Whether you do a triathlon, cycling, running, or swimming, training zones are a framework of intensity that guide you in achieving performance adaptations and specificity.
When it comes to setting triathlon Training Zones there are numerous testing protocols and measures. They are simply a way of differentiating workout intensities. It’s worth remembering that the benefits of one zone will often crossover with the benefits of another. Best not to panic on being 100% accurate all the time.
Once you’re set your training zones, you can then easily differentiate between things like aerobic endurance, tempo, speed, and recovery training. This enables you to train at the right intensity for the session you have planned.
Measuring intensity is important in training to dial in your pace/effort in preparation for your event and understand training progress. Intensity defined at an appropriate workout for technique, endurance, strength, threshold, and speed training sessions.
When defining training intensity, I will use heart rate, power, pace, and RPE, Rate of Perceived effort. If used in the right way, these numbers can provide you with feedback that can help you improve your performance in training and racing.
In swimming, it is best to use RPE and pace to measure intensity since conditions in the pool don’t vary much, except water temperature. distance, yards , or meter pool as well as current in open water. Heart rate monitors don’t always read well in water and I don’t know any swimming power meter device.
For biking and running, power, heart rate , and pace along with the rate of perceived effort can be used to measure improvement.
Pace is a measure of speed and distance and factors such as weather and terrain affect both pace and distance covered at that time. Pace-based run training typically leads to better results on a track since the terrain is flat.
Power is a measure of workload regardless of terrain and weather. Power meters indicate precisely how much power is being exerted at a given time. Such precise and immediate feedback enables very precise training and racing,
Heart rate measures what your heart is doing at various work-loads. While the heart rate monitor (HRM) will give you an accurate reading of what your heart is doing (and allow you to correlate HR with a given training level/zone), your perceived exertion allows you to evaluate how difficult a training session is by assigning numbers to your perception of each incremental level of difficulty.
RPE is a feeling. You can use a table of graduated levels rating Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).
An example of measuring improvement with heart rate in running. If you currently run at 5k test, 3.1 miles, in 30 minutes, RPE 8 at a heart rate of 150 beats, and 3 months later you repeat the test and run 3.1 miles in 30 minutes, RPE 8 at a heart rate of 140 beats then lower heart rate at the same pace and RPE is a sign of fitness.
Likewise, if you run 3.1 miles in 30 minutes at a heart rate 150 beats, RPE of 8 , and next test you run 3.1 miles in 28 minutes, RPE of 8 at a heart rate 150 beats, the same heart rate , and RPE and faster time, is a sign of fitness and improvement.
The same idea applies to bike with power. If during your 20-minute bike test you ride 5 miles, RPE 8 at 150 watts, and three months later your ride 7 miles, RPE 6 at 150 watts, more miles lower RPE, the same watts, RPE = increase fitness. Likewise, if you ride 5 miles at 150 watts at RPE 7 then three months later you ride 5 miles in 18 minutes at 150 watts, same power, faster time = fitness.
Another example of measuing pace at the track, constant flat surface. If you run 3.1 miles in 30 minutes and next times you run 3.1 mile on the same track under similar weather adn wind conditions in 28 minutes, that is a sign of fitness. If you run 3.1 miles and the weather varies for the previous test with wind, extreme heat or cold, and you run 30 minutes, that does not mean you have not improved and looked at other intensity variables like heart rate and rpe help determine improvement
Always train With RPE.
Traning without a GPS, power meter or heart rate monitor? Don’t have a way to capture data. No problem. You can still complete andy training by using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
I use RPE to indicate the intensity of the training plans I created on training peaks since it is universal for anyone who purchases a training plan and does not require intensity in any GPS or heart rate monitor. RPE is a 10-point scale. Technology is not a guarantee and can give out in the middle of a training session or race and to avoid panic, the ability and awareness of RPE can prevent you from going too hard early on
RPE is a feeling, not a pace, power, or heart rate. It is important that you learn how to use RPE in addition to whatever additional measures of the intensity you may use. I started the sport in 1992 before GPS and heart rate monitors and believe it to be the best way to learn how your body is responding to the training sessions.
When we only focus on watts, heart rate or pace, we run the risk of misreading our fitness which can result in either an under performance race or going faster than we should be. Let’s say, you are used to running at 7 mph in your race efforts. However, there will be days that you simply won’t achieve that speed—yet the aerobic load remains the same, regardless of your speed. On the flip side, you might not be training hard enough if you are having a great day with fresh legs—you could have been training at 8 mph.
RPE enables you to subjectively measure your level of effort and, when combined with a heart rate monitor or power meter, RPE provides a more complete picture of one’s level of effort. Because of these points, it makes sense to combine the two when communicating the varying intensities of workouts.
No matter what your power meter or heart rate says, if your threshold -intervals suddenly feel like an RPE of 5, you’re not going hard enough.
Likewise, if you’re running or riding in the endurance heart rate zone on your recovery or long run and it feels hard, like RPE 7-8, dial the pace/intensity down, and if you are already at a slower pace, the higher RPE and slower pace is an indication you might be fatigued, sick
Log RPE for the session for the main set. You can also log RPE for warm ups, cool downs and drills in your training log. RPE of 6 at a certain pace, won’t feel too hard the first 5-10 minutes at a certain pace. Continue that pace for an hour and your RPE will most likely increase at the pace for a certain duration.
Also, note that a short high power/heart rate workout can be low RPE due to shorter duration and a longer workout with lower power/heart rate might have a high RPE due to duration. For example, a 5-hour ride in zone 2 power/heart rate, could easily feel like a 7-8 out of 10 just because it’s so long, even though it has lower workout load. And a 30 minute workout with 30-60 second zone 5 power/heart rate might only be an RPE 5 workout due to lower duration.
If you decide to train by heart rate and/or power you must set your THRESHOLDS correctly in your account profile settings for the bike and run.
Overall, I like to train with heart rate, power , and pace to learn how I feel and monitor RPE, within each sport , and often race without technology and rely on feel. I still primarily train and race by RPE cause I don’t want to be controlled by numbers. Maybe old school, I was successful before technology.
Instead of using mileage or workout splits as end goals, I use them to provide feedback.
In the chart below I outline how RPE correlates to training zones.
Key Points to Keep in Mind
- Assess your current level of fitness and set your training paces and zones
- Swim Test, Bike Test, Run Test
- Warm-ups and cool-downs are done in zone 1-2, RPE 1-4.
- Main Sets are generally done in zone 2-5, RPE 4-10,
- Cool Downs are done in zone 1-2, RPE 1-5
- Follow the principle of progression to avoid injury, burnout , and loss of motivation
- Keep in mind factors that affect intensity can include, illness, emotional stress, medications, sleep, dehydration, low glycogen levels, caffeine, heat , and humidity
|Effort Type||RPE||Zone||Heart Rate||Power||How does it feel|
|ACTIVE RECOVERY||RPE 1-2||Zone 1||<68% of ATHR||<55% of FTP||Very easy, used in warm ups and cool downs Minimal sensation of leg effort/fatigue • Used for active recovery after strenuous training days|
|ENDURANCE||RPE 3-4||Zone 2||69-83% of ATHR||56-75% of FTP||All day pace or classic long slow distance (LSD) training • Sensation of leg effort/fatigue generally low. Ironman racing effort|
|TEMPO||RPE 5-6||Zone 3||84-94% ATHR||76-90% of FTP||More frequent/greater sensation of leg effort/fatigue. “Kind of hard” Half IM racing effort|
|LACTATE THRESHOLD||RPE 7-8||Zone 4||95-105% of ATHR||91-105% of FTP||High Effort, progress sustainability from 5-20 minute intervals. Sprint and OLY distance racing effort|
|VO2 MAX||RPE 9-10||Zone 5||Above level 4, your HR won’t go up at the same levels as previously since intervals are shorter. It’s best to rely on RPE from this level onwards||106-120% of FTP||Typical intensity of longer (3-8 min) intervals intended to increase VO2max. • Strong to severe sensations of leg effort/fatigue. Sprint distance racing for experienced athletes|
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