Zone 3… What’s Zone 3??

Zone 3… What’s Zone 3??

I asked one day as I was riding with a friend of mine, who just happens to be a professional triathlete in training and certified coach. After being ruthlessly dropped like a wet bag of rotten tomatoes several weeks earlier on a weekend warriors ride I realized that I had forgotten about Zone 3 riding. It was glaringly apparent that, thanks to my normal riding routine, I wasn’t really spending any time in Zone 3 so I had a gap in my performance! Oops.

Perhaps I really didn’t know what Zone 3 is!

just rideYou see, I am a part of the dwindling minority of riders that don’t feel the need to spam everyone with their Strava rides or even use my Garmin unless I have NO idea where I’m going. Heck, my Garmin doesn’t even know where it’s going … much less do anything useful except tell me how fast I’m not. (No, that wasn’t a typo.) All it does is make stupid noises, annoy me, and then confirm that I suck – which is generally unhelpful. The upshot of this is: I don’t ride with a Garmin or any other electronic doohickey. 

Garmins, bah humbug.

There are potential issues with my anti-electronic gizmo mentality: I have no idea how fast I’m going, what my heartrate is, or my cadence. I’m ok with this as I have a general idea – more importantly I know a lot about how my body performs by FEEL. I intuitively know when I need to back off to save energy for a sprint, how long it’s going to take me to recover, how  many times I can recover to sprint again, and how fast I need to ride based on the distance I need to travel over certain elevation. After years of trial and error, I became very aware of my body’s signals without relying on a gizmo to tell me stuff. But…

training-rideI still don’t know what Zone 3 is.

So, I asked… and my friend, being an understanding person that realizes she can’t speak to me in terms heart rates – explained to me what Zone 3 feels like. I know what Zone 1 & 2 are an I am very familiar with Zone 4 & 5. I had a vague idea that Zone 3 was somewhere in the middle, but I wasn’t sure whereTypically I’m either doing intervals in one of the mad-cap rides through town during the week or riding in the hills over the weekend. I really don’t spend much time in higher-paced sustained efforts.

Since I’m into sharing information and knowledge I’ve gained over the years (usually the hard way) – I thought I might share this with you!

Heart Rate Zones explained without electronics:

ZONE 1 is when you are basically goofing off. You’re going for a spin, running your mouth to a friend at the start of a ride, cooling down, or forgot why you were on your bike to begin with. You can comfortably whiz around in your small chain ring and hardly break a sweat.

ZONE 2 is when things start to get serious. You can still talk reasonably well and you aren’t pushing it by any means. This is also commonly known as the fat-burning zone if maintained for long distances. Zone 2 is your high mileage riding pace. It will eventually wear you out, but not right away. Zone 2 is also where most professional coaches recommend you spend the majority of your time.

Is the FAT BURNING ZONE a Myth? Here’s what one coach has to say…

150610_5046 adjusted 2ZONE 3 is painful.

Now I know why I really never trained in Zone 3… because it hurts! The idea is to maintain a pace that is right at the edge of pain or discomfort. You aren’t building up too much lactic acid to flush so your muscles are still going, but it’s not a bunch of fun. This is the Zone that athletes training for the Ironman strive to hold for hours and hours. It’s a bit about putting up with being uncomfortable and any talking will be choppy at best because you are trying to breathe.

ZONE 4 will take the heat up a notch. It’s not quite a sprint but it’s … well, to put it bluntly: “going like hell”. The longer you can hold Zone 4, the more effective your sprinting will be in instances when you are trying to bridge a gap in the pack, jump onto the lead group, or make a break-away. There’s no talking in Zone 4.

ZONE 5 is ALL OUT. This is sprinting – taking it up to the redline and holding it as long as you can before you ‘pop’ (VO2 Max) and need to recover. Being able to sprint and recover quickly is useful in competitive cycling. Interval training is the best way to gain abilities to leap into Zone 5 and recover fast so you can sprint again.

ZONES EXPLAINED by a professional cycling coach

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Training with the Zones:

ZONE 1 – If you are in this Zone, you aren’t training for anything except an ice cream ride. You should feel guilty – and that’s GOOD. Best Uses are an easy spin after a ride to flush lactic acid before you become inactive and as an active recovery day ride (which is hugely important!).

ZONE 2 – This is the fat-burner. Don’t get excited and decide that this is your new diet plan! You must spend a lot of time here to burn any significant fat because you are still not burning as high a percentage of calories and fat as Zone 3 and above. Best Uses as a good recovery ride pace after a hard effort the previous day, cycling long distances (based on your current endurance level), and endurance riding. It feels like an easy effort… until you get to mile 70+.

ZONE 3 – Better known as the Pain Cave! This is your race zone for building strength and endurance. Best Uses for just about any racing I can think of or a seriously hard effort in a group ride. NOT, however, to be the majority of your training regime unless you want to become burned out or experience a plateau in your performance.

Do you suffer from Zone 3 Syndrome?

Top Tip: to build endurance in Zone 3, plan to do sustained efforts for about 20 minutes with 10 minutes in Zone 2 to recover. Then, build on this platform to extend your efforts by 5-10 minute increments (with 10 min in Z2) slowly over time with each ride until you reach your goal of maximum sustained effort in Zone 3 based on the type of race you are training for. More on training in Zone 3 to maximize endurance.

sprint for it 2ZONE 4 – Obviously more effort than Zone 3! The idea is to to be able to hold it for as long as possible and back off just before you ‘blow up’ or create too much lactic acid (lactate and other metabolites) to flush.  Best Uses: to get more out of your sprints, build strength and endurance so you can bridge gaps in competition or make that break-away.


Top Tip: training in Zone 4 is  better known as an ‘interval’. To build  Zone 4 tolerance and distance before you meet your threshold: check out these different types of intervals based on what you want to work on – HERE.

ZONE 5 – Sprint! It’s always been a part of my training plan to hit the redline at least 3-4 times per interval ride during the week. Naturally, as this will take you to your VO2 Max, it also requires a recovery period. The less time it takes you to recover, the better competitor you can be. I’m sure you understand the Best Use: to WIN.

Want to learn more about slow twitch and fast twitch muscle groups?

IMPORTANT: Avoid the Dead Zone!


Spending too much time in Zone 3 can also equal the dreaded Plateau or Dead-Zone. Constant training in Zone 3 without proper recovery rides in Zone 1 & 2 are a good way to burn yourself out and plateau your training efforts to become a cycling zombie. Don’t be a zombie and make sure you have a well-rounding training plan.You might hate intervals – but they are just as important as that Zone 3 hammerfest every Saturday morning! You might not want to noodle around with your partner in Zone 1, but it might just be the thing to do after a hard effort the day before.

Remember: consult a professional coach! Everyone is different and your training plan must be personalized to fit you. Plus: I don’t know everything (nor will it fit in this article), so reach out to your cycling mentor or a coach with questions.

UPDATE: since focusing a bit more on training in Zone 3 occasionally (as opposed to never) I have since held onto that ride group that dropped me and I no longer feel like a sack of rotten veggies.

Don’t be a rotten tomato – ride yo’ bike!

eddy merckx