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Training With the Zone 3 Syndrome

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By Josh Horowitz

The best way to train is by going as hard as you can for as long as you can on every ride you do, right? As we begin the off-season in the northern hemisphere, let's examine the idea of base training. First up, we discuss the dreaded Zone 3 plateau and how to begin getting out of the cycle of constant hammering.

The Hammer Syndrome
We may be entering the age of power monitoring and periodization of training, yet it remains difficult for many riders to wrap their heads around what smart training really means. The philosophy of hard riding is one of the pervading cycling training misconceptions of the 21st century. It is the idea that periodization and scientifically-based training is great for those with time to burn, but for those under severe time restraints, the way to get the best bang for our buck is by going hard all day, every day.

Even those who don't consciously embrace this antiquated training methodology often fall to its pretty clutches when they get caught up in the group ride hammerfest mentality. Even when they set out for a moderate or easy recovery ride, they can't resist the temptation to jump on with the first group that comes flying by. The pace skyrockets at the rise in the road and the end result is the same—a never-ending string of high-tempo riding with little to no recovery.

The result of this type of training is an ailment I call the Zone 3 Syndrome. Before we get into the syndrome itself, let's do a little self-diagnosis. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you exceedingly proud of the average speeds of your rides, and do you gauge your training progress by the improvement of your average speed from one ride to another?
  • Do you find group rides fairly easy, even when the pace picks up, yet you can't seem to make that final acceleration or stay with the group over the steepest part of the climb?
  • Do you have a maximum heart rate of 195, yet you haven't seen it go above 180 since the season began?
  • Does the thought of letting a rider pass you on the bike path make you ill, or do you pride yourself on the fact that no rider has ever passed you on a training ride—even on recovery days?
  • Do you often leave the house with one ride in mind but more often than not find yourself in the middle of the weekday morning world championships?
  • Do you find it impossible to imagine that riding with a heart rate at 130 beats-per-minute could possibly be anything other than an utter waste of time?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be suffering from the Zone 3 Syndrome.

The Problems with Plateau
Whether it's a desire to get the most out of every minute on the bike or just an inability to resist the temptation of searing your lungs on a daily basis, the effect is the same when you're caught in the rut of the Zone 3 Syndrome. Intensity on every ride with no recovery results in sustained and difficult-to-overcome mediocrity and a seemingly endless plateau of middle-of-the-road fitness.

Because adequate recovery time is not given between workouts, the body reaches a level of sustained exhaustion. Due to this ongoing exhaustion, the upper reaches of intensity required to induce training adaptation are not attainable. Workouts that are intended to be done in zone 4 (threshold) and zone 5 (anaerobic) all wind up hovering within a stones throw of zone 3 (tempo, otherwise known as the dreaded grey zone).

To make matters worse, as a result of frustration with poor maximum efforts and sustained plateaus of fitness, the rider grows desperate to break though. Thus zone 1 recovery rides and zone 2 endurance rides start to creep up in intensity until, across the board, every mile is done in this foggy, dead zone of zone 3 riding.

Although there is a time and a place for zone 3, generally speaking, it is not considered hard enough to cause a desired physical adaptation. At the same time, it is too hard to allow for proper recovery. Therefore, you don't want to be spending the majority of your time there. Remember the old adage: When you go fast, you should be going really fast. And when you're going slow, you should be going really slow.

Remember that the body is incredibly good at adapting itself to whatever stress is imposed on it. So when you spend most of your time in Zone 3, the only real adaptation that occurs is the body becomes incredibly adept at riding in Zone 3.

You can go out the door, hit a nice, fast tempo and hold it all the way around your favorite loop and back to your house with an average speed over 20 miles per hour. Because of this zone 3 fitness, moderate zone 2 riding (which is where 90 percent of any cyclists' training should ideally be), feels ridiculously easy.

Breaking Out of the Rut
The good news is that if you've reached this level with your riding, chances are you've built up a pretty good base of fitness. To take your riding to the next level, it may just be a question of backing off a bit, letting your body reset and starting again on a slightly more disciplined training plan.

Before you change your workout habits, for one week take your resting heart rate every morning before you get out of bed. Then for two weeks after that, restrict yourself to zone 1 riding. (If you don't know your zones, this means easy.) Little girls on roller skates should be passing you on the path.

Some of you are thinking right now, "This doesn't include the hard group ride I do every Saturday morning though, right?" Are you starting to see how you managed to get into this situation?

After a week, you should start to see your resting heart rate come down. Wait until it hits rock bottom and then rest another three to five days. Now, you're body is reset. It's time to get going.

The first thing you'll notice when you're well rested is your heart rate will increase quickly and go up higher. This does not mean you've lost fitness, it just means you're fresh. In fact, during your week or two of recovery riding, the damage you've previously done to your body will heal and you might notice a significant improvement in fitness.

Yes, that's right. An improvement in your cycling strength from doing nothing. In other words, you've done all the hard work and you've torn your body down over and over. Now all you have to do is let it build itself back up, stronger and faster than before.

So now you're ready to go out to see if you can beat your average speed on your daily 18 mile loop. Wrong! You've turned over a new leaf and you're now what they call in the industry a smart trainer. Build intensity into your program but focus on quality rather than quantity. Instead of doing your 60 minute ride at 90 percent of your threshold heart rate, break the ride up into intervals. If you want to work on your threshold power, do three 10-minute intervals right at your threshold (your legs and lungs begin to burn and you find it hard to talk). Rest for five or 10 minutes in between and then go again.

After a month you might notice your threshold power or speed start to plateau. Take an easy week, let your resting heart rate drop back down (presumably it has started to rise over the last three weeks of training) and then start to work on your anaerobic power and endurance.

Do some shorter three-minute intervals at maximum effort. Give yourself plenty of rest in between so that each interval is better than the one before. Experiment to see how much intensity you can handle in a week. Start with two days and build to three. Rarely will you want to do more than three days of intensity in a week.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is when you start to get tired and the quality of your intervals starts to diminish, do not try to push through. Rest up until the quality returns to your workouts. As much as you hate to miss workouts, nothing will hurt your cycling ability more than chronic, mediocre, low-quality training.

Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at

Velo Club La Grange

Velo Club La Grange is one of California's largest and oldest cycling clubs with over 400 members nationwide. The club was founded by Raymond Fouquet in 1969 and fields one of the top amateur racing teams in the U.S. Past members include a Tour de France stage winner, an Olympic gold medalist, and several U.S. National and California state champions.

Along with the Club's dedication to bicycle racing, the club welcomes new and inexperienced riders with a passion for cycling. La Grange is very active in the cycling and fitness communities. Our continuing public policy work with state and local government has led to major improvements in safety for all users of California roads. In addition, the Club has partnered with the Association of Blind Athletes and Meals on Wheels and sponsors an annual scholarship with the help of the Union Bank of California. La Grange enjoys the financial support of several corporations committed to promoting healthy and active living including Kahala Corporation.

501(c)(3) California Non-Profit Public Benefit Corporation 95-4000746
United States Cycling Federation Number 1232


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