Coach Hughes: Cycling Training Intensity Zones
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Intelligent Training—Training

Cycling Training Zones for Varying Training Intensity

How to gauge cycling intensity by perceived exertion, heart rate and power.

“Eddy Merckx famously said, ‘Ride more!’ when asked how to improve. Don’ t have enough time to ride more? Ride smart! By varying the intensities.”

by John Hughes
© John Hughes 2016, All Rights Reserved

John Hughes, the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach.

Top endurance riders spend about 75% of their training time riding at low intensity, 15 - 20% riding hard and not much time in between. They build a huge endurance base and so should you. If you only have time to do one kind of training then ride aerobically. This kind of riding:

  1. Enhances your ability to burn fat during long rides.
  2. Increases the capacity of your muscles and liver to store carbohydrates.
  3. Improves your respiratory system, bringing more oxygen to the circulatory system.
  4. Boosts the amount of blood your heart pumps per heartbeat to the working muscles.
  5. Brings about increased economy of pedaling, so your pedaling is more efficient.
  6. Increases the blood flow to the skin, which helps keep you cool.
  7. Improves the overall endurance of your cycling muscles.

You can gauge intensity using:

  • Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) 10 point scale
    • 0 = at rest
    • 1 = barely moving
    • 5 = very hard, time trial intensity
    • 10 = maximum effort, full sprint sustainable for a few seconds
  • Hughes Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
    • Digestion pace like after a big meal, RPE 1 - 2
    • Conversation pace talking easily, RPE 2 - 3
    • Hill climbing or headwind pace, you can still talk but can’t whistle, RPE 3 - 4
    • Power pace (Sweet spot) You can talk in short phrases but not short sentences, RPE 4 - 5
    • Sub-barf, you can’t talk, RPE 5 - 6
    • Barf, hammering for 5 - 10 minutes - any longer & you’d barf, RPE 6 - 7
    • Eyeballs bulging out, riding as hard as you can for only a few minutes, RPE 7 - 8
  • Percent of Lactate Threshold (LT), approximated by average heart rate for a 60 minute time trial, 95% of average heart rate for 20 minute time trial.
  • Percent of Functional Threshold Power (FTP), average power sustainable for one hour, 95% of average power for 20 minute time trial.

Here’s how to use these different methods for different types of workouts:

Purpose Workout
Type
RPE Hughes
Scale
RPE 1 - 10
Scale
Heart Rate
as % of LT
Power as
% of FTP
Aid Recovery Recovery Digestion
pace
1 - 2 <68% <55%
Build
Endurance
Endurance Conversation
pace
2 - 3 69-83% 56-75%
Increase Cruising
Speed
Tempo Headwind
pace
3 - 4 84-94% 76-90%
Build Power Sweet Spot Climbing short
hill pace
4 - 5 93-97% 88-94%
Improve Riding at Threshold
Tolerance
Sub-LT Sub-barf 5 - 6 95-100% 91-100%
Increase Racing
Speed
Super-LT Barf pace 6 - 7 101-105% 101-105%
Increase VO2 Max VO2 Max Eyeballs-out
pace
8+ >105% 106-120%

Download Training Zones—Spreadsheet of training zones by perceived exertion, heart rate and power. Download to calculate your zones.

I’ve written two eArticles:

Intensity Training 2016: Using a Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor and a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness. A 39 page eArticle packed with current information about intensity that discusses further:

  1. The benefits of varying the intensity.
  2. How to get the most out of limited training time by varying the intensity.
  3. How to gauge intensity using perceived exertion, a heart-rate monitor and a power meter and the pros and cons of each method
  4. How to vary the intensities in your workouts depending on:
    • Your type of riding: health and fitness, club and endurance rider or performance cyclist.
    • The time of year: preseason, base period, build period and main season.
  5. 10 different sets of workouts for 10 different training objectives
  6. 5 to 10 workouts within each set including both structured interval-type workouts and unstructured free-form workouts.
  7. The importance of balancing overload and recovery
The 39 page eArticle is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.