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Chapter 2 - Training Zones

The most common mistake that most people make when they first start training is to race every session. They settle on a distance that’s not too short or too long and go like the clappers chasing a PB every session. They are likely to see some initial improvement as they get fitter and faster and repeatedly hit those PB’s, until they inevitably get injured or their times quickly plateau. Without the light and shade of overload and recovery that makes up a balanced program your efforts become very grey in nature and all you do is reinforce how to “race” slowly. Fatigue and injury time outs become the norm and your performance goes nowhere.

Sound familiar? It does to me. I am embarrassed to say I am an expert on this style of training and I persisted with it for many years, getting very average results and very, very sore knees.

While the training we do is not the only factor in our performance, genetics and talent do play a part, it is a very important part of the puzzle. By introducing some of this “light and shade” that I bang on about all the time it might help you get more consistent, enjoy the variety in your program, and hopefully tap into some of your potential.

Triathlon is not an easy sport and it generally attracts people who are prepared to work hard. It is more common for people to have to be reined in to prevent overtraining rather than have to be told to work harder. To define and measure how hard we are working we use training zones. Some sessions will be completed all in one zone and others use the whole range depending on what the session is.

Most people use one of three methods to establish training zones - Heart rate, perceived effort and power. There are many pros and cons to all three methods and I don’t have time to go into all of them. Power would be the most accurate however the cost is a big disadvantage and takes it out of reach for most people. Perceived effort is cheap but of course is very subjective and takes a lot of practice, and the long list of factors that can effect heart rate make this method less than perfect.

Heart Rate and Power

If you are looking at establishing HR or Power zones then the following article is a great resource. For both HR and Power it guides you to find a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) or a Functional Threshold Power (FTP). All the zones are based on a % of that figure. See "Joe Friel's Quick Guide to Setting Zones"

Perceived Effort

Personally I am a fan of perceived effort and switched to it after training with heart rate for a long time. Over the years I have spoken to others who have used heart rate training and found a number who shared the same experiences as I did. We found there were days where we couldn’t physically hit the heart rate zones and other days you felt like we were bludging which made me question how effective it was. In my opinion when you are not blindly watching numbers and instead using perceived effort, you become more in tune with what you’re feeling and where the limit is. Gradually getting in touch with the inner fuel gage and effort level that you can hold for a set distance and basically preparing you for race day.

The following article is primarily on power training in cycling however it does have a great table with what training should feel like according to each zone using perceived effort.

For those who don’t like to click articles.

  • Zone 2 - conversation pace, light exercise that you could do all day. By the way zone 2 sessions become hard if you zone 2 for long enough.

  • Zone 4 - TT pace. Just below or above the limit for the chosen distance. Mentally taxing and should only be done when you are rested. 10 to 30min duration.

  • Zone 5 – conversation not possible. Leg discomfort and fatigue level is high. 3 to 8min duration.

When I prescribe or complete a session I mostly stick to these 3 zones. Zone 3 is used sparingly.

To further help you find the right intensity for run sessions, McMillans running calculator is a great tool to identify effective paces to target in min/km, depending on the session type for your current fitness level. With some practice using perceived effort on the bike and a combination of perceived effort and pace for the run, you should be able to slot into those ideal training zones quick enough.

Now we have some zones to work with it’s time to start talking programs. But I’ll leave that to next time.


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