Setting Your Training Zones

This issue Dr Mike Posthumus answers Jon’s question on how to determine training zones.

Dear Dr Mike

I always read about training zones, but not sure the best way to set my training zones. Could you please advise how I should set my training zones? Also how do I use these training zones to improve my riding?

Thank you for helping


Dear Jon:

The most accurate way to determine your training zones would be to have a physiological max test done at your nearest sport science facility. For those who do not wish to have performance tests performed to accurately determine their heart rate zones, an easy formula may be used. This formula, referred to as the Karvonen formula, uses your maximal heart rate minus your resting heart rate (your Heart Rate Reserve; HRR) to establish training zones. To establish your maximum heart rate, either use the highest heart rate you have seen recorded on your heart rate monitor, or alternatively, after sufficient warm up and shorter maximal effort, perform a maximal effort up a steep climb. You should be able to reach your maximal heart rate during this effort.

Here is the formula:

  Heart Rate Range
Zone 1 20 – 40% HRR + RHR
Zone 2 40 – 60% HRR + RHR
Zone 3 60 – 80% of HRR + RHR
Zone 4 80 – 90% of HRR + RHR
Zone 5 90 – 100% of HRR + RHR

HRR: Heart Rate Reserve | RHR: Resting Heart Rate

When searching the internet for training advice or even when reading the most popular cycling training books, you will soon realise there is a lot of conflicting thoughts about how effective these training zones are in structured sessions to improve your riding. The very traditional school of thought has always advised long hours on the bike with frequent tempo or fast paced rides (Zone 2 and Zone 3). Polarised training, or High intensity training (HIT) has only recently become popular among endurance athletes. Polarised training refers to the idea of a training mix between very hard and very easy. Although there are still debates as to which mode of training is more effective, a recent scientific study by Neal et al. (J Appl Physiol 114: 461–471, 2013) from the University of Scotland seems to have finally settled this debate once an for all. This study is the most comprehensive and most well-designed of its kind and may finally be able to accurately answer our question as to which training model gives us the greatest gains.

The study by Neal et al. compared predominantly tempo training (Zone 2 and Zone 3) to high intensity interval training (80% in Zone 2 or below and 20% over Zone 4) in a randomised cross-over study. The study demonstrated that training in a polarised manner was superior to tempo training.

Applying these principles to your training is the best way to use training zones to improve your performance. For example, when training for 7 hours per week, it is recommended to spend approximately 60 – 90 minutes (20% of training time) training at a high intensity. The table included illustrates the 80/20 split recommended and also shows the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) you should experience in each training zone. This is very valuable to ensure that your zones are correctly set. If your REP and your HR training zones do not align, you should rather have a physiological test done to establish you HR training zones.

Very importantly, do not apply the 80/20 split on every training ride; ensure adequate recovery between hard training sessions to allow for recovery and adequate adaptation between sessions. It is generally recommended to perform two hard interval-training sessions each week.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) How Hard are you Working? Hear Rate Zone Goal Percentage Training Time (%)
0 Nothing at all Zone 1 80%
1 Very Light
2 Fairly Light Zone 2
3 Moderate
4 Somewhat Hard Zone 3 0%
5 Hard
6   Zone 4
7 Very Hard 20%
8   Zone 5
10 Very Very Hard (Maximal)

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