Getting the Beat with your Heart Rate Monitor

Graph showing the running coarse of the Boulder 70.3
September 26, 2016

Mike Ricci



I asked Mike Ricci, founder of D3 Multisport and Level III USA Triathlon Certified Coach, about the use heart rate monitors with triathlon training. But first I asked him his thoughts regarding goals and periodization. This is what he had to say.

Goals are great, but really it's objectives that get you to meet your goals. Example: I want to run 17:50 for a 5k. Great goal. But what do I have to do to get there? Run 3X a week? You need solid objectives to reach your goals. 17:50 probably won't happen unless you are already an elite athlete. So, a goal without a plan is just a wish. ( D3 also recommends that you add one more event to your season and volunteer! What would our races be without volunteers?)

As for periodization, it is good basic stuff, but after a few seasons, you should work less on the "base" fitness and more on the power and technique side of things. "Building base" is outdated. Athletes need to work on other weaknesses. Here's my take on "Sport Focus" training:

(17:50 for a 5K-yeah, right-maybe on my bike! And as for a few seasons of periodization and not needing to work on general "base fitness", I wish I didn't need to work on a base! Remember, Mike is a Level III Elite coach!)

So, let's get into the heart rate questions.

Do you even need a heart rate monitor to train effectively?
Shouldn't you just be going all out with every workout so you'll be totally prepared for race day? No, you don't need a HRM to train effectively, but it can help if you are new to training. Alternatively, You can use something called RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) but this is for more experienced athletes. A heart rate monitor will allow endurance athletes of all abilities to train at the correct intensities. It's said time and again that many people go too hard on their easy days, and too easy on their hard days. A HRM will allow you to avoid this and train in the proper zones on a daily basis. If you follow a quality training plan while using a HRM, you'll see solid improvement in no time. If you try to go hard or all out in every workout, one of three things will happen, and none of them are good: you'll get sick, you'll get burned out from training, or lastly you'll get injured. Training time should be split up into 80-85% at an easy effort (Zone 2 with HR training) and the other 15-20% at a harder intensity (Zone 4).

So, if you have a heart rate monitor, why do you have heart rate zones?
A heart rate monitor is only a tool. Kind of like a hammer-you still need to know how to use it, or it's useless. HR Zones will allow you to train in the proper zones with proper intensity.

Are running zones and bike zones the same?
For most people the answer is "no". Usually the difference is about 8-12 beats per minute. A running threshold HR is usually higher as you are supporting yourself while you run. When you are riding a bike, the bike is supporting you, so your HR will be lower. There are athletes who have very wide HR ranges and there are others who have HR ranges that are very close. It's all individual when it comes to HR training.

How do you determine your heart rate zones?
Here is a link on how to do this. This link includes how to establish your swim pace, as well as bike and running heart rate zones.

If you use Training Peaks, there is a calculator to set up your zones or you can use one of our D3 online calculators for training zones as well.

What is Training Peaks?
Training Peaks is an online training log that will record your training information and let you review your files from your Garmin, Polar and all the other devices out there. With the help of your coach, you'll see which areas you need help and in which areas you are doing well. What is the difference between lactate threshold and max heart rate? By definition lactate threshold is your average heart rate over one hour; your best effort for 60 minutes. Max heart rate is trying to see how high you can get your HR for a short period of time.

How do heart rate zones fit into the periodization cycle?
Early in the season you'll be doing mostly easy aerobic training with the focus on building your body's endurance for handling the harder, race pace efforts, later in the season. So, you'll be focused on lots of easy Zone 1 and Zone 2 training to start with. After a solid base is established, you'll be able to add in some tempo or Zone 3 workouts and once you are six to ten weeks out from your key races, you can add in Zone 4 workouts to help prepare to race your best. So, you have your zones for your workouts-how do you participate in a group bike or run and stay in your zones? This is tricky and why I ask my athletes to train on their own or with athletes of similar abilities. Nothing will ruin a good training plan like training with a group that will push you out of your zones. You can always warm up with a group, but when it comes time to work in your specific HR zones, you should do this alone or with someone of similar ability.

So, every workout should have a purpose and you should stick to that purpose?
In a perfect world and with a knowledgeable coach, YES! Every workout really should have a purpose. Since most of us are pretty busy, make sure your workouts count! That means taking the easy days easy and hitting the harder workouts as hard as you should (notice I didn't say "all out" or as "hard as you can".

Should you use your HR monitor on race day?
If yes, what zone should you be in? Yes. If it's a short race and you have the experience to go fast or hard for 2 hours then just ignore the HR and check the averages for each leg afterward. Use the information afterwards, but you don't need it to guide you in the race. If you are new to racing, it would be very beneficial to use the HRM to help you to not go over threshold during the race, and to help you to finish strong.

Post race, you can see how this data compares to your testing HR. For a short race, your HR will be elevated at threshold or even higher toward the end of the run. For an Olympic distance event which is 2 or more hours, I would recommend keeping heart rate below threshold until you feel comfortable enough on the run to go hard at the end. For a Half Ironman race, your HR should be in Zone 2, with some Z3 mixed in later in the race. For an Ironman event, Z2 is your best friend!

Do elite athletes and age group winners train using heart rate zones and periodization?
Or do they use some other system? This question can be answered in two parts with one half being its own book! Should AG winners and professionals use HR monitors or do they use HRMs? It is a different question of course. I don't know if they do, but they should! The easiest way to improve is to have a guide and a HRM is a great guide. You can easily push yourself too hard without a governor or HRM to hold you in check. Even in training, most elites and professionals go too hard on their easy days and not hard enough on their hard days, because they are too tired from not going easy enough on their easy days.

As for periodization, this can mean many things-there is "Classic Periodization" which was developed by Tudor Bompa and includes Transition, Prep, Base 1, 2, etc., and there are other forms of periodization such as "Sport Focus" which includes using a set period of time to focus on one sport and only maintain fitness in the other two sports. (Please refer to the link referenced earlier.) There is also the idea of doing your harder training during the earlier part of the season and then adding endurance with longer workouts, the closer you get to your "A" race (most important race).

What is the difference between training to be a fitness athlete verses a triathlete?
I don't really know what a fitness athlete is, but I will guess that you mean someone who stays in general shape with cardio workouts, lifting some weights and no real specific focus. These athletes can push themselves very hard and be very fit but without a plan to really understand what they are doing; they will never see a true peak and maybe they don't need to. They certainly need easier weeks to let the body recover, just like a triathlete would. A triathlete is someone training for three specific sports and working hard at peaking for a particular event and or distance a few times a year.

You are an USAT Level 3 Elite Coach..what exactly does that mean and how did you get those credentials?
A "Level 3 Elite Coach" is the highest certification that USA Triathlon has. USA Triathlon is the governing body of triathlon in the USA. There are approximately 15 level 3 coaches in the US which has close to 2,000 certified USAT coaches. That certification comes with a lot of coaching experience (20+ years) and obviously the knowledge I've learned over the years. There is a Level 3 course taught every 2 years at the USOTC (US Olympic Training Center).

Are all the coaches at D3 at the "Level 3" level?
No, they aren't, but all of our coaches are certified and have a unique skill set. I'm most impressed with the diversity of our athletes and I think any athlete out there can find a great match within our organization.

Thank you so much for all the incredible information to incorporate into our triathlon training plans for the season! And, once again, it looks like a coach is your best bet to help you organize and create a plan for you to reach your highest performance level, and, thus, maximize your potential as a triathlete!

Thank you!

Mike Ricci is a Level III USA Triathlon Certified Coach and has been coaching endurance athletes since 1989. Mike founded D3 in 2000, and has slowly added top-notch, USAT certified coaches each year to handle the demand for high quality triathlon coaching. D3 coaches have coached hundreds of athletes to their first triathlon and hundred more to become Ironman Finishers. From 2002-2008, D3 was awarded the job of writing the training programs for the USA World Championship teams. Mike currently coaches the four time defending Collegiate National Champion University of Colorado Triathlon Team. He can be reached at

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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