Simplified Training Zones – Easy, Steady, Hard, Ouch

Not long after Kona the batteries died in my Powertap, being in recovery I didn’t hurry to replace them, nor did I worry much when I forgot to charge my Garmin. Without power, heart rate or speed I had some of the most enjoyable rides in a long time. I think I set a PB on a local hill, but have no evidence to back it up!

You may have the impression my obsession with numbers means every session is defined in terms of X minutes at Y watts, but much of the time a stopwatch is as advanced as I get. Most rides I don’t hold strict power targets, wattage is a guide, RPE is the major governer. Throughout September I swam with a broken pace clock relying on perceived exertion and counting seconds for rest intervals. I couldn’t tell you my heart rate or exact pace during a run, I’ve not worn a monitor in three years.

Sunday’s club ride revisited the local hill. I stayed with the group until the road pitched up, a quick jump broke away from the bunch, but checking over my shoulder I had two companions. The next ten minutes were spent pushing the pace, slowly ramping things up and throwing in surges till I’d dropped them. In the process I set myself a new ten minute power PB.

The motivation of dropping friends was enough to push me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t expect to be adding fifteen minutes at threshold towing a guy back to the group after he punctured. Both occassions I had power and heart rate in front of me, but the effort felt manageable so I didn’t hold back.

After two days of hard bike sessions Monday was a day for work and running. Runs are a short affair at the moment, but completing a document on training intensity was a marathon. After a couple of enquiries I’ve branched out to offer consultancy in addition to continuous coaching. Every athlete has different requirements, in this case learning to effectively use training tools to guide and analyse sessions.

Writing puts the spotlight on how I use those tools, justifying and describing my approach forces me to think critically. I concluded whatever training tools I’ve worn I’ve always used RPE as my biggest guide. Sometimes I’ve worked harder than intended, sometimes easier, but it’s always felt like what I needed at that point.

I so rarely monitor heart rate I needed to revise the zones used in other training systems and how they compare to RPE. When I run and swim I go by feel and when I ride power is the big number on my screen, at best I’ve a vague awareness of heart rate in terms of threshold and Ironman race pace. Heart rate monitors are the most common training tool amongst triathletes and much as I encourage use of RPE athletes want heart rate guidance.

Reading Joe Friel’s guide to heart rate training seven zones seemed a lot to keep track of especially when you might target the upper or lower end of zones. Given heart rate’s variability with condition and fatigue I’m not convinced you can use it that accurately. Will the physiological benefits of training at the top of zone 2 be different to those at the bottom of zone 3 if you raised your heart rate three beats?

Zones are a guide to stop you going too hard or going to easy, but particularly around their borders a session can feel harder or easier than the zone describes. Lots of zones means lots of boundary cases. My training history effectively contains four zones: easy, steady, hard and ouch!

The bulk of my training and my Ironman pace falls in the steady zone depending on how I feel on the day. A decent portion is made of the hard zone, often at the lower end, sometimes right on threshold. I don’t do much ouch the only recent examples were on the club ride. If there’s any time left it’ll fall in the easy zone, below steady efforts and well below race pace.

I can translate these to percentages of power or heart rate, but it’s a rough guide because my zones are based on feel. Some days 85% of threshold power might feel hard and other days it’s steady. Working from threshold heart rate I’d estimate easy is below 80%, steady is between 80% and 95%, hard is around 95% to 105% and ouch is anything above that.

Exact numbers aren’t important, but four simple zones seem to cover my bases and make it easier to consider training. I still plan bike interval sessions in terms of percentages of threshold power, but in execution feel determines how I hit the numbers. I might as well plan in terms of easy, steady, hard and ouch.

The main point is you don’t need to complexify training. It’s important to track and monitor performance, but when it comes to training there’s a lot to be said for doing the work. Don’t underappreciate the value of RPE and whilst you’re using zones that work for you take the time to learn how the effort feels. In a race I want to know how zone 2 feels, because if zone 1 or zone 3 feel like that I’m going with it.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.