Beginners, Cycling, Podcast, Training

Training Zones part 2: Cycling | EP#29

 June 9, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Training Zones part 2: Cycling | EP#29

Training zones. You know of them, but do you know just how important it is that you use them? And most importantly, how to go about using them in swimming, biking and running?

In part 2 of this episode series on training zones, we cover how to use training zones in cycling.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How to determine training zones in cycling
  • How to use training zones in different types of bike workouts
  • Power vs. heart rate vs. RPE
  • How important is training with power?


The purpose of training zones

02:18 -

Training zones purpose

To train at the right intensity at the right time to make training effective. If you’re supposed to go easy, don’t go moderate. If you’re supposed to go hard, don’t go moderate.​

How intensity is measured in cycling

3:41 -

1. Power

  • This is the first and best way because this is a direct measure of output.
  • It's what's actually produced to move yourself and the bike forward.
  • Power is measured in watts.
  • Advantages:
    • Feedback is instantaneous. You instantly get your current power output to your bike computer or multisport watch. It does not lag like heart rate.
    • It's a direct measure of output. It's completely objective unlike heart rate that is affected by a whole host of different variables.
  • Disadvantage:
    • Power meters are expensive.

2. Heart rate

  • Heart rate is very valuable in the absence of a power meter.
  • Disadvantages:
    • It lags. It takes about 3 minutes until the heart rate stabilizes.
    • It may not stabilize at all if the intensity is high enough and intervals short enough. This means you can't judge whether your effort was at the right level solely by heart rate for these types of workouts.
  • External factors that affect heart rate:
    • Caffeine, hydration, weather, temperature, recovery status, etc.
  • High intensity workouts with short intervals like VO2max workouts are quite impossible to do based on heart rate.

3. RPE - Rate of Perceived Exertion

  • In many cases, this is actually better than heart rate. At least if you have some experience in endurance training.
  • Measured using a 10 point scale. 1 as being super easy
  • You can check out this RPE scale which has cues to know your exact level of RPE.
RPE table with internal cues rows

Click the image to see the entire scale

Determining zones is based on power at functional (or lactate/anaerobic) threshold

08:03 -​

  • Lactate threshold is equivalent to anaerobic threshold.​ THese can be determined in laboratory testing.
  • For most this threshold is determined using a field test rather than a laboratory test. We call this functional threshold.
  • Power at functional threshold is your FTP or functional threshold power. This is the most important physiological determinant of endurance cycling performance, because it integrates VO2max and the percentage of VO2max that can be sustained for a given duration.

How to determine functional threshold power (FTP)

10:29 - ​

  • This is where all the training zones are based on - the percentage points of this FTP.​
  • This is determined using a field test.
  • My protocol during the winter season is the TrainerRoad 20-minute FTP test.
  • When riding outside, this is my preferred protocol: 

FTP test protocol


  • 10 minutes easy.
  • Then 3 sets of 1 minute hard and 1 minute easy, 6 minutes in total.
  • Then 5 minutes easy, 5 minutes hard based on effort.
  • Then 5 minutes easy again.


  • 20 minutes all out time trial. But pace well!


  • 10-20 minutes easy spinning
  • Determine lactate threshold heart rate and FTP by taking the 95% of the average heart rate and the average power for that 20 minutes segment (multiply by 0.95).
  • FTP is the power that you can sustain in a race for 1 hour.
  • Example: An athlete holds an average power of 250 watts and average heart rate of 170 beats per minute for the 20 minute segment. Multiply these two by 0.95 and you will have an FTP of 238 watts and a functional threshold heart rate of 162 beats per minute.

Training zones in cycling 

15:04 -

Zone 1 - Active recovery

15:17 -

  • Less than 55% of the FTP or 68% of the functional threshold heart rate.​
  • A slight difference with my values from that of Dr. Coggan’s, I have 75% of the functional threshold heart rate because I find that athletes can never hit the 68% even if they go below 55% FTP.
  • So for an athlete that has an FTP of 247 and FTHR of 162, it would mean lower than 138 watts and 116 bpm.
  • These are the cooldowns, rest between intervals, early parts of warm-ups and also some active recovery rides.

Zone 2 - Aerobic riding/endurance

17:05 -

  • Below 75% of FTP or 83% of functional threshold heart rate in Coggan’s zones and 85% of FTHR in Eriksson’s zones.​
  • For the athlete that has an FTP of 247, it means staying between 138-187 watts in terms of power. And staying between 116-142 bpm in terms of heart rate.
  • Used for long, steady, aerobic, basic bread and butter workouts where you don’t go hard and get volume in.

Zone 3 - Tempo 

18:04 -

  • This is around the aerobic threshold, still clearly below the anaerobic threshold or FTP.​
  • It is 76-90% FTP in Coggan’s Zones.
  • An alternative zone in TrainerRoad - 76-84% FTP. They also have a high Zone 3 - Sweet Spot -  that Coggan does not have. This is a zone that I like a lot because you can get a lot of benefits like improving your FTP while staying below FTP. This is 85-95% FTP.
  • In terms of heart rate, 94% or below of functional threshold heart rate.
  • So for the athlete with 247 watts FTP, you have 187-224 watts in Coggan’s zones with 142-161 bpm for FTHR.
  • These are your longer tempo intervals like doing 3x12 or 3x15 or 4x15 minutes with 5 minute rest intervals.
  • Zone 3 also has a lot of race specific workouts, especially if racing half distance, full distance or olympic distance triathlon.

Zone 4 - Threshold 

21:01 -​

  • Coggan defines this as 90-105% FTP.
  • For TrainerRoad, this is 96-105% FTP
  • Heart rate would be 95-105% of functional threshold heart rate.
  • For me, I end the heart rate range at 102% because when you go beyond that, I have seen that in terms of power you go into Zone 5.
  • So for the athlete with 247 watts FTP, you will have 240-261 watts for Z4.
  • The kind of workouts done in  Zone 4 are threshold intervals. These can be 6-10 minute intervals, or even 15 minute intervals for high end athletes. These are really hard workouts but it works incredibly well to increase your FTP. The rest of the intervals are still relatively short. For example, 4x8 minutes with 4 minute rest intervals which is a very good Zone 4 workout.
  • Over-unders or criss-cross workouts. There are a few different ways to do them:
    • Just staying within Zone 4, alternating going just a bit below or above the FTP. For example criss-cross so you go for a minute above FTP at 105% FT, and then 2 minutes at 95% and repeat for a couple of times, then rest at a lower intensity, then do it all over again for a few times.
    • A continuous Zone 3 to Zone 4 workout, or the other way around. You can do 5 minutes at your FTP, then 5 minutes at high Zone 3, then go back at your FTP for 5 minutes then back to high Zone 3. High Zone 3 will be your recovery intervals.

Zone 5 - VO2max / maximum aerobic capacity

23:55 -

  • ​105-120% FTP or beyond 106% of functional threshold heart rate.
  • Usually this will be most beneficial when you get to 115% to 120% of FTP.
  • 110% will not do as much good as 115 or 120%.
  • This is where exact prescriptions is getting very important.
  • The workouts in this zone are short intervals with very high intensity. A bread and butter example would be 6x3 minutes at 120% of FTP followed by 3 minutes recovery. Rest intervals are similar to interval length generally.
  • Listen to Episode 20, it is about Masters Athletes and a lot about VO2max, because this is very important for masters athletes and how beneficial this can be for athletes of all abilities.
  • So for the athlete with 247 watts FTP, you would have 288 watts as 120% of FTP.

Zone 6 - Max effort / anaerobic capacity

25:19​ -

  • Coggan even has a Zone 7 which is neuromuscular power. But I would combine this with Zone 6 which is more appropriate for triathletes compared to track cyclists.​
  • An example workout would be doing 30 second all out reps followed by 5 minutes recovery and repeating this for a few times.

How zone training on the bike fits into the big picture of training

26:01 -

Zone 3​

  • ​This is for race specific training.
  • Outside of race specific training, this zone will be most beneficial when using the high zone 3 or sweet spot work.

​Zone 2

  • This is where the much volume of the training is accumulated.

Zone 4 or Zone 5

  • This is where you will have most of your quality workout which is around threshold or VO2 max.


  • If cycling 2 days per week: a general prescription would be a Zone 2 long ride or a shortish Zone 3 long ride. The other workout would be a Zone 4 or Zone 5 quality workout.
  • For 3 days per week: a Zone 2 long ride or a shortish but more intense Zone 3 long ride. Then a Zone 4 or 5 quality workout. Then either a Zone 2 endurance ride, or if you have a heavy week in terms of running and swimming - a recovery ride, or if a lighter week and it's not a specific recovery week - you can add a 2nd quality workout which could be a sweet spot workout.
  • For 4 days per week: a Zone 2 or 3 long ride, then a Zone 4 or 5 quality, then probably a sweet spot workout, then an active recovery or aerobic endurance shorter workout, as short as 30-45 minutes up to 1 hour. Then the quality workouts would be an hour or an hour and 15 minutes.


  • Zones are based on percentages of your functional threshold power (FTP) or heart rate.​
  • You can find your functional threshold by doing a 20 minute field test to go all out and take 95% of your average heart rate or power.

Science Update

  • A British study put 97 runners with a variety of ability levels (10k PB:s ranging from sub 30 minutes to just below 1 hour) on a series of treadmill tests using a motion capture 3D camera analysis.​
  • They analyzed 24 different biomechanical variables which was then compared to running economy and also PB:s for that specific running season.
  • The study tried to investigate how different biomechanical variables affect running economy and running performance in terms of personal best.
  • The first takeaway was that there was a large variability in most biomechanical parameters which concluded that there’s probably no single right way to run.
  • Findings also show that 19 out of 24 biomechanical variables were in some way statistically significantly correlated to running economy, 11 of the 24 variables were correlated with seasonal best performance.
  • The variables that stood out for running economy were:
    • Vertical oscillation is the most important variable. This is how much you bounce up and down when running. It is better to have less vertical oscillations.
    • The second most important variable was how bent your knee joint is when your foot hits the ground. It is better to hit the ground with a more straight knee rather than a more bent knee joint.
    • The final variable was braking. This is measured by looking at the motion of the pelvis and how it decelerated as you hit the ground. Less slown down as you hit the ground is better.
  • And for running performance:
    • Angle of the shin when the foot hits the ground. It is better to hit this closer vertical.
    • Duty factor - how quick is the ground contact time in relation to stride length.
    • Forward lean of the trunk - it is better to have it more upright.

Key takeaway

Try to reduce vertical oscillation.

  • Insignificant variables to running economy:
    • What part of the foot hits the ground first (heel strike or forefoot strike)
    • Cadence

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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