Appropriate Training Paces & Intensity

A common mistake many athletes make is training at an intensity that is inappropriate for that athlete’s goals. I’ve seen several themes over the years:

If it happens rarely, any of these mistakes by itself is not a big problem. However, if it is a constant theme, it’s a guarantee that this athlete will not develop their full potential. You may know them – someone who’s always in good shape, but never seems to become any faster or slower. Or someone who goes from good shape, to injured, and back again.

If you have high aspirations and want to become the best you can be, it is critical that you learn to pace things appropriately, take your recovery days seriously, and dial in your training efforts. It’s that simple.

There are a couple tools that can really help athletes understand appropriate pacing in training and racing. The first is a simple heart rate monitor and lactate threshold test. Wear the monitor and then conduct a time trial on the bike or run. Warm up about 20-30 minutes with a couple of hard accelerations. Spin or jog easy for a bit and then hold your hardest consistent effort for 30 minutes. It’s important to build into this (don’t go so hard at the beginning that you have to ease off later). The average of the last 20 minutes will be very close to your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). Advanced athletes may need to subtract a few beats from this average due to their ability to ‘suffer’ and withstand lactate buildup.

The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel has charts that will establish the appropriate training zones based off of your threshold heart rate. You can also very accurately determine your LT through blood lactate analysis in a lab. The test usually costs between $75 to $150.

I personally like to use a 5k or 10k running race to establish both LTHR and run training paces based off of Jack Daniels VDOT method. A 5k will usually yield an HR average that is 5-10 beats higher than threshold; a 10k will be very close to threshold. You can also read a summary of Daniels’ thoughts on run training and VDOT here.

Another useful tool for the bike is a power meter. This time you will need to warm up adequately, then conduct a one hour (or 40k for you fast folks) time trial. Your average power output for this one hour test is your functional threshold (FT). Dr. Andrew Coggan has been a pioneer in power-based training, and a summary of his thoughts and recommended training power levels can be found here.

You can also find a cross-reference chart of a variety of different training paces and terms here. This chart includes approximate perceived exertion levels and percentage of maximum heart rate at the different training levels for those of you who want to hold out and do everything the old fashioned way. :)

Now that you know your LT or FT, how do you train properly? That depends quite a bit on your specific race goals. A very short answer: After your early base season training is complete, schedule one to three key workouts in each sport each week that stress both your aerobic and anaerobic systems (duration, intensity, & frequency depend on your experience, age, and ability to recover). Stressful aerobic workouts will be at LTHR minus 15-20 beats or 65-75% of FT; stressful anaerobic workouts will be at LT +/- a few beats, or 95-120% of FT. Most other sessions should be somewhere between ‘easy’ and ‘steady’ pacing (Z1-Z2 heart rate, or less than 70% of FT).

For more on training pace recommendations, please visit the articles section of our website. I’ll address appropriate swim pacing in a separate article!

Coach Marty Gaal