Know your training zones for cycling

Data is important to training and racing, but so is rider feel and understanding. Here's how to achieve that balance.

Photo: Stages Cycling

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Do you know your training zones for heart rate and power? If you’re doing serious training, the numbers should roll off your tongue. Now, do you know each of these zones by feel?

With the rapid improvement in technology-based guides, be they cycling computers or virtual training software, more and more athletes are becoming dependent on what their screen tells them. One problem with this is often that they lose sight of the reason for training in the first place. At FasCat, we fully support using technology as a training tool, but we also want to remind you to find a balance between using technology and listening to your body.


Zwift, cycling computers, workout builder tools in Strava, etc., all have great benefits such as walking you through a workout step by step, saving you time and energy, and in general, giving you guidance. However, we’ve also noticed an unintended consequence: Some athletes struggle to maintain their workout when the guides fail.

A common example is when your computer, for whatever reason, doesn’t prompt your next workout. You might remember that your coach assigned 3 x 10 minutes of zone 3 with five minutes of rest in between, but what watts were you supposed to target? You should know your zones and have them in your head before you begin each workout. And you should know how zone 3 feels.

Another example happens for Zwift riders. You’re going through a workout, but you notice that your power seems off. You have performed a spin down to calibrate your trainer, but something is still not right. Next, you think to look at your HR to compare to your power, but you don’t know how your zones compare.

Or, what if you’re out on the bike and your heart rate monitor or power meter battery dies? You still want to make the workout count, but what should the effort feel like?

We hear these examples frequently. As coaches, we are passionate about having a reason behind every workout, either physically or mentally. This means training a system to achieve precise physiological adaptations. When using training zones to achieve this, it’s important to understand the purpose of those zones and how to use them. This will further your understanding of your training as an athlete and keep you from struggling when technology lets you down.

Frank Overton wrote a cycling training zones piece, which is a full breakdown of training by zones, what each should “feel like,” the percentages of FTP, and, importantly, what that zone is doing for you. If you need a refresher, read up on the what and why. After having done that, I would encourage you to apply that knowledge to your workouts.

Start by asking yourself, “How do I feel while doing this effort in this zone?” Does it match what you know of the zone? Get to know that feeling. This will not only give you an understanding of your zones and your training but also allow you to mentally prepare for workouts and your ability to pace during rides and races.

Finally, get to know your numbers. Know what 200 watts feels like, versus 250 watts, versus 300 watts. Also, know what that means to you. Like knowing sensations, knowing numbers will give you a deeper understanding of the meaning of your workouts and how many matches you burned during an event.

We’re not advocating leaving your computer at home, but we do challenge you to become as familiar with your zones, numbers, and “feel,” as you are with reading your screens. You pour sweat and tears into your training. Putting effort into understanding your zones and why they matter is just as important for well-rounded athletes. Doing so will help you stay on track and able to adapt to any situation.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this: one of the pro athletes I coach was competing in the Tour of the Gila time trial. When she went off the start ramp, she noticed her power meter was totally dead, meaning she was now going to have to do this very difficult TT blind. We had been working for months on her pacing and what gradually emptying the tank “feels like.” At that moment, she knew the zone she needed to target and transferred that understanding to the race by memory. No surprise, she nailed the pacing and hit her goal.

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.