|This is a Unicorn.|
We've talked about zones before, but it keeps coming up. I discuss zones with each and every athlete that I start. I've put together a document that explains them and emailed that to my people. Cori does the same. Cori posted a blog describing the zones in detail. Inevitably, every month or so, I find out that people still don't understand the zones and are not using them in training, despite every workout I write being zone specific. I want to go over why they are important and how to measure them, and to provide you the resources to identify them.
A zone is a particular effort level. They are defined as follows: Zone 1/recovery, Zone 2/aerobic, Zone 3/tempo, Zone 4/threshold, Zone 5/Vo2, Zone 6/anaerobic (and occasionally Zone 7/neuromuscular). Zone 6 and 7 are rarely used because saying ALL OUT for a specific amount of time (they are defined is seconds, not minutes) is good enough. A zone is a range defined by specific percentages of YOUR personal capacity for work. It is an amount of hard, a degree of suck, a level of misery or lack thereof. It is not a speed or a pace. It is a definition of how hard you are going. Just like you can go 30 mph or 5 min/mile downhill with very little effort, an uphill effort might be maxed out to produce 6 or 7 miles per hour or 15:00/mile climbing something very steep. A headwind will radically change things, as will a tailwind, the bike you are riding, the clothes you are wearing, the condition of the pavement that you are on, how much air you have in your tires, the air temperature, ... and the list goes on. Also, a zone represents a specific amount of stress on your body and working particular energy systems in particular ways to develop you as an athlete. They also come with an expected recovery cost so I am strategically placing certain types of workouts in the schedule to rest you as well as work you. They generally represent the maximum EFFORT that can be sustained for an amount of time taking all factors into account, so they are useful for pacing. But how do you measure them? How do you know what zone you are in?
Okay, so how about heart rate? Lots of people use heart rate zones for training since a heart rate monitor is a LOT cheaper than a power meter, either for running or cycling. And no matter what sport you are doing, your heart is always beating, right? Okay, the flaw in heart rate is that it too is affected by many different things. The temperature, how much caffeine you had today, how much sleep you had, what time of the month it is... and that is before we start talking about things like heart rate drift. Heart rate takes time to respond to an effort so short efforts will be inaccurate, and it goes up the longer the effort is (heart rate drift), so very long efforts such as races will tend to be inaccurate. If you work rigidly off of heart rate then you will inevitably slow down over the course of the race and ideal pacing strategies will not work. This is why you will sometimes hear the statement that heart rate is an input measurement, not an output measurement. It is an important bit of info for understanding what is happening in your body, but not optimal for pacing or defining a zone. You will have a heart rate range that corresponds to a zone and if it starts to get out of range, that is important feedback from your body, but it is not that accurate as a definition of effort. It is a measurement of your RESPONSE to an amount of work or effort. Still, it can be a clue to what zone you are in while you are learning them.
Well, how about RPE (rate of perceived exertion)? Well, perception is very subjective... BUT it is technically an output measurement. It is a way of measuring how much work you are doing, but like heart rate and pace, it is affected by many things... namely exercise fatigue, nutrition, hormones, adrenaline/race nerves, sleep, etc. It IS a measurement of effort, just a very squishy one. If I tell you to go medium-hard, you'll do a thing that you associate with that term. If I tell you to go harder, you'll do that. Harder still? You'll start to hate me but you'll pick up the effort. Now if I tell you to go the SAME amount of hard for a long time, you can do that... you'll go slow up the hills and into the wind, really fast down the hills and with a tailwind, that amount of effort will feel easier when you are fresh and hydrated and harder when you are tired or dehydrated... but you can still tell the difference between how hard you are going and how that particular effort feels. That is why this is an output measurement, it's just a tricky one to rely on.
Okay, okay... So what do you do??? Well, as a coach, when I am feeling cheeky or unforgiving, the answer is buy a power meter for the bike and the run. Those are accurate measurements of work that will not change depending on ALL THE THINGS. A power meter will give you a fixed measurement to get a very accurate pacing and training protocol based on zones that are defined by the amount of work that you do. This can be compared heart rate and RPE to get pretty good glimpse into what is happening with an athlete’s body. I recently noticed an athlete suddenly have an elevated heart rate for a given wattage... and since she was tapering for a big race, I took that as a red flag and adjusted her schedule to provide even more rest. Two days later, she was right where I wanted her. That is why an objective measure of output is SO important. It can help you to adjust your nutrition or pacing mid-race if you see your body going off the rails long before your race is ruined. It can help a coach to spot fatigue levels that are getting too high to be productive and can even help us to avert illness by resting an athlete before the immune system gets too suppressed. It can also tell me if you are sandbagging on the trainer. It gives an accurate assessment of how many calories are burned in a workout so that a nutritional strategy can be developed that actually works for you. It can tell me if you need to work on leg strength or leg speed, some can even tell how much your stride or pedal stroke deteriorates when you become fatigued. Okay, I digress. Power meters are the schizzle... you got that. Go buy one. But I'm here to talk about zones.
What do you do if you don't have a power meter? Well, you are not off the hook on zone training. You are just going to have to work a lot harder to know what zone you are in. So what do you do if all these measurements are flawed and subjective? You consider all of them. You use training to help you learn to identify how a particular effort level feels. You can use heart rate to help you find that zone but it should not be the only metric you consider. It takes about 30 seconds for the heart to respond to the effort so shorter intervals cannot rely on heart rate at all. You must dial in your RPE. How? Through a lot of trial and error, and effort. By reading the descriptions that I give you of how it feels. You use markers of respiration and “burn”. By finding out just how long you can hold a given effort for and understanding that the zones are defined by how long you can maintain them. If you learn to take cues from your body, then you can be mostly accurate most of the time. RPE can be the next most accurate marker if you take the time in training to dial it in. Even if someone has a power meter, I will sometimes assign RPE based effort to keep the feel dialed in. Why? Because RPE can bail you out when you power meter dies, it can tell you when you need to change the battery, it can clue the coach in to when you have gotten stronger and need to retest your FTP (functional threshold power). If RPE and power suddenly don't line up, then you may need to take in nutrition or fluids, or you may need more sleep or a day off, or it might be the first 5 mins of a race and you are full of adrenaline... or it might be telling you that you have a little more gas in the tank and it's okay to go a bit harder for the remainder of the race. Oh, also, RPE is free. Heart rate requires a bit of equipment to measure... and we have discussed reasons not to use an output measurement. Power meters are VERY spendy. (Yah, I know... super spendy. Go buy one anyways and make me happy!) But RPE is free... so no excuses. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. YOU.... can train with RPE.
Wait, WHAT? Are you saying that RPE sometimes trumps power? Well, yes, I am... sort of. But only if you have trained your RPE to be an accurate measurement of zones. And it is more used in conjunction with power to give you a whole new dimension of information, and as we all know, knowledge is power.
(Hehehe... see what I did there? Knowledge is POWER.. and power is knowledge and round and round.... yeah, okay. I get it. Knowledge can be EXPENSIVE. But GAWD, I do love power data. Sigh... I digress.)
EVERY. SINGLE. WORKOUT. I write has a zone designation. If you don't have a power meter, you are responsible for dialing into your body and figuring out how hard you are going. If it says aerobic, then I do not want you going all out for that span of time. I want you doing an aerobic effort. It's only race pace if that race is an ironman or an ultra. Why? Because I don't want you racking up too much fatigue for that effort. If I say tempo, that is a different effort than aerobic. Tempo is going to start to feel pretty stinky after a while. Threshold? That is a zone based on where we think you lactate threshold is... or the maximum amount you can handle for about an hour. VO2? Again, a zone based off an estimation of a stepping off point for the body and the max you can hold for about 8 mins. If you are not clear on these zones, you need to talk to your coach. We can explain it and will explain it until you understand... but then the onus is on you to pay attention and work within the correct zone.
Why? Well, aside from the fact that it is how we estimate your workload and your fatigue levels to create progressive overload and corresponding recovery to make you fitter and faster, when it comes time to discuss pacing, I am going to tell you what ZONE to be in. You NEED to know what that means, not just intellectually, but in that deep-in-your-bones way that comes from training with the zones for weeks and months and years.
I am including the write up that I give out to athletes.... HERE:
... and a link to Cori's write up of the zones based on perception..... HERE:
If you want a third party source for a description, I use the same zones as Andy Coggan describes in “Training And Racing With A Power Meter”.
ZONES... Learn 'em, use 'em, love 'em. They are the difference between structured training designed to make you better and just “doing stuff a lot”.
And with RPE, you can measure them for free.
And yes, you should watch this video.