Training FAQ: Do you need training zones?

Managing editor Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer your training and nutrition questions.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Do you have a question on training, nutrition, or sport science that you’d like answered? Please email us to be included in Training FAQ.

Dear Chris,
As I have become a better cyclist, I have also tried to learn more about physiology and training philosophies. Of course, anybody who looks into training science as it pertains to cycling quickly comes to “training zones” and talk about how, when, and where to spend most of your time. But I’m also someone who doesn’t like to overthink things. So, to continue to improve as a cyclist, do I actually need to use zones?

— Al Dixon

Dear Al,
Thanks for your question. It’s true that training zones are ubiquitous in cycling parlance. Almost any time you speak with someone about their training, they’ll start a sentence with, “I was training in zone 2…”

The fact is that zone 2 means many things to many people. That’s because there are many different zone models. None of them is perfect. What they are based on – FTP, VO2max, or power-duration – all have their issues. Nor can any model ever fully account for day-to-day variation within each athlete. All zones are estimates that try to help an athlete understand what’s happening within the human body at any given level of effort. That’s a challenge, particularly because the human body doesn’t have distinct walls between its breaking points.

While there are many zone models based on heart rate, there are actually very few based on power. That’s partially because Dr. Andy Coggan and Hunter Allen came up with a model that’s been the standard. Their system involves not just numbers, but names for each level, which is meant to help users understand what energy system is being targeted at each.

Figure 1. Seiler’s three-zone model is based around two physiological breakpoints.

Dr. Coggan’s Classic zone model has seven zones. Another prominent physiologist, Dr. Stephen Seiler, uses a three-zone model. There are many others. Most systems feature zones that are a percentage of VO2max, FTP, or threshold. There are pros and cons to each system; ultimately, all of them have limitations. First, it’s still hard to understand what an individual means by “zone 2”; more importantly, just because you’re training in a particular zone doesn’t mean you’re doing the right training – there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration, including volume.

With all that said, one thing is certain: Training zones can have tremendous value. They provide guidance for training and a means of communicating with your coach or teammates. I reached out to a number of prominent scientists and coaches to get their opinions on training zones. Here’s what they had to say:

Dr. Andy Coggan: “Zones have a lot to do with clarity. They are a system to standardize communication, with the recognition, of course, that physiological responses occur on a continuum, physiological adaptations are a result of a continuum. Nonetheless, humans have difficult dealing with shades of grey, so we paint it as a bit more black and white and say, ‘Yeah, there are seven training levels, because it’s an aid in communicating, especially when dealing with large groups of individuals. But anyone who believes there’s magic in training at a particular intensity, first, they don’t understand how the body responds to exercise. But they also don’t understand what Hunter [Allen] and Stephen [McGregor] and I have been trying to educate people on for the past two decades.”

Colby Pearce: “Zones can provide a useful language. We have to have a common language to discuss intensity with athletes, and I think zones tries to assume that language. There are problems with that language, at times. There are three different ways to track what ‘zone’ you’re riding in at any given time… Are you using power? Are you using heart rate? Are you using perceived exertion? Those are three different things. So we have to take all of that into account as well.”

Trevor Connor: “Zones are good for guidance. They’re good for giving a common language. But at the end of the day, if you want to train your best, you’re not going to get there by simply saying, ‘My zone 4 is X watts and I trained in that wattage.’ You have to take responsibility and say, ‘I don’t care that I was supposed to ride at 300 watts, this didn’t feel right today.’ And adjust.

For much more on training zones, listen to episode 72 of the Fast Talk podcast.

For more training advice, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast, your source for the best training advice and most compelling insight on what it takes to become a better cyclist. Listen in as VeloNews managing editor Chris Case and our resident physiologist and coach, Trevor Connor, discuss a range of topics, including sport science, training, physiology, technology, nutrition, and more.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.