Triathlete’s Heart Rate Zones

Athletes are consistently searching for methods to enhance their training, using the newest and best equipment to maximize their physical performance. Despite appearances, we probably already possess the necessary equipment for one of the most practical and uncomplicated coaching tools: heart rate zones.

The current range of training gear, such as the most basic fitness tracker, and even swim goggles, now provide heart rate monitoring, which makes it super easy to optimize fitness and performance by setting heart rate training zones.

Heart rate zones may not be a super current, cutting-edge triathlon training plan, but they are still quite powerful and allow you more autonomy in how much effort and intensity you put into the regimen.

If you are often training too hard or questioning the amount of effort you put in, tracking your heart rate can provide you with reassurance that you are doing the right amount for whichever activity you are doing.

The Basics of Heart Rate Zones in Triathlon Training

When you push your exercise intensity, your heart rate increases. This is essentially the foundational concept of heart rate training.

You can assign various levels of exertion to your highest heart rate and your threshold – meaning how long you can keep up a competing rate of exertion (30-60 minutes).

It is critical to recognize that not all heart rate zone charts are the same when training based on heart rate zones. Joan Scrivanich, an exercise physiologist and mentor at Rise Endurance, states that not all trainers rely on the same chart when it comes to heart rate zones, as some may utilize three zones, others may opt for five or perhaps even six, each with distinct heart rate percentages between divisions. Scrivanich suggests that if you are following a specific exercise regimen that involves zones, you should verify the levels of intensity you are using by referring to the associated zone chart.

No matter what measurements are used, Zone 1 will always be the least strenuous, while the peak zone is seen as the most intense. These areas line up with what your body indicates that you are feeling (RPE) and with the speeds or intensities you calculated with a test.

No matter what type of heart rate chart or system you go by, the 80/20 training approach is still relevant. In other words, 80% of your training should be at a low level of intensity, while the remaining 20% should involve moderate to high high-intensity

A study from the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance from 2014 demonstrated that if a triathlete spends more time working out in a three-zone program that consists of low-intensity (Z1), moderate-intensity (Z2) and high-intensity (Z3) programs, their Ironman performances will be improved. This can also be easily converted to five pulse rate zones.

Barry Stokes, a triathlon and endurance athlete coach from the state of Kentucky, says if your training plan uses 5 heart rate zones, you should dedicate 80% of your time to Z1 and Z2, while the other 20% should be to Z3, Z4, or Z5.

Triathletes of all abilities can incorporate heart rate zones into their workout routines.

Zone 1 and Zone 2 Training, Explained

Triathlon Coach explains Zone 1 and Zone 2 training and the benefits of each training zone

by Mike Ricci, USAT Elite Coach

Heart rate training can be confusing due to the many different types of the terminology used and the many opinions on how we determine what our threshold zone is. Additionally, there are many different charts that give us a variety of ranges which adds to the confusion. This is an example of information overload, and to a beginner triathlete, this can seem incredibly confusing. My goal for this article is that you have a good understanding of how and why to test for heart rate zones, which training zones you should spend the most time in, and to make this a simple process.

All of the BT training plans were created with these heart rate zones in mind.

We’ll start with the definition of Training Zones:

  • A definition of Zone 1 is that it’s a super easy effort, probably a 4/10 on the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) – see chart at the end. It’s so easy that you should feel ‘guilty’ when you are done. You don’t think you went hard enough; it didn’t feel like a workout; you don’t think there was any benefit because it felt too easy, etc. If you have these types of thoughts after a Zone 1 workout, then congratulations, you are doing it right!I call this the “Guilty Zone.”
  • A definition of Zone 2 is a bit more complicated, as it should feel pretty easy, at least in the beginning. But you should feel as though you have to work if you’ve been doing this for several hours. You may even see a cardiac drift towards the end of this workout. How easy is easy for Zone 2? I would recommend somewhere around 5-6/10 on the RPE scale. You should be able to hold a conversation for the duration of this workout, and I mean being able to talk in full sentences, not 1 or 2-word gasps.This is what I call the “Conversation Zone.”
  • Zone 3 gets a little grey, and literally, it is a ‘grey zone’. You typically aren’t going easy enough to get the benefits of a nice easy effort and you aren’t going hard enough to get the benefits of a ‘Race Pace’ type workout. This is an effort of about 7/10 on the RPE scale, and you can talk in one to two-word answers.I actually call this zone the NBZ – “No Benefit Zone.”
  • Zone 4 is your “Race Pace” zone – this is where you have burning legs and lungs and you can’t keep the effort up for much more than an hour. And yes, you have to be pretty fit to keep this effort up for an hour, but by definition, your threshold is an effort you can manage for one hour. You know when you are in Zone 4 as your breathing is laboured, your arms and legs get very heavy and all you want to do is stop. This effort is 8-9+ on the RPE scale.
  • Zone 5 and up are for shorter efforts and these are usually 9+ to 10 types of efforts on the RPE scale. These efforts may last from a few seconds to maybe five or six minutes. This zone is beneficial if you are doing a lot of racing that has hard but very short efforts, such as bike racing or racing short events on the track in running.

Since this article is geared toward endurance athletes and our races our typically one hour or more, let’s understand how our training should be set up. Consider that a 400m race around the track that takes world-class runners about 40 seconds to complete is around 86% aerobic. Now, if you are running a 5k, how much of that race do you think is aerobic? The answer is probably somewhere around 97-99%. For the average athlete, the percentage of zone training for each zone should be roughly:

  • 80-85% Zone 1 and Zone 2
  • 10-15% Zone 4
  • 2-5% of Zone 5

(For those of us who are training for half ironman distances and above there should be a percentage of Zone 3 training as well, but still, that percentage may only be 15-20% a week.)

The Importance of Zone 1 and Zone 2 Training

Zone 1 and 2 training is important because of the benefits of these workouts. You build endurance, durability and strength. In addition, these easy training sessions help build capillary pathways that transport oxygen to your muscles and carry waste (lactate) away from your muscles. The more capillary pathways that you can build, the more efficient you will be. Efficiency is equal to free speed.

If at first, you can’t keep your HR under Zone 2, then you need to slow down. If that means you run for 3 minutes and walk for 2 minutes to keep your HR down then by all means do it. For a fit athlete getting back into training, I recommend not training with the heart rate monitor for 2 weeks and then putting it on once you have a sense of fitness coming back. You may find that training in Zone 2 and under is a step back, but you will see the progress over time and will be thankful you were patient enough to try this.

Adaptation for everyone will be different. Some people will see changes right away, and for others, it may take months. Just this year I had an athlete drop about 40 seconds a mile on his long runs after 2 months of Zone 2 training, and he’s been racing and training for over 20 years! So, at any level improvement is possible, but you need to have faith in the philosophy and above all else, be patient.

Determining your zones

Determining training zones is a simple process and I’ve written quite a bit on this before. If you are an experienced athlete you can use this method:

For those of you who are new to training, you might want to try this article:

In conclusion, it’s my hope you’ll follow the methods here in your training and see what great improvements training in Zone 1 and 2 will bring you.

RPE Scale

RPE Zone  HR Zone Description
0  Z1 Complete Rest
1  Z1 Very easy; light walking
2  Z1 Very easy; light walking
3  Z1 Very easy; walking
4  Z1 Still easy, maybe starting to sweat
5  Z2 Starting to work just a little and you can feel your HR rise
6  Z2 Upper Working but sustainable, able to talk in full sentences
7  Z3 Strong effort; breathing laboured, but can still maintain the pace for some minutes without slowing.
8  Z4 Olympic Distance Race Pace for MOP to FOP
9  Z5 10k effort – very hard
10  Z5+ Z5+ = 5k effort and Z5++ = cannot hold effort for more than a minute or two. (almost maximal effort)


Scrivanich states that while the percentages of heart rate zones will be the same across athletes, the exercises done in those zones are to be tailored to the individual.

Scrivanich advised that it is not advisable to use someone else’s heart rate zones for training, since everyone has different ones. “Our genetics, physiology and training are different. Although you and someone else may execute the same exercise routine, the heart rate during each stage of the workout may differ between the two of you.

Stokes emphasizes the importance of not getting too focused on comparing one’s heart rate zones to those of other athletes when first starting out. The highest rate your heart can beat does not tell you how good of an athlete you are.

Stokes pointed out that even when two athletes are of the same age and gender, and have a comparable athletic background, there can be a considerable variation in their maximum heart rates, and this variance does not determine which competitor would triumph in a head-to-head race.

Why Heart Rate Varies Between Disciplines

The other difference between you and other athletes is not just your personal heart rate zones, but also how your heart rate changes depending on whether you are swimming, biking or running. When preparing for a triathlon, it’s important to establish heart rate zones that are tailor-made for you and each individual sport involved. The causes of this are varied, including posture and how the weight is spread out.

Stokes said that compared to the other two disciplines in triathlon, swimming is usually associated with the lowest maximum heart rate as it is a horizontal, non-weight-bearing activity.

Riding a bike involves a reduced amount of body weight being placed on five different spots (hands, seat, and feet), making it the exercise which most often produces the second lowest heart rate. On the other hand, running–due to being a full weight-bearing activity with just two body points, the feet, bearing the load–causes the highest heart rate of the three activities.

This implies that when you are running, your highest possible heart rate is probably higher than when you are cycling, and in turn, when cycling, your highest possible heart rate is greater than when you are swimming. Your zones will be adjusted accordingly, keeping the same proportion of the maximum levels for the respective sport.

Setting Training Zones

Testing in a lab will provide the most detailed picture of your fitness, but it’s easy to set your zones on the road/trail or at home.

There are a variety of ways to evaluate your fitness level and determine your optimal training areas. The decision of what technique is best for you depends on numerous factors, such as how much time you possess, how regularly you wish to conduct the exam and how precise you need the results to be.

The method you use for testing and determining your training ranges will be based on whether you measure your heart rate or your power output. When it comes to using power, you have two choices: a power meter attached to your bicycle or one built into a connected trainer.

FTP test

An FTP test is the classic way to set your training zones.

The most commonly known method for determining your training intensity is the Functional Threshold Power or FTP exam. It calculates the highest power output that you can sustain over an hour.

An FTP test is simply an all-out, 20-minute effort. Work at your maximum potential for 20 minutes, then calculate the mean power for that time and multiply it by 0.95. That is the FTP (File Transfer Protocol) you have and your exercise levels can be worked out from that.

Austin emphasizes that even just a 20-minute drive on the road is great. If you don’t have access to a track, you can still do your field test on your indoor trainer.

Austin emphasizes that it is essential to replicate tests and maintain a consistent environment between each one, to track progression and adjust zones accordingly.

Many of the top bike computers come with previously set FTP tests, while the most recent workout applications consist of exercises meant to help you uncover your FTP.

Threshold heart rate

One way to gauge fitness levels is to do a Functional Threshold Power test, and another way is to calculate training zones using your threshold heart rate.

To determine your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (THR), perform a solo time trial where you put your all into it and continue for 30 minutes. It would be beneficial to approach it like it’s a competition and give it your full effort for the entire half an hour – it will be uncomfortable.

After ten minutes have gone by during the examination, hit the lap switch on your heart monitors or bike computer. Maintain your attention and work intensely for the remaining 20 minutes.

After you are done, hit the lap button on your cardiovascular tracker one more time and check to see what your average heartbeat was for the last 20 minutes. The figure given is a rough estimate of your Maximum Heart Rate, and you can utilize it to calculate the various heart rates for your workout plans.

You should sustain a steady effort for the full 30 minutes, but usually, people start off intensely and then taper off. This technique will give you inaccurate results.

In conclusion, it’s important to be mindful of your pace whether you’re measuring your maximum power or heart rate. The more times this test is completed, the more accurate the threshold estimation is expected to be as you gain a better understanding of how to adjust your speed at the beginning.

Ramp test

Some training apps, including Zwift, offer a ramp test protocol to find your FTP.
  Threshold tests are very hard and, as we’ve already mentioned, it takes some practice to be able to pace an all-out effort for 20 minutes.

You can use short ramp tests to figure out your FTP through applications like Zwift, especially if you’re making use of a smart trainer. This is an outline of steps for performing an FTP or ramp test on Zwift.

It is challenging – both mentally and physically – to maintain a consistent output during a 20-minute functional threshold power (FTP) test, whereas a ramp test entails continually pushing out more watts until you can’t manage any more.

The test is still tough, especially at the conclusion (be prepared to feel pain!), however, the intelligent trainer monitors the protocol instead of counting on you to manage the intensity of your energy.

Critical power test

For a more thorough assessment of your ability as a rider and an in-depth look at your power capabilities, some trainers choose to go through a critical power test.

It’s a lengthier process that necessitates the cyclist to perform a series of maximal effort intervals; either 2 or 4, lasting between 3 and 20 minutes.

Coaches and physiologists often favour this technique because, with precise data collected across an array of times, the findings can be utilized to determine exactly what areas of fitness need the most work.

Ways to Use Training Zones

After you have done a power or heart rate assessment and found out your levels of intensity, you can apply those results in various ways for evaluating and guiding your workout.

Remember that the ideal training program for you takes into account your lifestyle, everyday responsibilities, and objectives as a rider.

Zone 2 training

Zone 2 training is typically the lowest zone used for training purposes. Think of it as going for a jog while you can still hold a conversation – somewhere between 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. The purpose behind Zone 2 training is to be able to sustain a pace just below your aerobic threshold for 30+ minutes.

1. Create your own training plan

If you decide to come up with a training plan of your own instead of simply following an app or coach’s provided routine, don’t become too anxious about it. Keep it simple.

The efficacy of ‘polarised training’ (sometimes called 80/20) for both professionals and non-professionals alike is well-documented; most specialists incorporate it into their workout regimes.

Dedicate the majority of your sessions (not all of your training time) to zones 1 and 2 and keep zone 3 (or stronger) training to no more than 20%.

2. Sign up for a training plan

Online training apps can also use your zones to produce tailor-made workouts.
 Following a training plan is easier than ever, with a wide range of training apps offering ready-made plans for indoor cycling.

The apps Zwift, Wahoo RGT, Rouvy, TrainerRoad, and Wahoo System are all present. We have constructed a manual detailing the optimal Zwift workouts and plans for instruction.

Most apps present workout plans that are designed to help people reach a variety of objectives or become fitter. The trainers will figure out your basic fitness level with an FTP assessment or something similar, defining your activity levels, and customize your exercise schedule accordingly.

You’ll have to finish your workout using the turbo or imitate the trainer workout when you’re outside – but following a plotted-out regimen takes away much of the guesswork. You just need to stick to it.

3. Work on your weaknesses

Studying your areas of expertise allows you to pinpoint where you are lacking and create modifications to address your weaknesses. You could centre your training around the precise needs for the goal race or competition.

4. Pacing

Use your training zones to pace efforts.

Furthermore, you can employ your training areas to regulate the intensity of performance on the day of the competition. You can take advantage of your zones beyond the realm of training; they can help you create a pacing plan or serve as a source of direction during an activity.

5. Go easy

Figuring out the right time to take it easy is essential for any exercise program. Essentially, it is only when one takes the necessary time to rest and heal that the body can restore itself and become even more powerful.

Employ your practice areas to point your restoration, and also your endeavours – regardless of whether that is rest periods between meetings or during recuperation rides.

It’s very simple to push yourself too hard when you should be taking it easy. If you neglect to take a break and keep pushing ahead without pausing, you could end up exhausted and overwhelmed.

Heart Rate Zones in Triathlon Training Aren’t Perfect

The utilization of heart rate zones is only one factor in the entire exercise process. This is to some extent because your heart rate can differ between different activities, as well as from day to day.

The American Heart Association states that a range of elements can affect your heartbeats, such as tension, caffeine consumption, height, rest, and even the climate (when the temperature rises, your heart will work harder to pump blood).

“Heart rate isn’t static,” Scrivanich said. The state of one’s mood fluctuates based on how one is feeling, the climate, the amount of rest obtained, and the type of sustenance that has been consumed. It is crucial to utilize heart rate monitoring in addition to gauging perceived effort and power when exercising.

It is vital to connect one’s heart rate with their rate of observed effort (RPE) as an alternative if their heart-rate monitor stops working and one cannot get a readout.

You’ll gain familiarity with the feeling of putting in a predetermined amount of work after sufficient preparation.

Stokes points out the necessity of having what he calls an “inner heart rate and performance meter” so that you can match your heart rate zones accurately to your competition and workouts just by what the body tells you. He expressed his worry that athletes may become too reliant on having their heart rate monitored, leading them to lose their instincts when it comes to competing.


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