By Hunter Allen, Coach and Power Training Expert at Peaks Coaching Group
For years, we have heard about so-called “no-go” zones in training for endurance sports. I am not sure where or who coined this idea, but it has been a long-standing theory that’s been perpetuated throughout endurance sports.
So, are there really “no-go” zones? It depends on who you talk to and the philosophy of your training principles.
For some coaches and physiologists, there are clear “no-go” zones or areas to avoid in your training, and some barely have any “go” zones! For others, there might be an area of your endurance physiology that you want to avoid, and they prescribe workouts and intervals in every zone.
Power Training Levels
In the Power Training Principles, we have developed a clearly defined, easy to understand and concise way of describing the training zones or levels based on Dr. Coggan’s power training levels. He has defined them as training “levels” and shies away from calling them “zones” because he knows that there are no discrete, perfectly defined “switches” that are turned when you move from training the lactate threshold to training your VO2max. It’s a continuum.
For example, the lactate threshold or FTP level is defined as 91-105% of your FTP (best avg. power for approximately an hour) and Vo2max is defined from 106-120% of FTP. There is no magic switch inside your body that moves you out of training your lactate threshold energy system and moves to your Vo2Max system at 105% or 106% of your FTP!
A Note on “Zones” vs “Levels”
It’s different for every person, and instead of thinking of these changes from one system to another, Dr. Coggan realized it was a smoother transition that happens in the area and therefore it’s more a “level” of training than a perfectly defined zone. I believe that we could say that about all the training zones, as the same thing occurs if you are using a heart rate monitor or even a pace-based monitor in running.
For the sake of clarity, I am going to use the word “zone” and “level” interchangeably throughout the article and now you know that it’s a continuum across the different areas. For absolute correctness though, you should refer to them as Power Training Levels and Dr. Coggan will be very happy.
Figure 1: Coggan Classic Power Levels
As you can see in Figure 1, there are clearly defined numbers between each of the different levels and corresponding rainbow colors to go with them. One important point that you should also notice is that there are associated time periods for each of the different levels, for example, if you want to improve your FTP or lactate threshold, then you should be executing intervals for a minimum of 10 minutes and up to 60 minutes, all the while staying between roughly 91-105% of FTP.
By completing at least 10 minutes of work at 105% of FTP, this creates enough stress on your lactate system that it will improve. If you rode at 105% of FTP for 3 minutes, it is not a long enough time for the lactate system to be stressed and therefore improve.
So, right away, you see your first “no-go” zone! Anything less than 10 minutes in your lactate threshold/FTP level (91-105% of FTP) is a “no-go”.
With this in mind, we can now define lots of “no-go” zones, like 30 seconds at 115% of FTP! Again, that’s an Anaerobic Capacity interval, but being done at Vo2Max pace. Or what about 3 hours at Active Recovery? That’s also a no-go zone as well.
Active Recovery is made to be done at less than 56% of FTP, but for only a maximum of 1.5 hours. If you are riding in the active recovery zone for 3 hours, that’s NOT recovery! Not only are you not recovering, but you are not riding intensely enough to improve your endurance (56-75% of FTP), so if you’re guilty of doing this, you are just making yourself tired and wasting your training time.
Coggan Classic Levels with “NO-GO” zones.
In figure 2, we have a chart that attempts to show the “no-go” zones according to the power training principles. Keep in mind, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, that for some coaches more than half of the Coggan Classic Power Levels would be “no-go” zones, so it’s important to understand the demands of the sport and make a wise decision on whose advice you follow in your training and clearly understand why they prescribe intervals that way.
The “no-go” zones are mainly dependent on the time you are in an area, but the intensity of the interval is also important, so look at both the intensity column and the length of time for the interval.
The biggest mistake that I have seen over the years revolve around executing intervals at your FTP/lactate threshold. I have met many cyclists and some coaches that believe they will improve their FTP by riding at 100% of FTP for 3 or 4 or 5 minutes, but again, this is not a long enough time range to create the necessary stress needed for adaptation of the lactate system. And at 3 or 4 or 5 minutes, this is the time range for doing intervals at VO2Max, yet these are not intense enough to challenge the Vo2Max.
Individual Levels (aka: iLevels)
I would also like to mention that in the TrainingPeaks WKO5 software, Dr. Coggan updated his training levels to take into account the individual nature of humans and created “iLevels” or Individualized levels.
Using the brain power of computer software, WKO5 reviews your past power data files, looks at different percentage changes in different time periods, and matches those up with the upper levels above FTP or Level 4. These upper iLevels are then created and customized to match your actual abilities, and all levels below Level 4 are the normal Coggan Classic Levels.
These can be highly useful, especially if you have a very unique physiology that doesn’t fit the mold of the Coggan Classic Levels. For example, there aren't many riders that can hold 150% of their FTP for 5 minutes! Normally, most riders can only hold 150% of their FTP for 2 minutes. These riders have an incredible VO2Max and need to train at a higher intensity in order to gain the same adaptations as normal cyclists.
The iLevels also help to more accurately define the changes between the levels based on time, so that you can train more precisely than just 30 seconds to 2 minutes, as it might be 24 seconds to 1:34 for you. Of course, there are also similar “no-go” zones within these as well, but I’ll leave that to another article in the future.
The iLevels are more customized levels based on your past actual power data.
It is absolutely critical when using the principles of training with power that you adhere to both the time and intensity components of Dr. Coggan’s Power Training Levels in order to train effectively. These will give you the best opportunity to improve, and improve most effectively in the area that you want to improve in!
Stay focused, make sure you test every 6-8 weeks, so you know if your FTP has improved, and then re-set your training levels as needed. Understanding the different purposes of each training level/zone will help you to improve with the least amount of time.
About Hunter Allen
Hunter Allen is internationally known as one of the top experts in the field of power meter coaching.He co-authored, "Training and Racing with a Power Meter" with Dr. Andrew R. Coggan and it has been translated into eight languages.
He created and teaches the USA Cycling Power Certification Course for USA Cycling Coaches, along with teaching an online power certification course. He has traveled to over 20 countries teaching the principles of power training to more than 3000 coaches and cyclists.As a coach, he has coached athletes to World Championships, National Championships, Tour De France along with helping local beginners and juniors to excel.
He founded Peaks Coaching Group in 1996 to focus on developing the artful science of efficient power training for which Peaks Coaching Group is still known for today. With over 50 coaches, the Peaks Coaching Group continues to lead in coaching cyclists with power meters. You can follow Hunter on Twitter @hunterpeaks or over at his blog.