Power Meter Guide: Know your Training Zones & How They Should Feel


, by Nikalas Cook

If you’re reading this, hopefully you have already read my previous articles on the advantages of power meters, of training with power and knowing what FTP is, why it’s important, and how to test for it.

In this article, I’ll take your FTP and use it to set training / pacing zones, and then explain what these zones mean and feel like. I’ll also offer some “real riding” examples of when you might ride in them.

Setting your power training / pacing zones

Once you have your FTP, it’s simply a case of applying some simple percentage bands to work out your training / pacing zones. There are a number of different methodologies for this - some with five zones, some six and some even seven (with slight variations in the banding) but, as long as you stick with one and understand how its zones apply, don’t overthink the differences.

Remember one of the biggest barriers for many riders of using a power meter is over-complicating it (or in other words, paralysis by analysis). Just set your zones using the methodology described below and don’t sweat the small stuff of a percentage point here or there.

RELATED: Feel the Power - Why a Power Meter Should Be Your First Cycling Upgrade

I’ve personally found the six-zone Coggan method as good as any other, and as it is the accepted “godfather” of training with power, it’s pretty bulletproof.

These are the percentage bands:

What do the zones mean?

Zone 1: Active Recovery

What it feels like: Really, really easy. No sensation of effort in your legs, easy breathing and able to easily maintain a full conversation.

Real riding examples: Just “spinning your legs”. Recovery sessions and intervals, sitting in the wheels on a steady paced ride and relaxed descents.

Zone 2: Endurance

What it feels like: Easy and sustainable but with purpose. You should still be able to maintain a full conversation but, especially towards the upper end of this zone or after a long time spent in it, you may need to focus to maintain it.

Real riding examples: Bread and butter endurance pace. This is where you should be aiming to be for the bulk of a sportive or endurance focused training ride.

RELATED: Feel the Power: The Watts, Whys and Hows of Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

Zone 3: Tempo

What it feels like: Getting tougher but still sustainable with concentration and purposeful effort. You’ll still be able to talk, but sentences will be becoming shorter. Spend extended periods in this zone and you’ll start to feel a bit of a burn in your legs.

Real riding examples: You’d probably be pushing up into this zone on long gradual climbs such as you’d find in the Alps.

Zone 4: Threshold

What it feels like: If you’ve done an FTP test, you know exactly what this zone feels like! Hard “sustainable discomfort” is how I like to describe it. Any communication is likely to be one or two word replies, breathing will be heavy and legs will be burning.

Real riding examples: If you’re a time trialist, you’ll be aiming to sit in this zone for a 40km (25-mile) TT but it’s going to hurt. In training, Zone 4 intervals tend to be 10-20 minutes in duration with a classic (but horrible) workout being 2 X 20 minutes in Zone 4. On a sportive, if possible, you should be looking to minimise time spent in this zone as it represents your “red-line”, too much time in it or over it will come back to bite you.

Zone 5: VO2

What it feels like: Hard, really hard. It might feel “okay” for the first minute or so or an interval at this intensity but legs and lungs will soon start to really burn and any communication will be in grunts and moans.

Real riding examples: Hard efforts and intervals lasting 3-8 minutes. Maybe bridging a gap, punching up a steep ramp or making a break stick.

Zone 6: Anaerobic Capacity

What it feels like: Not quite a full bore all-out sprint but not far off it and, especially if you’re well into a long ride, it can feel like your 100% max.

Real riding examples: Sprint efforts up to about 1-minute in duration. Another classic and painful workout is 10-15 X 1-minute on / 1-minute off in this zone.

What’s above Zone 6?

Coggan does have a Zone 7 which is Neuromuscular Power and is anything north of 151% of FTP. These are genuine all-out sprint numbers with efforts, even when fresh, being 5-20 seconds. You don’t pace these efforts, you just go for them and hang on!

Now you know your zones, in my next article we’ll talk about setting up your data fields on your head unit for pacing with power and the simple guidelines for pacing rides - focussing mainly of sportive / gran fondo and similar endurance efforts.

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