Intensity for Cycling

Intensity for Cycling

Intensity is the key to the success of your cycle training. By training at the correct intensities, we can manipulate the physiological responses your body gets. This will generate the greatest improvement from where your cycling fitness currently is.

There are a number of different ways of measuring or estimating intensity depending on what features your watch/bike computer has (or whether you even use a watch).

With in your training plan the intensity is described using my Level’s system:

Level I

  • Very low intensity and is not used in this programme.

Level II

  • A low to moderate intensity, at this level it is easy to converse with any training partner.
  • Whilst cycling at this intensity you will improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs and also increase the density of the mitochondria in your muscle fibres. Your lungs will transfer oxygen for the air into the blood, and carbon dioxide back the other way more easier. Your heart will be bigger and pump more blood with each beat. More blood being pumped means more oxygen gets carried to the muscles. The mitochondria within the muscles will utilise this oxygen as it converts energy to create the muscle contractions. 

Level III

  • A moderate intensity level and is only used on some of the sessions. We get more bang for our buck at higher and lower intensities.

Level IV

  • Threshold level, this intensity will hurt, but not so much that you can’t do it at all. It is an effort that you can sustain for a while, but not for ever. If you tried talking to a training partner whilst cycling at this level you would only get short sentences out.
  • At this level you will be producing lactic acid. Although lactic acid is what creates the burning sensation in the muscles, lactic acid provides us with plenty of benefits as well. When converted in the liver, lactic acid gets turned in to pyruvate which in turn can get used as an energy fuel. Training at this intensity develops your ability to tolerate lactic acid, which in turn means you can then make greater use of the benefits pyruvate provides.

Level V

  • VO2 Max level, this intensity will hurt (lots), but not so much that you can’t ride at it for a few minutes at a time. If you tried talking to a training partner whilst riding at this level you would only get out a few words but mainly grunts and groans whilst trying to suck in more air.
  • Cycling at this level helps develop your VO2 Max (or put another way it helps improve the volume of oxygen you can utilise at your maximise intensity). To improve this you need to work at your maximum.

Power Zones

There is a diverse range of power meters on the market that measure your power. Whether it is a hub based system like PowerTap, a crank/chainring based system like Quarq or a pedal based system like Garmin Vector they all do a good job with various pro’s and con’s. I won’t go into all the advantages of different systems here. Smart trainers can also give good power data that is reliable (but beware of trainers that simply extrapolate ‘power’ numbers based on your speed). If you do want more details on both Power Meters and Smart Trainers checkout these articles from DC Rainmaker:

If you are using a power meter, let me know and I’ll make a small change to the programme. That is I’ll insert a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test into the programme if you haven’t done one in the last six weeks. Here are the details of the FTP test: 

To establish your power zones you need to calculate your training zones from your FTP.  Your FTP is 95% of your average power during the hard 20min segment of the FTP test. Your training zones are then calculated as a percentage of your FTP. Andy Coggan and Hunter Allen make the following recommendations in their book Training and Racing with a Power Meter.

Coach Ray’s LevelCoogan & Allen’s Description% FTP
Level I1- Active Recovery<55%
Level II2- Endurance56-75%
Level III3 – Tempo76-90%
Level IV4 – Lactate Threshold 91-105%
Level V5 – VO2 Max106-120%
6 – Anaerobic Capacity120-150%
7 – Neuromuscular PowerN/A

As an example: when I last did the FTP Test I averaged 270 Watts for the hard 20 minute segment. 95% of the 270 Watts is 256.5 Watts (which I round to 257 Watts), which is my FTP. Calculating my zones your get:

Level I< 141 Watts
Level II142 – 193 Watts
Level III194 – 231 Watts
Level IV232 – 270 Watts
Level V> 271 Watts

Heart Rate

Heart Rate (HR) is the least reliable of the data that your watch potentially will display. The reason why is HR is a response to intensity, not a direct measure of intensity in itself. HR can also be influenced by many factors: such as how much sleep you got last night and the quality of that sleep; how well hydrated your are, or how well fuelled you are; it is impacted by fatigue from other sessions and what else you have done in this session; environmental conditions (heat or cold); and is also influenced by prescription drugs (eg. beta blockers), recreational drugs (eg. coffee/caffeine), as well as illicit drugs (other stimulants). As you can see with a raft of variables that will influence your HR, your HR at a given intensity one day could be vastly different on another day due to a combination of the above factors.

However, sometimes HR is our best tool to measure intensity (in the absence of power). If you are wanting to train using HR let me know and I’ll make a small change to the programme. That is I’ll insert a workout called Carmichael Field Test that we can use to determine HR Training Zones for you. Full details of how I use this session can be found here: 

Rating of Perceived Exertion 

In the absence of any definitive data to rely on to manage your training, you might need to resort to your own internal perception of how hard you are cycling. It might be that you don’t own a Garmin (or similar device) or maybe you left it behind (intentionally or otherwise) when setting off to do a workout. Having some internal cues to help monitor your exercise intensity can help you get the most out of these sessions.

Borg Scale is a scale from 0 through to 10, that you determine where on that scale you are subjectively.

LevelBorg Scale
Level IIBorg 3-4
Level IIIBorg 5-6
Level IVBorg 7-8
Level VBorg 9-10

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