As a coach, a common question I hear from beginner and experienced endurance athletes alike is “how do I get faster?” Obviously, this is a loaded question which I have to answer with a lot more questions, but my initial question is usually “Well, what does your training look like?” To this, I typically get three categories of responses. Category 1 is they run their same 5mi loop every day at the same pace. Category 2 is they have an interval day, a long ride day, a group ride day, an as you feel day, and a rest day every week but no specifics on how hard or how long, and the group rides and ‘as you feel’ days turn into stages of the Tour de France. Category 3 is the athlete that tells me every pace, watt, TSS score, gram of carbs, and drop of sweat that occurs throughout their week. Clearly the first two categories need some more structure and the third category probably some simplification, both of which come in the form of Training Zones.
To some, this may be a new topic and to some this may seem like a return to kindergarten, but I think both camps of people will find this deep dive into Training Zones to be useful. In basic terms, Training Zones are different ranges of intensity in which you train to illicit different training adaptations. The spectrum of intensity ranges is from sitting on the couch to all out sprinting. Each training zone covers part of that entire spectrum, each covering a zone that will target a specific energy system and/or training adaptation. The number of zones depends on the person you talk to and the sport, but I use 7 Training Zones for cycling and 6 for running and swimming, which is in line with most coaches and experts. The first 6 zones for all three sports are very similar, with the 7th zone for cycling being very short all out sprinting intensity which is more common in that that sport compared to the others.
As stated above, each Training Zone is a range of intensity designed to illicit a specific training adaptation. These ranges were chosen based on the energy system you use and the specific stress the given intensity is placing on your body and thus each zone is a different stress and a different resulting adaptation in your body. The adaptation occurs to help you be better able to handle that stress in the future i.e., handle a faster pace during a race, get up a hill quicker, or finish with a strong sprint.
Whether you already know about training zones or this is the first you hear about them, it is important to understand the importance of using them and using them properly. To illustrate this point let’s use a strength training analogy. If you went to the gym and only did bench press, you wouldn’t expect your legs to get bigger and stronger. Likewise, if you only use certain training zones in training, you won’t get better at the other ones. This is why designing your training to use all the training zones required for you sport in the correct proportions and at the correct time is important. To continue our strength training analogy, if you did one set of an exercise for each muscle group during your workout, using a weight that was just sort of hard, you would be more well-rounded but you wouldn’t maximize your results for any or all your muscle groups. Likewise, if you went for a bike ride and went sort of hard for most of it and performed one interval of various training zones throughout, you would be well-rounded but you wouldn’t maximize your ability in any given training zone. Where training zones correlate to certain training adaptations it’s important to stress them specifically and aggressively for maximum improvement in that zone, just like you would do 3 sets of heavy bench press on your upper body day at the gym and 3 sets of heavy squats on your leg day. Recovering for the correct amount of time and at the correct intensity between intervals is also important to the quality of the intervals and will be discussed below as well. To continue the strength training example again, you wouldn’t rest for 10sec or 1hour between sets, nor do a bunch of push-ups between sets of bench press.
Since Training Zones are based on intensity, we need a way to measure intensity i.e., how hard you are working. Pace for running is the gold standard method for gauging intensity and is therefore recommended, though it does necessitate having a G.P.S. running watch, which I would highly recommended for any runner as well, especially while following a formal training plan. Power for cycling is the gold standard method for gauging intensity and is therefore also recommended, though it does come at the highest financial cost so its understandably not for everyone. If attaining a power meter is possible, it is a great investment for your training. Heart rate is another good way to gauge the intensity your body is going through for either sport, though it can occasionally be unreliable due to a variety of reasons including stress, sleep, and hydration levels so this should be kept in mind. Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is literally how hard the exercise feels and the body is quite remarkable at gauging intensity so don’t count this out as an option if it is all you have. Being in tune with your RPE even while using pace, power, and/or heart rate is a good idea as well. For swimming, pace (usually time per 100m) and RPE are both good options. Pace can be determined by checking a clock/watch between laps and is most useful for faster intervals of 400m or less. While pace can also work for longer intervals (i.e., endurance swims) and easier parts of your swim workout (i.e., warm ups, cool downs, etc.), RPE is usually sufficient for gauging these efforts.
The magic of Training Zones are that they are individual to you based on some simple testing you can perform. The tests will yield Functional Threshold Paces for running and swimming and a Functional Threshold Power for cycling, all abbreviated FTP, as well as Functional Threshold Heart Rates (FTHR). You can download your free Endurance Strong Training Zone Calculators (EnduranceStrong.com > Training tab > Training Zone Calculators) to find out your individualized training zones for the respective sports and how to perform the testing needed to calculate them.
There are some general trends and notes to discuss before diving deeper. Training Zones range from very easy to maximal efforts. First, the higher the intensity or harder the effort is, the shorter you can perform that effort. For example, you can go at an easy pace for hours, but can only sprint for a matter of seconds. Along the same lines, the higher the intensity of an interval, the more time you will need to recover from that effort in order to perform another. Second, while the zones are divided at specific intensities, there is going to be overlap between zones and should be viewed as a full spectrum of intensities. For example, when you cross from Zone 4 to 5 your body doesn’t stop improving its Lactate Threshold and immediately work on maximal oxygen consumption, but around that point the main focus of the workout begins to shift from one to the other, though both will continue to occur to some degree. Lastly, knowing your Training Zones and their purpose is the first step in designing optimal workouts. Picking which Training Zones and the corresponding workouts are best for you and your goals, and when to do them are the next steps which will be discussed in future articles. So, whether this is an introduction or re-introduction to Training Zones, get to know what each zone can offer your training and how to best use it, so you have the best foundation in building your training plan. Or save time and ensure your training plan is optimal with one of our Training Plans here.
The following articles cover each of the Training Zones including, their purpose, the energy system they primarily use, intensities and durations of intervals/workouts for targeting that zone with corresponding rest intervals, and examples of workouts that fit into each.
Continue reading about Zone 1 here.