Cycling is a sport for everyone: whatever level of fitness you have, you can join in on organised tours or races. Some do it for the fun of it, while some try to get the best out of themselves. For that last group, there are a lot of (free) online training plans, and these plans often mention ‘power zones’. But what are power zones? And what use are they to you?

The basis of every training programme: zones

Everyone who trains, does so in order to perform better. To achieve a higher fitness level as fast as possible, however, it is important to make sure your training programme fits in with your current performance potential. This means it’s important to know what your body is capable of, in order to stretch those boundaries. It is also equally important to clearly define what your goal is: do you want to perform better in the final sprints during your local races? Or do you want to complete a Gran Fondo with (relative) ease? Each goal requires a different training programme.

You can find a lot of training programmes online, and these are mostly based on zones. So that means you can benefit from all this excellent (free) information, as long as you know what your training zones are. But how do you define your personal zones?

Training zones from maximum heart-rate

The first zone calculation method is based on your maximum heart-rate (MHR). Although this is the least accurate methods, it is one of the most used. The advantage of this system is that the only tool you need is a heart-rate monitor. Although you don’t have to perform a special test to establish your MHR, you have to go really hard to establish your maximum. Also, this value declines with age, so last year’s MHR may not be the same as this year’s. Your MHR is genetically and age-determined and this varies a lot between individuals. We suggest you ignore the outmode age-related MHR formula (220bpm minus age) as it is, in our opinion, worse than useless. You can better set up a special session to establish your current MHR.

While you can try this on flat roads, it works a lot better to ride this test on an incline. Warm up for 15mins, and then ride up the hill four times. Build up your intensity so that you can just hold on to the end, then make the final part of the climb an all-out sprint. Ride at low intensity between intervals in order to allow your heart-rate to fall before the next big effort. At the end of this interval training you can take your final highest heart rate as your MHR. Don’t forget to cool down properly.

training zones

Ride up a hill four times as fast as you can to measure your maximum heart-rate.

Functional threshold power

Heart-rate is a good indicator of the intensity of the exercise, but is also sensitive to circumstances. This means your heart-rate can vary due to tiredness, sickness or dehydration. It is therefore useful, but prone to fluctuations. Power zones based on your functional threshold power (FTP) are more accurate. The zones are based on the actual power which you can pedal at a given point in time. And it is therefore a far more direct reflection of your efforts. But you do need a power metre—and that is not the cheapest piece of technology. (Your FTP is the maximum power which you can generate for a full hour.)

You can perform an FTP test in a number of different ways. If you have a power metre on your bike, you can do the test out on the road. For this, it’s important to plan your route with as few junctions as possible. This is because you need to ride for 30mins as hard as possible. The trick is to find the maximum pace that you can hold constantly for a full half hour. Once you’ve ridden yourself into the ground for 30mins it’s time for a warm-down. And then it’s time to calculate your FTP. Calculate the average power over the final 20mins of your ride. And 95% of that is your FTP.

training zones

Getting in the zones

Now that you have established your maximum heart-rate and/or FTP, it’s time to find out what your zones are. One of the most well-known methods is known as the Coggan method, named after American exercise physiologist Professor Andrew Coggan. Coggan has for years been at the forefront of cycling training science. As well as the author of several books on the subject of training with a power metre, he himself was also a US national-level masters bike racer and time trial record holder.

You can look into the Coggan model through his online platform Trainingpeaks. This also includes a power zone calculator. But if you don’t want to set up another online account, there are quite a few online tools to calculate your power zones according to Coggan’s method. The Coggan zones are also included in the free-of-charge training software Golden Cheetah.

That is not say that the Coggan model is the only correct method. Various similar models are based on different set of zones. Coggan’s system has seven zones. But it’s possible you have a training system which is based on six different effort zones—check the training programme first, before deciding on which zone calculations to use.

training zones

Another example of training zones, this one’s from Cycling Weekly.

How do you use training zones?

Now you know the key values, you can start looking for the training programme that best fits your needs and final goal. Calculate the correct zones based on whichever scheme you choose, and stick to it. Also, if you use FTP, don’t forget to re-test yourself regularly as hopefully it will go up. Which will make the training that little bit tougher. Enjoy!