At the beginning of each of my indoor cycling classes, one of the things I talk about is the four zones. The zones are a way for each student to level-set his output of effort. Everyone has a different capacity and ability. There are beginners in class who are either just starting or it's their first time. There are people who are struggling with weight or other fitness issues and may not be able to work as hard as an intermediate participant. And there are people who have been doing this for longer than I have and think they already know everything there is to know and are just begging for a good workout.
For all of these people, my challenge is to challenge each of them, regardless of ability or capacity. For this I use zones.
Zone 1 = totally easy level of output, no big deal, no tension or resistance on the wheel, however fast you want to go, simply used to start warming up the legs.
Zone 2 = the minimum level of output needed to achieve an aerobic workout. This is a "working pace," or the level that can be maintained for the duration of class. It should feel as though you're working, but not so much that you can't maintain that pace for an hour. I also call it "comfortably challenged." That may sound like an oxymoron, but when done correctly, you're being challenged to work hard while staying in a level that's still comfortable.
Zone 3 = uncomfortable challenged. This is where the student will most likely start to hate me and wonder why he came to class. This level or pace can only be maintained for a few minutes before needing to go back to zone two to recover. This is also a level that I encourage my more intermediate or advanced students to try and maintain for longer each time. The longer you can stay in zone three, the better your endurance will be overall and your fitness will increase.
Zone 4 = breathless. Self-explanatory, no? This level is reached when you're working so hard you can only hold it for several seconds or less than a minute. It is anaerobic, meaning working without oxygen. (I personally believe that few students actually allow themselves to get there properly, or at least only get there during a spring, rarely during a climb.)
These levels are achieved by a combination of speed and resistance on the wheel. I personally prefer working with heavier tension rather than just sprinting. Any good physiologist will tell you that to increase muscle strength and aerobic endurance, you must work with heavier weights than what is comfortable.
Notice some of the key words that keep repeating here: tension. Resistance. Strength.
My life is in a constant state of zone three, it seems. I don't say that to brag; it's merely an observation. I was in zone three for several months at the end of 2010 and the first half of this year. When I was finally able to come back down to zone two to recover, it felt strange. I missed the consistent growth. And oddly, I missed the challenge of resistance. It felt unnatural to relax, to be able to breathe. I realized I needed the period of recovery even as I knew that a ramp-up to a new zone three was coming soon.
I'm back in zone three again. I'm grateful for the growth opportunity, again -- for the blessing of being trusted to grow beyond my current capacity. But I wish I could pick my own zone three, my own challenge. When I design a class format, I get to create the challenges for my students. But I am not in my own class. I am a student in a Master Teacher's class. One who can see the end, who knows what the class design is (and it's custom-made for just me), and who knows where each peak (zone three, sometimes four) and valley (recovery in zone two) is. I have to trust that the end result will be increased strength and endurance through the trial of resistance and tension.
I just wish there was a clock on the wall of this classroom so I knew how long it was going to last.