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Intensity zones - The 3-zone model vs the 6-zone model

In a previous blog post we described the 3-zone model for intensity distribution, and how it was related to the polarized training concept adopted by many high-level endurance athletes.

But how does the 3-zone model relate to the very common 6-zone model used in cycling?

The 6-zone model for training intensity distribution in cycling is probably the most commonly used model used to control training intensity among cyclist, mountainbiker and gravel riders.

The 6 zone-model is often referred to as Coggan's training levels, as it was Dr. Andy Coggan who came up with the model in connection to the very popular 20 minute functional threshold power (FTP) test for cyclist to determine training zones.

The 3-zone model is a quite simple model that allocates intensity into 3 zones based on the lactate thresholds LT1 and LT2, which are interchangeable with 2 and 4 mmol lactate concentrations - for a deeper explanation see 'The 80-20 Rule for intensity distribution - how the best Endurance athletes train!'.

The 3-zone model is widely used in relation to the concept 'Polarized Training', which refers to the polarized approach to training time distribution in the 3 zones. A concept used by highly successful endurance athletes, who tends to allocate 75-80 % of their total training time in zone 1, around 5 % in zone 2 and 15-20 % in zone 3.

But how does the 6-zone model relate to the 3-zone model? As most cyclist use the 6-zone model (sometimes the 6 zone model is shortened to 5 zones or widened to 7 zones, but the overall build up is almost the same), it would be quite valuable to know how the two models relate to each other. This would make it easier to understand and adopt the polarized training concept into ones training regime.

Below is a figure that illustrates how the 3- and 6-zone models relate to each other.

Comparing the 3-zone model to the 6-zone model shows that:

  • Zone 1 (below LT1) corresponds roughly to zone 1 and 2 (recovery and endurance)

  • Zone 2 (between LT1 and LT 2) corresponds roughly to zone 3 (tempo) and lower part of zone 4 (sub-threshold)

  • Zone 3 (Above LT2) corresponds roughly to the middle of zone 4 and above (lactate threshold, VO2max and anaerobic capacity).

It is important to pay attention to how zone 2 in the 3-zone model splits the lactate threshold zone (zone 4) in the 6-zone model, indicating that when adopting a polarized training approach most threshold-intervals, will be executed at an intensity in the higher part of zone 4. This is a very important aspect of the polarized training concept. Thus, very little training time is spent on sub-threshold intervals (e.g. sweet-spot intervals), which are normally quite popular among cyclist and coaches.

So, is the polarized training concept the best way to optimize training?

For sure it is an effective way to optimize endurance performance in general and among road cyclist, mountainbikers and gravel rider. But it is also important to consider the individual needs of an athlete in relation to ambitions, training and competition goals, physical strengths/weaknesses and most importantly everyday life constraints.

Reference: Seiler S, Tønnesen E (2009). Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training. Sportscience 13, 32-53.

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