Training With the Zone 3 Syndrome

Friendly competition during rides can sometimes be detrimental to overall training.

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 offseason 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.

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