Zone 1. The emphasis of my new training program, at least for the first month, is staying in Zone 1.
I had my consultation at Peak Centre yesterday where my new coach (Lewis) presented my personal training program. He ran me through my assessment results, his philosophy on where my fitness is and what is possible ahead of my summer Fondos, and what needs to happen in the space between.
Here’s what I learned.* (*disclaimer: I am a good listener, but not a professional. Peak Centre coaches are professionals. Trust their advice, not mine!)
There are five training “Zones” which are defined by three different thresholds that your body works within depending on your level of exertion. The thresholds are your Aerobic, Lactate, and VO2max. (Here’s a little graphic – politely cut and pasted from my assessment report – to show you how the Zones and thresholds intertwine:)
“Aerobic” was explained to me as the most basic, least-exertive threshold level beneath which one can theoretically be active for hours, so long as that person stays fuelled. It is the type of exercise where energy is produced by the body burning mostly oxygen from the blood-stream via the lungs.
“Lactate” is the following threshold. Exertion beyond the Aerobic threshold is where the body is working harder and moves to “Anaerobic” work, from burning oxygen in simpler, easier Aerobic capacity to more long-fibre, carbohydrate-burning, lactic acid-as-a-byproduct-producing work. This cannot be sustained for hours; typically 40-60 minutes maximum. It is the type of effort where muscles fatigue due to lactate and eventually succumb.
“VO2max” is a measure of the maximal Aerobic output possible for an individual. Athletes cannot sustain effort at their VO2 max for more than a few minutes. All-out sprinting would be an example of VO2 max.
The long story short of my assessment and resultant training program, is that Lewis wants me to focus on increasing my Aerobic Threshold. As stated in my report,
“For most cycling events, the Aerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold are the most relevant to our performances. The aerobic threshold is the critical threshold for most endurance events that last 2 hours or more. You can think of it as the power output you can maintain for prolonged periods without tiring or the power output you can maintain and still recover effectively. Improving your aerobic threshold will allow you to ride faster at long distances while experiencing less fatigue.”
What’s interesting, and many cyclists may find this surprising (or at least I did) is that rather than training above the Aerobic threshold to get your body more accustomed to higher levels of output (which is ineffective), my coach has asked me to stay beneath my Aerobic threshold for long, sustained periods, which is the best way to raise it.
His logic makes sense. Training above your Aerobic threshold means you’re working Anaerobically and because they’re fundamentally different processes, there’s no way you’re benefitting one by training the other. It’s like practicing tennis to get good at golf. Whereas working beneath the Aerobic threshold, you’re becoming accustomed to long periods of exertion with the right muscles and behaviours, which builds a strong Aerobic foundation.
So my program was drawn up for me, and it includes 3-4 long, steady rides per week in Zone 1 – which is fundamentally easy and slow effort, by the way (good bye Personal Bests and KOMs for a while!) – and one “aggressive” ride in Zone 3, to ensure I’m doing some Anaerobic work.
Zone 1, for me, is power output below 155 watts (as I said, quite easy) and Zone 3 is a tight gap of 205 – 220 watts. Zone 3 once per week will comprise of mainly trainer time, cycling 18-40 minute intervals of (3x 220 + 3x 205) x 3, and then building up to four sets of each. Outdoors on the odd occasion, Zone 3 work can include practicing skills like 30 minute uninterrupted hill climbing, whose focus is to raise my Lactate Threshold. I’m also tasked with two Strength-Flexibility-Core days per week and stretching daily.
Zone 1 does have additional benefits, I’ve learned, besides building up Aerobic capacity. It is the best Zone for burning fat. Beyond Zone 1, when you get into Anaerobic exertion, the body transfers over to carbohydrate burning and very little fat is consumed. Hence why they call Zone 2 the “Junk Miles” Zone – people sweat, they feel like they’re working hard, but they’re neither building Aerobics, burning fat, nor actually pushing their Anaerobic capacity in Zone 3. It’s wasted effort.
What was most eye-opening during my consultation was discovering that I’d been spending most of my riding in Zone 2. Reviewing my Strava segments, and recalling that many of my average power outputs have been in Zone 2 is shocking! Of course I’ve seen some improvement in my cycling and my capacities, but realizing my failure to train most effectively to increase my thresholds is potentially a revelation if the training program does indeed produce the results I expect.
There’s only one way to find out!