The Eleven Actions in Cycling
In one of my first winter training camps as a pro rider, I was introduced to the mythical concept of “zone 2.” We were out on a ride in Europe. You see photos of these camps on bike websites with riders in their new kits, bundled up to stay warm, putting in the hours ahead of something like Paris–-Nice or Milan–San Remo.
On one of these rides, we turned up a fairly long climb, and before I knew it, we were going Mach 10. As far as I knew, this was supposed to be an easy base ride—zone 2, right? Well, one of my teammates came up next to me riding like it was a mountaintop finish in the Tour de France. I looked over at him and asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “It’s a zone 2 ride.”
I was confused. Afterward he explained that he was staying well below his 410-watt threshold, riding a steady 400 watts on the climb. As far as he was concerned, everything under threshold was zone 2.
Eventually, zone 2 became a running joke on our team and with other friends in the peloton. But we never seemed to do much to change the way we thought of these power zones. We didn’t talk to our coaches about tweaking our training to focus on what’s actually going on in races and how we should prepare for it. We just stuck to the cookie-cutter formula.
As I began coaching riders through CINCH, I started to consider what zones we actually needed to be focusing on as riders and racers.
It became clear to me that there are 11 actions in cycling—real-world cycling at the races, gran fondos, and group rides you love to ride, and in which you’d love to do better. I have also seen that in all cycling events, whether it is the Tour de France or your local throw down, the pace is constantly changing. The riders who succeed are those who can shift gears throughout their 11 zones to handle the terrain, the race dynamics, and most importantly to play the pacing game to their strengths.
The FORM Method is built to train you for the dynamics of a race with its changes in pace and unexpected bursts. You need to refine all of these zones if you want to have the full arsenal of weapons at your fingertips when the race action heats up or the gran fondo gets moving.
The key to cycling is efficiency. The simple mechanics of the bike take you and create a super-efficient, low-energy form of transportation. In racing, we are constantly looking for ways to take this and make the ultimate efficiency sport. When we talk about efficiency, we’re looking at the economy. How do we get the most out of our energy—that is, how do we get more mileage with less exertion? When you use the PowerTrain Zones correctly, you will maximize your economy.
The PowerTrain Zone system is superior to all other training zone methodology in both its ability to produce excellent results in strength, speed and endurance increases, and in creating a guide your body can follow in performing.
Before we dive into the specifics of the 11 PTZs, let’s talk about three key variables that will help define the zones, beyond your raw power measurements.
The first variable to note for any given PTZ is fuel type. Fundamentally, your body relies on either fat or glycogen to power any kind of effort, cycling or otherwise. The lower four zones of the PTZ are primarily fat-burning zones. Once we arrive at the three Threshold zones and the four Explosive zones, your body switches over to glycogen. Think of it like a hybrid car. When you’re driving slowly around town, picking up the kids at soccer or getting groceries, it uses electricity, which is more efficient. Then, when you are up to highway speeds, running late for work, the combustion engine kicks in for speed and performance. Maybe this isn’t a perfect analogy, but the takeaway is that we are all running hybrid engines. Refer to chapter 5 for more on the FORM nutrition system.
The second PTZ variable is muscle strain. I rate this on a scale of 1 to 11. Muscle strain is a measure of perceived exertion. In other words, what does it feel like to you? Are you smashing the pedals like Mark Cavendish? Or are you gently spinning like an old lady on a bike path? Muscle strain leads to fatigue and eventual damage, so proceed with caution.
The third and final variable is lactate buildup. This is the by-product of intense exercise. Your muscles can buffer it to a point, meaning it can process and remove it, but eventually it will accumulate too rapidly and will result in a loss of performance. PTZs 1 to 4 produce little to no lactate. In the three Threshold zones, you’ll be producing lactate but you’re able to buffer it (although at PTZ 7, you’re right at the limit of what you can handle). PTZs 8 to 11 aren’t sustainable for longer than a few minutes, partly due to muscle strain and partly due to lactate buildup.
So let’s dive into the specifics of the PowerTrain Zones. I realize that 11 zones may feel overwhelming at first, but once you spend a few weeks riding the workouts based on the PTZs, you’ll quickly learn the language. At the end of the chapter, we’ll help you calculate your own PTZs following a field test.
Imagine a friend of yours who doesn’t ride. You’re trying to get them hooked on cycling, but you know they’ll be turned off if you drop them on the first hill and leave them for dead on the side of the road. That gentle pace you should use to take them on their first 10-mile loop is PTZ 1. Muscle strain is 1 out of a possible 11. This feels like there is little tension on your muscles. Spin gently, use as few calories of fuel as possible. Don’t drop your buddy!
I imagine PTZ 2 as my winter pace. It is ideal for those rare days in February when the weather breaks, you get a stretch of sunny weather and dry roads, and you head out on that first four-hour ride of the year. You can’t smash a fast group ride at this point, but you’re not going to go as slow as PTZ 1 unless you’ve been off the bike for an extended period. Sometimes this is referred to as a tempo pace, but that’s a pretty vague term. This zone feels comfortable, with just a little bit of tension on the muscles, no burn in the muscles, just like slowly walking up the stairs. Muscle strain is a 2, and you’re still using only fat as fuel.
This is the end of our fat-burning zones and the type of effort you’d use in a breakaway move that is two hours or shorter. Again, we move one notch higher on the muscle strain scale to level 4. This zone has a higher muscle tension where you feel a stronger muscular effort, but no burn in the legs. Your respiration rate is higher, but very controlled. This should feel just like doing continuous step-ups in the gym. You could use PTZ 4 on a steady climb. Unless you’re an absolute beast, you won’t break any KOMs, but you’ll get to the top fairly quickly, and you won’t dip into your glycogen stores. Sometimes, when pro riders drop back from the peloton on the final climb of an epic mountain stage, they’ll ride to the finish around PTZ 4 so they do less damage to their muscles and avoid tapping their glycogen stores. It can be deployed strategically in that way, or you can use it if you’re totally cracked and can’t manage a threshold effort.
Every zone is important but Low Threshold is the gold standard of our FORM Method. It is what we do differently than other training programs because it is fueled by a mixture of fat and glycogen. At this pace, you can produce high levels of lactate, but you can continue to clear it as you make efforts above threshold, like when you cover attacks or push up short hills. There is a fine line between where you produce as much lactate as you can clear and where you can’t; this zone rides that line perfectly for up to an hour at a time. A mountain bike race is a great example of where this zone can shine, allowing you to attack small hills and technical sections while recovering between each key section. The Low Threshold has a muscular strain score of 5. You should feel a deep muscular effort where you feel some burning sensation. Respiration rate now is higher, but it can be controlled with a focus on the exhale of the breath.
This zone is a step above Low Threshold, slightly higher in its muscle strain at a 6 out of 11, and also not suitable for efforts that are quite as long as Low Threshold. This zone feels equal in muscular load and burn, and it’s where most athletes end up by default when they do intense, longer efforts like climbs at or just above 20 minutes in length. Respiration rate is quick, but it can be controlled with mindful focus on the exhales. You feel muscular pressure while cardiovascular pressure keeps your effort in check if you want to keep going. You can use this zone on extended climbs or time trials, but your ability to clear lactate will be compromised given the elevated pace. In general, you’ll be able to handle fewer surges and accelerations. This and all of the remaining PowerTrain Zones will rely on glycogen for fuel.
Here we reach the limit of what your body can handle in terms of sustained effort. Sure, you can buffer lactate at this intensity, but if you’re already at this zone, don’t think you’ll be able to go with the climbers when they attack the group on the steepest pitches of the race’s key climb. Or, if you choose to settle into this blistering pace in a time trial effort, beware the leg-sapping rollers or headwinds that could push you into the red. You’re already revving close to your maximum. This zone has a muscular strain score of 7 and the sensation is a euphoric burn. This PTZ feels better physically than PTZs 5 and 6 as the burn overcomes the deep muscular pain that both prior PTZs have. Respiration rate is high, feeling controlled when you begin the effort, but gradually losing control of the breath consistency as the effort progresses.
Similar to PTZ 5, which combines elements of Endurance and Threshold, the Nuclear zone is a crossroads between the Threshold zones, where we rely on the cardiovascular system and the Explosive zones that are all about the muscular system. A Nuclear effort usually lasts 2 to 4 minutes. That will feel like an eternity as we hit an 8 out of 11 on the scale of muscular strain. It feels like an explosive muscular effort that is cardiovascularly conservative at first, but toward the end of your effort you reach maximum cardiovascular output, forcing your muscular effort to back off. This ends up being a lung-searing effort as you cross into the final time in this zone. But this effort is actually repeatable. It’s a critical tool to bridge gaps or put your rivals into the box on climbs.
Remember how I was saying that the Low Threshold zone is a critical pace to maintain so that you can handle repeated bursts of speed but still clear lactate? Well, the Long Surge is the PTZ that you’ve been waiting for. You’re cruising in the bunch, steady at PTZ 5, and then out of nowhere, someone attacks. You know you can close the gap in about a minute, and you know that if you return to Low Threshold, you can recover. So you engage the Long Surge and chase down the break . . . or you make a break of your own and it sticks. This PTZ has a muscular strain score of 9. This zone feels very similar to the Nuclear effort, meaning it starts out muscular and at the end is met with intense, lung-searing discomfort. But there is a subtle difference; the Long Surge is disruptive. Nuclear is primarily used in a controlled fashion in order to make it to the end of an effort or a 2- to 4-minute push. In contrast, the Long Surge is part of an explosive, but repeatable, effort to disrupt another’s pace or rhythm. When you are using the Long Surge PTZ, you are usually accelerating to it for approximately one minute, and then going back to a lower PTZ. Riding in this zone feels aggressive and disruptive.
Like a Long Surge, the Short Surge is a tool to cover attacks or gain separation from your rivals at a crucial moment in the race. However, this PTZ is far more explosive and intense. It is repeatable, but not for many times before you’re cooked. It will also take longer to recover from this effort, which is nearly an all-out sprint. The Short Surge PTZ has a muscular strain score of 10 and feels deeply muscular, similar to a sprint. However, it is a slightly different sensation from a sprint. Since the objective of this zone is to provide you with a platform to launch an effective yet repeatable attack or surge, the effort must feel just like that to avoid going too hard. So the feel is an easier, muscular sprint in which you are holding back for the first 15 seconds, but the last 15 seconds will feel like an all-out effort.
PTZ 11 Maximum Explosive Strength:
Finally, we have the pure all-out sprint. This is not a repeatable effort; this is when you’re charging to the finish of the race, emptying everything in your tank to win the day. In training, this effort is almost more of a benchmark for CINCH athletes. It helps us gauge the development of their top-end power, almost like you’d do with a maximum-weight strength rep in the gym. The MES sprint has a muscular strain score of 11. This zone and effort feel exactly like the name implies: your maximum, all-out effort.
Now that I’ve laid out the 11 PTZs, I can imagine what you’re thinking: This seems complicated. You’ll have to work to memorize them all, or maybe you’ll tape a long sheet of paper to your bike’s top tube to keep track of the difference between PTZs 6 and 7 or 3 and 4. I get it. I have worked with many coaches over the years and it can be hard to adjust to a new system. But here is your motivation to stick to the 11 zones of the FORM Method: This is way more than a training framework. This is a way for you to harness the natural engine that is your body to achieve maximum efficiency, like I mentioned earlier in this chapter.
Whenever I watch a pro bike race, I can pick apart the details of what is happening in the bunch. Who I can see who is working hard, who is sitting in, what strategies they’re playing to have their best chance of winning. So, let me describe a race where all 11 of the PTZs are used, each with a specific purpose.
Let’s tune in to stage 19 of the 2018 Tour de France, the final mountain stage of the race through the Pyrenees. This 200-kilometer route takes on some of the region’s epic climbs. It starts with the Col d’Aspin and, the Col du Tourmalet, followed by the Col des Borderes, the Col du Soulor, and the Col d’Aubisque before plummeting to the finish.
As is the case in almost every major race, the first hour is a wild ride. Guys are attacking left and right to try to make it into the breakaway, or simply surviving, praying they don’t get dropped with the Paris finish only days away.
I can promise you that the start out of Lourdes is raging fast as they fly up the valley to the day’s first climb. Riders are spiking into PTZs 8, 9, and even 10 to close gaps or attack off the front of the bunch. If they use their zones well—and I bet most of them can—they hit the accelerator on one of these attacks, and then if they get caught or find their way into a breakaway, they settle back to a Low Threshold zone, PTZ 5. If you think your weekly interval workout is painful, just imagine these repeated accelerations in the peloton, just an hour into what would turn out to be a six-hour day for most of the guys in the bunch.
You can bet that once the breakaway finally sticks, most of the riders’s glycogen stores are pretty tapped out from the repeated efforts. Fortunately, as things relax in the peloton, they are able to settle into one of the fat-burning zones, probably High Medium (PTZ 4). This gives them a chance to refuel, taking on more glycogen, which they’re sure to need later in the day.
Up the road, a pretty large breakaway group is clicking along, gradually extending their lead. At this point, you might wonder how those guys pace themselves with more than 150 kilometers still to race, not to mention the four categorized climbs at the end. This is where strategic use of PTZs shines, especially the four Endurance zones.
Riders in a breakaway like this are in a tug-of-war between two different needs. They need to preserve their energy for a six-hour day of racing, ideally enough that they can be racing for the win by the end of the day. But they also need to keep extending their gap on the peloton, or else their breakaway will be caught and all the effort in the Explosive zones during the first hour of racing will be wasted.
So, they use their zones strategically on the undulating terrain through the valley leading up to the Col d’Aspin. When they have an opportunity to gain momentum, they push into the High Medium (PTZ 4) zone. They can’t hold that effort for more than a couple hours, so it has to be spent at the right times. When they are carrying momentum, they can shift into an easier zone, possibly Medium (PTZ 3) or even Low Medium (PTZ 4) if they get to a fast downhill or a section of tailwind. As the paceline rotates, everyone gets a little break after their turn when they can drop down to PTZ 1 to recover as much as possible and use as few calories as they can.
On the Aspin, the day’s first climb, they probably could hit it at Threshold (PTZ 6), maybe even High Threshold (PTZ 7). It’s only about a 12-kilometer climb, so it shouldn’t take these pros more than 40 minutes or so. Instead, with so much racing left, they play it safe and ride a steady Low Threshold so they can effectively clear lactate and continue burning some of their fat stores along with some glycogen.
The breakaway doesn’t last over the climbs. So let’s focus on the action in the group of GC riders, which eventually caught all the escapees. The top GC teams light things up on the Tourmalet, a long steady climb that’s much more of a highway than most of the climbs in the Pyrenees. As eEach team puts a key climbing domestique on the front to set the tempo. If they want to save this domestique for the climbs to come, he’ll ride a steady Low Threshold, able to respond to accelerations but ride within himself, clearing lactate as he goes. Or, if the domestique only needs to rip the peloton apart on the Tourmalet, he might go as high as PTZ 6 or 7.
After they top out on the Tourmalet, almost 7,000 feet above sea level, the peloton has a long, steady descent and then rolling valley roads before the final climbs. Here, they are recovering in the Endurance zones as much as possible. They’re also taking on as much fuel as they can to replenish their glycogen stores for the final Threshold and Explosive efforts in the last 50 kilometers of racing.
This is where we get into the most interesting aspects of strategy as it relates to the use of PTZs. The best riders know how their strengths match up to those of their competitors, and they try to position themselves to take maximum advantage.
On that stair-stepping climb up Borderes, Soulor, and Aubisque, a rider could take the scorched-earth approach. He could be confident that his High Medium zone is better than anyone else’s. So, he would take them to the limit, using his teammates and attacks of his own to make sure everyone’s glycogen stores were empty by the key points of the climb. Then, he would settle into PTZ 4 and feel confident that no one else can maintain the pace. This might be the type of strategy a rider like Tom Dumoulin would use, given his massive engine.
But no one decides to go all-in with that kind of strategy in stage 19 of this Tour de France. Instead, the key riders decide to launch attacks as they get closer and closer to the final mountaintop finish of the 21-day race.
Many of the attacks, like those by Primož Roglič, Dan Martin, or Mikel Landa, fall into the category of Nuclear (PTZ 8) or Long Surge (PTZ 9) efforts. They’re designed to create separation. And they do that, at least for a little bit. They’re also meant to drop riders from the bunch, to whittle things down. They also manage to do that, dropping a couple of race leader Geraint Thomas’s key Sky teammates, Michael Kwiatkowski and Egan Bernal.
The small group of GC superstars keeps reeling in the attackers. Nothing sticks on the cloudy slopes of the Aubisque—that is until Roglič hits them with one final attack. With the summit only about 750 meters away, he rides away with a Short Surge (PTZ 10) effort that can’t be matched by any of the other riders.
From there, he flies down the 10-kilometer descent, extending his lead while also settling down to the Endurance zones for a final breather. When he gets to the flat valley roads, he rides a High Threshold (PTZ 7) time trial all the way to victory at the finish.
Behind, Thomas surprises the group by sprinting to second place, reminding us all that he used to race on the velodrome, with a Maximum Explosive Strength (PTZ 11) burst of speed.
The race is still not over for the majority of the peloton, though. The riders in the grupetto, some of them sprinters who are dreaming of a chance to win stage 21 on the Champs-Élysées, have to finish. And they have to do it within a specified time cut or they’re out of the race. So, like the riders racing for the win, they use their zones strategically, gaining momentum whenever they can and conserving momentum and fuel as the opportunities come up.
- How the zones apply to the different energy systems in the body.
- How they can be used together in creating speed.
- How they are used to optimally ride the different terrains.
- How they are used in competitive scenarios.
- How to use specific training to grow each zone to improve performance.