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Balance your intensity distribution

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

Previously I've discussed the importance of consistency and volume with your training plan. However, the distribution of training intensity can single-handedly make or break your cycling programme. That is why it is important that you work with a cycling coach and are aware of the reason and methodology behind the training being prescribed.

There are many training systems designed to aid coaches and athletes plan and monitor their training intensity. At we use Today’s Plan to monitor clients training. Confusion can arise when setting your riders power and heart rate zones. It’s worth noting that Andy Coggan's power zones 1-6* do NOT correlate with zone 1-6 of British Cycling. Does this mean that the two systems are vastly contrasting? Not really, they have they just placed the cut-off for their respective zones at slightly different places? In addition i'll take a look at the polarised 80/20 zones and how they correlate to the popular Coggan and BC zones. Their are pros and cons to all systems:

  • The power-based system of Andy Coggan

  • The multiparameter system of British Cycling

  • The 3-zone system applied in 80/20 periodisation

* To simplify this post we will leave zone 7 (Neuromuscular Power) out of this analysis.

Does it matter which system you use?

Figure Courtesy of Dr. Andy Coggan, Ph.D

Yes it matters, I believe that the zones prescribed should be tailored to suit the riders physical abilities. I’ll use myself as an example, when racing I had an FTP60 of 350w and a racing weight of 70-72kg. I could handle large volumes of TS and spent the vast majority of my training in Z4. Recovery rides on the road and were predominantly Z1 and lower Z2, I live in the peak district and will very occasionally go into Z5/6. With this in mind I reduced my Z5-6 to reflect my abilities, meaning that rides in the hills were more controlled and avoided too much in those those higher zones that were detrimental to my endurance progression. Using the Coggan system I would be at the upper end of z3 threshold, BC do include a separate sweetspot zone that crosses Z3/4 with a range of 307-324w for myself-perfect for what I want. Having literally no sprint ability, VO2 and anaerobic training requires a lot of extra recovery for me. My peak power was 700w (on a good day), training to increase this would have required a total restructure of my training plan. Racing focussed on ultra endurance and required an ability to sustain a certain power over a given distance i.e 100 miles or given time i.e 12 hours. For me it was important to have consistency and by experimenting with different training methods I found that I just didn’t get the return I was looking for by doing much training above 120% FTP. Therefore, I settled on sweetspot programme, using BC zones for the majority of my training. Now, if my target races were 10 mile time trials, crits and road racing this inability to handle changes of pace would have to be addressed with the appropriate training. Would this be 80/20 periodisation?

In the end, it probably does not matter which system you use, as much as it does applying a system that is practically useful in your daily training and set the zone limits to meet you physical abilities.

The 80:20-rule

Research on endurance sports such as long distance running, swimming, rowing, cross country skiing and cycling are surprisingly concurring. The data suggest high level athletes, regardless of sport, appear to be doing about 80% of their training at low intensity, and the remaining 20% at higher intensity.

This 80:20 relationship between low and high intensity training also appears to be beneficial in the short term.

A 2014 study compared the effect of 4 different training programmes on well-trained and competitive endurance athletes (including 15 cyclists). All programmes lasted nine weeks. The programme that yielded the best performance enhancement used an intensity distribution of 80% low and 20% high intensity training. Among these well trained cyclists it appeared that the training program with a high amount of threshold training resulted in the least amount of progress.

Results from other experimental studies have shown a tendency towards low intensity training amongst amateurs being performed at higher intensities than intended. It has been claimed that when planned low-intensity training (erroneously) approaches moderate intensity, training load becomes more monotonous. It has also been demonstrated that athletes who are able to reverse this trend, by keeping the easy sessions at the intended low intensity, achieve better progress.

Are high doses of threshold training detrimental?

It has been suggested that extensive training at Z3/4 results in monotonous training load, which might lead to stagnation and reduced ability to perform high intensity training of good quality.

One hypothesis is that high amounts of moderate-intensity training might increase the amount of sympathetic stress (neurological stress response) and result in increased risk of overreaching. Research has show that by combining HVT as LSD with HIT in the right proportions leads to synergistically greater developments in aerobic capacity than from the separate contributions. In addition there is evidence that LSD actually aids recovery from HIT and therefore each next HIT session can be of high quality – it’s another synergistic effect. These are very significant outcomes from the research.

You should note that this is not yet certain knowledge, and that the evidence regarding moderate training is somewhat conflicting.

Perhaps elite athletes are better prepared to cope with the monotonous training load from threshold training than the average amateur rider?

For now, the question remains open for speculation.

An attempted conclusion regarding training intensity

Regarding threshold training as a cycling coach, most of my riders will include Z3/4 as part of their training plan. The big question is how much of it you should be doing.

What we do know is that successful and highly performing athletes usually spend about:

  • 75-80% of their training time on low intensity (approx. 56-76% of FTP)

  • 15-20% on higher intensities (approx. 91-120% of FTP)

  • …and small amounts on low-moderate intensities (approx. 77-90% of FTP).

It is crucial that you note how much time these elite performing full time athletes have available for their training, it's fair to say that the hour would be low at 15 and more like 20-30 hours per week. As a guide I would suggest around 10 hours per week as a minimum for 80/20 plans, and where possible build on this. Clearly, if my rider has 5-6 hours a week to dedicate to their training, i'm of the opinion that 80/20 would not be the best use of their time. Rather blocks of training that allow for consistency and a long term approach. Adequate recovery time, family commitments and stresses of life usually mean that the average cyclist would be doing well to average 10 hours per week per year.

If you are looking to get fit for next year's race goals, there is much evidence to suggest experienced cyclists can safely work with your cycling coach and plan for a training intensity distribution just shy of 80% low-intensity and 20% high-intensity training.

This “rule” seems to apply both short term and in the long run, as long as the rider has the available time and experience to stick to the prescribed zones.

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