Training zone myths and misuse

The use of training zones has become ubiquitous at all levels of endurance training, and has even made its way into resistance training. While I cannot the usefulness of prescribing a zone for training, its overuse and over-valuation has led to a great deal of misinformation. A recent debate on Facebook regarding a training peaks article inspired me to put out some more thoughts on zones and their uses/misuses, as well as putting too much weight in any one magical zone. What follows is a paraphrased recap of the debate.

The question arose from a question of whether I agreed with Inigo SanMilan’s view about Zone 2, which is that endurance (i.e., faster than recovery) intensity where its not very hard and reliant on fat and carbohydrates, and is good building a “base”. My answer was NO for a few reasons, but mainly because the volume model presented cannot be taken to be the best simply because that’s what elite athletes do. I would be the first to admit that Dr. SanMilan and Dr. Lim both know more about Pro Tour level athletes than I do. However, I would also not train a Pro Tour rider like I would train a 50+ cyclists with less than 10 hrs/week to train. So then why do we assume what elite athletes do is best for semi-pro’s, as Damian Ruse likes to call them?

The major underlying problem is the ERROR by EXTRAPOLATIONwhich athletes used to accuse sports scientists of trying to apply studies done on average joes to athletes. Turns out the latter generally works better than the former. It is one reason I do not fully agree with Allen Lim’s opinion on hydration. He designed a drink for Garmin’s needs, which are nothing like my needs, or yours, or even that average US pro. Will you die or do poorly using Skratch Labs products? Doubtful. Likewise, if Allen Lim wanted me to follow his training methods for a year and he did all the work would I? Yup!

Regarding Zone 2 training, however, is actually far more complicated than just an opinion about pros vs joes. I’ve already posted at length about HIT and polarized training models. The empirical evidence to support this model for training, particularly for non-pro tour level athletes, more than Inigo’s model. Moreover, the zone 2 stuff smells too much like threshold training, which is nonsense, but LT training is just being rebranded and pushed. Polarized training is actually what most scientifically driven coaches and athletes are using, and it is supported by several papers by Paul LAURSEN; additional volume simply cannot make you faster, HIT is essential, and if I have only 8 hrs to train, spending more than 6 hrs in Zone 2 isn’t going to do sh!t more me!

Obviously, personal training history/success is difficult to argue against, and I strongly disagree that LT or lower training is the best way to meet your goals, unless your racing Ultra-type events. Any anecdotal reports of the value of LT training ignore that the concept was born out of blood doping and the largely disproven Conconi test (which DOES NOT work). Close scrutiny of the scientific literature (on athletes) at best is less effective than true HIT. Moreover, as Hamish Ferguson pointed out, its also a myth to think that most time trials and triathlons are power stable events; XTerra events are anything but!

A second argument is that research studies lack statistical power, so therefore are meaningless. This actually is not entirely true. While beyond the scope of this article (and I’m already off title), evaluating differences by p-values and confidence intervals alone is generally accepted to be a poor evaluative method. Batterham and Hopkins (2005) offered a new approach that has been adopted my many to make sense of small performance differences; remember, the difference between first and 9th in both the Tour de France and Olympic 100 m is typically less than 1%.

Bottom line 1: Zone 2 and actually LT blocks can be very effective at building sustained endurance, and if you have lot of training time, it makes sense to do training here, particularly interspersed throughout your periodization plan. The fact that polarized periodization appears highly effective, it does not and should not mean that every training block for the entire year is an 80/20% breakdown. There’s nothing wrong with doing a 3-4 week block of 50/40/10%. However, if you want that extra 10-20%, or you have minimal (<8 hrs/week), then a program built around HIT is going to be best.

The Zone Myth

Now, I started this whole post off with the suggestion that zones are not all that, and they kind of aren’t. The above discussion illustrates the problem with rating one zone better than others. When I reviewed Greg McMillan’s book I mentioned why I liked his approach to zones.

It takes what many coaches attempt to present as literal quantities, and turns zones in abstract qualities, or, training outcome objectives. Simply put, you train for endurance, stamina, speed, or sprint (power). Clean, easy and simple, these four training zones house numerous training possibilities and leave behind complicated made up energy systems or abilities; sorry, but 10 training zones is utter nonsense and are really just representing types of workouts.

Zones can and should represent qualities, not metabolic or mechanical quantities. Yes, you can do the latter, particularly for power zones, which are more precise, but never lose sight of the limitations of the zone which falls on a continuum that flows from day to day; it’s also another great way to use both HR and power together to get an overall training effect. The more numerous or specific a zone is, the less meaningful it probably is. Assuming you’re not sick or injured, being 10-20 W “out of your zone” is not always a reason to dump a workout. Live for the moment and TUNE IN, rather than TUNING OUT!

McMillan's Qualitative Zones.

McMillan’s Qualitative Zones.



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4 Comments to “Training zone myths and misuse”

  1. Glenn says:

    Heard the tipcast on this subject as well and it addresses a question I’ve had recently as the “less is more” approach to training zones would seem again seem to challenge the conventional wisdom.

    Specifically, if you happen to have a copy of Training and Racing with a Power Meter (2nd edition) handy, there is a chart on pg. 49 that summarizes the “Expected Physiological and Performance Training Adaptations for Level 1-7” (though there are 8 zones if you include “Sweet Spot”).

    The chart along with the chapter on training zones leaves nothing up to interpretation as to the authors’ premise: that the best way to improve a particular fitness quality is to train in the zone that stresses that quality. From a theoretical standpoint, this idea would seem to be consistent with the principle of specificity.

    The HIIT approach would seem to be inconsistent with that same principal, though my own anecdotal experience (which would appear to be backed up by the research) is that HIIT has a very potent “trickle down” effect eg. the idea that you can do the 12x30sec@max/4.5min recovery and not only improve your 30sec power but also improve your Vo2, LT, etc. power.

    So I guess my question is: is the specificity principle BS? Is the chart BS? Or am I missing some critical information or nuance?

    • Tradewind says:

      Damn Glenn, why did throw me such a tough question! Now I have to think, but that’s not a bad thing I suppose. Seriously, though, and I could get myself “in trouble” but the authors of that book (one I know very well) have a clear sales agenda that continues to defy evidence-based practice. I’m going to throw out that I will never say that there is only one BEST way to train, and most people I would wager have more than one effective training option. Your question, however, is about specificity, and now you have me wanting to think more deeply on a better answer than I can give here, so I’ll be brief and revisit this in the near future.

      I do not believe specificity the concept/principle is BS, but that chart is bullshit (OK, I am not looking at it, but I know what Hunter and Andy are claiming). You are spot on when you talk about intuition. And if you take their approach you will probably do alright, because energy system specificity makes sense; if you only ride 40-60 k TT’s and train at that intensity you’ll do well. The ultimate issue though is that very, very few athletes are truly 100% specialized. An example of one would be Gary Hall Jr. All that guy did was swim (the best) 50 m. Period. But I raced bikes, I run now, I race various distance tri’s and all manner of Xterra’s and they have one thing in common – they’re different! Energy systems (which again, there are only THREE, not 4, 6 or 8) blend together to provide an ideal delivery of ATP. So to make the case for a zone for every event is nonsense.

      I sense, though, this is what you were expecting me to say. I believe whole-heartedly in specificity and I teach it, but humans and sport are not narrowly specialized. We need to adapt and respond, so I train and coach that way in a sense, but I fall back on the HIT and/or polarized model. Threshold intensity feels good to do, and is excellent for working on pacing, while still being good training, but it just won’t build the system the way really f%&king hard training will. Moreover, the less time you have, the more important neuromuscular stress is. So my parting answer would be to train how you want to COMPETE, and if you don’t have a lot of time, train really hard, but just not hard all the time because there is another training principle called variation.

    • Tradewind says:


      I had one more thought I forgot to mention. Specificity means a lot of different things in regards to training. Most coaches would agree that spending all your training time doing the same thing over and over is not beneficial long-term. However, I believe to be the best at your chosen activity you must spend most of your time training that skill, rather than that intensity. So if cycling is my goal, I don’t care how much I train as a runner, I’ll never be a good cyclist bc training adaptations are specific to the activity. I also think the principle of overload clearly identifies the need to stress yourself beyond your needs.

      Now at face value, that means that as you improve you need to go harder, but if you really want to improve, you should not wait until you adapt at your race intensity, you need to hit hard to improve response time to adaptation. Too many articles and books, like you mentioned, talk about HIT of 3-10 min in length, as if bc we do “aerobic” activities, we must stay as aerobic as possible. But this actually fails to fully activate high threshold motor units, which are believed to be critically important (direct or indirect) to adaptation. We also need to KILL, MURDER, BURN the fiber type notion. I’m tired of hearing about type I slow twitch endurance fibers. The idea that endurance athletes need mostly type I’s is not well supported, and refuted by the data we have on African runners indicating that they have a fiber % closer to sprinters. Type IIa fibers are highly trainable and produce more power relative to type I. This fact is ignored in lieu of old science.

  2. Glenn says:

    Appreciate the comprehensive responses!