trust the process

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May 23, 2024

The Zone Two Advantage: Unveiling the Triathlete's Secret Weapon

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show notes


  • Zone 2 training is the foundation of all training in endurance sports.
  • Zone 2 training improves aerobic capacity without excessive fatigue or muscle breakdown.
  • Perceived effort, heart rate, pace, and power can be used to determine Zone 2 intensity.
  • Recovery is important for allowing the body to adapt and improve.
  • Capillary density plays a crucial role in delivering oxygen and removing waste from muscles.
  • The balance between Zone 2 training and higher intensity workouts should be individualized based on race goals and time availability.


Mike Ricci (00:00.79)
Hi, Coach Mike Ricci here with the D3 podcast, Trust the Process, and today I have returning with us today is Jim Hallberg. How you doing, Jim? Good, good. So Jim, I was looking through our Google stats as I typically do a couple times a week or a couple times a month. And interestingly, or maybe not interestingly, the most read articles that I find are Zone 1 and Zone 2 training.

Jim Hallberg (00:11.398)
Good. How are you, Mike?

Mike Ricci (00:28.222)
Not surprising, right? Cause everybody wants to know what it is. And, you know, I think that we tried to explain this, you know, 15 years ago when no one even knew what it was and everybody was just, you know, you know, you have those athletes that are always in that no man's land of, well, I'm not getting anything out of it. I'm not sore, I'm not tired. So I need to go harder. But then these are the athletes that can't go easy on the easy days and they can go hard enough on the hard days.

And the races become flat, right? So have you experienced that as a coach? And what are your thoughts on?

Jim Hallberg (01:04.302)
Um, well, as far as zone, well, I mean, everybody kind of might go through a flat process and you got to kind of mix it up and, uh, change it. But, uh, you know, I think there's a lot of good evidence for some zone to work. Um, I would say that, you know, a good portion of your workouts should be zone two, um, you know, the zone one, you know, is your active recovery, your recovery, your warmup, your cool down. Your recovery between intervals. Um, maybe you go out.

for a family ride or a, you know, ride with a slower or run with a slower friend or something, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Um, and then, you know, I put zone two is like, you know, it's kind of the meat and potatoes of, of your training. You know, it's where, it's where you're going to get the, it takes the most time, but you're going to get very good gains without tremendous taxation. Um,

with regard to fatigue or muscle breakdown. Of course, unless you're doing two, two and a half, three hour runs, that's a lot of zone two right there for sure. And my big, what I try to teach my athletes is what is zone two?

How do you correlate that across three things? The three metrics we chase and look at and follow and pay attention to, right, is I'm very reliant on perceived effort. What does perceived effort means? It means you're pretty comfortable. You're not stressing, you're not breathing hard, your muscles aren't burning. You could probably, for the most part, have a conversation.

You know, heart rate is going to be probably give or take about 80% of threshold. You know, 70% of max. A lot of people don't really truly test their max. So I use usually use threshold. And then what is that for pace? You know, 90 seconds per mile slower than your 10 K pace or, or slower, two minutes slower per, per 10 K pace.

Jim Hallberg (03:21.678)
Usually I've seen a good correlation on power is about 65, 68% of threshold. And so if you really want to use a power number, that's fine. Or a pace number, that's fine. And what I find interesting with zone two is it's a good indicator of whether you're recovered or not from a workout. So for example...

You go out and you do zone two, I'll just use a ride or run or, you know, you're doing zone two and you're paying attention to your heart rate. If your power is at a pretty good number and your heart rate is at that 80%, it's probably indicating you're recovered. If your heart rate is at that 80%, let's say you have a, you know,

heart rate of 160 for a threshold and you're, you know, you're training it at 140, so about 20 beats less. And your pace is like really struggling that day to hit that normal zone two pace. That's an indication you're pretty fatigued. And that's why I use heart rate, because if you were to push that pace to your normal zone two pace, or that power to your normal zone two power,

you might be pushing too hard on those days and you gotta back it off and just relax a little bit. So if you start using perceived effort and your pace and your power with your heart rate, you can really learn if your body's recovered, if it's feeling pretty good, and...

You know, getting the bulk of your training in there is, is fantastic. And then, you know, from there, um, you know, you, you go on to doing, you know, some, some intervals and some quality work and it's all depending on the time of the season and how hard you need to work, you know, are you, you need to work tremendously hard in January. Um, and then, uh, as you get closer to race, yeah, you got to hit those numbers. So, but zone two is.

Jim Hallberg (05:38.134)
I would, I mean, I know that everybody talks about 80 20, but it is valid. I mean, if you start breaking it down, 80% of your weekly load is usually right around that zone, zone one, zone two.

Mike Ricci (05:52.574)
Okay. So let's, let's back up a sec. So tell me, um, just out of curiosity, how, and I know how I do it. Um, how do you determine threshold for the bike via power and then threshold for the run via, you know, heart rate and pace and same for the bike too.

Jim Hallberg (06:11.634)
Um, yeah, I always, you know, want my athletes to do a test every, uh, every once in a while. I actually prefer racing as your test. Um, I'd like to say, Hey, you know, find a 10 K. Um, you know, let's do, let's do, um, if you can't find a race, it's, it's hard to find a race, you know, in, in January, for example. And I get that. Um, so yeah, you're going to have to go 10 days are really hard. So I might do.

uh, for example, three by two mile and, um, say, Hey, let's just with, with like, um, you know, quarter or a half to half mile jog in there, but

For a lot of people, I don't want them to limit themselves on power. And I actually want them to like, I just want you to go fast, go as fast as you can for, you got to deviate out for, you know, sick 10 K, but just go fast and let's see where the pace ends up. Let's see where the heart rate ends up. Same thing with, with power. Um, I'll have them do as a swift race on swift or, uh, we'll do, I'll tell them

like an epic KOM on Zwift or something like that. And just go fast. You know, can you beat your time to the top again? You know, don't let me yourself empower and be like, oh my gosh, I'm at 220 watts, I better slow down. Well, maybe it's time we need to get above 220 and maybe you're stronger than you think you are. So just go for it. Just go fast. Let's see where you're at. If you fall apart, that's okay. That's okay. It's January, it's a test. That's what we're here to see.

Um, not, not being afraid to fall apart. Um, I do want to go into tests, you know, like not a full load of, of training. So I want to get some good, good data. And it's a confidence booster too, for a lot of athletes, you know, you want to have a test that, um, they're not, you know, struggling with accepting for the next three months or six weeks or whatever it is. So, um, yeah, just go fast. And then.

Jim Hallberg (08:23.162)
That's our 100%. 30 minutes is my preferred. 30 minute, if you're not doing a 10K, I say do a 30 minute hard run or a 30 minute bike interval. Now, again, if 30 minutes is daunting or whatever, you could break that up to three times 10.

with like a two minute recovery in between or short, easy recovery. But go, again, go hard. And sometimes it's that third one, that's your threshold. Cause you go a little too hard on the first one, maybe go a little soft on the second one. You like, okay, the fatigue is starting to set in. That third one's getting kind of hard. Well, you know it's the end. Boom, that's your threshold. I usually use that one.

if it's a good honest effort.

Mike Ricci (09:19.734)
Yeah, I agree with that. I've done it. I've had the pushback from the athletes about they don't want to do the 30-minute test, but I've offered a Zwift race, which I think is great. It's out of their comfort zone. They got to push. You get people passing you just like you would in a normal race, which is great. It gets people to go faster, faster than they normally would. And I've certainly have done six times five minutes with a minute or two recovery.

knowing those last two five-minute efforts are probably threshold. And same thing on the run, you know, break it up into three times 10 minutes or three times eight minutes even, just something that's, I guess, digestible for people. You know, and the other side of this, not to get into the testing side of this, but, you know, the shortest triathlon you're going to do is a 20K. So for most people, that's going to be, you know, fast people are going to be 25, 26, maybe a little faster. But, you know, the average age group is going to be over 30 minutes.

And if you're gonna not be able to do a test for 30 minutes, how are you gonna go really, really hard on a 20K TT when that's supposed to be pretty much best effort? We're talking 92, 94% of FTP, maybe even higher in a sprint, right? So yeah, I mean, those things, I think we've kind of sometimes get out of our comfort zones a little bit in terms of the testing, but going back to the zone two, I agree. I like 25 to 30 beats below that threshold number.

I don't think you can go wrong there. And just this week, I started getting a couple emails from actually two of my athletes and, hey, I think the zones are too low. I'm able to push this power is not getting my heart rate up anymore. And I'm like, okay, this is good. So sometimes just let them organically find that spot. And...

Jim Hallberg (11:04.906)
And yeah, and I do, I want to pair that with like, I'll have people run zone two over the winter, you know, and my goal for you is how fast can you go at that? You know, 80%. And over time you might see somebody go like, Oh, I started, you know, at 830 pace for a hundred and

40 beats and now I'm at 815 for 140 beats and now 810 for 140 beats. It's not going to be dramatic, but you'll see a couple of, you know, five, 10 seconds per mile, you know, getting a little faster over a period. And that's, that's huge because that usually indicates your threshold is going to be, you know, quite a bit bigger and you're going to be able to handle the load. And the other thing about the zone too, is he, you know, in trending picks, we use the

you know, that power to heart rate ratio. And I really find that as very valid of how fit my athletes are. If they're going zone two and their power to heart rate ratio starts dropping off and their heart rate starts climbing and their pace starts dropping in zone two workout, that's a really good indication. Hey, we need, you know, that's your indication. We need to work on our endurance. If, you know, I think 8% is acceptable, but I...

Mike Ricci (12:23.891)
Right, you need more of this.

Jim Hallberg (12:28.914)
I actually prefer my athletes to be five or below. I think that's acceptable for a heart rate deviation. Assuming all things being equal, you didn't start off at 60 degrees and finish at 90 degrees and the heat and humidity is crushing you. But if all things being equal, that's a good fitness indicator. And when you can do a long run at zone two and you have very little heart rate deviation.

Mike Ricci (12:43.967)

Jim Hallberg (13:00.53)
you're ready to go and you're ready to get after it with some good quality intervals too.

Mike Ricci (13:05.342)
And you're talking about the decoupling, right? In terms of, yeah, okay. So here, and there's another question. So, and this is something I've done for a long time. And it's the max aerobic fitness test, where I have someone go to the track. Treadmill doesn't work as well, I think. Outside in a flat course would work, but three miles at the same exact heart rate, and we lapped the miles, right? So let's say it's early season and you go 720, 7...

30, 740 at 140 heart rate, for example, right? The next month we come back and we see 720, 725, 735, and then by that, maybe the third month, we're seeing 720, 722, 724. So the range gets super tight and they're able to hold that pace at that exact heart rate. That's when I say, okay, we're really probably gonna get a ton of benefit out of a lot more zone two, we're still gonna do it for maintenance, but now it's time.

you know, to do the threshold work, tempo work, threshold work. And for me, I don't know how you handle it, but for me, my athletes do strides pretty much, you know, 45 weeks a year. Like there's always, as a matter of it's four times 30 seconds, as a matter of it's eight times 20, just touch that speed all the time, right? That tendon, that tendon strength, that elasticity, that rebound effect, all that stuff for me, I think is really important because that's how people don't lose that speed.

And, you know, they can go down to 10 miles a week of running. It doesn't matter. But if they do one day of that, then they come back and it's not like they're sore and the Achilles or the hamstrings just because they did a little bit of, you know, work out of their comfort zone because it's comfortable because they do it all the time, right?

Jim Hallberg (14:44.03)
Yeah. I agree. Um, my athletes will see strides and pickups, uh, you know, quite often throughout the year. So, um, you know, it's just good maintenance, you know, not, it's not very taxing, you know, it's just, Oh, pick it up for 10, 20 seconds. Yeah. And, and a lot of times I really, those are the great days where it's perceived effort. I don't need you to hit some magic pace. Um,

Mike Ricci (14:55.042)

Mike Ricci (15:00.158)
Yeah, it's a lactate, right? It's not.

Jim Hallberg (15:11.118)
You know, it's just like, Hey, just pick it up, you know, push it to the stoplight or the stop sign or, you know, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, just have fun with it. You know, just randomize it, you know, make six of them throughout your 45 minute run. Um, so.

Mike Ricci (15:24.65)
Right, right. Even, even counting steps works, right? Do to 30 steps or 40 steps or something. Just do it that way too. I mean, just, yeah, like you said, anything. And I tell them like, do it, whatever terrain it is, if it's down, do it down. If it's up, do it up and it's flat. That's fine too. So.

Jim Hallberg (15:38.842)
Yeah. Randomize it. Yeah.

Mike Ricci (15:39.886)
I think exposure to all that is important. So recently we've listened to all these health experts have come up with zone two is so important, even though we've known this for years and years and years and now it's become popular. But it's something that really is the basis of all of our training, whether we're doing 80-20, 75-25, or let's say you are a time-starved athlete.

You know, you have 10 hours a week to train. You're training for Olympic distance. Maybe you do a half at the end of the year. You know, yeah, sure. I would say the majority of your running is zone two, zone one, zone two, but maybe there is a little more quality in there, but it's not, you know, and it's interesting when people talk about this and we'll talk about polarized training at another point, but I think people, you know, they get all upset because you say, look, this guy ran, you know, 20 miles this week, but seven miles of it was fast. That's, oh gosh, a third.

That's not 80-20. Well, that's okay, because we're not doing this for 14 straight weeks, right? We're doing a couple of weeks of this. We mix it in, we back them off, and that work has to get done. You can't get ready for an Olympic without doing some fast stuff.

Jim Hallberg (16:43.76)

Jim Hallberg (16:48.954)
Right. You know, I've had a lot of people that have experienced life changes. Maybe it's a new job or a new, you know, a new baby or whatever things in the house that is like, okay, my, my normal routine and what I could handle is gone. And I have to be really time efficient with my time. And, you know, maybe they were training 90 minutes a day, but now they're training less, they could be done less than 60 or whatever. Well,

If the fit athlete, you know, can handle a bit of load, but now they've got been reduced, that's where it's like, okay, well, they're probably recovering faster because they were able to handle it before, but now they're recovering faster because they don't have as much to do. And so, yeah, you can probably do three or four, you know, quality sessions a week. And it doesn't have to be a lot. I mean,

My thing is like, all you have to do is touch it. You don't have to dwell on it and stay there and like, oh, I have to do more and more and more. It's like, oh, I just have to touch a little bit of that threshold every other day, or maybe some of them are every day, just a little bit. Not literally every day, but more often than not. And that's the thing is like, if you're...

If you're time starved, you can probably handle a little bit like, all right, let's finish the workout with these pickups or these finish with at threshold. Or, you know, if you're doing an hour run, let's make the last, um, less two miles at tempo or threshold. And, um, because we're not doing 90 minute, an hour, 45 minute and two hour runs. You know, you're not doing the big load, um, having to recover from that. You're not doing.

You don't have time to do a big workout. So you got to take your big workout and do a lot more, more often frequency instead of duration is what it ends up happening.

Mike Ricci (18:57.058)
Right. And you know, I remember long, long time ago, reading an article in Runners World about running sub threshold, you know, because, you know, you had run in college, I ran in college a little bit. And, you know, we learned like we're running race pace, running five seconds, 400 faster than race pace, etc, etc. But then we learned like, if you're a six minute, you know, 10 care, you don't need to run six minutes in training, you could run 610, you could run 615. The breakdown

Mike Ricci (19:26.926)
quicker, the more hard workouts you can fit in a week, right? So, you know, if everybody has the same amount of training time, and let's just say everybody has, you know, their 10, 12 hours, the guy who shows up that's able to do the most work is probably going to be the fastest guy, all things being equal. So if this guy can fit in, you know, two hard run workouts a week, and maybe they're only two and a half, three miles each, you know, like one is like you say, two or three miles at the end of a long run, another day of maybe some track stuff, or mile repeats, or 400s,

I'm sure you know whatever the mix is, but that guy, you know, his more frequency going faster. So chances are he's gonna have a little bit of an edge, right, I mean that's just common sense. But we don't need to keep pushing right up against threshold all the time. That's the thing with that. You know, the recovery's quicker, breakdown's less, and you're probably gonna get the same benefit out of it.

Jim Hallberg (20:23.286)
Yeah. I think this alludes to.

when you need to do the type of intensity you're getting ready to do. So, you know, the just below sub-threshold work is great, you know, pre-season, right? Let's say you're gonna kick off the season in June and that's your first race and you wanna have a good race. So, you know, what are you doing in April? Well, that's some good threshold work or March. That's good threshold work.

And then, you know, six to eight weeks, you know, before that's like, all right, let's, let's pick it up. Let's start doing some really good turnover or some really good power, some pushing over threshold, but now you need more recovery. So, um, the whole, you know, polarized approach with like, um,

I love when they come out and say, oh, we did these studies and this is the best approach. Well, they didn't talk about the duration of how long these people were doing super hard, hard intervals. Like doing 120 percent of threshold on your bike intervals or 130 or 140 percent.

That's not sustainable, you know, for a week over a week over a week over a week. So, you know, that, that's part of the discussion is like where, what phase are you doing these sub-threshold work? Uh, what phase are you doing your, your polarize your track workout and really getting those 400s and working faster than race base. So, um, you know, you're not doing that in January or December if you don't have a race until June.

Mike Ricci (22:11.042)
Right, right. I agree. And I think a lot of these tests are untrained people. They put them on a bike for four weeks. They start out with, you know, their FTP is 110. And then it gets to 150. And they say, wow, they raised FTP 50% across the board. But they did four workouts. And, you know, it's not sustainable, like you said. I mean, just there's going to be massive breakdown if they kept that up, you know, for a long time. So, you know, and I've talked about that.

We'll talk about this another time, but we've cut down the VO2, right? It's no longer 125%. It doesn't need to be that anymore. I'm gonna have to go that hard. It's not sustainable. So let's just go back to zone two. I just wanna wrap up one thing. I think from my perspective, what I've learned over the years, and I know you know this, but the capillary density is a huge piece of this, right? So creating what I always tell people, it's like a tree root. And the more zone two work you do, the more capillaries you have, the more roots you have throughout your system, your body.

easier to carry oxygen to your muscles, right? And easier to carry waste away from your muscles. So I always want people to get that in their head, that it's a root system. And it's the bigger you can make it, the faster you're gonna go. And I don't know if this has happened to you or not, but my fastest 5Ks have come off marathon training when I'm hardly doing any interval work, just building up those huge, every week it's 20 miles, every week it's a 10 mile, every week, you know, you're just putting in 40, 50 miles, because I don't run that many miles normally and the triathlon season, it's 20 to 30.

But getting into marathon season, maybe I'm not biking as much, and I can get an extra hour here so that there's another eight miles, right? So you're talking 40, 50 miles for a period of time, and then coming down from that, a little bit rested, and go out there and run a fast 5K, and you shake your head going, wow, it's not all the speed work, right? It is that zone two easy stuff. So it's amazing what the body can do when it's given the right doses of things.

Jim Hallberg (23:57.906)

Jim Hallberg (24:02.97)
Right. And the, the other thing is, um, you know, I, I'm a firm believer in like, you got to touch everything at some point. And, you know, I do everything. Um, and I think I'm, it makes me a well rounded athlete. You know, um, I, I'm not afraid to go to a hilly race. I'm not afraid to go to a flat race. I'm not afraid to go to a, you know, hot race or whatever. Like, is it going to speed race or a long race? Like, I want to be able to.

be competitive wherever I go in whatever condition I'm faced with, whatever the competition is. So you gotta do everything. With that being said, we do know that, doing excess amount of that beyond threshold, beyond zone two is acidic, right? It's highly acidic to the body and...

Yes, we clear that out and lactate is a fuel, but the hydrogen ions are, that's the acidity. That's the muscle breakdown. That's where it's gonna eat away at your mitochondria that you've been building up in that zone too. So you've got to really pair it very carefully. Again, you need to touch it, but not dwell on it. Because if you're just doing too many of those workouts too hard for too long, that's where you start going flat.

And that's where you're not going to progress because your body's just probably just breaking down with too much acidity.

Mike Ricci (25:34.302)
Right, right. Just not enough recovery and just continually breaking down. And that's another thing, you know, the zone one workouts, which everybody pooh-poos, I like athletes see them do that on a Monday after a long run on Sunday and go ride your bike at 12 miles an hour, 15, whatever. Like just go ride super easy, clear. It's like a self massage almost, right? Just clearing everything out of the system. You feel like garbage the whole ride. You're going slow. It sucks. It's boring.

The next day you get up and you got the spring in your step and you're like, okay, this is the right thing to do. That's when you know, that's when you know.

Jim Hallberg (26:11.814)
I've been that or I'll, I've taken my dogs just for a walk. When my daughter was little and I would do a hard race and the next day her and I would go to the lazy river in the pool and play tag in the lazy river. That was the best recovery I can remember doing. It was awesome. Cause it was fun and relaxing. And I got out and the next day I didn't feel like I had raced. And

Well, I don't have somebody to go to Lazy River with anymore, but I do recommend that to my athletes. You know, like I said, it could be riding with your wife down to the grocery store or walking the dogs or going to Lazy River with your young child. It doesn't have to be like looking at the garment. It doesn't have to be like, oh, I have to hit this X amount of watts with this power or pace or heart rate. Who cares? Just...

Just get out and have fun. So just make it really easy and social.

Mike Ricci (27:10.79)
Exactly. And you know, we used to do, like we do the big camps, you know, I would always do a coffee ride or a donut ride and I'd say, okay, we're going to go ride a couple hours easy, but we're going to ride a coffee shop. We're going to have a coffee. We're going to ride back or have a donut like whatever, like just make it super easy. It's chatty. Everybody's talking, right? Those are the big recovery days you need, especially when you get into that big box of zone two and you know, some threshold stuff and like you're saying racing as well. So, okay. Anything else you want to add about zone two? Any kind of secret?

weapons, see if you're a workout, any way to love it a little more.

Jim Hallberg (27:44.578)
Um, I, I really love it for the, um, the, the simplicity of it. And it's just, why do we do triathlons? Yes, we want to get faster, but getting out on your bike and going for a run and just enjoying the scenery and just loving the aspect of, of being healthy and being outside, I really think people need to kind of.

you know, pay attention to the garment, but don't, don't dwell on it and just enjoy the ride. That's your zone too. Just enjoy the ride or the run and just have fun. And that's, that's my thing. That's, that's the, the basic of the sport. Right. So.

Mike Ricci (28:30.43)
Yeah, right. All right, well, thanks for being on, Jim. I really appreciate all this talk on zone two and we'll talk again. Thanks.

Jim Hallberg (28:36.634)
Yeah, thanks.

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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