Zone Model – Don’t Overcomplicate It

In a previous blog post Keep it Simple Stupid I wrote about using our inner GPS.  While training devices are great and help us in many ways I feel as though the pendulum has swung too far to the point athletes are becoming too dependent on them. Experience has taught me why keeping it simple means going faster in Ironman Triathlon.

Many age group triathletes have much to deal with away from training.  Family, work and life all give us a lot to contend with so we can do the training required to prepare for an Ironman race.  The last thing we need to do is add something else to the equation in the form of following overly complicated training programs and session prescriptions that demand preciseness.  Our goal is should be to remove stress, not add it to make things as simple as possible.

Zone Model

Some are thinking that the latest Garmin watch, power meter, training metrics that platforms like Training Peaks provides or following someone on social media is what will make you go faster in Triathlon.  Not the training, the coaching or the consistent daily, weekly, monthly and yearly commitment and engagement to the training.  And ensuring we train at the correct intensity.

As a coach I see it time and time again.  People going too hard in their easy sessions, not hard enough in their hard sessions and doing too much in the middle or moderate grey zone of training.  And then not being too sure what training zones actually mean.

Some coaches and athletes use a 5- zone model for training.  This 5- zone model for training describes the different training intensities as:

Zone 1 – recovery 50-60% of maximum heart rate

Zone 2 - endurance 60-70% of maximum heart rate

Zone 3 – aerobic 70-80% of maximum heart rate

Zone 4 – threshold 80-90% of maximum heart rate

Zone 5 – anaerobic 90-95% of maximum heart rate

While I recommend using heart rate as a guide during training heart rate can and does fluctuate. Weather conditions, terrain, a person’s hydration levels, stress, sleep patterns and recovery from previous sessions all can have an impact on a person’s heart rate during a training session.  Additionally, I have seen many triathletes get too hung up on their heart rate and trying to keep it in a certain zone when using the 5 – zone model.

World renowned exercise physiologist and sports scientist Dr Stephen Seiler advocates a 3 - zone model for training which is:

Zone 1 – endurance 50-75% of maximum heart rate

Zone 2 – threshold 75-82% of maximum heart rate

Zone 3 – above threshold 82-95% of maximum heart rate

From a physiological perspective utilising the 3 - zone model is just as effective as a 5 - zone model.  Zone 1 in the 3 - zone model is the same as zone 1 and 2 in the 5 - zone model while zone 3 in the 3 -zone model is the same as zone 4 and 5 in the 5 zone model.  They are the same in that they deliver the same physiological adaptations.

You could describe the 3- zone model as easy, moderate and hard.  If you have read some of my previous blog posts I am an advocate of polarised training which Dr Seiler is famous for his research on in the endurance sports community.

I still use a 3 – zone model with elite triathletes I have worked with.  Tying athletes up in overly complicated program prescription is in my experience unnecessary regardless of the level of the athlete.  Being mentally engaged with what your goal is for each session, understanding the outcome required for each session and then having the discipline to stick the process is where the magic comes from.

It is not and never will be in the devices and numbers they provide. While they are useful and important, they are part of a bigger picture that will help you deliver your best performance when it matters on race day.

What is easy training?

Regardless of if you follow a polarised training approach or not having 3 zones in my opinion keeps things simple and easy for triathletes to follow.  When it comes to Ironman training and racing our primary goal is to develop a high level of aerobic fitness.  Consistent training in zone 1 stimulates our aerobic energy system to improve the bodies ability to use oxygen in the process of creating energy.

What is moderate training?

If you’re training in zone 1 you should be able to hold a conversation reasonably comfortably or breathe only through your nose.  If it gets to the point that is not possible then you’re starting to creep into zone 2 which does have application for Ironman training but not too much. Zone 2 training is talking in words, not sentences and is a pace/intensity you could hold for about 1 hour.

What is hard training?

High intensity interval training or zone 3 in the 3-zone model also develops the aerobic energy system. The major benefits however are improved muscle fibre recruitment, improved lactate threshold and improved speed.  At this intensity it is hard, breathing is very laboured and holding a conversation would not possible.

When training in zone 3 or hard, the improved muscle fibre recruitment primarily of our slow twitch muscle fibres means it develops fatigue resistance.  In the later stages of an Ironman race our goal is to limit the deceleration which is caused by muscle breakdown.  Training at a hard intensity or zone 3 is great for improving the skeletal muscular system. Our joints, ligaments and tendons also become more conditioned to the stress placed on them.

Zone 2 or moderate training does have a place in Ironman training as we approach the later stages of the preparation.  Training at this intensity helps to prepare you get a feel for race day.  It is higher than Ironman race pace, but you start to get used to longer sessions that are comfortably uncomfortable much like an Ironman race.

The primary benefits of training at this intensity is improved lactate threshold which means your body becomes more efficient at removing lactate from the blood stream. The higher your threshold it allows you to hold a higher speed or power for a longer period.

As long as the majority of your total training time (70-80%) is zone 1 or easy, (5-10%) in zone 2 or moderate and (20-25%) in zone 3 or hard then you give yourself a great chance of achieving your goals.  Utilise the different devices available to help guide you in training specifically not going too hard in your easy sessions, remain consistent and enjoy the process then you will be well prepared.

My question is why make training more complicated than it needs to be?   Remove stress, keep things simple and reap the benefits.

About Mark

Mark is one of Australia's most experienced and knowledgeable triathlon coaches. With over 25 years experience coaching at all levels from kids, youth, adult and elite professional athletes across the World. He loves seeing people change their lives through triathlon.