Zone training: planning your cycling training program

When planning a cycling training program, a common mistake made by cyclists is to be over zealous during the October to December period. With that in mind, Joe Beer explains the use of a simple zone training system based on heart rates to approximate three zones of effort and reward for cycling.

January to April is a crucial training period for cyclists preparing for the racing season ahead. But the evidence suggests that striking the correct balance between too much, too soon and too little, too late requires careful attention to detail. Turning the pages of a new calendar can make cyclists anxious and jittery. As the racing season looms, many riders feel as though they’re are running out of time, with the result that they end up overdoing things. Also, part of the balancing act of what training to do in first three to four months of the new year will depend on what training has been done during the previous three months.

October to December

A common mistake made by cyclists is to be over zealous during the October to December period. This can be detrimental to performance in three ways:

  1. Increased risk of illness – At this time of year, as daylight wanes and temperatures drop, there are many more coughs and colds around, and those with poor immunity are at risk. Push the body too hard now and you’ll probably end up taking more days off training. If you then try and catch up when you get well, there’s a good chance you’ll simply catch the next cough or cold to walk through the door. My own experience working with cyclists at all levels bears this out. Those who fail to listen to their body and take account of the seasons lose more time due to illness. In this respect, the slightly lazy winter trainer is at a distinct advantage over the type A ‘I’m really going to show them now’ cyclist!
  2. Risk of burn-out – Working against the seasons is not an easy way to train. Training indoors more often in the first phase of winter (Oct-Dec) makes it psychologically easier to cope with the second phase (Jan-Mar). Research data and anecdotal graphs on peak mileages of successful riders show that they do not peak in early winter, but instead that they peak in the pre-season or second phase of winter(1-4). If you’ve already been battering yourself for the past three months, well at least you know what not to do next winter. The hard work should begin when the New Year rolls around, not when your season ends. You should be building mental strength in the early phase of winter and then drawing on it in the second phase (those who already feel a bit burned out from too much Oct-Dec training should delay the programme outlined later in this article until around mid-February).
  3. Reduced productivity – Working against the seasons and training too hard during the Oct-Dec period does not tend to produce as much gain per hour of training time invested. The typical cyclist responds to training more quickly and to a greater degree during the second phase of winter. This could be due to the increasing day length, which may help trigger an innate awakening process. This may sound weird to those that believe that humans and our technology can overcome prehistoric ‘Stone Age man’ genetics, but check out some world records and see how few occur in the depths of winter. Additionally the standard workload graph below shows how, despite training consistently, athletes are not at their best mid-winter.

Building and quality

To get the most from the ‘building phase’ you need to have a plan. It’s not just about doing more steady-state base training; you have to do more quality work as well. Ed Burke’s annual training volumes record the monthly distance covered in November, December and January at 400, 800 and 1,000km per month respectively(2). The distances covered in the months February to April are 1,400, 1,600 and 1,800km. While this is more than most cyclists ride per ‘quarter’, it is illustrative nonetheless. The quality aspect can be demonstrated in racing cyclists; for example, a study on riders with oxygen uptake (VO2max) figures of around 70mls/kg/min showed steadily increasing VO2max from mid-winter to summer(5).

To perform quality work, you need a way to measure effort and the heart rate monitor (HRM) is the ideal tool. Although there are sophisticated power-measuring systems for bicycles (eg SRM, Polar, PowerTap, Ergmo and others), less information is readily available about how to get the best out of these high-tech systems for maximum fitness gains . More importantly, HRMs can be purchased for relatively little, whereas power-measuring systems can be extremely expensive. I use a simple 3-zone system based on heart rates to approximate three zones of effort and reward using research from various sports(6-8):

Zone 1 (Z1) – this is endurance work from 60 to 80% of maximum heart rate (HRmax). The perception of effort is low to moderate and it can be continued for several hours. This is known as ‘low lactate training’ because there is minimal lactate production. Fat supplies around 10 to 40% of energy requirements and carbohydrate is being used at low to moderate levels. The stress from this type of training is low. Low lactate training builds aerobic fitness allowing more work to be done over time, provides enough stress to develop the aerobic system and is what the fastest endurance athletes do most of. Day-to-day recovery is rapid and it’s also enjoyable.

Zone 2 (Z2) – sometimes called no man’s land, this zone is just above 80% HRmax but is not hard enough to be a real quality session (>85% HRmax). As such it’s too hard for easy endurance and too easy for hard intervals. This is sometimes called the ‘lactate accommodation area’; the extra effort above 80% HRmax (perhaps above 75% HRmax for those with low fitness) means more carbohydrate is being used. More importantly, lactate is increasing, as is the stress on the body. Athletes sometimes unwittingly end up here when a steady Z1 session turns into a test of ego, or a ‘race within training’. This can stress the body too much, resulting in fatigue and an inability to do higher quality work in zone 3, or more zone 1 work in the following 12 to 72 hours. Z2 training must be timed carefully and used judiciously by an athlete to achieve specific goals.

Zone 3 (Z3) – this zone is above 85-87% HRmax and is the zone of lactate accumulation. The extra effort requires more carbohydrate, fat use is minimal and the build-up of lactate causes fatigue in a matter of seconds to minutes. If a prescribed effort, such as low zone 3 (85-88% HRmax) begins too strenuously you can make Z3 sessions early on in the plan (late winter and spring) too stressful. Zone 3 is hard enough without going over the top. Intervals, short races, the end of longer events, time trials and VO2max tests all hit this zone. Time here takes out miles from the training bank and wears you down mentally so plan this stuff very, very carefully. Z3 will improve the gains from zone 1 (and training/racing in Z2) by an additional 10-15%. It helps to build power and allows an athlete to deal with lactate more efficiently, making it especially important for short-event athletes (ie events 20-120 minutes).

Planning a great springboard

To go faster you must apply a ‘base’ then add the quality on top – rather like making a fruit cake then icing it! The plan below for a January to late-May build-up assumes a solid October to December; that is, you have been riding consistently, kept healthy and logged a reasonable number of hours riding (eg 40-65% of your expected peak amounts). However, it can always be timed later; for example, you could commence your build-up in late February to peak for mid-July:
The crucial 12-week training stint is not a ‘one size fits all’ formula; instead it applies the following three principles:

  1. Gradually add Z2 work to start the move towards quality work. If you have built a good aerobic base you’ll need to work quite hard to get your heart rate into Z2. If, however, your fitness base is insufficient, you’ll tend to shoot past Z1 into Z2 on almost every climb. This means you are not ready for regimented Z2 intervals and that more Z1 base miles are needed;
  2. Add Z3 work either in the form of continuous intervals (eg 3x4mins in Z3 with 1min rest interval (RI) or all-out power efforts of 30-second maximal sprint with 4.5mins recovery. You’ll need to add this Z3 work correctly as it brings on your form quickly – probably peaking in about 4-8 weeks. If you have a July or August goal that is mostly aerobic (eg 12-hour time trial) leave the Z3 work until later in the season, and instead of intervals perhaps use races to accumulate Z3 efforts;
  3. Build up volume, but as the Z2 and Z3 work becomes harder, there will be more easy ‘low Z1’ workouts where you train at 60-65% HRmax to compensate. While these will feel quite easy, you’ll be surprised how fast you can go at such low heart rates when your fitness is high

Tips on zone training

The Z2 and Z3 workouts assume that you have not been doing your so-called ‘steady’ Z1 workouts too hard and ending up in Z2, or even Z3! Some people just can’t seem to go easy, which is a shame because they will never realise their full potential. If you do stray into Z2 on a session that was meant to be Z1 here’s what to do:

  • Make a note of why it happened and don’t let it happen again – eg choose a better riding partner, a better route or leave your ego at home;
  • Use your HRM to calculate the time that you were above 80% HRmax and subtract this from your week’s allowance. If that leaves no room for any more intervals then you’ve already done your hard work. Intervals are very potent(8) so don’t overdo them. They bring your top end on very quickly. Many cyclists don’t start hard work until mid-late February, yet they’re still ready to compete in June, July and August;
  • Know what you were trying to achieve and ensure you go out for the next session with the right attitude – eg am I working hard today, going steady or taking it easy?

If there’s one thing that you need to bear in mind from now on it’s the value of Z1 work. Do it right and you’ll build a great engine – rush and you’ll never get what you’ve been working so hard to achieve. Although I advocate intervals, and there’s plenty of research to prove they work(9-11) you need to build, maintain and think about Z1 as the mecca of training.

Joe Beer is a coach, multisport athlete and five-time Ironman who works closely with many industry leaders.


  1. Gregor & Conconi Road Cycling 2000; An IOC Medical Commission Publication
  2. Burke, R Serious Cycling 2002; HKP
  3. Ackland, J The Complete Guide to endurance Training 1996; A&C Black
  4. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2003; 185-193
  5. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1993; 25(9): 1062-1069
  6. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005; 37(3): 496-504
  7. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006; 16:49-56
  8. J Appl Physiol 2005; 98:6 1983-1984
  9. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999; 31(5): 736-741
  10. Eur J Appl Physiol 1997; 75: 298-304
  11. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1996; 28(11): 1427-1434
  12. Eur J Appl Physiol 1996; 73: 163-168
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