How to: Tell What Zone You’re In, Even Without a Power Meter or HRM

05.23.2016 | 11:53 am

One of the things I like best about writing this blog is the fact that it has made me extremely famous, tremendously beloved, and remarkably wealthy. 

Also, it has made me tall, thin, and handsome. Plus my hair has somehow become thicker and somewhat curly. (For some reason, it almost always appears to be waving in a slight breeze.)

These benefits — and many more (more than I currently wish to count, really), I assure you — come at a cost, however. 


I get so, so much email. Mostly from people who want to write high-quality guest posts in nearly-decipherable English about why bikes are a good choice for fitness and recreation and all they want back is a link to their site, which may or may not (but most likely may) install malware on my readers’ computers. An enticing and fair trade, to be sure, but one I generally shun.

The other kind of email I frequently get is questions. What kind of bike should I buy? (A red one.)  Should I try racing? (Yes, everyone should try racing.) Should I shave my legs? (Yes, everyone looks better with shaved legs.) Do I really need to wear bike shorts with a chamois? (Not unless you are going to be riding for more than an hour.) 

Really, it’s like people think that just because I know everything I want to actually share that knowledge.

And yet, from time to time, I get a truly interesting question, such as the following:

Dear Fatty,

First of all, let me begin with this sentence.

Next I would like to absolve myself of any insult I may inadvertently make by addressing a complete stranger with a nickname that is very rarely used affectionately. 

Third, I would like to come straight to the point, which I will do in my fourth point.

Fourth, I would like you to tell me how I can train with purpose, excellence, and efficiency, gaining maximum value without special equipment, and hopefully in a trivial amount of time. My ideal outcome would be to be offered multiple contracts from a number of professional teams by the end of this fiscal quarter.

Your Friend,


This is an extremely well-conceived question, and one I am happy to answer. Especially since I took about 750 words just to get to it.

The truth is, Steve, there’s no shortcut to being a faster racer. No, wait. That’s actually not true. There are actually a number of very good shortcuts, such as the following:

  • Doping: This is a popular option and is covered elsewhere.
  • Putting a motor in your bike: This is not as popular, as far as we know, but seems like it would be more fun, be less expensive and probably involves fewer needles and blood bags.
  • Actually taking a shortcut: This, weirdly, seems to be the least-offensive way of shortcutting your way to racing success, so I guess I recommend it.

I’m just kidding, Steve! You shouldn’t do any of these things. Instead, you should train your guts out, spending all your free time (and also a fair amount of your work time) riding your bike so hard that every moment on the thing is pure torment, and the only pleasure you ever get from the bike is in boasting to others how much suffering you endure while doing this, your hobby. 

If you’re going to go this route, I strongly recommend having a blog. And writing multi-part race reports that describe your suffering at this thing you paid to do in absurd detail.


But training hard isn’t enough, Steve. No. Not enough at all. Because just saying, “I trained hard” is too simple, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Velominati, it’s that there needs to be at least a hundred rules that tell you how you’re doing it wrong.

Thus, we now have zones for describing your suffering. These are helpful mostly for impressing people who don’t know what zones are, because jargon makes simple things complicated, what you’re doing is complicated, it must be work, and therefore has value.

Or something like that. 

Anyway, training has zones of effort, ranging from Zone 1 (not actually riding your bike) to Zone 7 (riding your bike with such intensity that your shins get hot from air friction).

Here is a screencap of the amount of time I spent in the various zones while on a recent ride:

Screenshot 2016 05 22 19 20 30

That’s really impressive, isn’t it? I mean, with those tables and bar charts, I must be really be a force to be reckoned with when cycling. At least, I hope that’s what it means. I guess it could mean that I spend most of my time in Zone 1, sort of tooling along while I eat Chicken McNuggets dipped in Ranch sauce.

No Equipment Required

Sadly, in order to tell what zone you are riding in, most training methodologies require you have a great deal of expensive equipment: a power meter, a heart rate monitor, and a cadence sensor.

Fortunately for you, Steve, I have developed a set of simple observational techniques that will help you quickly and accuratey tell which zone in which you are riding. 

I present them here, to you, at no charge. (Because, thanks to this blog, I’m already extremely well-to-do.

  1. Zone 1 — Active Recovery: If you can look up and notice that it’s a beautiful day outside, maybe nod and wave to other riders, you are in Zone 1.

    You are probably having fun right now, enjoying your bike, glad to be out and getting some exercise. Real cyclists consider this kind of riding “junk miles” and would like you to know that you should be ashamed of yourself. 

  2. Zone 2 — Endurance: When you go into Zone 2, your thoughts become dominated by how much you enjoyed Zone 1, and several reasons why you ought to go back to Zone 1 spring to mind.

    You realize you can probably go at this pace for another few minutes, but you don’t really want to.

  3. Zone 3 — Tempo: The good news is you can no longer think of any good reasons why you should go easier. The bad news is you can no longer think about anything at all. Except pain, and how much your legs hurt. And your lungs do too.

    You can’t talk when you’re riding in Zone 3, and that’s probably a good thing. Because if you could talk, you would have several complaints to make. Also, you would explain that you can’t keep this pace up any longer, and you’re not sure how you’ve kept it up as long as this. 

  4. Zone 4 — Threshold: Zone 4 is called “Threshold” because you are on the threshold of vomiting, unless you are actually vomiting, which is equally likely. So Zone 4 could accurately be called “Vomit,” and from now on that’s what I propose we all call it.

    And it works both ways, too: the next time you need to throw up, instead of saying “I think I’m going to hurl,” just yell “ZONE 4!”

  5. Zone 5 — VO2Max: Your legs are screaming. No, I mean actually and literally screaming. People riding in your vicinity ask you why your legs are screaming.

    “Because I’m in Zone 5,” you reply.

    “Shall I call the police?” they ask.

    “Obviously,” you reply. 

  6. Zone 6 — Anaerobic: You are in pain. You have always been in pain. You have always been riding, and you have always been in pain. You do not know why. You would ask someone, but you are alone. Alone and in pain. Now and forever.
  7. Zone 7 — Neuromuscular: Zone 7 doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a silly term made up to make us feel like even when we’re killing ourselves in Zone 6 it’s not good enough and we should feel bad about ourselves for not training as hard as we ought.

This should give you everything you need in order to become a strong and effective racer, Steve, even without power meters, heart rate monitors, or cadence sensors. Best of luck in your training efforts.

PS: I wrote this while riding my trainer, primarily in Zone 8.


  1. Comment by Jim Tolar | 05.23.2016 | 12:14 pm

    This is The Fat Cyclist

    thanks for the post,

  2. Comment by Paul Andeson | 05.23.2016 | 12:21 pm

    I thought Zone 8 was the Beer Zone

  3. Comment by Nick Charles | 05.23.2016 | 12:27 pm

    If I shave my legs, do I just shave the portion that’s uncovered by my cycling tights or the entire leg? I feel like that needs some clarification.

    And I disagree on the advice to purchase a red bike. I know you’re a handsome expert but I’m going to have to tell you that my blue bike is way more amazing than your red bike.

  4. Comment by MattC | 05.23.2016 | 12:43 pm

    Dear Mr. Know-it-all (ie: Fat Cyclist), what is the air-speed of a swallow carrying a coconut?

    African or European? – FC

  5. Comment by leroy | 05.23.2016 | 12:59 pm

    My dog wishes to note that his zone goes to 11.

  6. Comment by mateo | 05.23.2016 | 1:39 pm

    I need a calculator for Zone 0, where is spend most of my time thinking about riding or purchasing stuff to more enhance riding…how many kj does Zone 0 burn over 32 years of having this cycling disease?

  7. Comment by CraigK | 05.23.2016 | 2:05 pm

    I didn’t know there were European coconuts. This blog and comment section is truly educational.

  8. Comment by GregC | 05.23.2016 | 2:08 pm

    Ah, this is the Fatty post I’ve been waiting for, the people near me at work are wondering what I’m laughing at.

    But if your going to quote Monty Python, get it right:
    Bridgekeeper: What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

    King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?

    Bridgekeeper: Huh? I… I don’t know that.

  9. Comment by Jim | 05.23.2016 | 2:39 pm

    I was in the zone reading this and then it ended.
    Such is life.

  10. Comment by MattC | 05.23.2016 | 3:05 pm

    Greg, I think you cheated and used the internet to look that up! (or you have a MUCH better memory than I do..which come to think of it wouldn’t take much).

    What…is your favorite color?


  11. Comment by Edwin | 05.23.2016 | 3:29 pm

    The coherent replies in Zone 5 are a bit suspect – otherwise dead on.

  12. Comment by miles archer | 05.23.2016 | 4:26 pm


    Paddy whack, gives his dog a zone.

  13. Comment by Bart the Clydesdale | 05.23.2016 | 5:21 pm

    I determined that if I cut down on junk food it counters the junk miles I ride thus turning junk miles into training miles.
    Additionally i tried reading the “rules” once, remembered I have a life, at least claim I do, and went for a ride without checking to see if me tire labels were synced with my valve stems.

  14. Comment by RANTWICK | 05.23.2016 | 5:33 pm

    Very nice. We really don’t need all this tech. In a similar vein, I developed a cadence calculation one time…

  15. Comment by Bicycle Bill | 05.23.2016 | 6:49 pm

    Putting a motor in your bike: This is not as popular, as far as we know, but seems like it would be more fun, be less expensive and probably involves fewer needles and blood bags.”

    However, it does seem like the up-and-coming thing, judging from the number of “news articles” and other crap I see in places ranging from Yahoo to Popular Mechanics to even Bicycling magazine about electric-assist bicycles for the masses.


  16. Comment by Shugg McGraw | 05.24.2016 | 5:21 am

    I rode the Velothon on Sunday – a closed road sportive in Wales. At the top of the Tumble, the big climb, the peaceful Welsh countryside was disrupted by a Zone 4 rider retching at ear-splitting volume. This made me feel bad. Bad that I had become distracted whilst riding up by a cuckoo and had been mulling over the decline in the cuckoo population instead of making the correct amount of effort.

  17. Comment by River | 05.24.2016 | 5:26 am

    What’s the software/program in the screen shot?

    Strava. – FC

  18. Comment by Tom in Albany | 05.24.2016 | 9:56 am

    Chicken nuggets with ranch?!? Really?

  19. Comment by sr | 05.24.2016 | 11:16 am

    Tom in Albany- I know, right?

    So Zone 7 is the “not quite dead yet” zone, then ?


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