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53 | Training Zones: Science, Simplicity, and Effectiveness

Episode 53 of the Performance Advantage Podcast talks about training zones; Dr. Will, and Dr. Matt, teach you how to calculate your training zones as well as breaking down the science of each of the five fundamental zones.

In addition to the five fundamental training zones, there are zones six & seven which are neuromuscular a are more for post-workout analysis rather than workout prescription:

  • Zone 1: Active Recovery

  • Zone 2: Maximal Aerobic Function

  • Zone 3: The Grey Zone

  • Zone 4: Lactate Threshold

  • Zone 5: VO2 Max

  • Zone 6: Anaerobic Capacity

  • Zone 7: Neuromuscular Power

Seven training zones
Training zones

For a weekend warrior, one who mostly exercises one or two times a week, the specific data on this chart would not be something that you would want to focus on.

As what Dr. Matt said in the podcast:

"It's really easy to see that it gets murky really, really quickly. So zones are a really good way to prescribe exercise because you know what to do, and over time you learn how it feels. And it's super simple for an athlete and a coach to communicate, and to analyze information when we know these discrete zones. But I don't think we need to think about them so specifically and put so much importance on these super, super specific numbers. They are a zone and this is, as we talked about, this is how energy systems work. They're on a kind of this continuum, and they don't start and stop at 56%, your lactate threshold. So this is for any sport."

The important thing to remember with training zones is how your body's energy system function for each level of the zone. You should also take into consideration the purpose of your exercise, or exercise training when you use the training zones as a reference point.

In zone one (1), we were relying on our oxidative metabolism which means that we used fat as a source of fuel in this stage. If we compare it to zone five (5), where glucose is our main source of fuel, we can see the two complete opposite ends of a continuous spectrum.

However, if you wanted to still use fat as a fuel source, and expend more energy while doing it, then zone two (2) would be your standard training zone because zone two enabled you to generate higher output of energy. It also represents "the highest rate of work where we're relying predominantly on oxidative metabolism."

In short, zone 1 = fat as fuel & less or small effort, and zone 2 = fat as fuel & more effort than zone 1.

As Dr. Will described, zone three (3) is called "the grey zone" because it is not zone two so it is slightly above your aerobic capacity but it also does not reach zone four where your lactate threshold is situated.

This is the zone where it's not fully aerobic, but then there's not a point where lactate accumulates. Zone four (4) is called "the lactate threshold", which is where your energy system cannot accommodate the buildup of the hydrogen ions produced with the lactate generated by your energy system. They discussed that lactate in itself is not bad, and it can be used by your body as an additional fuel source.

The real burglar would be the hydrogen ions that was produced by the body when generating lactate that was causing the person's body to reach their limit because your muscles, and its' cells cannot exist or function properly in that acidic state.

Competitive cyclists in a bunch

Lastly, zone five (5) was identified as your "VO2 Max". Dr. Will pointed out that this zone was what people would thought of as interval training. And I think Dr. Matt summarized what zone five and above actually is:

"It's like pretty much anything above lactate threshold. And this zone, for me, what I do in training peaks, I pretty much just delete any zone after zone five, and then make them all zone five. Because if I'm prescribing something at a maximal level, which is the only other zone that I'm going to prescribe above zone five, I'm just writing maximal and those are so short, it doesn't hardly factor in to a zone and you're just going all out. And we do them pretty infrequently."

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Here is the transcript of Performance Advantage Podcast Episode 53.

Will O'Connor 0:11

All right, Matthew, welcome to Episode 53 of the Performance Advantage Podcast. With myself Dr. Will O'Connor and Dr. Matt Miller, Sports Scientists on the performance advantage podcast we bring SPORT SCIENCE to the people. And this week we're talking training zones one through 50. Now we're not going up to 50. But we have one tired doing so you're gonna hear your ratings reading what that like what a training zones, what do they mean? How do they work, we're going to the science behind them. First up, mimic have a bit of a catch up what we're up to during lockdown. And, as always, shout out to our sponsors, and, online self coaching software to help you become a better athlete. And currently during lockdown, has webinars with myself and some special guests live Friday nights with replays uploaded within the platform. So check that out. All right, let's get on with the show.

Matt, I've been zwifting

Matt Miller 1:30

What? How is it?

Will O'Connor 1:33

I love it. I actually like I've done it before. I did it a while back when when I first got the Kickers, the wahoo kickers for my research and I was like aw, yeah, this is alright. But there wasn't the like, user level of it on the users, they just went there. So you get on, there'd be a couple other people around like I was this is when it sort of first came out and smart trainers were just starting to become popular or into the market. I was like, oh, yeah, this is alright, but it's kind of, I'm just this dude, biking around some virtual world by myself, man. I'll just go out on the road. You know, there's nothing much to do about it. And obviously, Iran's lockdown. Iran's riding Swift. I was getting FOMO. And then my wife started getting more into it. She started racing. And I was like she started getting likes and followers. I was like, man, it sounds like a bit of me. So I got on. I did a couple races. I did B grade. I got my ass kicked. I am nowhere near the level I used to be when I was doing a lot of riding. And yeah, then I went C grade. And I came second. So it's pretty proud of myself for that. Definitely, probably poaching in C grade, though. But having a bunch of fun. And now I like I just did a ride this morning. I'm trying to get leveled up. Because you get like new kit when you get level. Matt, I'm sold. I'm sold. Love it.

Matt Miller 3:10

That's pretty cool. I'm actually I would like to try it. But I'm a bit worried. What I do is I just start going hard all the time.

Will O'Connor 3:22

I did it like my biggest week of training, probably excluding the hundred -- the Tarawera hundred k this year. And then on Monday, I had an easy ride and emos, like don't just ride around to work like into a race. And I was like, oh, okay, cool. reamed myself on an easy ride. And then I had an aerobic ride on Sunday. And, again, I did the C grade race, which I was like this will be way easier. I got super competitive attacked on the hill was blowing hard, heart rate: 190.

Matt Miller 3:57

I didn't even know your heart rate got to 190 this is exactly the thing that, you know that's not sustainable. Look, that's the problem. That's the problem.

Will O'Connor 4:07

And notice that the problem like also with with cycling is for the most part, that ride was really easy. And I was below 150 beat as around like 130 something, but then it was just that sort of five minute all out like all out effort that I did to try and win the race. They it takes a lot like I'm not trained in cycling. I haven't trained on my bike for such a long time. If I ride, I live in Rotorua. I go mountain biking, and I cruise. Just bon bon the trails. And so that's definitely not helping towards my running but then the other thing that's kind of the addictive nature of the gamification of it is now I'm like I should do the weather's looking good this week, my next ride, which I just uses, which we can talk about metal zone one - act of recovery, & zone two. I want to get out on the trails. I want to experience nature, enjoy doing some jumps, doing some trails. And now Mike is here, but if I'm gonna ride, I could contribute those K's to my next level up. So I can unlock some new worlds.

Matt Miller 5:26

Oh, no.

Will O'Connor 5:28

You don't get any points for riding outside man.

Matt Miller 5:30

This is, as you know, I have a highly addictive personality. And when I get into something, I'm everywhere and I'm doing it. So my history with video games, I would worry for myself -- my future self. So my current self is like future self. Maybe just hold back a little bit and stick to the trails. Safer.

Will O'Connor 5:53

Yeah. And I mean, you're only really just introducing yourself to the Strava world. And I mean, that's an external pressure enough for a newbie like yourself. And then to take that to the next level with zwift for Matt, we are we might not get any podcasts and you'd be riding.

Matt Miller 6:16

Because yesterday, I was actually thinking about this. I did like 60 k ride and it's one of my standard ones. And I was like, well, I'm just gonna make the, I always ride easy, right? And I wanted to, I just wanted to average 30 Ks . And then I was thinking, I don't have to average 30 Ks for any reason other than I just want to, and endurance is low zone. It's zone one to zone two. It doesn't have to be at the upper end of zone two. And so I'll try and limit those things that force your psychology.

Will O'Connor 6:59

No one's forcing strategy forcing you to.

Matt Miller 7:01

This is all me. This is all I need to keep these things away from myself for sure but I'm jealous. I like I want to try it, and I know that I probably shouldn't.

Will O'Connor 7:15

Yeah, that's definitely what what got me into it. So that's something that I've improved a lot like since I first got into it. They really hook you in these levels and unlocking in all of that, and that other huge positive, which is external to zwift is that the humming of my smart trainer. Just James my son who's now 19 weeks loves it puts them to sleep. He's like, super chill, he'll just stare at it for like, hours.

Matt Miller 7:47

Does that cause the kicker has that little swirly thing so it kind of look?

Will O'Connor 7:52

That would be it like he woke up, must've been like 3:30am and then, what are you gonna do? I'm not gonna do anything at that time. And if I'm not on the bike, he needs entertaining. And then I'm too tired for that. So I just get on the kicker and just go for a ride. And then that puts them to sleep and then I've done my training so it's kind of two birds one stone. So just between mean and Emma we just need to keep combo-ing just like riding or not, keeping him sleep.

Matt Miller 8:26

Funny actually because you can zwift race all the time, but to get better at zwift racing training helps, right? So following set workouts to improve your weaknesses so don't overlook those. And if you need any of those workouts to upload to your zwift, I can send them to you because I make them all the time.

Will O'Connor 8:48

I'm actually a member of smart MTB training so I would just download some of them from there.

Matt Miller 8:54

You know one of the things that you could probably work on is your sprinting so we could.

Will O'Connor 8:58

Oh my God, running has annihilated my top in power. Holy, I've got nothing it's just that muscle neurological pathway and also just the fatigue and my legs from running you know, almost hundred miles a week or so cooked.

Dr Matt Miller 9:18

Yeah, well, we can get you on some sprint ones. Let's talk about this offline.

Will O'Connor 9:23

So anyway, that's me I'll be keen to get those those sprint workouts. What about you Matt? Like I hear you've been riding? You've been staying indoors like two of your favorite things?

Matt Miller 9:37

Those are like my only things especially. So have you seen the teaser post that I've been putting up?. So I've been working with a designer and I think it looks really really cool. I'm super excited, and what the break a software does, is it shows you your breaking which has never been done before. It looks really cool with all kinds of awesome graphs, and then we start to narrow it down and we show you the breaking of events that you can improve the most. It's done, it actually is there and it works, and we're gonna be launching it super soon. But other than that working with my athletes and we're getting excited because a lot of my athletes we're coming into their best kind of season. We're like we don't want to waste, hopefully races aren't too far off.

Will O'Connor 10:29

Yeah, athletes like we've done the same. I just met good this alright, so shout out Anna. She's a longtime listener. She did a time trial, half marathon -- personal best, like the best she'd ever gone for a half marathon solo in locked down. Her Garmin failed like it just wouldn't upload. She couldn't find the file nothing, like it didn't happen. She took a photo of your watches on her watch cause she can't get it off? Yeah, so just imagine that it does suck. It sucks.

Dr Matt Miller 11:10

Like you want to have a record of that similar a garment issue. I was like, Look, you need to get used to this because and you need to be able to work the problem, because these problems are always going to happen. And they're always going to happen at the worst time. Right? Because there's never a good time for something with your tech that you spent a lot of money on. There's never a good time for that problem. So anytime it happens, it's gonna feel like the worst time.

Will O'Connor 11:29

Well the opposite kind of happened with my wife, Emma, where her Garmin went flat on the start line of, I think it was her first full on half marathon race, and she ran a massive personal base. Like way faster than she was expecting to or she would have paced yourself too. She's just gotten a group is like, she like ran it on average faster than like a fastest five k split. It's not so outrageous, but then at least is an actual result for that. Yeah, like a legitimate one. Whereas the other personal base, but so stoked, stoked for your break a software. I can't wait to put it on, put on a giant trance and rip it if I end up riding outside again.

Okay, man, let's let's get into our topic of the week -- training zones -- because it's murky waters out there. You know, we, as sport scientists and coaches, we often just throw training zones there. And if you sign up to any kind of like data, congregating collating, soft Strava training Pete sports tracks, track today's plan, like any of those Garmin, Suunto, they all have them. They just give you zones, right based off of power speed, heart rate, pace, but are they correct? What do they mean? What do you mean? What do I mean? So we want to break it down and kind of introduce training zones.

Dr Matt Miller 13:19

I've been thinking about, we actually think about them a little bit differently. I know you use, I think fewers zones, we'll get into that. So what we do is we end up going out and we do let me pull it up, because I actually I don't know them by heart. I just know what the zones are. And this is, this is how we'll get into what we think's important. But that gives the impression that if you are 1%, that obviously leads you to believe that 56% of your threshold power is not active recovery. And the way energy systems work. It's just not that black and white. Because energy systems are kind of on a continuum where we're using most of them at any given time, but we'll be relying on one more than the other.

Will O'Connor 14:09

First off, like we'll introduce training zones. And really, I think that the fundamental basics of of the zones are our five zone system. Right and you have one, I'm not going to count to five.

Matt Miller 14:27


Will O'Connor 14:28

Yes, those are the zones at the base level. One thing, active recovery, two being aerobic, maximal aerobic function, and then zone three: gray zone move. That's very murky waters tempo.

Matt Miller 14:48

Well, this is one of the issues where they have different names.

Will O'Connor 14:52

Right then but I'll keep going. Okay, otherwise you'll sidetrack me zone four: threshold. Another very ambiguous term, and zone five VO2 max

Dr Matt Miller 15:07

But then there's also... I know some coaches will use zone 5A, zone 5B's zone 6, & 7

Will O'Connor 15:16


Matt Miller 15:16

Neuromuscular. Oh boy. I just don't think it's important to get that specific, and we'll talk about why.

Will O'Connor 15:38

So let's go, Zone One. Okay, Matt. So we're going to the start, we've got our zones. For this, we're doing one to five. What? What do you have to add before we break it all down.

Dr Matt Miller 15:49

I think it's really important to firstly talk about how we get these zones, because this is one of the first things that we do when we start working with an athlete. So, way, way, way back in the day when heart rate monitors were invented, and they needed to be really easy to use. Someone said, well take 220 minus your age, find your max heart rate, and then put it into this calculator, and you'll find your zones. So as we started to learn more about heart rate and things like the lactate threshold and power meters, and things like that, what we started to do is we started to integrate models that based on zones off of the lactate threshold, and there are different ways to test that.

Will O'Connor 16:33

Yeah. So you kind of have that one hour limit. You're like, okay, if I'm training above this limit this line, then I can go for longer than an hour, like in the real basic terms. But through testing blood lactate, scientists figured that out, and they're like, okay, let's work back from here. How long could you do 90% of that output? How long could you do 50%? And then you go, okay cool. And then you just, they started to generate the zones? Right? critical powers, what they've called it for running? Yeah. Okay.

Matt Miller 17:06

So actually, we we use critical power in cycling as well. So I think the way it actually is in practice is there, they all kind of represent this same kind of thing. So, in cycling, what we do is we go out, and first off, even though the lactate threshold is representative of what we can do, maximally for one hour, we're not going to go out and do a one hour time trial very often. Because that is that they suck, right?

Will O'Connor 17:37

I've only done one once -- not in a race, I guess I could afford k time trials, that's approximately an hour. But that was there was a big, like a mountain climb. Right? Like it's like a one hour hill climb, otherwise. Then a half marathon takes me just a bit over an hour, but I'm not out there doing that by myself, not in the race. I just did a 10 k time trial in the weekend, and that was excruciating enough for 30 minutes. You know, like that was the limit of my intrinsic motivation to push myself maximally.

Dr Matt Miller 18:19

Yeah, so what we do is we do a test that takes about 20 minutes. So eight to 20 minutes. And even that, like going maximally for pretty long time, that's still a lot to ask from an athlete if you're doing it regularly. But what we can do is if we do something like 20 minutes, we can multiply our power output or our heart rate times a factor that makes it representative of what we probably would have done for an hour. So usually, what we do is if we go for 20 minutes, and we get say a power of 350, we've multiplied by 0.95, get 95% of that, and that is what we probably could have done for an hour, and that probably represents our lactate threshold. That is probably a good thing to use to base these very, very discreet limits on for our training zones.

Will O'Connor 18:59

Any statistician or mathematicians like what was? Well, it was the era.

Dr Matt Miller 19:21

It's really easy to see that it gets murky really, really quickly. So zones are a really good way to prescribe exercise because you know what to do, and over time you learn how it feels. And it's super simple for an athlete and a coach to communicate, and to analyze information when we know these discrete zones. But I don't think we need to think about them so specifically and put so much importance on these super, super specific numbers. They are a zone and this is, as we talked about, this is how energy systems work. They're on a kind of this continuum, and they don't start and stop at 56%, your lactate threshold. So this is for any sport.

Will O'Connor 20:08

So that's how they come about, you determine sort of a physiological maximum over different durations, and you work backwards from there. Okay, if you can run a marathon or you can hold 300 watts for an hour run a marathon and four hours, then you can, most probably, scientifically, mathematically tested within a margin of error, run a slightly slower than that for six hour, and same with the bike. So then they get broken down pretty much into five zones. As we'll talk about, there are some above five, but the real meat and potatoes of a training plan are going to be zones one through four, in my opinion, for the endurance athletes it that we, in our audience and we work with. We'll get the probably I was gonna say the most misuse, but I think a lot of really misused zone one man. Like, what's gone on there?

Dr Matt Miller 21:19

Yeah, zone one. I think zones, zone one is great, because so at the lower level, that's zero, you're not doing anything, but the upper level of zone one, you're moving. Like, typically, what we would prescribe zone one training for, is for active recovery, because you're not doing any damage to the muscles and actually, if you're running or you're pedaling, it almost feels like no effort. You'll feel like you're not doing anything, almost like you're wasting time. Obviously, for a lot of athletes, they think they're wasting their time, right, because it feels like you're wasting your time. But I think it's pretty useful because you don't need to be going hard all the time. And what we can say with a lot of certainty is when we're exercising in zone one, we're relying on oxidative metabolism, we're burning fat as fuel because we're not going hard. We're not recruit recruiting those type two muscle fibers, like we do when we're in zone five, where it's predominantly zone type 2 muscle fibers that are burning glucose as fuel, and creating a lot of lactate. And so those are the opposite ends of the continuum.

Will O'Connor 22:36

It's definitely burning fat because it's so easy. It feels too easy. That's how you can kind of identify zone one. And we're zone one gets misuses, like, people think it's training, like trying to induce a training stimulus. But in my mind, my explanation of it is, it's a recovery based zone. Zone in which you are using an activity or exercise muscular contractions to stimulate the activity of that muscle to help it recover and adapt to the stress you put on it. For what like within your training plan. So for runners, I recommend going out for a bike ride, and for pure runners, they, they grasp the concept super easy because they don't ride bikes, on Germany they got a pretty crappy bike. So they will just go for a ride, spin it out. And they find that activity of non-weight bearing activity really nice. And it helps them still feel like they're training as well, when I'm down week, and we can increase the duration of it a bit. But the easier you can take those, the more benefit you're going to get in your overall plan. Because it's not the individual zone 1 recovery session. That's trying to make you you know, the better athlete on that day. It's trying to make you the better athlete within the plan.

Matt Miller 24:15

I got to say, I don't really prescribe zone one rides super often. Obviously we do a lot of recovery and appropriate recovery, but not a ton of just zone one rides. Maybe one a week. And sometimes not in a week, sometimes a couple, but they don't like trying to limit someone within zone one. Sometimes maybe we do just have a day off or it or take a walk, but it'll largely depend.

Will O'Connor 24:48

Yeah, I'm thinking like elites here pretty much. I think zone ones a waste of time for the majority of your weekend warriors. There's just not enough time, and you might as well... You're not training enough to be able to include zone one, as additional training, you might as well do nothing, and really focus on the sessions you do have time and energy for.

Matt Miller 25:12

Yes especially if you have time. Like if you do have limited time to be training, out there, or exercising, you want to be having fun and zone one -- maybe isn't super fun. I think that transitions nicely to zone two, because oftentimes when I'm prescribing exercise, I'll combine zone one and two, and I think that's super useful. So zone two is our endurance training zone, and we do that a lot. Even for our endurance athletes and our downhillers, we're spending a lot of time in zone two, because as athletes, we need to be really, really good at using fat as fuel, and transporting oxygen to our muscles. And zone two, it really represents the highest rate of work where we're relying predominantly on oxidative metabolism. So we're still using predominantly fat as fuel, and that's one of the things that we want to get really good at using.

Will O'Connor 26:17

Yeah, oxygen, and fat. They're just so available, then on our body, and then sphere, oxygen and fat -- it's limitless. And so the more efficient, we can utilize those two fuel sources, the better outputs like; we can go faster, we can go further, we can generate more power at sustainable rate. So I guess when you talk about zone two, you have to talk about zone three, because you think, well, why don't you just go a little bit harder on it? Matt wants me to be in zone two. Alright, he says that this is going to allow me to generate higher outputs, be faster, go for longer? Well, I might as well just try a little bit harder.

Dr Matt Miller 27:17