- - What is Tempo in Cycling and Why is it so Important?

What is Tempo in Cycling and Why is it so Important?

article by Brendan Housler

There are many different zones to improve your cycling performance and one of them, nearly dead smack in the middle of it all, is tempo power zone training for cycling.

It has been misnomered as a dead zone, mainly because it is stuck right between two very important training zones, endurance and threshold.

So, is it worthwhile to train tempo while there is so much literature and data about the importance of training our endurance and threshold?

Is tempo training good for cycling? Yes, it is! To be fair, there is a reason to ride in every zone, and it’s the amount of time spent and intensity that varies from athlete to athlete, based on their natural strengths and weaknesses, previous training and adaptations, and their events.

Let’s take a closer look at what tempo training can do for you.

What is Tempo Zone for Cycling?

Tempo riding is just above the true aerobic training of zone 2 (endurance riding), and just below working at your lactate threshold level (Zone 4, or FTP cycling work).

Tempo cycling has been called “no man’s land” because you’re riding just above the most aerobically efficient training (endurance riding) and below intensities to increase your lactate threshold or VO2Max. That said, there are benefits specific to tempo riding, so why is tempo cycling called “no man’s land”? 

In my opinion, no man’s land is when riders spend too much time in the tempo zone, often done because it is fast fun; you’re zipping along and not getting overly tired. I don’t believe it’s wasteful training because of what some say: “Tempo is just riding a touch too hard above endurance training or a touch too easy below threshold training”, but more so because it becomes the default training zone and athletes can spend too much time here.

Said differently: there is a time and place for tempo riding, but don’t do it all of the time. 

Don’t let a large amount of endurance ride time turn into tempo riding when it isn’t supposed to be, and don’t let the threshold or VO2Max work suffer because of the higher fatigue associated with tempo riding. While tempo riding does not seem that fatiguing, I have personally experienced just a bit less top-end when riding it too often. Be cautious with it.

While tempo is often prescribed as the “winter or indoor training replacement for endurance riding”, we need to be careful with this overprescription. Tempo training is not a replacement for endurance miles. You can’t bake the cake any faster.

I do prescribe more tempo and burst workouts to alleviate some boredom associated with indoor training during the week. While these sessions may not be as optimized as an athlete being able to go ride for 2 hours outdoors, it is worth the cost to keep them mentally fresh through the dark and dreary trainer months. Everything cannot always be perfect in training, and we need to weigh the cost – benefit of every session that we choose to do.

I know we’ve talked about this a bunch of different times, “Tempo is where you normally start activating the glycolytic system”. This is the well documented LT1 turn point. So this cut off point is where you mainly switch from fat oxidation to carbohydrate consumption for fuel, and therefore lactate levels increase above this point due to glycolysis.

What is the difference between tempo and threshold? This video on our YouTube channel gives you a good idea of the physiologic differences and describes some of the basis for a more polarized training approach.

What are Tempo Zone Ranges?

What percentage of FTP is tempo? Tempo is classically defined at 76-90% of FTP, placing it just above the endurance training zone and just below the threshold training zone (or what you’ll hear called FTP Training). 

Overlapping this zone is the well marketed sweet spot zone, which was deemed 84-97% by creator Frank Overton. When it had been prescribed to me back in 2012 as a FasCat athlete coached by Jason Hilimire, we targeted 88-93%. 

The sweet spot zone is quite overhyped and overused by many because they feel like they are working hard and getting faster, when in actuality they’re just working hard.

Tempo Zone Comparison

I get a decent amount of questions in terms of comparing zones, or the gray area between zones, such as “Is it okay to ride tempo on my endurance ride?” Let’s take a quick look at a few of these.


For the reasons mentioned above, sweet spot is a zone that should be used sparingly. You’re riding too hard for lactate clearance work, but too easy to change your threshold. 

Athletes feel like they’re getting a great workout, but there are many better ways to spend your time and energy. This is a fatiguing workout, and takes away from other higher quality workouts that one can do, so don’t let your tempo training become sweet spot training.

And to note, since I have a reputation of strongly disliking sweet spot training: I don’t dislike sweet spot, I dislike the overprescription of it, and the fact that athletes are marketed that it’s a do-all panacea for training in order to charge you for a cookie cutter template. I’m not cool with that.


Endurance riding is mainly aerobic, and a great way to increase your strengths at the cellular level (mitochondrial density, glycogen storage, etc).

As mentioned above though, once you start moving into tempo riding, you become more glycolytic, and utilize more carbohydrates for fuel. Endurance rides focus on utilizing fats as fuel, so watch that video to better understand all the nitty gritty as to why endurance rides need to stay as endurance. A little bit of tempo is okay, but don’t overdo it.


I’ve received this question a few times and am wondering if it’s a regional difference in lexicon; steady state to me could be in any zone, but when asked, some athletes refer to steady state cycling training as FTP training. This is incorrect, so we want to make sure we get the terminology correct, on the same page.

For the same reasons as mentioned above regarding sweet spot training, do not let tempo riding become threshold riding.

What are the Benefits of Tempo Cycling?

Is it true that tempo training for cycling is no man’s land and that tempo cycling has no benefits? Is tempo training actually garbage miles where you are going too hard to reap the benefits of endurance training, but too easy to reap the benefits of threshold training?

Of course not! There is a place for training in every zone, there is room for EVERY zone to be trained.

Let’s dig into some of the tempo cycling benefits:

Consistent Pressure on the Pedals: this sounds insanely basic, but you’d be surprised how many athletes struggle to continuously pedal for more than 60 minutes at a time. The strength gained from tempo riding (described below) will definitely help with this. Once your events come around, and the pedaling becomes much more demanding, part of this strength will be utilized to increase the endurance of your muscles. Tempo training is a great way to build strength with a relatively low cost of fatigue (versus something like Threshold training).

Muscle Fiber Utilization: Utilize other muscle fibers that are not recruited during endurance (zone 2) riding. This can occur on a longer ride, where your anaerobic fibers get recruited to help with the more aerobic focused work. This is a great way to improve your capabilities as a cyclist, as the sport is mainly aerobic!

Muscular Endurance: the ability to preserve functioning muscle fibers for improved performance later in a race (adding some slightly harder efforts once in a while to long endurance rides are a great stimulus). Clearly it would be beneficial to have muscle fibers that are resistant to fatigue for all aspects of cycling, especially road cycling, gravel cycling, and mountain biking. The longer you are able to stay fresh, the better you will perform at the end of the race.

Aerobic Efficiency: allow these fibers to become more aerobically efficient so that they consume less oxygen when producing power. Producing power with as little cost on the body as possible is a great way to conserve energy.

Muscle Fiber Strength: when combined with climbing or high torque, you can increase the strength of these fibers, which will make them more resistant to fatigue and increase the force with which they can perform (beneficial to mountain biking, hill climbing, and even moderate pace changes in road or cyclocross). 

This means that the cadence used in tempo intervals can be manipulated to change the effect that it has on your physiology. I would NOT make every tempo cycling training session into a low cadence training session. If you decide to use high torque work and alter your tempo cycling cadence, start with it once a week, and don’t exceed two sessions in one week. 

I’ve used high torque training, but prefer to use it with threshold riding as opposed to tempo, as you do take your muscle fibers a bit away from the benefits of tempo riding. That said, hill climbing at tempo wattage will most likely be at a lower torque, but remember to use those gears and spin as well!

How to Incorporate Tempo Cycling into Training

Changing up the stimulus from pure zone 2 endurance riding is a good thing in small doses due to the benefit of tempo cycling listed above. I would also recommend utilizing some tempo work during your base season, not only to keep things more interesting during the winter months on the trainer, but also to break up longer endurance rides. 

Tempo training can help keep your mind and legs sharp. This way, when you begin doing harder workouts during your build phase, it won’t be a total shock to the system.

These tempo blocks are quite fun, as you’re really zipping down the road, and you can do them in chunks as described below, or just throw them in ad hoc as it feels right based on the terrain.

How Long Should You Ride at Tempo?

Some prolonged durations of tempo riding, about 10 to 20 minutes, is a great idea, but even if you had more 2 minute intervals in there sporadically due to extremely rolling terrain, that does the job as well. 

I no longer prescribe very long, 45 minute tempo intervals, unless there is a race demand that has long, consistent climbs in it. Races like Leadville 100 come to mind, but most road and gravel racing does not have consistent pedaling for such long durations. There are better workouts for those events.

You need to make sure you fuel your tempo workouts because they burn a lot of Calories. Make sure you know what to eat and drink while cycling.

Top Tempo Cycling Training Workouts

These tempo cycling workouts are very basic on paper in terms of execution, but make sure you’re executing the intervals properly! Consistent pressure on the pedals is a great skill to learn, and these tempo intervals are a great chance to practice that.

The next tempo cycling workout has some nice bursts in it to simulate slight surges that go on when riding in the peloton or even in a break that isn’t full gas the entire time, but heading over rolling terrain.

One could make a slight case that there’s a little bit of lactate clearance work going on in there, but a dedicated lactate clearance cycling training session would definitely be even better if that is your goal.

The last tempo workout shows the efforts done at the end of the ride; short, sweet, and to the point! While I have advocated these in a more fartlek style at the end of the ride, kudos to my coach Tom Bell for creating this workout below.


Tempo training is a great way to add strength to your repertoire of skills, but it does move things a bit away from becoming a truly aerobic athlete, so use these workouts accordingly, so that they help you increase your strengths and mitigate the weaknesses.

Some races might have long climbs that simulate 30 minute tempo efforts, or even low threshold, so you can use these types of workouts to simulate those, but I wouldn’t go overboard; you’d be better off working on increasing your FTP, and possibly focusing on Lactate Clearance work. Again, athlete dependent for sure, and these workouts have more fatigue costs, so you have to weight that into the equation as well.

If you’re stuck inside, a few of these workouts go a long way, to help bridge the gaps between winter and spring… just don’t lean on them too often or it could create problems down the road.

As always, a varied training diet that focuses on your unique physiology is best, so make sure tempo training fits in with what you are trying to accomplish.


Brendan is the current US Master’s National Road Race and Gran Fondo Champion for 35+. His full list of palmarès can be seen here.

Brendan lined up for his first USAC race in 2009, and 2010 he earned his Category 1 license. He has been training and racing with power for over 140,000 miles and began coaching cyclists in 2009.

Brendan holds degrees in Psychology and Theology from Boston College, and a Master’s in Business from the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, where he focused on Entrepreneurship and Global Business through Domestic & International Management.

Brendan is a full-time cycling coach for EVOQ.BIKE and President of the company, overseeing our digital content, marketing and business strategy.

While Brendan loves making you a faster and stronger cyclist, he’s mostly excited to make you a more confident version of yourself. He coaches everyone from the brand new cyclist (where we all started; there are NO dumb questions) to the Cat 1 racer looking to take the next step up to the professional level.

He has helped thousands of athletes with his online cycling coaching, as well as over 250 cyclists in a one on one coaching relationship. His combined coaching and riding time exceed 10,000 hours, providing him with ample experience to share with you.

His number one focus is to see you hit your goals within a realistic time frame.

Contact Brendan if you want a cycling coach that will give you WAY MORE than just an online cycling training plan. Brendan wants to engage with athletes to make them happier, and become more fulfilled through the sport that has changed his life.


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