Do this five times. This will open your blood and oxygen flow, ready for the main test.

Main Test

Make sure your power meter is recording and start a new interval. Pedal hard to a wattage you think you can sustain over the test. Like time trialling, do not start too hard. Progress to a wattage you think you can sustain over the next 15 minutes. Bear in mind that the best cyclists in the world can only sustain 400-500 watts for an hour. So if you’re starting at around this figure, you’re going to struggle.

After 15 minutes riding to the highest sustainable effort, ride flat out for five minutes. If you find yourself fading, you have probably ridden too hard in the first 15 minutes. Adjust for your next test.

Save the data and start a new interval.

Warm Down

Warm down for 5 to 10 minutes to spin out your legs to avoid lactic acid build-up.

I Have the Numbers What Next?

Once you have the numbers, you can structure your training around zones. See below:

Zone 1

  • Easy effort.
  • You can chat freely.
  • 60-65% MHR
  • 56-75% FTP
  • Feels like you are warming up.

Zone 2

  • Steady effort.
  • You can speak one sentence at a time.
  • 65-75% MHR
  • 76-90% FTP
  • Riding on the flat.

Zone 3

  • Brisk effort.
  • You can speak a few words at a time.
  • 75-82% MHR
  • 91-105% FTP
  • Feels like you are riding hard.

Zone 4

  • Hard effort.
  • You can say one word at a time.
  • 82-89% MHR
  • 106-120% FTP
  • Feels like a tough climb.

Zone 5

  • Very hard effort.
  • You can’t speak!
  • 89-100% MHR
  • 121%+ FTP
  • Sprinting.

Zones are individual to the rider. So your zone 3 may be different to your riding buddy’s zone 3. Also, note that as you improve your MHR/FTP will change. So redo the test periodically.

Now you have your numbers and zones you can incorporate this into your training plans. It is recommended that you use the services of a qualified cycling coach to assist you with a structured training programme. A good coach can outline the benefits of zonal training and answer questions you may have. Structured training will be covered in more depth in later blogs.

Keep cycling!

cycling-sportive-trainingUse zones to train for big events such as sportives

Sources: Martin Birney, Cycling Weekly 

Submitted: 27/8/20

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