Spencer Smith’s Cycling Intensity

How do you measure intensity? So many coaches use so many different methods, power, Heart Rate (HR), three zones, five zones, seven zones?? I’ve been planning a series of weekly articles for over a year now, looking at what different coaches prescribe (or used to prescribe) and why. This first article comes after finding an old magazine article about Spencer Smith‘s coach Bill Black and his definitions of various zones.

The article came from Triathlete Mag in August 1995 and still holds relevance today.

Why did I chose this article to start with? Why not? Spencer was the World Champion, winning in Wellington, New Zealand. In the article Spencer talks about Bill Black having coached him for four of his five years in the sport of triathlon. If I’m not mistaken my coach back in the early/mid nineties Pete Moysey coached Spencer for his first year in the sport.

Bill Black uses four training zones that he had Spencer ride at:

Heart Rate (HR)DurationFrequency per weekPurpose
Level 1~40-50 bpm below MaxHRRecovery rides, little training effect
Level 2~35-45 bpm below MaxHR2½ hours2 – 3Maintains existing form and improves fitness
Level 3~25 bpm below MaxHR20-30 minutes2
Level 4n/a30 seconds to 3 minutes1 – 2

Spencer did go on to say “Basically, the training principles he [Bill] uses in cycling are identical to those used in the other two disciplines”.

Level 1: Is a low intensity effort utilised for recovery rides and has minimal training effect. It has an overlap with Level 2, at the lower end of that range. It is ideal for beginners to get some biking distance into their legs. For someone with a maxHR of 180bpm Level 1 will be 130-140bpm.

Level 2: A touch higher than Level 1 you should aim to do two to three rides per week at this intensity. It helps maintain form and improves fitness. For someone with a maxHR of 180bpm Level 2 will be 135-145bpm.

Level 3: This is similar effort to a 10-mile (16km) time trial, and is an intensity that can be maintained for 20 to 30 minutes. Aim for two workouts per week at this intensity. For someone with a maxHR of 180bpm Level 3 will be ~155bpm.

Level 4: This is maximum effort, don’t worry about a Heart Rate (HR) Monitor for this workout. Only use this intensity for interval workouts one to two times per week.

Things have advanced a bit since the technology and knowledge available in 1995. Although a number of personal trainers (and some coaches) still utilise the Training Zones derived from maximum Heart Rate (maxHR), the relevance is often questioned.

It is hard to determine a true maximum Heart Rate (maxHR) without a very tough and challenging workout where the athlete is pushed to their true maximum; or using a theoretical formula such as subtracting an athletes age from 220. The theoretical maximum is only correct for about 20% of the population and for the remaining 80% can be above or below the calculated figure by up to 25 bpm!!!!!

A more relative benchmark if using Heart Rate (HR) as the measure of intensity is from a Threshold Heart Rate, or what is sometimes termed Maximum Steady State, or Lactate Threshold. Which although subtly different are closely aligned and training zones calculated from there.

Here is how I manage Intensity for cycling:

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