Zone 2 for six weeks: How much fitness did Manon Lloyd gain?

Manon Lloyd heads back to the lab to find out how only riding at low intensity has shaped her fitness

Clock10:32, Sunday 12th May 2024

No pain, no gain, right? For many years, that has been the philosophy followed by cyclists, leading to many gruelling hours on the bike.

Recent research has started to alter this perception, leading to the popularity of lower-intensity training methods, like polarised training, which sees riders spend the majority of their time riding at lower intensities, specifically zone 2. The concept is simple: training easier means training smarter.

We’ve previously spoken in depth about the virtues of zone 2 training with Tadej Pogačar’s coach, Iñigo San Millán, and while we’re in no position to question a man who has sculpted a two-time Tour de France winner, we wanted to find out just how effective zone 2 training actually is.

So, we recruited Manon Lloyd for an experiment, tasking her with only training in zone 2 for six weeks.

Those six weeks are now up, so it was time to find out what effect the training has had. Find out the results by watching the video at the top of this page, or read on for more background on the challenge.

Read more: How effective is lower-intensity training: Riding at zone 2 for six weeks

How zone 2 training makes you faster?

Training zones are levels of intensity that can be calculated using a rider’s FTP or heart rate. There are varying training models available, but most include the same zone 2, which is often referred to as the endurance zone.

That’s because zone 2 is a lower intensity level that can be sustained for long periods of time. It’s for this reason that it is often swerved by cyclists, as people fall into the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. As a result, many cyclists will only ride zone 2 at limited times in the year, usually in the winter when they want to build up their endurance, but neglect it the rest of the time.

As Iñigo San Millán explained when we interviewed him, though, the benefits of zone 2 riding go far beyond building endurance.

“It's a concept that has been around for many years. People win races while riding at high intensity so, intuitively, they train at that intensity,” he said.

“The problem in cycling and in sports in general is that muscle bioenergetics don’t work that way. Of course you win races at a high intensity but, for that, you need to have a very good aerobic base.

“At high intensity you use a lot of glucose during exercise, for energy purposes. Every time you use glucose, you also produce lactate. Lactate is produced in the fast-twitch muscle fibres which are the ones that you deploy when you do high-intensity exercises. This lactate needs to be cleared and the way to do that is by developing the slow-twitch muscle fibres. That lactate then passes from the fast-twitch muscle fibres to the adjacent slow-twitch fibres, where it will be utilised for energy purposes.

“And the best way to develop slow-twitch muscle fibres is to specifically stimulate them through training.”

Read more: Endurance Training: Zone 2 mistakes, and how to avoid them

How did we measure Manon’s improvements from riding at zone 2?

So, there are plenty of rewards to reap from zone 2 training, but we needed a specific way to measure them.

To do this, Manon conducted three tests before embarking on the challenge, all of which we tested once again at the end of the six weeks.

The first was aerobic fitness, which should be an obvious benefit of zone 2 training. Aerobic is one of the ways the body recruits energy, with the other being anaerobic. When exercising aerobically, your body recruits its energy through oxygen and this is the process used for lower levels of intensity, such as zone 2.

The next is functional threshold power (FTP), which is the maximum power a rider can sustain for one hour, in watts. It’s the figure most cyclists obsess about and is widely regarded as being one of the best benchmarks of a rider’s fitness.

Finally, we wanted to find out if Manon’s anaerobic capacity improves. At this level of high-intensity exercise, the body breaks down glucose in the body for energy as it exceeds the body’s capability to use oxygen.

Would Manon champion zone 2 by posting better numbers in the finishing tests, or would they debunk zone 2 training as a myth? Watch the full video at the top of this page to find out.

For more cycling challenges, head over to the ‘Lifestyle’ section of the GCN website.

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