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Foundations of Structured Training.

Rob Hawkins

Foundations of Structured Training.

For those of you that have already read the “Froome attack” article you’ll already be familiar with the fact that to perform in a certain way our training must reflect what we ultimately want to achieve. So how do we make sure that the valuable time we spend on our bikes is going to give us the results that we are looking for?

There’s quite a lot of information to take in, especially if you are new to this, so I’ve decided to split this article into two hopefully manageable chunks.

In part 1 you’ll gain a basic understanding of what happens to our bodies when we ride at various intensities and look in detail at the training zones that allow us to control and manage training more effectively. You will also find information that hopefully highlights that becoming a better rider isn’t all about improving fitness. There are also psychological, technical and tactical needs to be addressed if we are to take leaps rather than small steps in our performance.

In part 2 we’ll look at fitness testing and how this simple process will help us understand where we are today in terms of our fitness and also let us know if the training we’re doing is taking us in the right direction. If we know what’s happening to us and we can measure this over time it can’t be a bad place to start can it?

There are various methods for determining training zones and conducting performance testing but I’ll be focusing on the British Cycling model that I’ve used to good effect personally and with those I coach.

Who’s is this aimed at?

1) If you’re new to structured training this will help you set off in the right direction but if you’re an experienced rider already training with zones you may find some information that supplements your already in-depth knowledge.

2) I have made the brave assumption (foolish I know) that as you’re reading this it suggests you’re serious about training and that you are therefore using either a Heart Rate Monitor(HRM) or Power Meter(PM), either way the information that follows will be valuable.

What will I get by the end?

1) You will understand the value of training zones.

2) Have a basic understanding of the benefits of training in each zone and when it can be used.

3) Have a knowledge of the physiological changes that occur when we ride in each zone. I find this essential when training as I know what’s happening when I’m riding in a certain way and perhaps more importantly I know what I’m not going to have next year if I miss things out!!

4) You’ll be able to test your fitness to give you an initial baseline and then in latter months measure the effect training is having on your performance. Once again this has been a revelation for me over the years because if my fitness hasn’t improved as expected I’ve a chance to change my training rather than just continuing to flog myself on sessions that don’t do it for me. This is a key point, as humans we are all different and what works for one person doesn’t always turn out the same for a different rider. Remember that training is specific to ‘us’ and the way we wish to ride.

5) You’ll be able to independently set up and maintain your training zones both now and in the future.

There’s more to improvement than fitness!

Road riding is a very demanding sport and the majority of the next few minutes you spend reading this article will be focused on understanding and improving your fitness. Before we get started however it’s important to understand that improving fitness alone will not always make you the great rider you aspire to become. Why is this? Well regardless of the type of road riding we undertake be it road racing, criteriums, sportives or time trialling we must also look further. We must look at not only the physical demands required to excel at our sport but also what is required psychologically, technically and tactically when we participate in any type of road riding to really make big changes. Before an event we must be confident in ourselves that we know how to deal with tough times on the bike half way through the Etape du Tour (psychological), we must know that we have the right group riding skills to ride efficiently during a road race (technical) and we must also be confident that we have chosen the correct pacing and nutritional strategy for our event (tactical). Only when we work on these areas consistently in addition to fitness will we truly release our full potential.

We’ll come back to discuss the other demands of riding at a later date but I felt it necessary to highlight this before you embark on a training plan focused on one aspect of riding alone.

Okay - let’s get going…

The benefits of training with zones

1) Thankfully lots of scientific research has been completed to save us working this out. For most of us we can benefit from the knowledge that each training zone relates to a level of intensity in our riding. When we ride at the intensities suggested by these zones our body reacts and becomes fatigued in different ways which then over a period of time leads to us becoming stronger in the areas that we focus on and of course weaker in those areas we choose to omit or neglect. Most of us know how far we have ridden and for how many hours but it’s more useful to know how much time we are accumulating in each training zone as this will give us a clear indication of where our riding strengths are likely to be and highlight the areas that may need to be worked on to ensure we meet our goals. We are what we train to be!

2) You know what your goals are for the following season and with a little knowledge training with zones will ensure you can balance the various training needs over time rather than just focus on the same things over and over again which will not lead to a step change in performance. Most of us ride in the way we always have (myself included) and this leads to us not making the significant performance gains we are capable of. It’s important that we are open to change at this point.

3) Training zones are unique to each of us and our needs. Another rider’s zone data is almost certainly not right for us - don’t be tempted!

4) It’s more than just about this season - we can use our training data from year to year to monitor progression and highlight areas we wish to improve.

Now some background information on each zone

I’ve found over the past few years that having a little knowledge about what I’m about to do in a training session and understand its effect has really helped me to focus and make sure that I complete every session as intended. I’m now fully aware that if I skip sessions my performance in this area will not progress and if I continually miss this session I’ll go backwards and put my goals at risk many months before the big day arrives. You have the ability to limit your performance next summer right now, don’t!

Recovery Zone

Purpose: Promotes regeneration of muscles and recovery both physically and mentally.

What happens to you:: Blood flow increased to the muscles to flush waste products and deliver nutrients.

Where does it help on the road: Essential to ensure recovery during and after training sessions and allow a good response to training.

My tip: Ignore this at your peril.

Basic Training (Zones 1 & 2)

Training in Zones 1 & 2 underpins everything else that you will do in your endurance training as a cyclist regardless of the type of activity. You will need to be smart with your selection of gears, cadence and choice of terrain to ensure you can remain in these zones and obtain the desired benefits. I personally find that when training at this lower level of intensity it’s an excellent opportunity to practice group riding skills, following a wheel etc and also for working out and practicing your on bike nutritional strategy (I still nearly fall off once a year trying to unwrap a Mule bar!).

I have found that riding in these zones is often shunned in favor of higher intensity efforts. By all means don’t make your programme boring but at the same time do understand that neglecting these areas will hold you back in the longer term - I always refer to this at getting the plumbing sorted before turning on the taps.

Zone 1

Purpose: Helps you to build your base endurance level of fitness which is required to ensure you can achieve your full potential later in the season.

What happens to you?:: Improves the way in which your body stores fat and uses it as a fuel source especially when you’re doing longer duration rides in this zone. It is not unusual to combine Zone 1 & Zone 2 work together to get the benefits of longer rides without placing lots of stress on your body.

Where does it help on the road?: It allows your body to make more efficient use of energy whilst at the same time preparing you for harder, higher intensity work later in your training.

My tip: When training in this zone it is essential to fuel yourself during the longer rides and stay well hydrated as this will avoid a significant drop in performance during the latter stages and promote recovery. I used to return home shattered after these rides until I started to eat and drink sensibly before, during and post ride.

Zone 2

Purpose: Contributes to increasing efficiency.

What happens to you?:: Training time spent in this zone improves your ability to use oxygen to generate power and helps improves efficiency. When riding in zone 2 you also maximize the opportunity for weight loss as a result of fat being used as a fuel source especially during longer sustained rides. If you are training for hilly or mountainous events where having a good power to weight ratio is important this is consideration.

Where does it help on the road?: When you factor this type of training into your schedule, over time, you will have the ability to produce more power and speed for the same level of effort, I’ve always liked this one!!

My tip: Even understanding the benefits of training at this intensity I still struggled on longer rides as my speed was lower and I didn’t feel I was getting as much enjoyment as I should. This all changed when I started to work on techniques like pedaling and group riding skills during these sessions which added an additional focus. These days I ensure I’ve always added some short sharp bursts say 15 second sprints to a road sign or lamp post every 15 to 20 minutes throughout the ride to spice things up a bit. We can also have a descent chat when riding like this so nice and sociable as well! Try not to do too much of this on the turbo but instead factor it into your longer weekend rides.

Take a look at the image (click to enlarge) below. Note that the session is predominantly in heart rate zones 1 & 2 (red line)and is varied with plenty of changes in speed and cadence (blue and amber lines). Lower intensity work doesn’t have to be dull.

Varied lower intensity training session

Intensive Training (Zones 3 & 4)

Training in Zones 3 & 4 should feel difficult and as such holding a conversation with someone when riding should be challenging as you’ll be focused on breathing! During these sessions or rides where a lot of this type of work is likely to occur it’s really important to eat well 90 mins or more before the ride because your body relies more on the carbohydrates it has stored as opposed to the fat stores that are used more when working in the lower zones. Think porridge, high quality muesli, fruit, wholemeal bread (toast) with eggs to add some protein that will help fend off early hunger in the ride (it works for me).

Zone 3

Purpose: Improves your ability so sustain power output.

What happens to you?:: Your ability to use your carbohydrate stores as fuel to propel you along is improved. At the same time our body starts to change certain fast twitch muscle fibers to slow twitch fibers (think becoming more like Mr Wiggins than Cavendish).

Where does it help on the road?: We all need this as it’s the intensity that allows us to maintain a good level of pace out on the road.

My tip: At certain times in training I factor 2 sessions a week at this intensity in my personal plans but do find them tiring both mentally and physically. It is really important to take on board the correct fuel before, during and post ride to prevent a build up of fatigue. (I’ll talk more about nutrition in future artciles)

Zone 4

Purpose: Allows us to increase our Threshold level and improve riding pace.

What happens to you?:: Further enhancement to the way our body uses carbs as a fuel source, develops our lactate threshold and again is likely to promote changes of fast to slow twitch muscle fibers.

Where does it help on the road?: Because training at this level is normally just below what we would call race or high effort pace over time it helps increase this pace allowing us to go harder for longer. This type of training is especially useful for riding in the mountains and hilly sportives.

My tip: Quite simply I used to spend way too much time in this zone and found this not only limiting for my performance but also very difficult to deal with mentally. These days I’ve a more balanced approach and normally have no more than 2 focused sessions in this zone a week at certain times during my training.

As a result of spending too much time here I found I never had the ability to go much harder, launch attacks etc and wondered how people could up the pace leaving me for dead and unable to respond. I now include work in the lower zones and Zone 5/6 and have found that although I’m still no sprinter I can lift the pace when required.

Maximal Training (Zones 5 & 6)

When you are training in these zones it’s full on and mainly interval type training. To ensure that you get the maximum benefit you’ll usually find it best to train alone as this way you can focus totally on the effort required. I do most of my top end work on the turbo but also mix short bursts of zone 5 & 6 work into some hill climbing out on the road as well.

Zone 5

Purpose: Training at this level will help you to sustain a high percentage of your maximum aerobic power for longer periods of time (think Froome attack on Ventoux once again).

What happens to you?:: Other than getting very tired it helps you build up a resistance to fatigue and increase your VO2Max, increase you anaerobic energy production (more on this in future) and importantly increases your bodies ability to get rid of waste products more quickly allowing us to push harder for longer.

Where does it help on the road?: This really helps you to launch attacks, hunt breakaways down and improve time trialling performance.

My tip: Once I’m well into my preparation I start to introduce short bursts of zone 5 work into my threshold sessions. You’ll notice in the graph below the spikes in speed and power where I’m working in zone 5 before returning to the remainder of the interval at zone 4.

STME Training Session Rob Hawkins Colconquerors Col du Telegraphe April 2014

Zone 6

Purpose: Training in this zone increases your maximum power output (but you need to have developed underlying aerobic endurance fitness first!!)

What happens to you?:: Increases the maximum amount of power your muscles can produce, develops your cardiovascular system and also raises your threshold level.

Where does it help on the road?: Sprint ability, breaking away from a group, launching short attacks to wear people down and pulling breakaways back.

My tip: When you include this intensity in your training the efforts will typically be short, similar once again to the 1 minute efforts shown in the graph above. When you are using a heart rate monitor it is quite probable that your heart rate will not actually get to zone 6 before the short effort is over. For this reason it is easier to use a power meter because as soon as your intensity increases that is reflected by an increase in power output (watts) and will be shown as such on your Garmin/training software. This does not of course rule out training in this zone with a HRM, when I used to complete these sessions pre power meter days I just made sure that the 1 minute or short burst at this intensity was pretty much the maximal effort I could manage and knew I was at this point because after 30 seconds or so at this level I’d be suffering very heavily!

Putting a training programme together.

Hopefully you’ve got a basic understanding of the various zones and their purpose in life. It’s also important however to understand what the overall goal of following a structured endurance training programme is, so here goes…

1) To increase the function of your heart (what it’s able to pump).

2) To increase the blood supply to the heart and the muscles being used in exercise.

3) An increase in the volume of your blood and total hemoglobin (the component of red blood cells that carries oxygen to your muscles).

4) Increased transport of oxygen throughout your organs.

5) An increase in the size of slow twitch muscle fibers.

6) An increased tolerance of lactic acid (delays that burning sensation, good!)

7) Increases your ability to use fat as fuel (unlike carbohydrate we have a large supply of fat but we have to train our body to be able to access these reserves and use them efficiently).

8) Become more efficient in your motion and use of muscles over time.

Basically what this all boils down to is:

  • You’re heart rate will be lower for a given workload than it was before starting training.

  • Your lactate threshold is at a higher level so you can push harder for longer.

  • The overall power you can produce aerobically will increase making you faster and more durable.

There’s been a lot to take in today so I’ll draw part one to a close. In part 2 I will explain how to conduct a valid, reliable, repeatable fitness test that’s specific to your needs as an endurance athlete and explain how to set up your training zones allowing you to start to benefit from a structured approach to training.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and please feel free to comment, I’ll always get back to you via the post so check back for my responses.

If you would like to know when future articles become available including part 2 of this one just sign up to the blog in the sidebar towards the top of the page.


  • 08 Dec 2014 07:38:44

    Thanks Stu. Glad you’re finding it useful!

  • Stu Morton:

    07 Dec 2014 20:50:46

    I am really enjoying the blog Rob. Great stuff!