Cycling Power Zones & Heart Rate Zone Training for the Bike

Keywords:  Cycling power zones, training with power meter, cycling power training plan, 


Over the past year, Coach Joe Beer has been writing a series on training with power, using the latest technology development.  Read on to discover how to use bike power to go from strength to strength in 2021.

by Coach Joe Beer

Why do Cycling Power Zones Matter?

As I have said before: Power measurement equals precision. Cycling is a complicated exercise involving many components and skills to get human and machine in harmony.  We are roughly 2-5 times more efficient on a bike than when walking or running.  Great, but for the triathlete and duathlete the really important factor is: your cycling affects your running “off the bike”. Read that again: your cycling affects your running “off the bike”.

Go too hard and you do run slower, there's no arguing the fact that correct pacing of the bike segment is the key to the fastest run, and the fastest overall time. You therefore need to know:

  1. How big your cycling “engine” is.
  2. The correct “pace” for your desired race distance.
  3. Bike training sessions that make you better at your desired tri distance/challenges.

I will therefore explain about the max test, the pacing of races and one of the sessions that gives you an optimal training outcome for your tri (and duathlon) goals.

Cycling Power Zones | PPO Bike Test 

Its all about PPO (aka the Max Test)

Despite clever sessions, great indoor training systems and amazingly aero outdoor bikes like the Ventum range, measuring your engine (aka discovering your Peak Power Output or PPO by using a power meter) is the key to unlocking your ideal race.

What is Peak Power Output on the Bike?

This is a test to your absolute limit (the clue is in the word “max”).  You go to the point where you fail, you never succeed in a max – unless you add a handful of watts to the last time you did one, but you still fail.  No one keeps going.  You get to a number of watts that defines a lot about your ability, pacing and ultimately how many watts you have to deliver on the bike segment.  I know it's a hard fact of life, but this PPO tells us your “talent”.  Don't let that seem like a limiting sentence, you can still train smart to get the best from your body and you will realise that anything “aero” make sense to save those valuable watts.  Ultimately, triathlon comes down to a foot race and the swanky bikes sit in T2 whilst you race in the raw world, running yourself into the ground to hit the line knowing you have given a well-paced race but an amazingly hard run.  Every time.

Cycling Power Zones | Peak Power Output

How to do a PPO Bike Test

The PPO or Max Test starts at 1.5 to 2w/kg depending on rider gender, ability and prior experience of such tests. So for most it's a 100w start and every minute you ramp up by 20 watts.  (Zwift users can contact to get a .zwo file that you can add to your personal sessions.)  This Zwift session increases the power step by step as you ramp up through the effort to the point you see Elvis.  Simple.  Click here to get a pdf PPO test protocol to use if you need to run the protocol with a helper to take you through the test.

Cycling Power Zones | Peak Power Output

At the end of the max test you fatigue for various reasons.  That's not the point, its the final one-minute power that's our quest – and many pieces of software will tell you that highest one-minute power (e.g. Garmin Connect, iSmartTrain). Please note that you may have a minute power in your data already from a sprint effort or sudden hill climb spurt.  This is not your PPO.

What does a Bike PPO Test tell you?

The “actual” Peak Power Output (aka PPO) is your seated highest one-minute power from a RAMP TEST and it opens your mind to the world of:

  1. Prescribed training zones/targets
  2. Perfect race pacing
  3. Efficiency and fitness testing
  4. Aero testing possibilities
  5. Targetted intervals or over-geared efforts
  6. A new appreciation of the professional wattages that are (mis)quoted,

(NOTE: numbers 4 to 6 will be dealt with in a future article)


Cycling Power Training Zones and Targets

Cycling Power Zones | PPO Performance Test

So after the Max Test shenanigans you now know your PPO.  But note that it is not an ever increasing number that you train to keep increasing.  Rather, it lets us set some targets for certain efforts and race distances.  However, there's a warning for power measurement: Do not ride every session staring at the watts, indoors or outside, as this invariably leads to pushing too hard. 

PPO Zones for bike training sessions

Here are some target zones:

  • 40% to 50% PPO - Aerobic Training Zone – relaxed Zone 1 road/indoor sessions
  • 55% to 65% PPO - Tempo Training Zone – race-pace blocks within training sessions
  • 70 to 75% PPO – Over Geared Zone (OGE) – the target for strength building sessions
  • 80%-85 PPO – Lactate accommodation/accumulation zone – where hard time trials and intervals are done (if required)

You should not use power or stare at the numbers for all sessions, particularly in the aerobic training zone.  If you are in the mid Zone 1 (around 60-70% HRmax) then you can happily know its aerobic, so the power will just add more data with little value or effect.  Only use power if you find pacing tricky on say rolling terrain.  For most athletes this also means staying away from super-hilly terrain to stay Zone 1 – leave the hills for OGE sessions (see examples below).

Over Geared Effort | Bike Strength Training Session

Try this session as a good example of an OGE Session

  • Warm up (as a sub max RAMP such as 100w, 120w, 140w until you are up to the top of your zone 1). 
Core of OGE:
  • Week 1 and 2: 4 x (4-minutes 65-70% of your PPO at 60 revs per minute) with 2-3 minutes Recovery Interval (RI) at 40-45% PPO, never over exert this and keep to 85-90rpm.
  • Week 3-5: Move to 4 x 6-7 minutes 70% PPO (RI is 3-4 minutes)
  • Week 6-7:  Increase to 4 x 8-10 minutes 70% PPO (RI is 5 minutes)
A. @ 55-60rpm in Aero Position - RI as sat upright
B. @ 50 rpm alternating in an out of AERO POSITION with RI @ 90rpm


Cycling Power Zones | PPO Bike Training

Race pacing with PPO

Simply put the bike leg is not a time trial.  You have to run afterwards, and if you go too hard the run is made harder, slower and you get to the line later (only ideal if you are going for value for money!).  Here are three approximate race targets which help move your focus from trying harder on the bike, to trying to reduce drag through calf guards, good tires, a great position and even targeting the smoothest piece of tarmac to be on.

  • Long distance:      50-55% PPO
  • Middle Distance:   60% PPO
  • Standard:              65% PPO

As an example, without a power target an athlete overcooking the middle distance bike target power by 20 watts (target 234w, actual 254w) does get to T2 around 3mins 40 seconds faster – but the resulting fatigue will affect the run time by more than 10 seconds a kilometre or 15 seconds a mile.  It is much easier for most people to find 20 watts by optimising bike position, hydration position and clothing, achieving that faster bike split and protecting the run split too.


How does a PPO test help your cycling?

Lets assume you have a cycling power training plan with a good mix of aerobic rides (long and short), plus some over-geared efforts (see above).  I would argue that the key to checking that your plan is working (aka absorption of training) is not seeing FTP 20-minute tests go higher (anaerobic lactate limited process).  Instead your HR at various power levels (a RAMP TEST) is a far better and more useful indicator (note this is not a max test).

Cycling Power Zones | PPO Bike Test

How to test cycling power training progress?

The lower the HR at a given power, the better the absorption of your training.  A ramp test is an easy way to warm up before a session, to check fitness when returning from illness or seeing when fitness levels build, and now is an ideal time to do this as daylight and longer sessions nudge fitness forwards.  Here's an athlete's data showing how a couple months of base training visibly improved the work achieved in zone 1.

Indoor Sub-Max Efficiency Test

This is the data from Gareth Poulton, Ironman Triathlete.

January 2021:

  • 3 mins @ 100w, 125w, 150w, 175w, 200w, 225watts
  • Then easy 7mins...
  • Then Submaximal 30 mins @ 200w @ 85rpm aero position
  • Easy cool down

Submax test, ramp to 225 then 1x30 200w. Absolutely perfect wattage, held me at top of Z1 without going over (average 130HR), felt really good. Very pleased with this”

Approximately 60 hours of training later:

March 2021:

  • Now session has 250 and 275w “steps” added”

Sub max test & swim cords. Ramp was excellent, didn't hit Z2 until the 275w interval. 300w interval was all Z3, but recovered HR really quickly afterwards. The 1x30 at 210w was easy, HR was average 124bpm which is very comfortable.

 Note that:

  1. The athlete can do more work and stay in Zone 1.
  2. Training can be seen to have been “absorbed”.
  3. The steady state ride is 6 beats easier yet wattage was nudged up 10w.

    Then one month later, I will leave it to Gareth to make a comment (April 8th):

     “Did one yesterday too, ramp and 1x30 at 220w, 130bpm, still 7 beats inside Z1!”


    Jan 30minutes @ 200 watts              130HR
    Mar 30 minutes @210 watts             124HR
    Apr 30 minutes @220 watts              130HR
    Cycling Power Zones | PPO Bike Test

    A good Power Benchmark

    Power Max Tests are great to work out target zones or race pacing and provide a simple bench mark to find out if you are fitter (based on efficiency not ego).  Power really does help athletes to see training is working.  A power meter will pay for itself, but it should not be used in all weather, in all sessions.  Sometimes just spinning the pedals with friends without targeting a set HR or power number is the best training antidote.  “I have to be 130 beats” was one hilarious comment I heard on a training camp.  Doh!

    I will say it yet again: Training athletes is not hard, the science is quite simple: yet too often I see over-thinking and over-exerting.  Using power to know you are absorbing your training, to get precise over-geared efforts (indoors or on the road) or to have a clear race target power, that's powerful.  It will pay dividends to your run, and ultimately your mastery of the three sport conundrum that triathletes balance.


    Train smart and have fun.


    Rotor Bike Power Meter | Buy at Neuff Red

    Coach Joe Beer has been in endurance sports since the mid 1980's from 10's and half marathons came the Bath Triathlon and eventually Alcatraz, Kona and the local fun-run pushing a buggy.  Joe coaches and advises athletes of all levels from Ironman first timers to podium marathoners.  He has written for magazines for over 30 years, numerous websites and has had two books published (Need to Know Triathlon – Collins, Time Crunched Triathlon – Hale. He works with top brands and continues the multisport lifestyle.  A 44-mile ultra run with his partner in May 2021 is the biggest bluff-his-way-through goal on two feet.


    Previous articles in this Power Series

    1. A Short History of Power and Why You Need It
    2. Four Ways Power Makes you Better
    3. Off-Season Run Training Using Power
    4. Tips to Get Started with Power Training
    5. Using Stryd Footpod for Run Power Zone Training
    6. Develop your Run Power in the 12 week build phase