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How Do I Determine My Training Zones?

Ask a Pro — Diane Stibbard

Coach, Personal Trainer, and Two-Time Canadian Duathlete of the Year

Diane Stibbard - two-time dualthlete of the year
I coach many individuals who have different goals. Some want structure and don’t care about heart rates, power (watts) speed or cadence. Others want to lose weight and choose cycling for their cardiovascular exercise. And then there are those who are keen to improve speed, power and efficiency to compete in races, or just to become better cyclists.

First of all you need to determine which category you fall into. If you just want to have a more structured cycling schedule, then determining your training zones isn’t necessary. However, if you want to compete or to become a stronger more efficient cyclist, determining your training zones is a good idea.

Before I go into details of what you should do to achieve this, let’s discuss the alternative to establishing training zones. I quite often use the Rated Perceived Exertion scale (RPE) when coaching clients. In previous articles I’ve talked about this scale and its usefulness. It’s a basic but effective way of determining how hard you are working. I use this scale to determine a client’s intensity levels for the various cycling workouts I prescribe for them in their monthly training programs. For those new to the Women’s Cycling website, who may not know about this measurement of intensity scale, it is as follows:

Rated Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE)

The scale is based on a 1 to 10 level, where 10 is the hardest you feel you can work and 1 is the easiest you feel you can work.
1-4 is for warm up and cool down segments on any ride, as well as for recovery rides on easy days, or post-race days.
5-7 is for aerobic endurance mileage, where you are doing long training rides, cycle tours, charity rides, multi-day type of events
7-8 –is for shorter segments of riding to build strength and muscular endurance (muscular endurance allows a cyclist to ride steady for longer without fatiguing too quickly).
8-9 – is for short bursts of intensity to stimulate improvements in a cyclist’s power, and it’s also a great way to improve the body’s ability to burn fat.
10 – Obviously this is the highest number on the scale. It’s used for extremely short bursts of energy. This too is a great way to stimulate fat burning but it will also improve a cyclist’s aerobic capacity

If you are looking for more defined heart rate training zones to adhere to, then a short personal time trail is necessary. Data is collected during this time trial and used to calculate your training zones. Winter time is a good time to establish your training zones. Then come spring, you can re-do the test to see if your zones have shifted due to a more structured training protocol.

If you live in an area where there is snow on the ground and you aren’t able to ride outside this test can be done on a trainer. Here is what you need and how to do it.


1. Your Bike on a trainer
2. Heart rate monitor


1. Warm up for 15 to 20 minutes
2. Ride hard for 20 minutes – as if it is a race, for the entire 20 minutes.
3. 10 minutes into the ride click the lap button on your heart rate monitor
4. When finished look to see what the average heart rate was for the 20 minutes – this will be the number you use to input into determine the training zones. This number is an approximation of the lactate threshold heart rate or LTHR.

You should go hard for the entire 20 minutes, but be aware if you go too hard the first few minutes and then gradually slow down for the remainder, this will give you an inaccurate result. The more times you do this test the more accurate your LTHR is likely to become as you will learn to pace yourself better at the start.


Zone 1: Less than 81% of your number– for recovery rides, warm ups and cool downs – less than 81% of your above number
Zone 2: 81 to 89%of the above number – for endurance rides (to improve the body’s ability to burn fat and operate aerobically)
Zone 3: 90 to 93% of the above number – tempo rides, and muscular strength rides (improves the body’s ability to sustain power without leg fatigue)
Zone 4: 95 to 99% of the above number – threshold rides, and threshold intervals (riding just under this level will improve your body’s ability to ride close to maximum without hitting the wall.
Zone 5: 100 to 105% of the above number – aerobic capacity interval training (very short intervals) to improve your top end capacity

I recommend doing the test in the early to mid-winter, and then again in the middle of spring to recalibrate the zones if necessary. Sometimes, I also test a client in mid-summer depending on her goals.

Regardless of which method you use this will give you guidelines to work from to help you become more productive in your training.

Training for a two-day cycling eventDiane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training. Does your company need a fitness consultant? Get in touch with Diane to discuss fitness seminars for corporations

You want personal training but don’t live near Diane? No problem. Diane does email and telephone consultations. To learn more, visit Diane’s website or contact her at

Check out Diane’s e-programs: Keeping Fit in the Off-Season and Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist.

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