Zone 2 and 3 Training Best Practices - The Base Season for Cyclists
Spinning on the bike in zone two and three, for long duration's leads to aerobic gains in strength. This means you can ride longer with higher average power than ever before. Zone two is a place where you can easily speak to a riding partner, for long duration's like 30-60 plus minutes. Zone three, it’s a touch more intense, and while you can speak to a training partner here, it can only be done in shorter duration's such as 30-60 seconds, up to a minute or two. This is because your body is calling upon more oxygen when you get into zone three. There is more of a need to breathe in oxygen, providing less time to speak. This represents the aerobic demand needed when training in zone 3, especially the upper end of the zone.
Zone 2 Training
Zone two is a pace that you can hold for long periods of time. It takes practice to hold zone two as well, and part of this practice is the ability to pedal with a smooth, fluid and slightly fast cadence consistently over a period. Most cyclists find zone two focused days an enjoyable, not always easy but a doable pace type of day. Obviously the longer the ride, the harder the workout is, even if you stay in zone two the entire time. Pushing the limits with distance here, especially early in the base season of training, builds the muscles and aerobic systems stronger and more efficient. Zone two workouts help build aerobic pathways, such as capillary density, and increased fat oxidation. Increasing the ability for your body to burn fat as fuel over muscle glucose gives you a bigger fuel tank, allowing you to ride for longer and longer distances.
Zone two can essentially be used every day, especially early in the base and build phases of training. On a hard effort day, such as training in zone four and five plus ranges, zone two can be used between blocks of efforts. This keeps the aerobic demand high for the workout. Workouts like these are great for the early build season, when harder efforts are more important while still working on aerobic strength. For cyclists who are new to training, zone two training days only are a great way to break up the week. A typical week for someone new to training or an age group athlete gaining back fitness is to work more intense efforts on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with zone two spinning days on Wednesday and Sunday to allow for recovery but still be working towards aerobic strength.
Zone 3 Training
Zone three, otherwise known as Tempo pace, is an intensity that can be held for 20-30 plus minutes. It takes a touch more power to work into this range, making it a place where you are working to gain aerobic muscular strength. Any effort longer than two minutes is technically aerobic. Anaerobic energy systems only have enough fuel to last up to 60-90 seconds, so no matter what type of effort you’re putting in, aerobic energy systems primarily take over after a few minutes. Zone three efforts are not super intense but not easy either. Because you can work efforts here for longer periods, you get aerobic endurance strength gains in the legs. One of the main adaptations in zone three is increased mitochondrial density. The more mitochondrial density, the more places to burn fat and glycogen as fuel, the more power you can produce. One key to working in this range and maximizing the effort is to push as much power as possible while keeping heart rate under the top of the zone. This keeps the effort aerobic in nature while maximizing power gains.
Zone three efforts are intense enough that its not wise to use them everyday but during the base and build phases, two to three days a week is plenty. An elite or well-trained rider may be able to work a tempo day after a harder intense day while an age group athlete may need an easier day between more intense and zone three days. Zone three is also good to use within harder effort days. During the base and build phases of training, ramping into zone three for a 5-minute effort, then upping that effort into zone four and five makes for a good combination. Also, adding in a longer zone three tempo effort to the end of a hard effort day makes for a good aerobic strength building workout.
Long efforts in zones two and three are where you build your base. If we were to compare this to an engine, this would be your diesel engine, it’s a place where you can rely on fat primarily as fuel, and a place where you can churn the pedals for a long period of time, such as in any ultra distance event. Efforts in zones two and three are not the only zones you need to be working during the base and build phases, harder efforts in the upper zones four and five are also key to making aerobic gains. Harder efforts incorporate more muscle fibers, thus incorporating more muscle fibers into the mix when in tempo ranges. Just keep in mind that during the base and build periods, your primary focus is on building the aerobic base of strength, so most of your time spent cycling should be focused within zones two and three.
Mike Schultz, CSCS