“SIMPLY” Training Zones the Beginner Triathlete

September 26, 2016

Mike Ricci



By now if you have spent a couple of months taking on the challenge of triathlon you have probably read a couple of articles on the importance of training with a heart rate monitor and knowing your training zones. Initially this can seem overwhelming with all the other things you are trying to learn, but in reality it is simple if you keep it simple to start. It is also a valuable tool that will help you get started on the right foot with your own training.

So, let’s start with defining training zone. In this article it is a given level of intensity that is measured by your heart rate monitor. It is your ability for training on the run or on the bike. These training zones are important to you for a multitude of reasons as they help you keep easy days, easy, and hard days, hard. These zones help you determine your effort during an anaerobic workout which includes intervals and recovery between intervals.

One of the simplest ways we can learn to understand the different zones is by defining them. These five zones are as follows:

Recovery/Zone 1: This zone is where we do our easiest workouts. This is typically a workout that is used as a recovery and usually follows a hard workout or training day. The overall intensity is low and is well below our lactate threshold level. This zone is most often used as the recovery portion of an interval workout.

Extensive Endurance/Zone 2: Often referred to as the ‚Äòconversational pace‚Äô zone, we want to use this to build our aerobic endurance. Lactate build up is low so we can train for longer periods of time or extensively to build our aerobic endurance. This zone is the most used zone by multisport athletes. About 75-80% of our training time should be in this zone.

Intensive Endurance/Zone 3: This zone can be used in the base phase. It is a slightly higher level than zone 2 as is lactate production. As we move out of the base phase and into the build phase we tend to train in the zone above or below this zone. Typically, for most beginners, this is also called the ‚Äògray zone‚Äô or the ‚ÄòNo Benefit Zone‚Äô. For the time being, this is a zone a beginner should avoid!

Threshold/Zone 4: This zone, along with zone 2 is the most important zone for us to train in. In this zone we work just above or below lactate threshold. Here we look at intervals in terms of minutes vs. hours of training. Training in this zone helps us to increase our lactate tolerance and removal of lactate from the muscles. About 20-25% of our training should be done in this zone.

Anaerobic/Zone 5: This zone sees us training beyond lactate threshold and the intervals are short. This zone needs to be used with caution as it is the zone that most often causes injuries when overused.

When looking at all zones in a regards to slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, it is a progression of using slow twitch muscle fibers while gradually drawing in the use of fast twitch muscles. We are trying to get them to take on characteristics of slow twitch muscle fibers and increase our overall endurance to go longer and faster. In Zone 2 we strengthen slow twitch muscle fibers; in Zone 3 fast twitch are called on to support slow twitch muscle fibers and in Zone 4 we stress the slow twitch fibers and train the system to have a greater tolerance of lactate tolerance and removal. It is during this zone that fast twitch muscles take on the ?look? of slow twitch muscle fibers. This same process occurs in Zone 5, but at a higher level and with a greater number of fast twitch muscles called up to do the work.

Many of you are asking how you determine your training zones. At D3 Multisport we have a protocol that we have our athletes follow to establish their bike and run zones. We do this so that the athlete tests in as close to the same environment and with the same protocol each time they re-test. This helps to give greater validity to the test results. Obviously lab testing is going to give us the truest results, but this is not accessible nor affordable to all of us each time we need to do our testing. You will want to work with your coach or follow the protocol that your plan recommends so that you can start to establish a consistent testing environment for yourself.

Establishing zones and using them does not need to be complicated, especially not as you get started with your training. Keep things simple for yourself. As you progress into the sport and become more involved and more knowledgeable, you will find yourself wanting to take on another level of understanding of what your training zones mean to you. I hope this article is a starting point in your learning!

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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