Intensity Guidelines for Triathlon
by Matt Fitzgerald and David Warden
We recommend also reading Understanding Your 80/20 Triathlon Plan and Understanding Your TrainingPeaks.com Structured Workout Plan.
Your 80/20 Triathlon plan employs a seven-zone intensity scale. Performing each workout and workout segment at the right intensity is at the heart of 80/20 training. This article provides all of the information you’ll need to determine your intensity zones so you can monitor your intensity during workouts and ensure you’re always in the right zone.
Your personal intensity zones can be automatically calculated based on the protocols described below at the 80/20 Zone Calculator or directly in TrainingPeaks.com using the steps outlined in the document Understanding Your TrainingPeaks.com Structured Workout Plan. Beginner athletes may find these tests difficult, so feel free to use perceived effort (explained in the second-to-last section) until you are comfortable doing the testing below.
There are four ways to measure intensity: pace, heart rate, power, and perceived effort. The testing protocols for all four types are listed below. Each metric has different applications among the three triathlon disciplines. Each metric also has certain advantages and disadvantages. Power is an output, pace is an outcome, and heart rate is an indicator. Let's use an automobile as an example. Horsepower (power) is the output, and represents actual work performed regardless of terrain, grade, or environmental factors. Your speedometer (pace) indicates the speed, or outcome. Your engine temperature (heart rate) represents how the car is responding to the output and environment. During a hilly ascent, the output (power) might be high, but the outcome (speed) might be low. On a hot day, the engine temperature (heart rate) might be very high even when stopped at a light with almost no output and zero outcome. For this reason, power is considered superior to pace, and pace superior to heart rate to measure intensity. There are some exceptions, such as hills, where HR can be superior to Pace to measure intensity. The recommended best-practice is to use Power or Pace as your primary measure, with HR as a secondary measure.
Pace is useful in swimming and running because it’s a performance-relevant variable and an outcome. You race on the clock, so why not also train by the clock? However, pace becomes unreliable when you’re running uphill or downhill and is not recommended for cycling.
Heart rate is useful in cycling and running because it helps triathletes avoid the single most common training mistake: pushing too hard in workouts that are supposed to be done at low intensity (Zones 1 and 2). But heart rate is not a reliable way to monitor intensity during short efforts at high intensity because heart rate lags behind abrupt changes in pace. HR for a given effort is also easily influenced by environmental factors, such as temperature, and is impractical to measure in real time when swimming. HR is only an indicator of how your body is responding to training, it is not an output or outcome.
Power, the output, is the newest way to measure running intensity and has become the gold-standard intensity metric for cycling and running. Power monitoring provides instant feedback on workout output and its reliability is not compromised by terrain or temperature. Cycling and running power meters are more expensive than GPS and HR monitors, however, and power monitoring during swimming is not yet possible except with some land-based training systems, such as the Vasa Ergometer.
Rate of Perceived Effort— RPE, or your subjective sense of how hard you are running—is important because it ultimately determines how fast you run in races. You may set and pursue time-based goals, but perceived effort has the final say in deciding whether you actually do maintain your goal pace or run faster or slower.
However, perceived effort is poorly calibrated in many triathletes and relying on it exclusively carries some risk. In particular, most end up running at Zone X (in the gap between Zones 2 and 3) whenever they intend to train at low intensity if they go by feel. Whenever possible, use one of the more objective measures of intensity—pace, heart rate or power—as your primary intensity metric. In some scenarios, RPE is the only reliable method to measure intensity. For example, when running short intervals up hills, Pace zones are invalid and the interval may be too short for Heart Rate to "catch up." Without a running Power meter, RPE can replace Pace and Heart Rate in hills.
The table below ranks the reliability of the four intensity metrics as they apply to each triathlon discipline.
Once you have chosen a method of monitoring intensity in your 80/20 training plan (and you may use more than one), you need establish personal intensity zones for that specific metric, which is done through lactate threshold testing.
80/20 triathlon plans use lactate threshold testing to determine training zones. Lactate threshold is defined as the exercise intensity at which lactate, an intermediate product of glucose metabolism, begins to accumulate in the blood. In practical terms, it’s the highest exercise intensity that can be sustained for up to 60 minutes. The most reliable field tests for use in identifying appropriate individual training intensities are those that pinpoint the lactate threshold (LT). Although monitoring the blood lactate concentration during exercise isn't practical or easy, this isn’t a problem. The lactate threshold field tests detailed below are designed to reveal your pace, power, or heart rate at LT intensity, allowing you to use these more practical intensity metrics to regulate your effort in workouts.
LT represents the top end of Zone 3 in the 80/20 intensity scale and is the polestar for determining all other zones. Once you determine your LT, you can enter it at the 80/20 Zone Calculator or your Zone settings in TrainingPeaks.com to determine your custom 80/20 Zones.
Pace is the most useful intensity metric for swimming. Your seven custom swim pace training zones are based on your swim pace at lactate threshold intensity. The best way to find your lactate threshold pace in the water is with something called the critical velocity test. It’s fairly simple: Go to the pool, warm up with some easy swimming, and then swim 400 meters or yards as fast as you can, recording your time. Rest for two minutes several minutes and then swim 200 meters or yards as fast as you can, again recording your time. Your plan has regular swim workouts scheduled every 3-4 weeks to test your critical velocity in order to re-establish your zones. Note that your zones will be specific to meters or yards, and if you train in a pool measured differently than the one you tested in, you will have to adjust that session (your pace zones for 100 yards will be approximately 10 percent faster than your pace zones for 100 meters).
After your test, use the 80/20 Zone Calculator or use the 80/20 auto-calculation directly in your TrainingPeaks Zone settings to determine your swim zones. Alternatively, you can calculate your threshold swim pace based on the following formula:
Critical velocity (CV) = (400 meters/yards – 200 meters/yards) ÷ (400 time – 200 time)
Let’s look at an example. Suppose you swim your 400-yard test in 4:21 (4.35 minutes) and your 200-yard test in 2:02 (2.04 minutes). Your critical velocity, then, is (400y – 200y) ÷ (4.35 min. – 2.04 min.) = 86.6 yards/min. However, it is customary to express critical speed in the form of time per 100 yards. To make this conversion, divide 100 by your critical velocity. In this example, 100 ÷ 86.6 = 1.15. So your lactate threshold pace per 100 yards is 1.15 minutes, or 1 minute and 9 seconds.
A mathematician will notice that the CV formula result is influenced both by the time and the delta between the two tests. Even if your total combined 400+200 time goes down from test A to test B, if the difference between the 400 and 200 times are greater in test B, your CV might actually increase. In this way, the CV test "punishes" the athlete for poor pacing.
Some swimmers therefore may have a difficult time with the CV test. An alternative test is the 1,000 yard time trial. Swim 1000 yards (or meters) as fast as you can. Your average pace per 100 is your lactate threshold swim pace.
Our training plans use a proprietary calculation for pace-based training zones. To determine your pace zones, visit the 80/20 Zone Calculator or your Zone settings in TrainingPeaks and enter a recent performance for one of the distances listed. The performance does not have to be a race, but it should reflect your current maximum capability for a given distance whether it comes from competition or training, or is simply an estimate of how fast you could run a given distance today.
Alternatively, you may enter a known Threshold Pace (TP) from a previous testing protocol at the 80/20 Zone Calculator or your TrainingPeaks zone settings.
A more accurate test is a 30-minute time trial (covering as much distance as possible in 30 minutes). This is a brutal, but precise method to establish your threshold pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, run as far as you can in 30 minutes, being careful to avoid starting at a pace that’s too fast to sustain and thus slowing down involuntarily near the end. Your average pace for that 30 minutes is your threshold pace.
This test can be modified to just a 20 minute time trial, but using just 95% of your 20-minute speed in miles (or kilometers) per hour to determine your threshold pace. For example, if your average pace for 20 minutes was 8:45 per mile, first convert this result to decimal form, or 8.75 minutes per mile. Then, convert that value to miles (or kilometers) per hour. In this example, 8.75 minutes per mile converts to 6.86 miles per hour. Multiply 6.86 times 0.95 for an TP of value of 6.52 miles per hour. Convert 6.52 miles per hour back to minutes per mile, or 9.2 minutes per mile in this example, which is a TP of 9:12 per mile.
If you already know your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your TP with an even shorter field test. After warming up, play with your pace until your heart rate settles in at your previously established LTHR for 10 minutes. Your pace at this heart rate is close to your TP.
When using the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and TP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and pace, as this enables you to establish LTHR and TP in the same field test.
Run Heart Rate
The simplest way to determine your seven heart-rate based training zones is to back into them through pace. First, follow the guidelines under the Run Pace Section of this article and use the 80/20 Zone Calculator or Zone settings in TrainingPeaks to establish your run pace zones and Threshold Pace (TP).
The next step is to determine your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) from your TP. To do this, warm up with 10 minutes of easy jogging and then accelerate to your TP on a smooth, flat path or road. Wait for your heart rate to stop increasing and plateau. The number you see after it levels off is your LTHR. Now go to the Run and Cycling Heart Rate section of the 80/20 Zone Calculator or Zone settings in TrainingPeaks and enter your lactate threshold heart rate. Your seven heart rate training zones will be calculated automatically.
If you have not yet established your TP, you can find your LTHR independently through a time trial. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, increase your effort to the highest level you feel you can sustain for 30 minutes and hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor watch. 10 minutes into the time trial, press the lap button again. At the end of the 30-minute time-trial, hit the lap button one last time. Your LTHR is your average heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) for the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute test. The reason we use the last 20 minutes of the 30-minute test is that it often takes up to 10 minutes at lactate threshold effort for heart rate to “catch up” to your output.
Note that lactate threshold heart rate is slightly different in running than it is in other aerobic activities, so if you choose to cross-train, you’ll need to do separate tests in each of them.
Heart rate is significantly influenced by factors such as temperature, humidity, sleep, stress, time of day and even when you last ate. Therefore, your lactate threshold heart rate testing is only as accurate as the environment in which you test and. For example, a LTHR test indoors in February in the morning will not be the same as an LTHR test in July outdoors in the afternoon. Perform your LTHR in the environment that most accurately represents where you will spend the bulk of your training.
Cycling Heart Rate
The processes for finding your cycling LTHR are nearly identical to the running protocols. The most commonly used method is the time trial test. Warmup for 15 minutes. Next, increase your effort to the highest level you feel you can sustain for 30 minutes and hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor watch. Ten minutes into the time trial, press the lap button again. At the end of the 30-minute time-trial, hit the lap button one last time. Your cycling LTHR is your average heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) for the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute test.
You can find your cycling heart rate training zones through power also. First, follow the guidelines under the Cycling Power section of this article and use the 80/20 Zone Calculator or Zone settings in TrainingPeaks to establish your cycling power zones and FTP.
The next step is to determine your running cycling LTHR from FTP. To do this, warm up with 10 minutes of easy cycling and then accelerate to your FTP on a smooth, flat road. Wait for your heart rate to stop increasing and plateau. The number you see after it levels off is your cycling LTHR. Now go to the Running and Cycling Heart Rate section of the 80/20 Zone Calculator or Zone settings in TrainingPeaks and enter your lactate threshold heart rate. Your seven heart rate training zones will be calculated automatically.
The same environmental factors that influence HR described in the Run Heart Rate section above apply to Cycling Heart Rate as well.
The protocol is similar finding your Run Pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Then, perform a 30-minute time trial. Your average power for that 30 minutes is your running threshold power, or rFTP.
Our colleague Jim Vance has developed a different protocol to find your rFTP. Additionally, the power meter manufacturer Stryd has developed a shorter test. This test should be performed on a running track, preferably a 400-meter track, and not on a treadmill. It can also be done with a GPS watch if you program the workout distance and duration in advance. Warm up for 15 minutes, then hit your lap button and run 1,200 meters (three laps) as fast as you can. Recover with a full 30-minute easy jog. Now run 2,400 meters (six laps) at maximal effort. Finally, cool down for 10 to 15 minutes. Find your average power for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts and your total time for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts. Your rFTP is calculated as follows:
(6-lap power x 6-lap time) - (3-lap power x 3-lap time) / (6-lap time – 3-lap time)
For example, if your average power was 350 watts for the 1,200-meter effort and 300 watts for the 2,400-meter effort, and your times were 5:20 (5.34 minutes) and 11:10 (11.17 minutes), respectively, the result would be:
(300 x 11.17) - (350 x 5.34) / (11.17 - 5.34) = 254 watts
The Vance or Stryd protocol can replace the Zone 3 section of a scheduled RT workout.
If you already know your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your rFTP with a short field test. After warming up, play with your power until your heart rate settles in at your previously established LTHR for 10 minutes. Your pace at this heart rate is close to your rFTP.
When using the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and rFTP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and pace, as this enables you to establish LTHR and rFTP in the same field test.
As you might expect, the processes for establishing cycling power zones is similar to the those used to determine run power zones. The time-trial method starts with a 15-minute warm-up that combines easy pedaling with a few 10-second bursts at the effort level you anticipate sustaining through the upcoming time-trial. When your warm-up is complete, ride as far as you can in 30 minutes, taking care to avoid starting too fast and losing power before you finish. Your average power for that 30 minutes is your cycling functional threshold power, or FTP. Enter the results into the Cycling Power section of the 80/20 Zone Calculator or Zone settings in TrainingPeaks to determine your zones.
This test is no easier than the running version. As with the Run Pace test, you may perform a shorter 20-minute test and take 95 percent of your average power therein as your cycling FTP.
If you already know your cycling lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your FTP with an even shorter field test. After warming up, increase your intensity until your heart rate settles in at your previously established cycling LTHR for 10 minutes. Your power at this heart rate is close to your FTP. This method is useful when your training plans calls for a CT workout during a rest week, as the CT workouts are long, uninterrupted efforts in upper Zone 3.
Note that with the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and FTP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and power, as this enables you to establish LTHR and FTP in the same field test.
Indoor and Outdoor Threshold Testing
For various reasons, most athletes will find that their thresholds will be 5-10 bpm and 10-15 watts lower indoors than outdoors. For this reason, it may be practical to maintain both a separate indoor and outdoor set of zones. Or, simply adjust your zones accordingly when moving between outdoor and indoor environments.
While we don't recommend that you use perceived effort as your primary intensity metric in training, it does have its place. Because perceived effort responds quickly to changes in intensity, it is a useful tool for establishing the right intensity at the start of each workout segment, before you have a chance to capture a split time and before your heart rate has had a chance to adjust to the change of intensity.
Note, however, that perceived effort increases the longer you go at any intensity, so it is only useful for establishing initial intensity. For example, at the end of a very long run at a moderate pace, your perceived effort level may be “14” even though you are still in Zone 2.
Use the guidelines in the following table to regulate your workout intensity by perceived effort. Note that these guidelines work in running as well as in all types of cross-training activities.
|RPE Description||80/20 Zone|
Zone Y and Zone 4
Using Scheduled RT, CT, and STT Workouts to Verify Zones
Because your fitness level and lactate threshold can change quickly, it’s important to keep your zones current throughout the training process by retesting your lactate threshold every few weeks. Repeating your chosen field test in every recovery week (recovery weeks fall ever third or fourth week in our 80/20 Triathlon plans) is the theoretical ideal. As a practical matter, however, this is onerous for many athletes.
Fortunately, your 80/20 training plan includes Swim Time Trial (STT), Cycling Tempo (CT), and Running Tempo (RT) workouts that may serve as zone testing sessions. Most of these sessions feature Zone 3 effort that are less than 30 minutes in duration. Advanced athletes can replace these with the full 30- or alternative 20-minute time trials described above. Another option is to use the “backing in” method of verifying running threshold pace or cycling or running threshold power. Because LTHR changes less than TP and rFTP over the course of a training plan, you can retest either of these variables in the context of CT and RT workouts featuring Zone 3 efforts as short as 10 minutes by adjusting your effort until your heart rate levels off at your previously determined LTHR and observing the pace or wattage that corresponds to it.
Note that CT and RT sessions occur less frequently in the L2 and L3 plans because 1) the high volume of these plans makes frequent high-intensity/high-duration testing risky, 2) we assume advanced athletes have a longer training history and are already confident in their lactate threshold, and 3) advanced athletes tend to experience smaller changes in lactate threshold than do beginner athletes. But if you ever feel you’re “outgrowing” your zones, feel free to insert one of the easier testing options into your next recovery week if it does not already contain a CT or RT session.