Using different heart rate zones for triathlon training allows you to pick the right intensity for quality workouts. Here’s how it works.

Heart rate zones are a great way to make sure your training is as efficient and effective as possible. This is because they provide a simple way to divide up intensities, allowing you to train at different levels.

By understanding the training benefits associated with different heart rate zones, you can more easily tailor your training plan to suit your goals – helping ensure the best quality bike and run sessions to increase your fitness and improve triathlon performance.

So, what are the different heart rate zones?

Training zones are typically split into five or more bands, based on maximum heart rate. Each of these zones is designed to provide a different training stimulus, with lower intensities helping recovery and endurance and higher zones promoting speed and pure power.

There is some slight variation in the exact percentages prescribed for each zone by different coaching authorities. Here we’ve outlined the commonly used 10-percent breakdown, which was established by heart rate monitor pioneers Polar.

Heart Rate Zones

Zone 1 – Recovery: 50-60% of Max Heartrate

This lowest intensity zone does just enough to warm-up the muscles and get the blood flowing to help improve recovery. Zone 1 sessions are ideal the day after a high-intensity workout. You should be able to easily hold full conversations while working in this zone.

It should feel like: It’s super easy and you’re hardly working at all.


Zone 2 – Light/Steady: 60-70% of Max Heartrate

This is a key aerobic zone for building endurance, helping to improve the body’s ability to oxidise fat as a fuel and increase muscle glycogen storage. Zone 2 sessions are essential for triathlon, especially long-course athletes exercising for hours at a time. You should be able to speak a sentence or two at a time without getting out of breath.

It should feel like: You can comfortably sustain this intensity for hours.


Zone 3 – Moderate: 70-80% of Max Heartrate

This is the aerobic-fitness zone, helping to improve circulation efficiency of the heart and muscles. Lactic acid will start to build, but as a fuel for the muscles to use rather than a performance limiter.

Zone 3 is ideal for longer reps with shorter intervals – around 10 to 20 minutes with one to three-minute recoveries. Breathing will be harder and you’ll probably only be able to get a few words out between breaths.

It should feel like: You’re working at a tough effort but not maxing out.


Zone 4 – Hard: 80-90% of Max Heartrate

This is where the intervals bite hard but give back speed-endurance improvements and better carbohydrate utilisation. Zone 4 training also boosts lactate threshold – the ability to withstand higher blood lactate levels – and causes hypertrophy (increase and growth) of slow-twitch muscle fibres.

As Zone 4 quickly leads to fatigue, it’s best for shorter intervals around two to eight minutes in length with one-to-two-minute recoveries. You’ll probably be reduced to the odd word or grunt!

It should feel like: You’re powering hard but haven’t lost control.


Zone 5 – Very Hard: 90-100% of Max Heartrate

This is the very top of your physical capabilities. Your heart and respiratory system are at their max and lactic acid will quickly build. While this means you can’t hold this intensity for long, working in this zone is great for building top-end speed.

Intervals in Zone 5 should be one to three minutes with at least equal recovery to the interval length. Zone 5 is for pushing your boundaries so isn’t as necessary for new athletes who will find plenty of performance gains at lower intensities. It’ll be too painful for any kind of communication during these efforts!

It should feel like: You can’t go any harder.

Heart Rate Training - Sebastian Kienle - Polar
Pro athletes like Sebastian Kienle rely on heart rate training for peak performance. (Photo: Polar)

Setting Your Heart Rate Zones

Now you know what each of the five zones are for, you next need to work out your heart rate bands for the zones.

While you can use formulas to give you a rough guide, heart rate equations as a likely to be wrong as right. Therefore, it’s best to find your own maximal heart rate through a max heart rate test.

Check out our guide to testing your maximum heart rate to ensure you get good results.

Once you’ve set your zones, you can start getting more specific with your training. As your body begins to adapt, you should find it easier to maintain the intensities of the zones you’ve been focusing on and be able to cope with them for longer.

This will help set you up for a great triathlon performance, no matter the distance.

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Triathlon Vibe is the home of triathlon training advice for beginner to expert triathletes. From sprint to Ironman, we share how to swim, bike and run stronger and faster.

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