Thursday, May 14, 2015

Power Training Zones 101

Peaks Coaching Group Power Zones 101

Understanding power zones can unlock the impressive potential of your power meter and ensure your training is targeted to take you to the next level of performance. Not all coaches use the same description of training zones; the names, values, and even labels vary among the different systems. Here at Peaks Coaching Group we use the seven zones developed by Dr. Andy Coggan for training with power. Each of these zones is expressed as a percentage of functional threshold power (FTP). The time you can sustain a continuous effort in the power zone (“burn time”) decreases as the wattage for the zone increases. Keep in mind, however, that these changes take place on a continuum and are not represented by “bright line” points.

L1: Active Recovery (AR)

Active recovery zone intervals occur when you maintain power below 55% of your FTP. It isn't time limited; theoretically you could ride steadily in the active recovery zone without running out of energy (as long as you’re refueling, hydrating, etc.). The key word in the label is recovery! This is probably the most difficult zone to ride in consistently; most athletes tend to ramp it up a bit when the terrain, conditions, or fellow riders create an opportunity.

One of my athletes has become very capable at riding true active recovery, and he describes the sensations in his legs while riding active recovery as “letting the weight of the shoe move the pedal.” He actually selects his routes to make it easier to stay in his active recovery zone; not surprisingly, he has developed faster and to a higher watts-per-kilogram than any other high-level cyclist I've seen.

L2: Endurance

Intervals in the endurance zone occur when power is maintained between 56% and 75% of your FTP. A well-trained athlete can maintain a continuous endurance zone effort for a very long time; as Dr. Andy Coggan suggests, we can ride endurance zone “between two and a half hours to two weeks. Cyclists who ride a lot spend a lot of time in their endurance zone. The ability to do this is not especially helpful when doing criteriums or road races, but Ironman triathletes and racers doing epic rides (such as the Race Across America) live in this zone.

One athlete I worked with loved riding in this zone so much that he routinely added three or four hours to his workouts, with the extra time almost always spent in his endurance zone. Eventually, perhaps in part due to his love for this zone, he decided to transition from local road racing to long distance events like the Race Across America.

L3: Tempo

When you ride in your tempo zone, you’re maintaining power between 76% and 90% of your FTP. Efforts in this power zone can be maintained for durations between two and a half and eight hours. Long course triathletes (half and full Ironman events) may spend a great deal of their bike leg riding time in this zone, but full Ironman bike legs (followed by a full marathon run!) should not be targeted in this zone, as the burn time for tempo efforts would guarantee the triathlete runs out of energy before running out of race.

This is kind of the in-between zone. Structured intervals are rarely designed to work in the tempo zone in training situations, though I will include a fair amount of work in this zone as race season approaches. Intervals targeting a tempo training effect must generally be about two and a half hours. Athletes who do a large number of group rides may find that much of their ride time occurs in this zone. This is predictable due to the burn time for the efforts in the zones above tempo. As a coach I often discuss the need to avoid large amounts of riding in the tempo zone for athletes working to improve their TT or criterium efforts, since time spent in tempo isn’t doing much to improve performances in those type of events.

L4: Threshold

The threshold zone is extremely important to you as a developing cyclist. You are training in this zone when your wattage is between 91% and 105% of your FTP. By definition, you should be able to maintain an effort in this zone for sixty minutes. In order to trigger a threshold training effect, intervals in this zone should be at least ten minutes long. Many of the structured workouts I design target this zone, because FTP is so important to your overall training levels, and it is crucial to increase your FTP in order to improve your performance in zones 1-4.

L5: VO2Max

Intervals targeting your VO2Max have a wattage goal of 106% to 120% of your FTP and must be approximately three minutes long to have a VO2Max training effect. Most mortal cyclists can maintain efforts in the VO2Max zone for no more than eight minutes of burn time. Intervals at this level are very intense and must be approached with care; when an athlete does VO2Max efforts it is important to closely monitor training stress, in terms of both intensity and volume, to guard against overtraining. Improvement in VO2Max is hard to come by, and when it does occur it never comes in large amounts. Doing VO2Max intervals will create a high level of fatigue and often legs that literally hurt after workouts and for days afterward. To be effective, VO2Max intervals should only be attempted following effective periods of recovery.

L6: Anaerobic Capacity (AC)

Anaerobic capacity intervals are done in the wattage range of 121% to 150% of FTP. The burn time” for AC intervals is approximately two minutes, but it is a rare athlete who can maintain this level for that long. The floor duration to trigger an AC training effect is about thirty seconds. These are high intensity, hard intervals, and workouts focused on this training zone are generally dreaded by athletes.

I prescribe an AC workout that has become popular with a number of my athletes; it’s done in pairs and involves one rider drafting the other and then the drafting rider “attacking” her partner. The partner must then jump onto the wheel of the attacking rider, and both of them continue a maximum ~150% effort for a total time of thirty seconds. They recover for three minutes and repeat the workout, switching the roles so the attackee becomes the attacker. One of my athletes who had historically disliked AC interval work confided to me that this workout was able to sneak in AC intervals she would normally dread on her own.

L7: Neuromuscular Power (NP)

Training in the neuromuscular power zone is as intense as it gets! This zone isn’t targeted toward specific wattage; you simply go as hard as humanly possible for at least five seconds. The burn time for this type of effort is about 15 seconds. One of my athletes who is an engineer and very much a “numbers type” told me that the reason there’s no power number targeted for NP efforts is that if you’re doing them correctly you can’t see straight to even note what numbers your wattage meter is displaying. Your legs really take a beating when doing NP interval work, and it’s not a good idea to do consecutive days of NP intervals; adequate rest and recovery is an absolute must before repeating intervals at this level.

Things to keep in mind

  • Power training zones are based upon an accurate, current measurement of your FTP. FTP must be rechecked at regular intervals (every four to six weeks) so that your zones can be accurately adjusted.
  • Percentage of heart rate (HR) is not the same as percentage of FTP.
  • These are zones. You’re working on training specific energy systems (e.g. VO2Max, threshold, endurance, etc.) when you train within the power numbers for the zone for an appropriate amount of time.
  • The necessary time in the zone to trigger a training effect varies with each zone and with where your power is relatively within the zone. For example, intervals in your threshold zone should last at least ten minutes to get a threshold training effect, but if you do a threshold interval at the low end of your threshold zone (for example, at 96% of your FTP), you might need to do intervals of at least 12-13 minutes to trigger the same training effect that you get from doing ten-minute intervals at 100% of FTP.

Sweet Spot Intervals

Power zone workouts are usually designed to have you produce wattage at a level in the zone for a specific amount of time, with a specific amount of recovery. The “sweet spot” workout, however, crosses the boundaries between zones to produce a threshold training effect. Compared to threshold level intervals, this type of workout makes it possible for you to do more and longer intervals. That’s what makes it sweet!

To perform a sweet spot interval workout, you should ride for twenty minutes at 88-92% of your FTP. Try to perform two of these intervals with at least five minutes of recovery between intervals. When you can complete two twenty-minute sweet spot intervals in a workout relatively easily, you should add a third. Dr. Coggan created the following chart that graphically shows how the sweet spot can improve threshold while limiting physiological strain to an optimal level (credit goes to Dr. Andy Coggan for the diagram).

Want expert help identifying your training zones? Find out more about our coaching or schedule a consulting session with one of our expert coaches. With power training, we get powerful results.

Peaks Coaching Group Gordon Paulson
Gordon Paulson is a Cat 1 racer, a Level 2 USAC cycling coach, a Peaks Coaching Group elite/master coach, a practicing attorney, and a father of three in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. He has extensive road racing experience and has set numerous course records in Wisconsin and Minnesota, many of which have now been eclipsed by athletes he has coached. Gordon can be contacted through or


  1. (Received via email)

    I had a followup question for you. "When you can complete two twenty-minute sweet spot intervals in a workout relatively easily, you should add a third." Is there a particular reason why one should bump the interval count to 3 x 20, rather than just bumping the interval length (2 x 30)? Or are you just concerned with increasing the total time in that the sweet spot?

    I've started doing 1x45 and 1x60, but I've had some folks suggest I break them up, so they're no longer than 20 (each), but I've never heard of a scientific explanation of why this is better.


  2. Great question, James. It sounds like you’re already pretty well versed on training. My suggestion to increase sweet spot intervals from 2x20 to 3x20 is designed to take advantage of a mindset I feel exists when an athlete is asked to do something he/she has already successfully accomplished. Kind of thinking that "I’ve done that 20-minute effort and it’s not too hard, so I can do another 20-minute effort." Sweet spot intervals are, by design, intended to get the best "bang for the buck" from threshold-targeted intervals without needing to do 60-minute intervals. By definition, 60-minute threshold intervals would be the upper limit for an athlete. Instead of doing 60-minute threshold targeted efforts, we use these “shorter” efforts because athletes find them to be psychologically attainable. It would be a big ask to have athletes regularly do 60-minute threshold-targeted intervals. By adding another 20 minutes, we are including some rest, yet the athlete is getting in a large dose of threshold work.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. I have a question concerning my power zones, and interval intensities.
    I tested my FTP to be 275 watts. Following Coggan's power zones, my anaerobic capacity should be between 330 and 412 watts. So I would expect to be able to hold that for not much longer than 2 minutes.
    However I managed 400 watts over 3 minutes, and 325 watts over 5 minutes. This is both well into VO2Max duration. Also over 1 minute I can hold 500 watts, well more than the upper limit of power zone 6.

    So I'm guessing I have a relatively high anaerobic and VO2Max capacity compared to my lactate threshold. However if I start doing either anaerobic or VO2Max intervals, what wattage should I be targetting? Should I still aim for 121%-150% of my FTP for anaerobic intervals, or should I target 440-600 watts which I know I can hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

    Thanks in advance!

  4. Wow, you really have some good numbers. When we test our athletes at Peaks Coaching Group, we have them do separate test cycles targeting each of four energy zones: 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, and FTP. This generates a Power Profile for the athlete that rates their wattages to categories of athletes.

    Looking at a number of those power profiles, I can confirm, as you suspect, that some athletes have much stronger power zones in a couple (but not in all) zones. For example, as yours appears to be, anaerobic capacity and VO2max power zones. Your apparent profile suggests that you might not find longer TTs to be your strongest discipline, but in a small group sprint starting from a long way out (3 km?) you’d be tough to beat.

    Back to your question. Assuming your FTP is spot on, the difference between your FTP tested number and your apparent VO2Max capacity suggests that you have room to move your FTP up quite a bit. FTP should go up if you focus your training on workouts that target FTP adaptation. However, when doing workouts that are targeting VO2Max or anaerobic capacity adaptations, it’s my opinion that you should use the real numbers derived from your actual efforts at those levels. Workouts focusing on repeatability of VO2Max efforts (5x5s for example) should be done at your actual VO2Max level, even if that’s higher than the 106-120%.

    Keep in mind, however, that when you’re doing repeated intervals, you must be able to hit the targets repeatedly, so a number that you can only do one time for 4 minutes might be too high a target for 5-6 repeats.

    Good luck, and thanks for following Peaks Coaching Group!

  5. Thanks a lot!

    It's nice to hear I might be able to increase my FTP quite a bit :-) I will definitely be working on that towards next season, and I hope you are right

  6. Hi there;

    I am confused with what the Sweet Spot training zone percentages are.

    On this page it states SST is 88 - 92%. This is the same as Training and Racing With A Power Meter 2nd edition. states the SST is 83 - 97%.

    Could you please explain the difference between these figures?


    1. Those are both centered around 90%, the later just has the range expanded.

  7. Hi there. I've got a question on the use of FTP to set training zones. I'm getting back on the horse after a 3 year break from IM distance tri's, and have my goal race in 10 months. Back in 2013 I did a number of 40km TT all out efforts as part of a university study, and got up to 285w FTP for 56mins. Since then I kept up a fairly light load of riding and running. Now I'm back in the swing of things, should I continue using 285w as an FTP to set my training goals, knowing that's what I've achieved in the past, or retest based on the 20min protocol?

    As a guide, I'm currently doing base kms, holding Zone 2.0 (155wNP based on 285wFTP) for 90min with an average HR of 138 (69%).

    Thanks for your advice

  8. Hi! I'm new to power meter and I just read the Allen & Coggan's book. I have two questions about the applications of my FTP. I've made the FTP test in a 20-minute climb and achieved 241W (95% of 254W), but my average cadence was 55-60, 25-30 rpm lower than my normal cadence of 85 rpm.

    1) On a flat road it's harder for me to maintain 254W for 20 min at my normal cadence. Is this just a matter of practice or it's normal due to the different elevation grades?

    2) My MMP for 60 minutes in a flat road is 211W and the related NP is about 220W. If I can't deliver 241W during a 60-minute interval should I keep this number as my FTP? I'm concerned about the correct power zones and the calculation of TSS, ATL, CTL and TSB. When I tried to use 220W as my FTP the difference between TSS and hrTSS was very high and I don't know if such difference makes sense at all.

    Thanks in advance!


    1. Hello Fernando,

      Great questions. Many riders, and for that matter, coaches have questions about how to measure FTP and which test does the best job of measuring it. This is one of the main areas that Peaks’ coaches help their athletes accomplish. The use of 95% of your best 20 minute effort has been shown to be quite a good indicator. Keep in mind, that the primary reason for setting FTP is to insure that targeted intervals are triggering the right signals to cause adaptations to occur in the energy systems that you want to improve. As you’ve discovered however, not all 20 minute efforts are the same.

      You’re correct, the use of a course with gradual elevation will cause you to produce higher wattage results than a similar course on flat terrain. It’s not quite cheating, but if you want a high “FTP” number find a 2-3% grade that you can ride for 20 minutes, (and, as you also point out, pedal a somewhat lower cadence) and you’ll get a figure that in almost every instance is higher than a similar output based on perceived exertion (and heart rate) on a flat course. But, the important question is really, ‘where will you be racing and/or training?’ If you train on a 2-3% grade, then the number correlates well when adjusted to training targets. But, if you’re doing intervals or racing on flat terrain, you might be better served by using 95% of your best 20 minute effort on flat terrain. If the differences are close, it might not make too much difference. But, since your difference is pretty large, you might want to take terrain in to account and set your zone accordingly.

      The cadence difference is also interesting. You can produce higher wattage using lower cadences usually. But, the tradeoff is that your legs will fatigue more rapidly. Now, if you can increase the cadence without shifting in to an easier gear, then you might be very pleasantly pleased with the velocity you can attain. But that takes time. Remember, power has two components, torque and pedal velocity. If you gain high torque with low cadence, think of what you can do if you increase the pedaling speed without reducing the torque. You go faster!

      You’re looking at the right data. 60 minute MMP & hrFTP can shed light on where you want to be now. It’s impossible to give you a confident determination of where you FTP should be set to calculate training zones, TSS, CTL, ATL, TSB, however, you might want to train for a bit at 211 watts and see if you’re improving. Don’t get hung up on having a ‘high’ FTP at the expense of effective training. Raising FTP is best achieved using realistic numbers, resting well, and testing regularly.

      Best of luck with your cycling!!

      All the Best,

    2. Thank you very much! Your answers were very helpful. Cheers

  9. Hello, I just wondered if you could tell me how long an increase in exercise performance can realistically be expected to continue,please? I think I read somewhere that it was 8? months (for meaningful improvement) up to a year to wring almost every drop?I trained for 6 months and got a 67% improvement and wondered what % I might hope for in the next 2 months? 5%? 10%?.Just interested in any information you can give.Thank you.

    1. Hello Schoolboy,

      You’ve asked interesting questions. However, you haven’t supplied enough information for me to give you a solid, confident answer. Gender, age, training experience, improvement parameter being measured would all be data that a Peaks coach would need to gather to provide an opinion. And it’s important to keep in mind that there really aren’t any ‘general’ rules that you should use to determine a specific prediction of improvement amount and time frame. Like many things, improvement is individual and no two individuals will experience it in an identical way. Sorry to not directly answer your question.

      In general (I know, I just said that general ‘rules’ are not particularly helpful) men and women experience improvement at different rates. Older athletes are likely to see less improvement with the same training program as someone younger. It matters a great deal whether the athlete is just getting started with organized structured training. If so, there is likely large improvement gains initially which start tapering off as the athlete gains experience and performs diligent, well designed, training. A professional cyclist may have to work incredibly hard to gain 2-3% improvement in her measured threshold, where a newcomer might see double digit improvement within a relatively short time.

      Some areas of improvement are more susceptible to increase through training than others. Coaches usually are helping their athletes improve FTP, where gains are often noted, but improving VO2max may be much hard to pursue large gains, and threshold heart rate improvement may not show “improvement” at all (although you may note a higher wattage capacity at that level as a result of training).

      Also, improvement, however measured, is almost never a straight linear increasing thing. Progress in cycling performance often shows some downs in addition to the ups. There also must be some upper limit to improvement (which I think is what you’re asking about). Given the variability from athlete to athlete, you shouldn’t limit yourself ahead of time. Find a well-designed plan, preferably designed by a well-respected coach, and give it your best effort. Pursue improvement and establish your own personal parameters. Your individual improvement under those circumstances will be your personal best!

      Thanks for visiting the Peaks Coaching Blog. Best of luck with your training!

      All the Best,

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  11. Hi Hunter

    I have a I doubt in the test that I did in my bike trainner I get a Average Power of 177 watts, but in a training I did in the street I got a Normalizade Power of 211 and and a average power of 186 watts. Which data I should use to calclate the FTP and Why? Someone told my that should use Normalized Power. What do you think?

    1. You can use the normalized power if it was a hard/race pace effort for 60minutes.

      Use Average power if it is for 20 minutes.

  12. Thank you for your answer. In this case it was a hard race that last 4:00 hours but the data that I refered above correspond just for the information that I got from training peaks in the section that said "Peak 20:00 min". Should I use the NP or the average? or is better to use the one I got on my bike trainner for a test of 20 minutes?


    1. For 20 minutes= Average Power.
      For 60 minutes=Average OR Normalized Power.

      Use whichever number you think is closer to what you can do for an hour.