Which Zone? How Much? When? - Heart Rate or Power? So many questions.
Most cyclists know about training zones, they are aware (generally speaking) that zone two is a manageable level of riding intensity and that the higher the number (apart from in a couple of rogue systems) the more effort required. But, in my experience, very few cyclists use these same zones in a structured way so as to build fitness in a sensible and progressive way.
There are dozen's of training systems in the marketplace that use training zones. These are usually based around knowing (or calculating) the Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or Lactate Threshold (LT). It really doesn't matter which of these systems you use because the devil is in the detail of how the FTP or LT was derived, as each system will simply take the threshold number and use percentages to punch out your "individualised" training zones.
The ONLY effective starting point is an accurate assessment that is used to determine what your training zones are, these cannot be guessed and using "default zones" will be moderately productive at best. BOTH heart rate and power zones are very useful, each is effective for certain types of training sessions. For example, heart rate zones are great for monitoring the intensity of longer rides where terrain variation makes using power a little tricky. Power zones on the other hand are MUCH more effective for structured interval / climb / race simulation efforts because the slow (and sometimes variable) response time of your heart rate, makes relying on BPM no more useful than the old perceived exertion scales.
The REAL trick however is knowing how much training to do in each zone and when to do it. Most systems (and coaches) will take your zones derived from the FTP or LT and use a cookie-cutter approach to structure your training. This is usually in the form of base, build and peak training blocks (sometimes called base, pre-comp & comp). My approach is different in that I will assess not only your FTP / LT but also assess your aerobic and anaerobic efficiency and evaluate your super-threshold (above threshold) capacity. The reason for this is simple; NO TWO CYCLISTS RESPOND IN QUITE THE SAME WAY to training. So just because two riders have the same FTP (and therefore have the same training zones) it should NOT follow that they have the same training program.
Conclusion: Find yourself a coach who is not lazy and is prepared to look beyond the obvious and assess riding capacity INDIVIDUALLY. Only then can you have a personalised training plan with a rock-solid guarantee (provided you do the training of course) of success.
Know your Numbers, Train Smart and Race Hard.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.