Understand Pyramidal Training

I’ve been trying to understand the science behind building training plans and the bulk of the research has revolved around what amount of time to spend in each zone per week for how long and when. There seems to be a hot debate on whether a pyramidal or polarized training plan is the most effective at driving adaptation for increases in FTP and this video by Dylan Johnson has explained that the data just isn’t there yet to form any conclusion.

Some of the principles I’ve gathered from this research are:

  1. Endurance work should be the bulk of any training plan

  2. When you include high-intensity work it should be spaced out by at least one rest day or recovery ride in between. Where the recovery ride is in Z1 and only 1-1.5 hours long.

  3. You should only be doing 2-3 high-intensity rides per week, where high intensity is considered anything above 80-85% of FTP.

  4. The intensity of work done in a training block should increase through the training block (4 weeks) meaning FTP workouts become Vo2 max workouts, less rest between sets, etc.

  5. The specificity of the work done in a training block should increase to match the event you are training for the closer you get to that event while maintaining the same percentage of work done in each zone.

  6. As you get closer to the event you are training for, the optimal time to begin a taper can be anywhere between 4-28 days before the event and the optimal decrease in volume is about 50% while the optimal decrease in intensity is 0%

With all this and selecting a pyramidal structure, I am able to build training blocks towards my goal event, but If I am using a 3 zone model, what is the optimal percentage of time to spend in each zone?

For starters, how many hours do you have to train per week?

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I have about 15 on average. I could push for 18-20 but that would be stressing my personal life a bit. I have a super supportive circle of people so they would understand, but I would want to supply some evidence to back it up haha.

That’s a good number.

This chart says HR zones but the distribution seems to be pretty typical for the 3 zone power model.


Most likely you’re looking at one VO2/Anaerobic workout, two SST/Threshold, and Endurance for the remainder. No need to get too exact, IMHO.

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Right on, I’ll post some results here once I drum something up. Just on a side note, do you know of any online software that’s free for creating training plans? The best I’ve found is TrainingPeaks but I think you have to pay. Cheers

Also, where did you find the graph?

Honestly, I don’t think you should pick “pyramidal” or “polarized” as your training objective. From what I’ve heard from some of the top coaches, the time distribution changes with the training phase (base,build,etc) and also how much time you have. Pick the things you want to work on, and make them your “quality sessions” for the week. Then fill the rest of the time you have with endurance rides. Sometimes then you will end up with a pyramidal distribution (eg when working on a range of zones, doing a lot of outside rides), and sometimes with a polarized one (when doing HIIT sessions, because you can only do a bit of time at high intensity, so you do a lot of endurance too to fill your time).


Take a look at intervals.icu - should have you covered for what you need


How new are you to cycling / training?

Seems like you’ve never followed a training plan and now desire to train structured for 15-20 hours per week… am I reading into this correctly?

If so, you really should train for less time (7-10hrs) and work into higher volumes. Otherwise, you are at high risk of experiencing overtraining / burnout.
Furthermore, if you’re at a low base level, you just don’t need that much stress on the body to get meaningful adaptations. Also, you may be getting no additional benefit or reducing your would-be benefit by training beyond the optimal amount given your fitness level.

On the training principles,

  1. zone 1 (3zone model) takes up the highest percent simply for the reason that you can’t ride that hard for too long. It’s too tiring. You necessarily have to rest and recover. As volume goes up, percent of total volume in z1 goes up (by necessity).

  2. not necessarily. You can stack intense days back to back. However, you need sufficient recovery. Sufficient recovery is subjective. Typically, the higher level of base fitness, the more stress your body can take and therefore the less recovery required (think stage racers / pro mtb racing short track day 1 then XCO day 2, etc.). If you’re relatively low fitness, start with 1 hard day and 2 easy. I would then recommend making the hard day harder (more intervals, harder intervals, building it into a longer ride, etc) before I recommend cutting the 2 easy days following it into just 1.

  3. I don’t think 3 is necessary and would be a lot even for a pro. If you’re going to try to have your workout cycle be 7 days (week), then it’s hard to successfully fit in 3 intense days and get ample recovery. You may consider relaxing the strict mindset that your training cycle is a week and you have this structured weekly approach.

  4. usually. There should be progressive overload. This happens block to block as well as cycle to cycle. It may mean same rest but longer intervals too (not necessarily higher intensity). Just basically trying to place more stress on the body across time. Note: people ‘fail’ workouts when they make the progression to rapid. Any progress is progress. Don’t be a hero!

  5. I agree with the first part of this. I have never heard the second. Sounds like a limitation to flexibility. I wouldn’t be so rigid with it - I don’t think it makes much sense. Ex. Say my key event is a hard one day race. I have been keeping some training cycle with 1 vo2 interval day and a tempo/SS day built into my long ride (to simulate the event, which is a race of attrition). Now I’m 2 month from the event and I want to increase specificity. I may want to do a race simulation and ride easy all other days (z1). Or say I want to reduce volume of tempo/SS and increase vo2 work. Both scenarios would be changing allocation of time into the 3 zones - breaking that rule - but I’d argue they are important for performance at the event.

  6. Maybe. 4 days sounds short and 28 sounds long. I’m pretty sure there are studies that show you can maintain vo2 max without intensity / volume for something like a month.


What a great reply! Thank you!

I agree with your observations of the rigidity of my thinking, without much experience in applying these principles, listening to people talk online and compositing them is all I’ve got. I’m not quite sure that works for me yet but I have a large time commitment to understanding how everything fits together.

For citation sake, the taper duration recommendation came to me from this video by Dylan Johson.

I am pretty new to cycling, I’ve been training for the past 3 months building up my base fitness but not following any sort of structure. The distribution of my training coincidentally resembles a pyramidal structure, but as you said this was out of necessity and not by design. I have been able to sustain 10+ hours a week without feeling burnt out during this time which is what prompted my allocation of the above 15 hours average in my schedule.

I was never an “athlete” but my physiology has kept me fit on minimal (if sometimes any) exercise over the years. Having bought a power meter last week my FTP is currently at 250 I’m 6’2" and I weighed in last night at 63.5kg.

The structure is something I’m interested in as a time-strapped student, but the more I read about “proper” training the more I’m realizing how subjective it is. I’m assuming this is why TR has incorporated their ML-driven “adaptive training plans” (they probably have the cleanest dataset for it) which I might sign up for.

As a mathematician, it’s always been more interesting for me to understand the numbers I’m being prescribed rather than accepting them at face value. My pursuit of understanding how to write a training plan will continue indefinitely I’m sure, but if you have any resources which would lead me closer to being able to adapt my training to my own physiology I would read them in a night.

Cheers, Thanks for the reply

A 1.5 hour ride is pretty long here, and you might find that you’ll need more rest between intense sessions. Amateurs, in general, fail to rest/recover enough—I always err on the side of too much recovery vs too little.

Not necessarily, and usually not. More often than not you’ll focus on working the same “system” (ex: threshold or VO2 or anaerobic) for that 4-week block and then decide whether or not you want to continue or change it up.

For example, I don’t and wouldn’t suggest you do a block of work that focuses on increasing FTP that includes work right around threshold (ex: 3x12 min @ 95%) and then have your next workout focus in anaerobic capacity (ex: 6x1 min @ 150%). That likely won’t be productive.

Note: everything under anaerobic is working the aerobic system to varying degrees.

Tapering is something that takes trial and error. Taper too long and you’ll loose too much fitness. Taper too short and you won’t lose enough fatigue. Personally, I like tapering 5-7 days before an event. Cut volume by half (or more depending) but include a couple days of intensity. I always like a day off the bike 2 days before my event.

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Start there to deeper understand the annual planning and how training structure can be fluid during the year:

(Wko5 an annual training - part 1,2 and 3)

The training modalities are usually the outcome of the things you target. If you would ride 10+h/wk naturally you will fall into pyramidal training as it would be quite hard to do 5 days of intensity. 3 days of intensity + 3 days of z2 will put you into pyramidal distribution naturally.

Think rather what you want to train more than what model you will use. If you target FTP work focus on key workouts that will give you the desired result and zone distribution will be an outcome. Basically you have to touch every zone - the whole “art” is how to do this, looking for things that work for you and you respond to them and how to change things when they stop working.

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That sounds very light, and may affect your resilience especially if you’re looking to increase your hours. I’m 6’3 and 76kg right now, and always get called skinny and racing snake etc by other cyclists


Sheesh. I’m 6’4” and 84kg and get called skinny. “Aero legs”, etc.


:laughing: aero legs!


Haha, I can definitely increase my weight if that means more power. I’ve been told that my body should naturally maximize its power to weight ratio, but I’m not sure how to pinpoint that through a training season with any sort of analytics.

I think for me, my shoulders are so wide many people don’t make comments, my girlfriend says I should have been a swimmer lmao.

Do you think I should increase the calories over a season and see what happens? I don’t feel Ill or weak or anything. Maybe some more weight would do me good.

Hahaha, that’s a new one for me :joy:

Trying to understand the science is a bit loaded because the scientists are still trying to understand it. :slight_smile:

Every stimulus works. The art of coaching is what stimulus to choose at what time, how much stimulus, and at what of year to implement it for a particular athlete.

I’d recommend that you read the Friel and Coggan books.

I thought this was a good podcast that touches on some of your questions. They talk about Vo2Max and the volume needed to support it.


I’d also recommend Moore’s podcast. It goes into much more depth on a variety of topics.


Tbh I probably shouldn’t have commented, as I really don’t want to make recommendations around diet. So it was just an unhelpful observation that you’re very light for your height.

I burn a lot of KJs on the bike, and I eat a lot of food to compensate. Off the bike I eat to hunger, and throw in some protein shakes. As long as you’re happy and you can perform, then do what feels right.


This is what I am constantly reevaluating, doubting, questioning, learning about. When you’re feeling good and flying you think that you’re doing everything correct. Then you have moments, days, weeks on the bike where you don’t feel so good and you then start to doubt.

It seems like people either have a great understanding of physiology and how systems work and how to train them (aerobic, anaerobic, neuromuscular) or they amass years of experience and find something in their training that clicks. Many folks never figure it out.

What has confused me in the past is workout selection. TR has an immense library of workouts that target the above systems, it can be overwhelming and confusing in terms of which one to pick.

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