Sunday, 16 April 2017 19:57

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

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Heart Rate (HR) based training is a common technique used to monitor and measure your effort while at rest or exercising. Measuring your heart rate by using pre-determined zones in which to train at will allow you to make maximum gains with the least amount of physical damage to your body. If you are not using one already, a heart rate monitor can be a nice piece of equipment for your training and racing efforts. By tracking your heart rate with a monitor, you will know precisely how easy or how hard your heart is working.

You will benefit most from a heart rate monitor by knowing the zones that have been developed and comparing them to the “actual effort” that you are training at. This is a far more precise way than using “perceived effort” which can vary due to a number of conditions including climate, fatigue and nutrition among other variables. The process is to use these heart rate zones in your Periodization Training Program to make each session valuable. By using a Heart Rate Monitor chart, you can calculate your effort with each activity that you do on a daily basis.

The key to the Heart Rate monitor use is to know your training zones. The zones are based on a maximum effort. The zones are based on a person’s Maximum Heart Rate and therefore are different for each person depending on age and fitness level. Using a heart rate based on the maximum heart rate of the formula 220 minus your age is somewhat accurate but does not take into consideration of a person’s current fitness, background or health. Additionally, each person is different and recovers differently so the math is not exact and should only be used as a guide. Once you have measured your max heart rate and determined the proper training zones, you will be more effective in your training.

Most training sessions are conducted in zone 2 and this is reflected in the Base Training portion of Periodization Training Program. The build portion will have you working in zone 3 and the Intensity and Peak sessions including racing will be done in zone 4. Recovery will be in Zone 1 or even easier if required depending on how overworked your system is. These zones hold true as well for the weekly training sessions that was covered in the 3X3 article last month that advocates for an athlete to do a short (intense), medium (tempo) and long (sustained) effort in each sport, each week.

•Zone 1: 60 to 70%: easy effort; ideal for warmup and cooldown session (RECOVERY)

•Zone 2: 70 to 80%: conversation level effort; most of your training is done at this HR (BASE)

•Zone 3: 81 to 93%: reasonably hard effort; breathing and talking at the same time is difficult (BUILD)

•Zone 4: 94 to 100%: hard effort; the pace is sustainable for only a short duration (INTENSITY/PEAK)

Additional information on training zones can be found at:

Of note is that your heart rate effort will differ in each sport so you will need to test and be conscious of what heart rate zones to use depending on whether you are swimming, biking, running or cross-training. Your max heart rate for running—which will push your heart rate higher since you must do more work to overcome gravity—is higher than swimming or cycling. This is important to understand because your training zones will be different in each of the periods of training and with each sport.

The goal is to build up the volume of time and miles, then overload your training with even more training. Add some intensity, then a little taper (recover) and race. Repeat this process several times each year, year after year and you will become a better triathlete. Sometimes you may feel good when you actually should be tired and the opposite is also true by being rested but slow and lethargic. Only your heart rate will give you your actual level of output from a physiological perspective. I have personally found and understand that the more you do in zone two or the 70-80% heart rate (and not higher) the better recovered you will be when you decide to include intensity into your workouts. However, often people fall into the trap of training at 80-85% HR for many/most of their workouts. When they do this, they do not have the ability to properly recover and cannot go to a higher intensity than zone 3 or 4. This is a result of cumulative fatigue or soreness from the previous workout sessions in which the athlete has not fully recovered from.

This is very obvious when you cut volume in one sport, because you should see better results in the other sports and will usually be faster. So, for a weekly plan with a run focus of 5 runs, 3 bikes and 3 swims, the extra 2 runs make it difficult to swim or ride at your normal pace. In some ways it is OK to overload because that is how you will get better after rest, but the overload in one sport may not allow you to do quality sessions in the other sports when your plan calls for it.

For this time of year, consider using zone 2 to build your Base and on occasion (once per week, per sport) mix in some intensity or zone 3 and 4 efforts. Add in a few running races to get motivated for some early season goals and you should be "triathlon ready" by May.


Doug Marocco is a 9-time Hawaii Ironman finisher with a IM PR of 9:23:04, 2X USAT Age Group and 4X Military Triathlon National Champion who sill attempts to get a few workouts each day.

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