How to Use Training Zones for Your Next Triathlon

Improve performance, boost recovery, and sidestep injury by incorporating training zones

How to Use Training Zones for Your Next Triathlon

You might be familiar with heart rate training zones—a popular method of training in endurance sports. While triathletes rely on heart rate training for many workouts, pace and power play important roles, too. Yes, we know that can be a lot of data

Training zones, as a whole, are used to gauge fitness and then to prescribe specific levels of effort for different types of workouts. These workouts range from easy to intense, race-like conditions. 

For newer athletes, Kurt Perham, founder of PBM Coaching, and USAT and USA Cycling elite level coach, relies heavily on training by rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard an effort feels. But, he says, there is a benefit to being attune to other types of training zones, especially as athletes progress in their performance. 

Let’s break down the different types of zones, when athletes may use them, and how to calculate them. 


Heart Rate Training Zone 

When you train by heart rate—beats per minute (bpm)—you’re working out by how hard your heart is working. The higher your heart rate, the harder you’re pushing. In some cases, that’s what you want, but in others—those easy-effort days—paying attention to your heart rate will help you reel it in. 

There are generally five heart rate training zones, with zone 1 being a very easy, conversational effort, and zone 5 being an all-out effort that you can hold for just a minute or two, explains Jennifer Vollmannn, a Phoenix-based triathlon coach and owner of Finding Endurance. 

In order to understand your zones—every athlete will have a different heart rate in each zone—you’ll need to calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR). 

  • Zone 1: A very light effort, you can maintain a conversation, 50 to 60 percent of MHR
  • Zone 2: Light effort, you can still hold a conversation, 60 to 70 percent of MHR
  • Zone 3: Moderate effort, it’s hard to talk but not impossible, 70 to 80 percent of MHR
  • Zone 4: Hard effort, you can barely get a word out, 80 to 90 percent of MHR
  • Zone 5: Very hard effort, you can only hold for a minute or so, 90 to 100 percent of MHR

Coaches and athletes will often use heart rate training zones for bike and run workouts in order to focus on effort over power or pace, Vollmann says.

Because heart rate zones are unique to each athlete, beginners especially, shouldn’t compare their numbers with others. That can lead to injury and burnout. 


Pace Training Zone

Pace is a measure of how fast you’re moving, and it can be easy to get caught up in pace and forget about what the effort feels like. For example, if you’re running uphill, your pace may increase from an 8:30-minute mile to a 9:15-minute mile, but your perceived effort feels the same. 

During a race, you will factor in hills and weather conditions, like wind or humidity, that might slow your pace down, and learn how to adjust accordingly or expect slower-than-usual results. 

Swimmers generally train only by pace, Vollmann says. Perham says it’s the only “absolute” metric in the water.  

Vollmann will prescribe perceived effort for a workout, like steady, hard, or as fast as possible. 

For example, Vollmann might write, “4×100 yards, leaving on 1:40 with only five seconds rest.” 

“That translates to pace without using anything else, and the time indicates the effort,” she says. 

Runners are no stranger to paced workouts, either. Vollmann likes to prescribe a mix of pace and heart rate works, noting they play off of each other. 

“Heart rate and pace is a helpful combination as you build toward races,” she says. “It gives you an idea of what you’re ready to do.” 

For example, if you start out on a 90-minute run with 5×1 mile at an 8:30-minute pace you can cross check what your heart rate is. If it’s a zone 3—moderate effort—you can better predict if that’s something you can sustain in a race setting. Heart rate will better indicate your effort than a paced run after, say, a long bike ride, which exhausts your legs.  


Power Training Zone 

The power measurement is used to assess bike fitness—how much energy is needed to move the bike forward. A power meter, which measures your power in watts, is commonly found on smart trainers and you can purchase them for your bike. 

Like heart rate training, you can train to power in zones, too, Vollmann says. For example, a tempo workout—zone 3—might measure around 175 to 200 watts. 

“An athlete’s power and heart rate should line up,” Vollmannn says, noting if she doesn’t want an athlete to get caught up in numbers she’ll avoid a power-based workout. 

She says a power zone and heart rate zone are two ways of looking at the same effort in a workout. 


Tests that Gauge Fitness 

While Vollmann and Perham shy away from testing their newer athletes, they will often analyze recent road race results, at least a 5K, which requires a hard effort and some pacing. In some cases, Perham will give his athletes a bike or run time trial. 

A run time trial, Perham says, is usually on the track. His athletes wear a heart rate monitor to assess their heart rate, and then he can use that information to analyze fitness and dictate future workouts. A bike time trial is similar—with a power meter, ride hard for 20 minutes. In order for athletes to determine if they’re pushing hard enough, he advises them to check in every 60 to 90 seconds.

“Can you go harder?” he says. “If yes, then go harder. If not, back off for a minute and assess again.” 

A ramp test, which is used to calculate a cyclist’s functional threshold power (FTP), is another testing protocol, Perham explains. Essentially, athletes will ride to failure—when they can no longer turn the pedals— and let the software they are using or use a calculator to determine their FTP. This is just another metric that can be used in training. 

At the end of the day, Perham wants his athletes to ease into a training block by moving easily, using their heart rate as a guide. Then, as training progresses, they will use these fitness benchmarks to dictate harder workouts. 

“Zones are a tricky thing and people can get hung up on them,” he says. “I try to simplify them into easy, moderate, and hard, and tell my athletes to just train a lot.”