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What are the training zones

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Training on a program gives our rides structure and purpose. Training zones are used to define our efforts. The training zones are how we talk about and define how hard or easy a workout is. They allow us to understand the purpose of a particular workout.

What are the training zones?

The training zones used by Sans Chaine, from easiest to hardest, are:

Recovery: an extremely easy ride

Endurance: still an easier ride, at a stable pace that can be sustained for long periods

Tempo: a bit harder, but still sustainable with steadier longer efforts

Threshold: your max effort for an hour, a time trial

VO2: hard, between 3 and 9mins perhaps

Anaerobic: short, sharp efforts

Great, now we have a series of words, but what do they mean? The training zones are meant to represent the fuel being used by the body - fat or carbohydrate (sugar) - at a given intensity or workload. Theoretically, the fuel the body uses at lower intensities should primarily be fat, and as the effort gets harder the body uses more carbohydrate to generate the work.

This is important to understand, as the main goal in training for most of us is to increase the intensity at which we can use fat as a primary fuel source. In the body, fat is something of an unlimited fuel source, while carbohydrate is limited. We can ingest carbohydrates while we ride, but in most cases not enough to replace what we are burning.

The higher the workload we can work at and still burn fat as a fuel, the less of our limited carbohydrate we have to use. This saves the carbohydrate for when it really matters and we have to go hard.

You know those days when you are feeling great on the bike, jamming along with your friends, and then suddenly you aren’t feeling so good? You get dropped on the hills at the end of the day where before you were with the front runners? You have burned through your sugar. Training properly, understanding what the training zones represent so that you can change the fuel you are burning when you ride is the key to stopping this from happening.

A complaint with training programs is often that they aren’t hard enough. As coaches we know you can go harder, but going harder simply reinforces the use of carbohydrate as a fuel source. Training at the appropriate intensities, even when it feels “easy”, is how you will train your body to adapt and so change yourself as a rider so that your rides can be amazing!

Here is a great podcast with Inigo San Milan, coach to the winner of the 2020 Tour de France discussing the importance of the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.

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