by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

Training Zones and Nutrition 

Many aspects of endurance sports, including performance and injury prevention, are tied to two common factors: training zones and nutrition. These are useful tools for athletes to use, and considering how they work together can help optimize your results even further. You can read Sports Nutrition and Training Zones and Injuries for a better understanding of the individual topics we’re combining here. 

Balance is Key

Nutrition and training intensity, as measured by the use of training zones, each play a role in endurance sports. Nutrition is focused on supplying the body with the optimal amount of fuel, targeting carbohydrate and fluid consumption to meet the demands of training or racing. Training zones are used to adjust intensity which impacts how we adapt and improve and how fast we fatigue and recover. If either of these factors is poorly managed it can easily derail the successful management of the other. Let's say you’ve adequately fueled before and during a ride (which isn’t always an easy task), but ridden far harder than you’d planned. The resulting increase in fatigue and extended recovery demonstrates how one factor affects the other. Learning to balance both components together helps you optimize your training and sets you up for more successful races.

Dialing It In

To combine these factors effectively we’ll start by outlining what the ride plan of the day should be. Consider the ride length, intensity, and whether the intensity fluctuates or remains steady. We can use what we know about the ride and the day to plan out the pre-ride meal. Are you going to ride for 3-4 hours after lunch? Your lunch can become your pre-ride meal, following the appropriate sports nutrition guidelines. Next, we’ll plan out what we need to carry based on the guidelines and what best fits your ride demands. For example, if your ride is 2 hours in Zone 2 you’d aim to consume 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. Finally, we can use the following chart to manage ride intensity, understand the fuel type required based on zone, and how that changes when we adjust our intensity. 



Talk Test (TT)

Standard Riding Time

Primary Macronutrient Used

1 - Active Recovery


Level 1

20-60 min


2 - Long Endurance


Level 2

1-3+ hrs


3 - Medium Endurance


Level 3

Up to 60-90 min


4 - Threshold


Level 4

30-60 min


5 - Suprathreshold (VO2max)


Level 5

<5-10 min


Your body has plenty of fat storage but a relatively limited amount of carbohydrate storage. As we go up in zones our carbohydrate demand increases. Even in lower zones, carbs are still required, they just aren’t the primary fuel source. This means with increasing intensity it’s essential to start the ride adequately fueled and continue consuming enough carbs to meet your body’s needs while avoiding gastrointestinal issues. 

The Ultimate Goal

Educating athletes about training intensity measurements, zones, nutrition, and hydration monitoring and management can be overwhelming. We’ve all probably seen riders show up with a donut and a bottle of water and call it good. As coaches, we know the NICA focus: “safety, fun, performance.” Proper management of training intensity paired with correct nutrition and hydration habits helps ensure student-athletes (and yourself) are set to have a safe and enjoyable ride. Managing these components effectively can:

  • Decrease the risk of injury by managing fatigue during a ride

  • Decrease the risk of injury by ensuring the body has the fuel and fluids it needs to perform

  • Increase enjoyment during rides by preventing negative shifts in mood states associated with fatigue, lack of fuel, and dehydration

  • Increase the ability to learn and retain new skills by providing a more optimal cognitive state for the athlete

  • Increase performance through improved training-based adaptations while also being able to complete ride plans as established

At the end of the day, consistent consideration of these factors improves the short- and long-term experience for everyone from athlete to coach to parent.

To learn more about the concepts covered in this article while earning NICA CEUs, check out our recommended courses below!

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