Training zones – 3 may be enough
Training is a funny thing. At once, it’s a process that’s really complex and extraordinarily simple all at the same time. It’s very difficult to take an athlete and a timeline to a given race and make everything go well so that they perform at their best at that race. At the heart of it the process is a very simple:
Stress + Rest = Fitness.
And repeat. This equation represents the basic building block of training. Mix in a few days of stress and follow with some rest. But how much stress? How much rest? And then how do I assemble the different blocks?
Training plan zones, whether they relate to heart rate or power (on the bike) or pace (running or on the bike) are our metric for how much stress we include in our training. An effective training plan needs to balance the right stress with the proper amount and type of rest to elicit improvement in strength, speed, efficiency, power, etc.
The number one problem I’ve seen in the design of training programs are training periods that are very long, and poorly defined, with complexity injected into it by creating a whole bunch of training zones. I’ve seen as many as twelve but often you’ll see them broken down into 6 or more levels, like:
Recovery: the intensity to train at for active recovery
Zone 1: Optimum fat usage
Zone 2: Endurance
Zone 3: Tempo
Zone 4: Threshold
Zone 5: Anaerobic fitness
Often coaches will break the zones down further so that there are seven, eight, or nine distinct levels. Way too many, in my opinion. There is a lot of overlap even with 6 zones — really, how much difference in intensity is the “Recovery” zone versus your intensity on your first 4 hour “Zone 1” ride?
Stay out of the middle
Athletes, left to their own devices, almost always train too much at one given intensity — they gravitate toward “the middle”. “The middle” is seductive because it doesn’t hurt that much but we still feel like we’re working hard and getting something done. The problem is that this virtual no-man’s-land of training is generally a waste of your time.
Why? Because “the middle” isn’t hard enough to make you faster, but it’s just intense enough to require more recovery time.
When I coach an athlete who has come to me from a training program heavily relying on “the middle” (which is most athletes), I exaggerate their training zones at the beginning by giving them only three zones they can work in:
3. Super-duper hard (Although I’ll often give it a different name)
When I delineate the heart rate or power requirements for each zone I make sure that one zone does not butt up against the next. This makes it very clear what intensity they should be working at. It leaves no question what the goal for the day is.
In my opinion when you create more than 5 zones there’s tremendous overlap. This really blurs the lines as to how the day to day training goes. With the zones simplified it leads to greater specificity in the training periods. Organizing workouts around three or four zones allows you to be very clear and focused on EXACTLY what you’re working on that day / week / month. It also keeps you out of the middle compared to the 6+ zone method, since as you might imagine all those extra zones come from breaking up the “middle” and the recovery/easy zones into smaller and more obscure parts.
More about the Zones
So what exactly do these three or four simple zones mean?
The Recovery/Easy level is differentiated only by the duration of a given ride — an Easy ride could still be 3 hours long, while a Recovery ride might be the same intensity, but only 45 minutes in duration. As we get farther into the training, then I’ll often break up the Recovery/Easy into two separate pieces.
I don’t add in anything else between Recovery/Easy and Threshold. I am very vehement about wanting my athletes to stay out of the region just below threshold. This region is the worst of the Middle.
Limiting options in training zones makes it easy to see that every day has a purpose….every day is meant to do SOMETHING.
The only somethings we focus on early in the program is either recovering, building some aerobic baseline (both are Recovery/Easy), working on overall efficiency at threshold (Threshold), or bumping up efficiency at the very maximal ranges of gross power and strength (Super-duper hard), and we’re rarely trying to work on more than two or perhaps three of these things on any given training period.
What about that Super-duper hard zone? Where is that?
In the early phases of my of my training plans I might not set specific heart rates here.
The reason I don’t is that when an athlete is just beginning this type of very intense efforts we need to focus on simple parameters: “go as hard as you can for 1 minute, then jog easy for 2 minutes”. You can do this without any specialized equipment
Often they don’t have a lot of high end fitness so we need to develop that first., then we can go about defining this very intense zone and even breaking it up into different parts.
Besides re-defining for my client what it means to train, another reason I simplify zones is because I don’t believe in bottom-up physiology:
I don’t believe you can get faster or more efficient at higher levels of exertion (like at your anaerobic threshold) by training slow and easy all the time in the “aerobic range”. I believe, especially for the time-strapped athlete, your time is best spent with a brief dose of very difficult intervals on some days followed by adequate rest, interspersed at different times with long endurance days (if your preferred events require that).
If your goal is to race or even be more efficient in your local group ride, and you spend all your training time in the lower training zones of the aerobic range, you WILL get more efficient…..but only at that slow pace. If the pace picks up at a race or a climb steepens on a tour you’ll find yourself struggling to maintain and quickly running out of gas.
Training at these higher intensities is incredibly important, even if you don’t plan to race because of trickle-down physiology:
Training at higher intensities DOES make you more efficient at all the intensities below that.
This is especially useful for an athlete that has a lot of demands on their time. Those of us that work and have families don’t have time to put in 20 hours of base work in a week.
I know personally, I need to get a lot of bang for my buck, so even if I’m training for a marathon, I rarely have time to run more than 35 or 40 miles in a week. I use a lot of shorter, faster workouts (especially on the track) in order to bridge the gap. In my experience a 75-minute workout with a couple healthy blocks of intervals is worth closer to 120 minutes of long slow distance.
So keep it simple…..train hard…..then rest hard….and repeat. Whether you’re riding in the local Tuesday-night ride or running an ultra-marathon, training for it doesn’t have to be incredibly difficult (but I’d always encourage you to seek help from a skilled coach).