Toolbox: Training Zones – What The Experts Say
As the Tour De France rolls into the second week, and the racing continues to take it’s toll on the riders, one can’t help but wonder how these athletes are able to prepare and compete at such a high level.We all want to ride faster, race smarter, and see continual improvement, but what are the best ways to achieve these goals? We decided to ask the experts what they think…
By Matt McNamara
Last time we opened the conversation on training zones by reviewing some of the history surrounding heart rate based approaches. We also took a quick look at perceived exertion as a measure of merit. This week we’re expanding to include power based training zones and how to pull it all together into your plan, but instead of a staid monologue on zone and power training, I went out and asked some of the marquee names in both power based training and coaching for their help.
The first step in having an expert panel is getting the experts. I thumbed through my rolodex and came up with some good ones. I would like to extend my deep appreciation to these World class coaches and physiologists for their input and help:
Joe Friel is one of the World’s foremost endurance coaches and the author of numerous books and articles about the nuances of training over the past three decades. His “Training Bible” series is the starting point for countless athletes and coaches.
You can’t get more than a couple of paragraphs into power training before Dr. Andy Coggan’s influence becomes readily apparent. His training theory and nomenclature (developed with Hunter Allen) are the most commonly used metrics because they give the athlete and coach a way to readily track and understand their training.
Ric Stern is a certified British Cycling coach who brings a true evidence based approach to his clients. Over the years he has developed a reputation as one of the “go to” guys for high end performance training. His clients include . He has authored published research and is the head of RST Sport Solutions.
Alex Simmons is a Cycling Australia certified coach who has a unique ability to take the complexities of power training, and the mathematics therein, and translate them into useable everyday language for athletes and coaches. This proficiency is one of the reasons that Alex is a fast rising talent in the world of cycling.
I chose each of these panelists specifically because of their unique experiences and approach to training. Given their vast history and experience, knowledge and education it’s a fair bet that the training zones they use now represent the current tip of the training continuum. For simplicity I divided the panelists into two power camps – Functional Threshold (Lactate) and Maximal Aerobic (VO2max) Power. Joe and Andy trend towards the FTP approach, while Alex and Ric are more rooted in the MAP camp*. Fortunately, we have a great starting point for looking at the different approaches thanks to the following graph…
As you can see there is a lot of similarity across the board, .with some differences in nomenclature and reference intensity.
*I wanted to be sure to include reference to the critical power paradigm. Critical power breaks efforts down into mean maximal power (MMP) over a given duration. As such it doesn’t have a set of ‘zones’ around which you train, but rather focuses on the duration in question, ranging from a few seconds out to many hours, and targets efforts there. It is a useful methodology that helps further define the athletes abilities and track their improvement.
I asked everyone to cite some relevant research and reading that has been formative. The lists were remarkably similar and ranged from the work of Peter Keen at British Cycling, to Peter Janssen’s book “Lactate Threshold Training” in addition to the hundreds of research papers that set the baseline for endurance training. Clearly the science between the two approaches isn’t vastly different – good research is good research. So, Let’s let the experts weigh in on their approach a little:
Dr Coggan: “Average power during a 40k TT provides a logical basis for a training system because it correlates very highly with power at lactate threshold, the most important physiological determinant of endurance cycling performance (since it integrates VO2max, the percentage of VO2max that can be sustained, and cycling efficiency). Indeed, beyond the first few seconds of exercise the entire power-duration performance curve can be described quite closely using just two mathematical parameters, representing anaerobic capacity and lactate threshold respectively.”
Alex Simmons: “I typically use training levels based on Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP). These are relatively broad zones and overlap to some extent (e.g. the top of Zone 2 is higher than the bottom of Zone 3), which is deliberate, since in reality training response is on a continuum with respect to intensity and how an athlete feels changes from day to day. Most athletes have an FTP in the range of 72-77% of MAP. Some fall outside of that range and the ratio between FTP and MAP provides additional insight into a rider’s physiological makeup and fitness.”
Ric Stern: “I started collating power data back in about ’93. Straight away it became apparent to me that power data was the way forward as it accurately described what an athlete was doing. Because power is inversely proportional to duration (i.e., at maximal effort the longer the effort is the less power you can produce) and because most athletes can operate at roughly similar percentages of MAP it soon became apparent that a schema could be produced that would be suitable for all/most endurance riders. This led to me designing my MAP based power zones.”
Now that we have a grasp on a couple of zone models, including similarities and differences, let’s see how they apply in the real world.
Taking It To The Real World
I asked the panelists several ‘real world’ questions designed to parse out how their use of training zones can have maximum impact. Among them:
1. Is there a minimum level of training stress that you feel is necessary to continually make gains?
Joe Friel: “If you are asking if there are advantages to limited time for training relative to unlimited time for training, the answer is no. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the very busy rider. His/her only option is to ride with greater intensity as a percentage of total weekly volume. His/her weekly average intensity factor (using a Coggan term) will need to be above about 0.75 frequently whereas the rider with unlimited training time and high volume will have an IF of less than 0.60 more than likely.”
Alex Simmons: “The power based training load measures developed by Andy Coggan are an excellent means to define training stress and compare loads from sessions of differing types. I’m referring to Training Stress Score (TSS) and Chronic Training Load (CTL) amongst others. Using CTL as a guide, then I see definite changes in a rider’s fitness with progress as low as increasing CTL by 1-2 TSS/day per week, although we typically would seek to lift training load at a faster rate than that while developing and preparing an athlete’s aerobic engine. In terms of absolute CTL numbers, anyone with a CTL of less than 60 TSS/day definitely has the opportunity to improve performance through increasing training loads. Those with very low CTL (<<50 TSS/day) simply need to ride more (or more frequently) in order to improve. A CTL of 80-110 TSS/day is a sweet spot for many riders with “normal” lives and at these loads the composition of training matters a lot more. For riders that have never reached these training loads before, I regularly see “breakthrough” performances. A rider may reach a “CTL ceiling” (capacity for sustaining a training load) at which point they are overreaching and not improving performance. If consistent, this ceiling can be lifted a little each year, along with performance. For the dedicated, full time or professional athlete, then the loads needed to meet race demands are significantly higher, with substantial periods >120 TSS/day, and at times approaching 140+ TSS/day. The recovery demands are consequently higher as well.
Ric Stern: “It depends on their initial fitness levels and their genetics. A cyclist new to training and racing will require a whole lot less training and specificity than someone who is either world class or been training for a very long time.”
2. One of the goals of using training zones is to help the athlete learn to differentiate physiological systems development. What do you feel are the strengths and limitations to a zone training approach?
Dr Andy Coggan: “As I see it, there are two major benefits to regulating training intensity (be it by PE, heart rate, power, or pace) vs. following a more laissez-faire approach:
It allows a coach (or whomever is preparing the training program) to “pinpoint” the development of specific physiological abilities thought to be relevant to performance in a particular event, and it provides the coach with an additional point-of-reference in understanding what their athlete actually did/felt (since obviously only the athlete themselves really know/experience the workout).
The disadvantages of structuring training in this manner are:
People can be misled into believing that there is “magic” in training at particular intensities (thus ignoring the fact that all responses to exercise really occur on a continuum), and depending on the individual, constraining their training can take away some of the fun of participating in a sport.
Joe Friel: “Perceived exertion is a requirement for effective racing. Without this the athlete is dependent on technology to govern race intensity. That may work ok for time trials (assuming the battery doesn’t fade) but for road racing gauging intensity using a power meter or HR monitor relative to what’s happening in the race is not feasible.”
Alex Simmons: “One of the primary advantages of training zones is practicality in communicating training plans and daily objectives with athletes. It’s a quick and convenient means to express how hard one should ride today, or at times during a ride.
As athletes become better informed about the purpose of their sessions, they can begin to self manage training loads, and learn what works well for them. This means we can focus on other elements of performance development and expand the coach-athlete relationship beyond “here – go do this and send me your files”.
Power training levels are great for calibrating an athlete’s perception of effort. It is important of course that training levels are adjusted as and when a rider’s fitness level changes, something athlete and coach need to be aware of. Rides that are meant to be hard, should feel hard.
Training levels are a guide and are descriptive only and athletes should avoid the trap of becoming a “zone drone”. Riding and racing by its very nature has highly variable power demands and there is simply no need for anyone to religiously stick to a given zone on their rides.
Another limitation is that training levels can sometimes set artificial boundaries when an athlete undertakes targeted efforts and interval work. The power one rides efforts at should be based on what an athlete can actually do, what they have done recently, and what the objective of a session is.”
Training zones have been a part of the performance vernacular for more than three decades. Coaches and athletes at all levels have embraced their convenience and effectiveness. They help provide structure and definition to one’s training and bring the world of exercise science from the lofty heights of research to your daily workout. Yet, to a man, our expert panel affirmed that training zones, power meters, and heart rate monitors are merely tools in one’s arsenal, and not the holy grail of performance improvement. Indeed, each panelist felt that the development of perceived exertion and internal measures was the most important step an athlete can make in their own development. Hopefully, this article and others will help you better understand some of the essentials of good training, but in the end you have to know the demands of your target event and how your body responds to different kinds of training in order to truly maximize your available training time.
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is also the owner/manager of the Sterling ‘Cross p/b Sendmail, Inc. Cyclocross Team. You can learn more about Matt and his coaching by visiting his Sterlingspeed.blogspot.com