“SIMPLY” Training Zones the Beginner Triathlete

a polar triathlon watch
September 26, 2016

Mike Ricci



By now, if you've spent a couple of months embracing the triathlon challenge, you've likely encountered articles stressing the importance of training with a heart rate monitor and understanding your training zones. Initially, this might seem overwhelming amidst all the other aspects you're trying to grasp, but in reality, it's straightforward if you keep it simple to start. It's also a valuable tool that can set you on the right path with your training.

So, let's begin by defining training zones. In this context, they represent specific levels of intensity measured by your heart rate monitor, crucial for both running and cycling training. These zones play a pivotal role in ensuring your easy days remain easy and your hard days remain hard. Moreover, they help you gauge your effort during anaerobic workouts, including intervals and recovery between intervals.

Here's a breakdown of the five zones:

1. **Recovery/Zone 1:** This zone encompasses our easiest workouts, typically utilized for recovery after a hard training session. The intensity is low, well below our lactate threshold level, making it ideal for recuperation.

2. **Extensive Endurance/Zone 2:** Also known as the "conversational pace" zone, it's utilized to build aerobic endurance. Lactate build-up is minimal, allowing for longer training durations to enhance aerobic capacity. This zone is heavily utilized by multisport athletes, constituting around 75-80% of training time.

3. **Intensive Endurance/Zone 3:** This zone, slightly higher than Zone 2, is utilized during the base phase. It involves a higher level of lactate production and is often termed the "gray zone" or "No Benefit Zone" for beginners. It's advisable for novices to avoid this zone initially.

4. **Threshold/Zone 4:** Alongside Zone 2, this zone is crucial for training. Operating just above or below lactate threshold, it aids in increasing lactate tolerance and removal from muscles. Approximately 20-25% of training should be conducted in this zone.

5. **Anaerobic/Zone 5:** Training in this zone pushes beyond lactate threshold, with short intervals. Caution is advised as overuse of this zone can lead to injuries.

Understanding these zones in terms of slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers involves a progression from primarily engaging slow-twitch fibers in Zone 2 to gradually involving fast-twitch muscles. The goal is to enhance endurance and performance by conditioning fast-twitch fibers to mimic the characteristics of slow-twitch fibers, particularly evident in Zones 4 and 5.

Determining your training zones can be achieved through a protocol, such as the one used at D3 Multisport, ensuring consistency and reliability in test results. While lab testing provides the most accurate results, it may not be accessible or affordable for everyone. Collaborating with a coach or following a recommended protocol can establish a consistent testing environment for yourself.

Using and establishing training zones need not be complicated, especially as you begin your training journey. Keep it simple, and as you progress in the sport, you'll naturally deepen your understanding of your training zones. Consider this article a starting point in your learning journey!

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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