Understand | Execute

In my last decade working as a coach, I’ve learned that teaching the “what” (prescribing workouts) of training is really the simplest part of coaching. The more challenging part of coaching is communicating why a workout is important and how to execute quality training day after day and month after month.

I created this workout guide to more effectively teach the why and how of training, and to ultimately help you be more consistent on the bike.

Our path to learning more about the why and how of training starts with understanding the three primary training languages or zones used in cycling. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), power, and the energy systems of the body. Let’s jump in

Training Languages

Training zones serve two core functions. The first function is to describe what you’ve done on the bike. Example: On today’s ride you spent 20m riding in your zone 2/endurance zone.

The second function of a training zone is to standardize the language used to prescribe training intensity. Example: Spend 20 minutes riding at a zone 4/threshold intensity.

You can see from these examples that there’s nothing sacred about any specific training zone system. Training zones are “good” or “bad” depending on how well they describe our riding or serve to accurately prescribe intended training intensities.

In short, training zones are constructs to help us better understand the riding we’ve done, while enabling us to be more intentional about the riding we plan to do. From a broader sense, the most accurate way to describe and prescribe training is to utilize multiple training languages that include the subjective nature of how training feels, alongside the objective nature of measurable training intensity.

This is the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale we use for our cycling workouts.

Our first language utilizes a subjective measure of cycling intensity called the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

Understanding RPE is critical to describing and prescribing training as it serves as the singular metric to combine the physical and psychological experience of training. Our RPE scale uses a simple one through ten. One is easy, ten is all-out.

Our second training language is based on an objective measure of cycling intensity, known as power (or wattage). Our power zones are based on a simple six-zone structure anchored to the concept of the lactate threshold (LT).

We won’t spend too much time on the LT, but in simple terms, the upper end of Zone 4 (threshold) serves as our training zone anchor or “100%”.

If your threshold value is set at 300w, intensities under threshold use multipliers under 1 (example:.95, .80), and intensities over LT use multipliers over 1 (example: 1.05, 1.2).

All training zones use a multiplier of the threshold value. This enables us to scale our training intensity based on our current power at LT.

This is the six zone power based system we use for our cycling workouts

Our third language is that of exercise physiology. When it comes to better understanding training zones the most important concept from exercise physiology is that of the integrated nature of our energy systems.

There are three energy systems that power exercise. The ATP-PCr, glycolytic, and oxidative. The ATP-PCr and glycolytic are referred to as “anaerobic” because they are able to produce energy without oxygen. The oxidative energy system is considered “aerobic” since oxygen is a requirement to produce energy.

This graphic highlights the estimated energy system contribution to an all-out 10s effortThis graphic highlights the estimated energy system contribution to an all-out 4m effort
Move the slider to compare the variable contributions of energy between a ten second and four minute all-out effort

Catch a quick summary of our training languages in this short video
Ride Context

Before we introduce our different training zones in detail, it’s important to highlight another concept for getting the most out of your workouts. Just like intensity prescription for workouts is specific to different training objectives, so too should training feel distinct and different.

We’ll introduce more context for each training zone a bit later, but for now, we’ll highlight the value of spending a few minutes to make each training zone feel different by customizing the screens on your cycling computer.

I think it’s a good idea to have at least 4 distinct screens setup on your cycling computer and to tailor the feedback you see on each screen to match the purpose and intent of workout.

Sample Computer Screen

Notice how the computer screen is simplified to only show the data helpful for guiding the workout at hand.

It’s also important to note that we’re trying to reduce the overall time spent thinking about and processing data from our computer and instead spend that energy more fully enjoying the ride, or committing to a prescribed intensity.

I’ve found it helpful to think about ride data in three tiers.

  1. Tier One – Immediate: This data is most helpful being displayed in real-time on our bike computer, to help better pace an effort. Examples would be speed, cadence, or power.
  2. Tier Two – Cumulative: This data is meant to guide and correct the overall direction of a workout. This includes data fields that display cumulative ride metrics like average power, distance, or kilojoules.
  3. Tier Three – Post-ride: This data is best left for post ride analysis in Today’s Plan. Any ride data that isn’t making a positive contribution to pacing an effort could be placed in this tier. The stronger your understanding of the training languages of power and RPE, the more of your ride data can be outsourced to post-ride analysis. Practice displaying less on your computer screen, so you can invest more of your attention into your effort.

Let’s jump in and explore the primary types of workouts you’re most likely to encounter on the bike.

Training Zone Guide

Zone 3 – Tempo

“Tempo” might be the most worthless description for a training intensity but its widespread usage in cycling circles seems to mean we’re stuck with it. What does “tempo” mean exactly? Let’s jump in.

Zone 4 – Threshold

If you’ve spent any time doing formal cycling workouts, then you’re no doubt familiar with zone 4, or “threshold” type workouts. The term “threshold” is generally synonymous with other common exercise physiology terms like lactate threshold (LT), anaerobic threshold (AT), and Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS) [1].

Zone 5 – VO2

Your VO2max is the maximal amount of oxygen consumed during progressive all-out exercise. In the weight conscious world of cycling, VO2max is most commonly discussed in relative terms scaled to a riders weight as milliliters of oxygen, per kilogram of weight, per minute of exercise mL/kg/min.