At What Intensity Should I Train?!?

For the performance-minded athlete, one of the most important aspects of any training program is training at YOUR proper intensities. The science as to why training within the constraints of your physiological zones is covered in THIS POST, but the take-home message is that whether you are working one-on-one with a coach or following a plan from a book, finding your training zones are critical to optimizing any training program. In addition, the method by which you find your zones can either set yourself up for success or lead to a path of overtraining and failure.

Along the training intensity spectrum from ‘easy’ to ‘really, really, hard,’ there are some critical physiological points. Identifying these points accurately is necessary to optimize your training and performance.
Training zones are highly individual (your training zone will likely be different from your training partner’s training zones – even if you have similar race times) and are specific for the discipline in which you are training (your bike training zones will be different you’re your run training zones).
In addition, these levels change throughout a training program, making this a very important maker of gains in fitness and great way of determining if your training program is working

You have probably read a bit about training zones and have seen many different ways of expressing these zones. Some examples are: Zone 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (Joe Friel, The Training Bible); Level 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and Functional Threshold Power (Allen & Coogan, Training and Racing with a Power Meter); E/L, T, I (Daniels, Daniel’s Running Formula); RPE; NP; IF; OBLA; LT; vVO2max; vLT, etc. It can get very confusing, even to an Exercise Physiologist. The good news is that all of these terms relate to the same variables, most of which can be determined during a metabolic test.

Now… HOW do you find your zones? Since everyone has a unique physiology, it is necessary to use unique testing to find your zones. A generic formula WILL NOT WORK! Consequently, estimating training zones off of a maximum heart rate WILL NOT WORK!

For example, if we have two male athletes who are both 45 years old with the same MEASURED maximum heart rate of 190 bpm. Both of these athletes would be prescribed the same zones by using a generic formula like “maximum heart rate equals 220 minus your age.” (note that 220 – your age would incorrectly identify your maximum heart rate). Now, what if one of these athletes was an ‘aerobic’ athlete with extensive experience with endurance sports, while the other athlete was an ‘anaerobic’ athlete who played football and lifted weights most of his life. Most likely, the ‘aerobic’ athlete would stay aerobic up to a higher percentage of his maximum heart rate than the ‘anaerobic’ athlete. But, without accurate testing, the generic formulas would prescribe both athletes the same ‘aerobic zone.’ When applied to a general training session, the aerobic athlete would spend too much time training too easily, while the anaerobic athlete would spend too much time training too hard.

So, how can we avoid this pitfall? Use good testing principles.

There are three ways I determine proper training zones with my athletes:

Feel. An experienced athlete with some knowledge about Exercise Physiology and training zones can determine proper training zones by ‘feel.’ Extensive athletic history, racing at various distances, breathing pattern awareness, and perceived exertion are critical to determining correct zones. This is the least accurate method of establishing training zones. I NEVER use this on novice athletes, people training for weight loss, or people with serious athletic goals. So, basically, I only use this method once I have data; I use data to translate the data to perceived exertion.

Field testing. Tests performed on the road or track can provide excellent estimations of training zones:

  • As long as the tests are performed properly
  • Accurate data is collected during the test(pace, heart rate, power, etc.)
  • The data is analyzed properly.

Data from field tests are plugged into formulas or tables to determine training zones, but often they are artfully analyzed by a trained Exercise Physiologist or coach.

Lab testing. Unarguably the most accurate method of gathering data about your current fitness level. This method used sophisticated scientific equipment (metabolic analyzer, which measures O2 and CO2 levels in exhaled air and lactate monitor, which measures blood lactate) to determine your energy needs and metabolism at varying levels of exertion. Data from the lab tests will provide precise training zones along with corresponding heart rates and paces.

Whatever place you are in your training program, determining your training zones and sticking to them in training will maximize your workouts and lead to optimal performance!