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Article - 4 May 2011

Easy, Moderate and Hard. How many training zones do you really need?

Deadly Simple Training

Ever feel the need to de-clutter your training and lose all the gadgets?  The good news is that it could make you faster than ever. Here's how.

If you have become one of those triathletes that need to get more tooled up than your average US marine before each training session, then listen up, this article is for you. As a sports scientist I love GPS units, heart rate monitors and power meters. I love the data they spew out and I love analysing it. When one day, all of my gadgets played dead at the same time I had no choice but to get on the bike and simply ‘go commando’. It was a revelation. Just being able to focus on what the efforts actually felt like rather than on the power I was ‘supposed’ to be putting out was liberating. Fabian Cancellara, the cycling powerhouse, surprised a lot of people when he said that he trained for the World Time Trial Championships only on ‘feel’ as opposed to using either heart rate or power measurement. Of course his physiologists poured over the data and adjusted his training schedule accordingly, but the point is maybe, there is something here we can learn from the best in the business about simply getting back to basics.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Juan Horrach Ripoll, a super domestique for the Katusha pro cycling team and stage winner in the 2006 Tour of Italy. We discussed his training schedule in some detail, and what was most revealing was that he uses only two training zones – Easy and Hard. Ripoll’s training week consists of riding easy each day in Zone 1 until he feels his legs are ready for real work, and that is where his Zone 2 comes in. Simple and effective. Compare that to most amateurs, where between five and seven heart rate zones are the norm. Using five or more zones where each supposedly represents a specific physiological domain is overkill - if only the body worked in such a push-button manner! The fact is, there is actually no scientific basis for using more than three zones – for example ‘Easy’, ‘Moderate’ and ‘Hard’. The idea is to develop a keen sense of what exercise in each zone actually feels like. Then, anchoring those zones to a numerical perception of effort will really improve your ability to pace any given event, an essential skill if you are looking to post fast times in endurance races.

Another attribute of this simple approach is that once you have a good grasp of how very different each training domain feels from the other, you will find that your training becomes more effective. When you have too many zones, the tendency is to end up training mainly somewhere in the middle. But, with only three to choose from, it becomes very obvious when you are doing too many ‘moderate’ sessions - probably the most common training error amongst age group triathletes (see Tri Plus Issue 18). Also, do not underestimate the psychological benefit from working within a simple three-zone framework. For example, when it is time to train hard you just go out and hit the session like you mean it. No losing focus over whether your heart rate is too high or low, or if you should be at the top of zone four or bottom of zone five. You need only concern yourself with the effort itself. I also think that if you apply this simplified training approach, you will break out of your previously digitally determined limits. No more bleeping gadgets telling you that you are about to blow up, now you just have the sensation of effort to go on and you might well find that when the going gets tough, guess what, you can go on. Make no mistake, technology allied to training is a powerful and valuable tool to both the scientist and the endurance athlete. But just occasionally, when it comes to exploring your limits, lose the hardware. As the saying goes ‘where the mind goes first, the body will follow’. No mention of there of digital readouts. Don’t believe me? Just ask Cancellara and Ripoll.

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