How to Establish Training Intensity Zones for Swimming, Cycling and Running

To execute training effectively, you need to know your training intensity zones.  At Working Triathlete, we utilize the standard “Five Zone Model” for all the swim, bike and run. 

To establish training zones, you need to perform field tests to determine your threshold effort at each of the disciplines.  Through the field test (usually a time trial), you determine your threshold power (i.e. zone 4), pace and/or heart rate for each of the disciplines.  Once this is established, you can calculate your effort for the other zones relative to your threshold intensity.

how to establish your swim threshold

There are two ways to establish your approximate swim threshold pace.

- If you are an experienced swimmer, you should warm up and swim a 1,000 y/m time trial all out.  Your pace per 100 is your threshold or T- pace. 

-If a 1,000 y/m time trial is daunting, you can break up the test into three intervals of 300 y/m each with 30 seconds rest between each interval.  The average pace per 100 for the three intervals is your threshold pace.

how to establish your cycling threshold

In cycling, two important threshold metrics are your functional threshold power (FTP) and threshold heart rate (THR).  The former requires a power meter to establish, while the latter just requires a heart rate monitor.  Ideally, you should know both your cycling FTP and THR.

-To establish your FTP, you should warm up on your bike and execute a five min all-out effort.  After a five minute recovery, you should then execute an all-out 20 minute effort.  It should hurt.  Take your average power over the 20 minute effort and multiply by 0.95.  This is your FTP, or middle of zone 4 intensity. 

-If you don’t have a power meter, you can establish your THR with a heart rate monitor.  To do this, warm up for 20-30 minutes and perform an all-out 30 minute effort.  Your average heart rate over the last 20 minutes of the 30 minute effort is your THR.

NOTE: The all-out efforts should be as hard as you can go for the respective time trial duration at a steady power output.  Do not sprint at the start and fade.  Aim to put out maximal steady wattage over the entire 20 or 30 minute effort.

how to establish your run threshold

Establishing your threshold pace and heart rate for running is similar to that of cycling.  After a good warm up, you should do a 30 minute maximal effort with a heart rate monitor.  Your average pace for the effort is your threshold pace, and your average heart rate over the last 20 minutes is your running THR.  Typically athletes have a slightly higher run THR than cycling THR.

how to convert from one metric to the other

When a workout is stipulated as percentage of your threshold heart rate, pace, power, or RPE, you can always convert it to another metric. To do so, refer to one of the linked charts below:

Intensity Metric Conversion Chart Excel

Intensity Metric Conversion Chart PDF