Getting Started With Your Iron Cowboy Plan  

Thank you for choosing an Iron Cowboy training plan. We want your training experience to be successful. To that end, we have created this step-by-step guide to ensure that you get the most out of your plan.

Step 1: Review Essential Iron Cowboy Resources

For the most part, your Iron Cowboy training plan will be self-explanatory. There are some concepts that, when fully understood, will further improve your training. Consider reading these three core documents before you ever choose a training plan:

 

Understanding the Optimization of SOAR Training

and

Understanding Your Running Plan

Intensity Guidelines for Running

or

Understanding Your Triathlon Plan

Intensity Guidelines for Triathlon

 

Step 2: Setup Your SOAR Intensity Zones

Iron Cowboy training plans provide you with your custom intensity zones for each workout. For example, when the workout calls for an interval of Zone 3, it will prompt you with your unique Zone 3 intensity range (i.e. 152-166 bpm or 7:55-7:15 per mile). But, this only works if you setup your unique intensity zones.

Visit the Activity Zones and select the zone type you will most use often (Heart Rate, Power, or Pace). Don’t worry, you’re not committed to only using one type of intensity, you can change from Heart Rate to Pace later on by visiting the Activity Zones page. Next, choose the activity type. Note that you can choose a different zone type for each activity. You can train by Heart Rate on the bike and Pace for the run. Then, select your threshold for your activity type. This will vary by sport.

You can find your thresholds for each sport by performing the field tests in the documents Intensity Guidelines for Running and Triathlonas discussed in Step 1. If you don’t know your thresholds yet, don’t worry, you can skip this step, or even estimate for the first few weeks until your plan calls for a threshold test. Until then, your threshold is an estimate of the maximum level of intensity (Heart Rate, Pace, or Power) you think you can hold for 30 minutes.

Finally, choose the SOAR calculation method from the Auto Calculate Zones menu and click Apply. Be sure to Save Zone when finished.

Repeat these steps for each zone and activity type you want to train with. For example, if you are a runner, you may want to complete Heart Rate and Pace for Running. If you are a triathlete, you may want to setup Heart Rate for Running and Cycling, and perhaps Pace for both Running and Swimming, and even Power for Cycling and Running. Tip: When selecting Run or Swim Pace, be sure to click the Apply button below the section where you enter your threshold pace.

 

 

Step 3: Download the Final Surge Smartphone App

Iron Cowboy plans are powered by Final Surge, the leading training log for runners and triathletes. The app is the next best thing to the plans themselves. Available for iOS and Android devices, virtually anything you can do on the Team Iron Cowboy site, you can do on your phone.

 

 

 

Understanding the Optimization of SOAR Training

Intensity.

It’s one of the most fundamental and important variable in the training of endurance athletes. In lay terms, intensity is simply how hard you’re swimming, cycling, or running relative to your personal limit. There are three general zones of intensity: low, moderate, and high. Exercise scientists typically place the border between low and moderate intensity at the first ventilatory threshold, which is a bit lower than the familiar lactate threshold. The border between moderate and high intensity falls at the second ventilatory threshold, which is slightly higher than the lactate threshold.


Each intensity zone affects an athlete’s fitness differently. So here’s the key question: What is the optimal balance of time spent at low, moderate, and high intensity for athletes seeking maximum fitness?

The only way to answer this question definitively is to rigorously compare the effects of different intensity ratios on real-world performance. Such studies are difficult to do, so few have been done. Recently, however, a handful of researchers has completed experiments that have gone a long way toward pinning down the optimal balance of training intensities. Specifically, these new studies have shown that endurance athletes of all ability and experience levels seem to improve the most when they do approximately 80 percent of their training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate and high intensity.

This is important to know, because while nearly all elite endurance athletes follow this 80/20 intensity distribution, most recreational athletes don’t. According to a study by Muriel Gilman at Arizona State University, for example, the typical adult competitive runner does only 46 percent of his or her training at low intensity and another 46 percent at moderate intensity. And a more recent study by Scottish researchers found that even recreational triathletes training for an Ironman event spent less than 70 percent of their training time at low intensity.

Chances are you, too, are caught in the “moderate-intensity rut” without realizing it. If so, then the surest way for you to get fitter and race faster is to start obeying the SOAR principle of Optimization: spend 80 percent of your training at low intestines, and 20 percent at moderate to high. Fortunately, this optimization is built in to every Team Iron Cowboy training plan.
 

Optimization in SOAR Training

SOAR stands for Stress, Optimization, Adapt, Recover. Most athletes have no problem applying general Stress. That comes with diligent training. The problem is when and how much stress. The Adapt component is what makes us faster. Repeated bouts of measured Stress and Recovery for the body to Adapt, and increases performance. But Adaptation can't happen when the body is continually fatigued, and fatigued in a way you often can't notice. Team Iron Cowboy plans distribute the Stress and Recovery in a manner that maximizes the subsequent Adaptation.


But Optimization is where Team Iron Cowboy plans excel. By meticulously measuring the distribution of low, moderate and high intensities, it ensures you won't fall into the same intensity trap that most athletes fall in to.

The discoverer of the 80/20 distribution is Stephen Seiler, an American exercise scientist based in Norway. In the early 2000s, Seiler embarked on a mission to determine how elite endurance athletes really train. He found a remarkably consistent pattern: World-class cyclists, Nordic skiers, rowers, runners, swimmers, and triathletes all did approximately 80 percent of their training at low intensity. For example, in 1995 French researchers reported that elite swimmers did 77 percent of their training at low intensity over the course of a full season, while in 2001 another group of French scientists found that elite marathon runners did 78 percent of their training slower than marathon pace, which for runners at this level falls just above the boundary between low and moderate intensity.


Seiler knew it was unlikely that this pattern was the result of either random coincidence or copycatting. The only explanation that made any sense was that this particular balance of training intensities had annihilated others (such as the interval-based approach that was dominant in the 1950s) because it did a better job of increasing aerobic capacity, a goal shared by elite athletes in all endurance disciplines.

The ubiquitous reliance of elite endurance athletes on the 80/20 training approach does not itself constitute conclusive proof that it is more effective than the alternatives. In search of such proof, Seiler collaborated with Jonathan Esteve-Lanao a club running coach and an exercise scientist at the European University of Madrid, on a series of experiments. One of these studies involved 12 high-level male runners from Esteve-Lanao’s club with 10k times between 30 and 35 minutes. Half of the subjects were placed on a training program that required them to do 80 percent of their training at low intensity and and 20 percent at moderate and high intensity for five months. The other six runners did 65 percent of their training at low intensity and 35 percent at moderate and high intensity. Both groups averaged 50 to 55 miles of running per week. All 12 runners completed 10.4-km time trials  before and after the training period. On average, the runners in the 80/20 group lowered their times 36 seconds more that those in the 65/35 group.

Intrigued by these results, Seiler and Esteve-Lanao conducted a follow up study that was designed to determine whether 80/20 training also worked better for slower runners who trained less. This study involved 30 runners who ran less than 40 miles per week and had 10K times of just under 40 minutes. Half of the runners followed the 80/20 distribution while the other half maintained a 50/50 split (as most adult competitive runners do). After 10 weeks, the runners in the 50/50 group had lowered their 10K time by an average of 3.5 percent, while the runners who followed 80/20 training most faithfully improved by double that amount.

Studies involving athletes in other endurance disciplines outside of running have yielded similar similar results. In a 2014 study, for example, Seiler and Esteve-Lanao found that, within the group of nine recreational triathletes, those who spent the greatest percentage of their training time at low intensity recorded the fastest finishing times in an Ironman event.

In future research, Seiler and Esteve-Lanao hope to learn why an 80/20 intensity balance is optimal. Existing evidence suggests that training above the ventilatory threshold is just too stressful to be effective in large amounts, whereas low-intensity training has much higher point of diminishing returns. A 1999 study by Veronique Billat, for example, found that middle-distance runners who did three easy runs and three intervals runs per week for four weeks exhibited higher levels of stress hormones and a decline in VO2max compared to when they did five easy runs and one interval run per week for four hours.

You Can Escape the Moderate-Intensity Rut and Maximize Performance

How? It's built into every Team Iron Cowboy plan. By following the plan and understanding the intensity zones described in Understanding your Running or Triathlon plan, and Intensity Guidelines for Running or Triathlon, you'll can be sure that you're following the SOAR protocols to reach your endurance performance goals.

 

Understanding Your Team Iron Cowboy Running Plan

Be sure to read Intensity Guidelines for Running after reading this article.

A training plan is only as good as execution. Even the best training plan won’t help you much if you don’t understand it. This article offers guidelines and tips to help you get the most out of the Team Iron Cowboy Run plans.

 

Anatomy of a Workout

Each workout has three basic elements. The first two are duration/distance (how long the workout is) and intensity (how fast the workout is). The third is structure, which is how the workout is divided into segments of various lengths and intensities. The workout descriptions you see in the training schedules provide information about duration/distance, intensity, and structure in a condensed format.

Let’s look at one example:

Long Interval Run

5 minutes in Zone 1, 5 minutes in Zone 2, 5 x (3 minutes in in Zone 4/2 minutes in Zone 1), 5 minutes in Zone 1

We chose this example because it has a fairly complex structure. Nevertheless, it’s not at all difficult to decode and follow. The workout has three segments: a warm-up, an interval set, and a cool-down.

“5 minutes in Zone 1, 5 minutes in Zone 2,” is the warm-up segment. You’ll execute this part by jogging easily for 5 minutes at Zone 1 intensity and then running for 5 minutes at Zone 2 intensity.

“5 x (3 minutes in in Zone 4/2 minutes in Zone 1)” is the interval segment. What these instructions are telling you to do is run for 3 minutes in Zone 4, then slow down and jog for 2 minutes in Zone 1, and repeat this sequence a total of five times.

“5 minutes in Zone 1” is the cool-down segment. You’ll execute this by jogging easily for 5 minutes at Zone 1 intensity. There is an almost infinite variety of workout structures, but if you understand how to interpret and apply the example we just covered, you can do the same with any other workout.

 

Getting to Know Your Zones

Perhaps the trickiest part of executing the workouts that are prescribed in a training plan is running at the right intensity in each segment. You will find complete guidelines for using our seven-zone intensity scale in our Intensity Guidelines. But simply reading these guidelines alone won’t enable you to fully master the skill of running in the right zones. A certain amount of experience is also required.

Don’t worry: It doesn’t take long to develop a feel for the various zones, so that, for example, when you start a 3-minute interval in Zone 3, you are able to settle into the right effort level even before your heart rate monitor or GPS watch confirms that you’re in the correct zone. Here are some specific tips for mastering each individual zone:

Zone 1

Zone 1 is a very low intensity. Staying within it usually requires that you actively hold yourself back to a pace that’s slower than your natural running pace. The common exception is when a Zone 1 recovery jog follows a tiring high-intensity effort. The important thing to understand is that it’s almost impossible to go too slow when you’re aiming for Zone 1, whereas it’s very easy and all to common to go too fast.

Zone 2

Zone 2 is fairly broad. You might wonder, “Where exactly within this zone should I be?” As a general rule, we encourage runners to go by feel. If you feel strong, run near the top end of Zone 2. If you feel tired or sluggish, go ahead and allow yourself to run near the bottom end.

Zone X

Zone X is the trap that most runners fall into, and avoiding it is one of the key objectives of the SOAR Training approach. Just easy enough to not be uncomfortable, yet just hard enough to make you think you’re getting a good workout, this lukewarm intensity offers minimal value in increasing fitness while generating fatigue that interferes with recovery and with performance in subsequent intense workouts. Avoiding Zone X allows you to go harder on the hard days and gain more fitness. For half and full marathon athletes, Zone X is used sparingly in the Specific phase of training to prepare you for your event and simulate race intensity, as Zone X does overlap with race intensity for these longer distances.

Zone 3

Zone 3 corresponds to lactate threshold intensity and marks the beginning of “legitimate” moderate to high intensity. Thinking in “threshold” terms can help you find this zone and stay in it by feel. The feeling of swimming, riding, or running in Zone 3 is often described as “comfortably hard,” or as the fastest speed that still feels relaxed. When you perform a Zone 3 effort, imagine there’s a cliff edge in front of you that represents the feeling of strain that accompanies faster speeds. Always stay one or two steps back from that precipice when training in Zone 3.

Zone Y

While Zone Y is not as detrimental as Zone X, this narrow intensity gap simply isn’t targeted by any of the tried-and-true workout formats. It’s a little too fast for threshold workouts, which traditionally target Zone 3, and a little too slow for high-intensity interval workouts, which offer more fitness bang for your workout buck when done in Zones 4 and 5.

Zone 4

Zone 4 is the narrowest Zone. Mastering this zone is a matter of connecting the pace and/or heart rate numbers that define the zone with what it feels like to run at that pace or heart rate, so that you are able to reliably start each Zone 4 effort at the right intensity. If you mess it up the first few times, either going too slow or too fast, don’t sweat it. in fact, getting it wrong today is the best way to get it right tomorrow.

Zone 5

Zone 5 is almost always used in interval workouts similar to the one given as an example earlier in this article. This intensity zone ranges from the highest speed you can sustain for a few minutes all the way to a full sprint. So how fast should you actually run Zone 5 efforts? Tailor your pace to the specific format of the workout. The rule of thumb here is to run closer to the bottom end of Zone 5 when these efforts are longer and to run closer to the top end when the intervals are shorter. For example, if a workout asks you to run a bunch of 90-second intervals in Zone 5, you’ll want to control your pace so that you are able to run all of the intervals at the same speed without slowing down. But if a workout prescribes a set of 20-second intervals, you’ll want to run them as relaxed sprints.

You may wonder why a seven-zone intensity scale such as ours tops out at Zone 5. The reason is that in the original version of the scale, Zone X and Zone Y were not explicitly named. Instead these zones existed only as gaps between Zones 2 and 3 and between Zones 3 and 4, respectively. The first gap was created to ensure that low-intensity exercise efforts did not accidentally bleed into moderate intensity and the second to encourage athletes to commit to either moderate or high intensity. Nevertheless, many athletes found the gaps confusing, so we modified the Team Iron Cowboy intensity scale in a manner that eliminates gaps and the confusion they cause while preserving the distinction between untargeted zones (X and Y) and targeted zones (1-5).

 

Two-a-Days

In the advanced run plans, some days have two workouts scheduled in the same day. These are always scheduled with the first workout as a Run and the second as a Run or Cross-train. Regardless of whether you choose to run or cross-train the second workout, the two workouts would ideally be done in the AM and PM, or at least as far apart as possible. In extreme circumstances, the two workouts can be combined together, but preferably the second workout is simply moved to another day of the week.

 

Cross-training

When should you cross-train and when should you run? There are two competing, but equally valid, truths to consider when deciding whether to run or to cross-train. First, the more you run, the more you’ll improve as a runner. The principle of specificity teaches us that if you run instead of cross-training each time you’re given the option, your running performance will increase more than if you do the opposite. Second, the more you run, the more likely it is that you will develop an impact-related overuse injury such as runner’s knee. So, if you’re injury prone or concerned about injury, you may be better off doing some or all of these option workouts in a nonimpact cardio exercise modality such as bicycling Finding the right balance for you may require some trial and error (See the section The Importance of Listening to Your Body below). When in doubt, play it safe and cross-train, and even if you’ve been durable in the past, don’t do all of the option workouts as runs if this would entail running a lot more frequently than you have in the past.

The best cross-training activities are those that are most similar to running without the impact element. Pool running, antigravity treadmill running, indoor and outdoor cycling, elliptical running, outdoor elliptical biking, steep uphill treadmill walking, indoor and outdoor cross-country skiing, inline skating, and steep uphill treadmill walking have all been used successfully. Strength training is a completely different sort of cross-training that we strongly recommend but as a complement to aerobic cross-training rather than a substitute for it.

Note that effective training requires that you spend 80 percent of your combined aerobic training, encompassing running and cross-training, at low intensity. In the case of our Run plans, this means all of your cross-training sessions need to be done in Zones 1 and 2.

In addition to performing cross-training on the days the plan offers cross-training, you may replace scheduled runs with cross-training sessions whenever pain or soreness makes running inadvisable. When you do, simply match the duration, intensity, and structure of the run in your chosen cross-training activity. For example, if the run workout prescribes 3 x (3 minutes Zone 3 / 3 minutes rest), this can be done via heart rate zones or perceived effort on a bike, or in any other legs-dominant nonimpact aerobic modality.

 

Perfection is Overrated

While it’s important to execute workouts as they were intended to be done, it is not necessary that you execute every perfectly, and you shouldn’t beat  yourself up when a given is not done to the letter. If the 10-mile run on your schedule for today ends up being a 9.9-mile, no big deal.

There’s a well-know story about a legendary running coach who always had his athletes run 187-meter hill repetitions. Another coach who admired this legendary coach emailed him to inquire about this very precise distance. “Why 187 meters?” he asked, assuming there must be some deep physiological rationale for it. But the legendary coach came back with this answer, “Why 187 meters? Because that’s how long the hill closest to our training camp is.”

Keep this story in mind as you can execute your Team Iron Cowboy Run plans. As with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is good enough.

 

The Importance of Listening to Your Body

There are some times when executing the workouts in your training plan to the very letter is a bad idea. For example, if you get three intervals into a nine-interval workout and you feel absolutely terrible, you should probably stop, or replace the remaining intervals with an easy jog. (A helpful guideline to follow is this: If your pace for a given interval is more than 3% slower than it was in the previous interval, terminate the interval set and complete the remaining time in Zone 1 or 2.) Similarly,  if you wake up one morning with a really sore foot that hurts even to walk on, you should not run that day.

 

A training plan is really an attempt to predict the future. The many workouts that comprise a training  plan represent what you should do if everything goes perfectly-that is, if there are no days when you feel really lousy or have an alarming sore spot. But things seldom go perfectly  all the way through a training program. It’s important that you listen to your body at every step of the process and make adjustments as necessary based on what your body is telling you.

 

Glossary of Workout Codes

Acronym

Long Name

Description

RAe

Running Aerobic Intervals

This running aerobic interval set is intended to prepare the athlete for the specific intensity and stress of half and full Ironman racing. The Zone 2 intervals should be done at the expected intensity of the athlete’s next half or full Ironman. For new athletes, this will be low to mid Zone 2. For more experienced athletes, this intensity will take place in upper Zone 2. For advanced athletes, these intervals can even include Zone X, a rare exception to the SOAR system.

RAn

Running Anaerobic

When executed properly, this anaerobic interval set is the most effective method at increasing an athlete’s VO2max. While VO2max is only one component an athlete’s success, it is a direct predictor of endurance performance. Additionally, VO2 intervals have been proven to be more effective at improving overall economy than submaximal (threshold) or supramaximal intervals. Thus, a successful integration of these intervals in the General phase of training places the athlete in an advantageous position for the upcoming Specific phase, and ultimately their endurance performance results. These intervals are challenging, and the athlete must take great care to not perform them at a Zone 3 or Zone 5 intensity. The unusually high rest period compared to a Zone 3 work reflects the difficulty of the interval. The SOAR principle is fundamental to executing these anaerobic intervals, as the athlete has deliberately trained easy 80% of the time in order to have the form necessary to maintain this repeated Zone 4 intensity. These anaerobic intervals are permission to go very hard. Be bold, but measured. A successful anaerobic interval set will have the athlete’s output (pace, speed, power) be almost identical for each interval, in Zone 4, and without fade.

RCI

Running Cruise Intervals

Muscular endurance is arguably the most important ability an endurance athlete can develop, and no other interval improves muscular endurance better than the cruise interval. The application of the cruise interval is broad. The only interval type appropriate for both the General and Specific phase of training, its benefit spans all triathlon distances. The SOAR principle makes the cruise interval possible, by ensuring the athlete is sufficiently rested in order to achieve the required Zone 3 intensity. The cruise interval is the antithesis of Zone X. A successful cruise interval set has the output for each interval nearly identical to the previous, while maintaining solid Zone 3 intensity. Consider reducing the rest time from 3 minutes to 2 minutes and then 2 minutes to 1 minute if previous cruise intervals sets have been successful.

Rest

Rest

Athletes can consider adding a strength workout to this day, and beginner swimmers can consider adding a swim. However, rest is a critical element of improving fitness. Adding activity to this rest day is a high risk decision. Very few athletes, of any ability level, can maintain a 16+ week training program without regular days off.

RF

Running Foundation

Discipline is required for the running foundation set. If rested, the temptation is to drift into Zone X. However, save your energy for the 20% of the 80/20 distribution, and stay in Zone 1-2 for this workout. Avoid running with individuals who will tempt you to exceed Zone 2.

RFF

Running Fast Finish

One of the few workouts designed with the intensity scheduled for the end of the workout, the intent is to expose the athlete to high intensity while slightly fatigued. An excellent simulation of a triathlon finish.

RHR

Running Hill Repeats

Because the run hill repeats are so short, the athlete will have to often use perceived effort to gauge intensity, as HR may not reach Zone 5 prior to the interval ending. This workout is an excellent time to go very hard, but aim to have each interval with a similar output and avoid fading near the end of the interval. If hills are unavailable, a treadmill is recommended. If neither option is available, the prescribed intensity and duration can still be met.

RL

Running Long

Similar to the frequent Run Foundation workout, the Long Run is measured by distance to ensure the athlete experiences the required stress. Upper Zone 2 is recommended. Half and full marathon athletes may benefit from a rare Zone X exception and spend a majority of their time in Zone X for this workout. Every effort should be made to “negative split” the workout, where the second half of the run is slightly faster than the first half. Complete this workout by distance only, any planned time associated with this workout is a broad estimate.

RLFF

Running Long with Fast Finish

This workout is designed to teach the athlete’s body and brain to resist and manage fatigue, placing the most stress at the very end of the workout. Half and full marathon athletes may benefit from a rare Zone X exception and replace some of the Zone 2 time with Zone X. Complete this workout by distance only, any planned time associated with this workout is a broad estimate.

RLI

Running Long Intervals

Highly intense and rarely used, these heavy Zone 4 intervals mimic their fraternal twin, the anaerobic intervals (code RAn). The extended Zone 4 duration and reduced recovery interval reserve this workout for advanced athletes.

RLMS

Running Marathon Simulator

 The Marathon Simulator is intended to introduce the athlete to the specific stress, pacing nutrition, clothing and terrain of race day. Pre-workout meal and preparation should simulate the environment of race day as much as possible. The course for this workout should be similar in nature to the marathon race course. Pacing should measured to negative split the 16 miles. Complete this workout by distance only, any planned time associated with this workout is a broad estimate.

RLSP

Running Long with Speed Play

A successful execution of this workout would have the pace of the Zone 3 intervals remain steady or slightly increase throughout the activity. You may be cursing Matt and David by the end of the intervals, but you’ll be praising them on race day. Complete this workout by distance only, any planned time associated with this workout is a broad estimate.

RMI

Running Mixed Intervals

Complex in execution, the reward is high. This workout is best done pre-programmed into a watch (such as a Garmin).

RR

Running Recovery

Take advantage of this day with active recovery. Avoid even Zone 2.

RSI

Running Short Intervals

Unlike the very similar running hill repeats (RHR) the running short interval is done on a flat surface. Feel free to go hard.

RSP

Running Speed Play

 Not to be confused with the Zone 5 running short interval (RSI), running speed play is done in Zone 4 with much shorter recoveries. If done in Zone 5, the athlete will fade.

RT

Running Tempo

The running tempo workout does an excellent job at muscular endurance, and should be used as a method to either verify or re-establish current HR Zones. A difficult workout, pacing is key. Start slightly lower and finish stronger. Some brief forays into Zone 4 are acceptable.

RTa

Running Taper

Brief, but fast intervals to promote the taper.

 

 

Understanding Your Team Iron Cowboy Triathlon Plan

Be sure to read Intensity Guidelines for Triathlon after reading this article.

A training plan is only as good as its execution. Even the best training plan won’t help you much if you don’t understand it. This document offers guidelines and tips to help you get the most out of the Team Iron Cowboy training plans.

 

Anatomy of a Workout

Each workout has three basic elements. The first two are duration/distance (how long the workout is) and intensity (how fast the workout is). The third is structure, which is how the workout is divided into segments of various lengths and intensities.

The workout descriptions you see in the training schedules provide duration/distance, intensity, and structure information in a condensed format. Let’s look at a cycling example:

Cycling Cruise Interval

5 minutes Z1, 20 minutes Z2, 3 x (5 minutes Z3/3 minutes Z1) 5 minutes Z2, 6 minutes Z1

We chose this example because it has a fairly complex structure. Nevertheless, it’s not at all difficult to decode and follow. The workout has three segments: a warm-up, an interval set, and a cool-down.

“5 minutes in Z1, 20 minutes in Z2,” is the warm-up segment. You’ll execute this part by cycling easily for 5 minutes at Zone 1 intensity and then for 20 more minutes at Zone 2 intensity.

“3 x (5 minutes in Z3/3 minutes in Z1)” is the interval segment. Cycle for 5 minutes in Zone 3, then slow down and cycle for 3 minutes in Zone 1, and repeat this sequence a total of three times.

“5 minutes Z2, 6 minutes Z1” is the cool-down segment. As in the warm-up, you’ll execute it by cycling easily for 5 minutes at Zone 2 intensity, then finishing for 6 minutes in Zone 1 (the final 6 minutes make the workout exactly 1 hour).

There is an almost infinite variety of workout structures, but if you understand how to interpret and apply the example we just covered, you can do the same with any other workout. Let’s now take a look at a swimming example:

Swimming Speed Play

250 yd Z1, 500 yd Z2, 5 x (50 yd Z4/20″ rest) 500 yd Z2, 250 yd Z1

Like the cycling example, the swim workouts will generally follow the same format of warm-up, interval, and cooldown. Unlike most of the cycling and running workouts, however, the swim workouts will be based on distance, not time.

“250 yd Z1, 500 yd Z2” is the warm-up segment, which also doubles as your drill segment for swimming. Note that while all the swim workouts are measured in yards, you can swap yards for meters without compromising the overall integrity of the plan.

The interval segment of “5 x (50 yd Z4/20″ rest)” means you will swim for 50 yards (or meters) in Zone 4, followed by 20 seconds’ rest, and repeat this sequence five times.

Finally, “500 yd Z2, 250 yd Z1” is, of course, your cooldown and drill segment.

 

Getting to Know Your Zones

Perhaps the trickiest part of executing the workouts that are prescribed in a training plan is training at the right intensity in each segment. You will find complete guidelines for using our Seven-zone intensity scale in our Intensity Guidelines. But simply reading these guidelines alone won’t enable you to fully master the skill of training in the right zones. A certain amount of experience is also required.

Don’t worry: It doesn’t take long to develop a feel for the various zones, so that, for example, when you start a 3-minute interval in Zone 3, you are able to settle into the right effort level even before your heart rate monitor, power meter, or GPS watch confirms that you’re in the correct zone. Here are some specific tips for mastering each individual zone:

Zone 1

Zone 1 is a very low intensity. Staying within it usually requires that you actively hold yourself back to a pace that’s slower than your natural pace. The common exception is when a Zone 1 segment follows a tiring high-intensity effort. The important thing to understand is that it’s almost impossible to go too slow when you’re aiming for Zone 1, whereas it’s very easy and all to common to go too fast.

Zone 2

Zone 2 is fairly broad. You might wonder, “Where exactly within this zone should I be?” As a general rule, we encourage triathletes to go by feel. If you feel strong, swim, ride, or run near the top end of Zone 2. If you feel tired or sluggish, go ahead and allow yourself to exercise near the bottom end.

Zone X

Zone X is the trap that most triathletes fall into, and avoiding it is one of the key objectives of the SOAR training approach. Just easy enough to not be uncomfortable, yet just hard enough to make you think you’re getting a good workout, this lukewarm intensity offers minimal value in increasing fitness while generating fatigue that interferes with recovery and with performance in subsequent intense workouts. Avoiding Zone X allows you to go harder on the hard days and gain more fitness. For half and full Ironman athletes, Zone X is used sparingly in the Specific phase of training to prepare you for your event, as Zone X does overlap with race intensity for these longer distances.

Zone 3

Zone 3 corresponds to lactate threshold intensity and marks the beginning of “legitimate” moderate to high intensity. Thinking in “threshold” terms can help you find this zone and stay in it by feel. The feeling of swimming, riding, or running in Zone 3 is often described as “comfortably hard,” or as the fastest speed that still feels relaxed. When you perform a Zone 3 effort, imagine there’s a cliff edge in front of you that represents the feeling of strain that accompanies faster speeds. Always stay one or two steps back from that precipice when training in Zone 3.

Zone Y

While Zone Y is not as detrimental as Zone X, this narrow intensity gap simply isn’t targeted by any of the tried-and-true workout formats. It’s a little too fast for threshold workouts, which traditionally target Zone 3, and a little too slow for high-intensity interval workouts, which offer more fitness bang for your workout buck when done in Zones 4 and 5.

Zone 4

Zone 4 is the narrowest training Zone. Mastering this zone is a matter of connecting the pace, power, and/or heart rate numbers that define the zone with what it feels like to train at that power, pace, or heart rate, so that you are able to reliably start each zone 4 effort at the right intensity. If you mess it up the first few times, either going too slow or too fast, don’t sweat it. In fact, getting it wrong today is the best way to get it right tomorrow.

Zone 5

Zone 5 is almost always used in interval workouts similar to the one given as an example earlier in this article. This intensity zone ranges from the highest speed you can sustain for a few minutes all the way to a full sprint. So how fast should you actually go in Zone 5 efforts?

Tailor your effort to the specific format of the workout. The rule of thumb here is to stay closer to the bottom end of Zone 5 when these efforts are longer and hew closer to the top end when the intervals are shorter. For example, if a workout asks you to run a bunch of 90-second intervals in Zone 5, you’ll want to control your pace so that you are able to run all of the intervals at the same speed without slowing down. But if a workout prescribes a set of 20-second intervals, you’ll want to do them as relaxed sprints.

You may wonder why a seven-zone intensity scale such as ours tops out at Zone 5. The reason is that in the original version of the scale, Zone X and Zone Y were not explicitly named. Instead these zones existed only as gaps between Zones 2 and 3 and between Zones 3 and 4, respectively. The first gap was created to ensure that low-intensity exercise efforts did not accidentally bleed into moderate intensity and the second to encourage athletes to commit to either moderate or high intensity. Nevertheless, many athletes found the gaps confusing, so we modified the 80/20 intensity scale in a manner that eliminates gaps and the confusion they cause while preserving the distinction between untargeted zones (X and Y) and targeted zones (1-5).

 

Perfection Is Overrated

While it’s important to execute workouts as they were intended to be done, it is not necessary that you execute every workout perfectly, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up when a given workout is not done to the letter. If the 2-hour ride on your schedule for today ends up being a 1:57:30, no big deal.

There’s a well-known story about a legendary running coach who always had his athletes run 187-meter hill repetitions. Another coach who admired this legendary coach emailed him to ask about this very precise distance. “Why 187 meters?” he asked, assuming there must be some deep physiological rationale for it. But the legendary coach came back with this answer: “Why 187 meters? Because that’s how long the hill closest to our training camp is!”

Keep this story in mind as you execute your 80/20 training plan. As with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is good enough.

 

The Importance of Listening to Your Body

There are some times when executing the workouts in your training plan to the very letter is a bad idea. For example, if you get three intervals into a nine-interval workout and you feel absolutely terrible, you should probably stop, or replace the remaining intervals with an easy jog. A helpful guideline to follow is this: If your interval pace or power is >3% less than it was in the previous interval, terminate the interval set and complete the remaining time in Zone 1 or 2. Similarly, if you wake up one morning with a really sore foot that hurts even to walk on, you should not run that day.

A training plan is really an attempt to predict the future. The many workouts that comprise a training plan represent what you should do if everything goes perfectly—that is, if there are no days when you feel really lousy or have an alarming sore spot. But things seldom go perfectly all the way through a training plan. It’s important that you listen to your body at every step of the process and make adjustments as necessary based on what your body is telling you.

 

What If You Miss Workouts?

Things happen. Busy days at work, out-of-town visitors, snowstorms, tendonitis, sharknados, the flu. What should you do if you miss one or more workouts due to one of these factors, or for some other reason?

The answer is that it depends very much on the specific cause and context of the interruption. As a rule of thumb, its best not to try to “make up” missed workouts. If you miss just one or two and you’re healthy, just pick up the schedule where you are. If you miss a bunch of workouts—especially for reasons of injury or illness—you should take at least a few days to ease gently back into training before you return to the schedule. And there may come a point where you’ve missed too much training to ever be able to safely return to the training plan. At that point you just need to hit the “reset” button and start a new plan when you’re ready.

Glossary of Workout Codes

Acronym

Sport

Long Name

Description

CAe

Cycle

Cycling Aerobic Intervals

This cycling aerobic interval set is intended to prepare the athlete for the specific intensity and stress of half and full Ironman racing. The Zone 2 intervals should be done at the expected intensity of the athlete’s next half or full Ironman. For new athletes, this will be low to mid Zone 2. For more experienced athletes, this intensity will take place in upper Zone 2. For advanced athletes, these intervals can even include Zone X, a rare exception to the 80/20 system.

CAn

Cycle

Cycling Anaerobic

When executed properly, this anaerobic interval set is the most effective method at increasing an athlete’s VO2max. While VO2max is only one component an athlete’s success, it is a direct predictor of endurance performance. Additionally, VO2 intervals have been proven to be more effective at improving overall economy than submaximal (threshold) or supramaximal intervals. Thus, a successful integration of these intervals in the General phase of training places the athlete in an advantageous position for the upcoming Specific phase, and ultimately their endurance performance results. These intervals are challenging, and the athlete must take great care to not perform them at a Zone 3 or Zone 5 intensity. The unusually high rest period compared to a Zone 3 work reflects the difficulty of the interval. The 80/20 principle is fundamental to executing these anaerobic intervals, as the athlete has deliberately trained easy 80% of the time in order to have the form necessary to maintain this repeated Zone 4 intensity. These anaerobic intervals are permission to go very hard. Be bold, but measured. A successful anaerobic interval set will have the athlete’s output (pace, speed, power) be almost identical for each interval, in Zone 4, and without fade.

CCI

Cycle

Cycling Cruise Intervals

Muscular endurance is arguably the most important ability an endurance athlete can develop, and no other interval improves muscular endurance better than the cruise interval. The application of the cruise interval is broad. The only interval type appropriate for both the General and Specific phase of training, its benefit spans all triathlon distances. The 80/20 principle makes the cruise interval possible, by ensuring the athlete is sufficiently rested in order to achieve the required Zone 3 intensity. The cruise interval is the antithesis of Zone X. A successful cruise interval set has the output for each interval nearly identical to the previous, while maintaining solid Zone 3 intensity. Consider reducing the rest time from 3 minutes to 2 minutes and then 2 minutes to 1 minute if previous cruise intervals sets have been successful.

CF

Cycle

Cycling Foundation

Discipline is required for the cycling foundation set. If rested, the temptation is to drift into Zone X. However, save your energy for the 20% of the 80/20 plan, and stay in Zone 1-2 for this workout. High cadence. Avoid group cycling that will tempt you to go beyond Zone 2.

CFF

Cycle

Cycling Fast Finish

One of the few workouts designed with the intensity scheduled for the end of the workout, the intent is to expose the athlete to high intensity while slightly fatigued.

CFo

Cycle

Cycling Force

Because the cycling force intervals are so short, the athlete will have to often use perceived effort to gauge intensity, as HR may not reach Zone 5 prior to the interval ending. This workout is an excellent time to go very hard, but aim to have each interval with a similar output and avoid fading near the end of the interval. If hills are unavailable, the athlete can simulate by reducing cadence to 65-75rpm and occasionally standing.

CLI

Cycle

Cycling Long Intervals

Highly intense and rarely used, these heavy Zone 4 intervals mimic their fraternal twin, the anaerobic intervals (code CAn). The extended Zone 4 duration and reduced recovery interval reserve this workout for advanced athletes.

CMI

Cycle

Cycling Mixed Intervals

An exceptionally challenging workout. Half and full Ironman athletes may question the necessity for the suffering caused by this particular workout, but the raw increase in FTP will pay off in subsequent workouts and on race day. Used only in the General phase for half and full Ironman, it (unfortunately) spans into the Specific phase for Spring and Olympic training. Pacing is critical in the first Zone 3 interval, start in low Zone 3 and work your way up.

CRe

Cycle

Cycling Recovery

Take advantage of this day with active recovery. Avoid even Zone 2. High cadence.

CSI

Cycle

Cycling Short Intervals

Unlike the very similar cycling force interval (CFo) the cycling short interval is done with a high cadence and seated. Feel free to go hard.

CSP

Cycle

Cycling Speed Play

Not to be confused with the Zone 5 cycling short interval (CSI), the cycling speed play is done in Zone 4 with much shorter recoveries. If done in Zone 5, the athlete will fade.

CT

Cycle

Cycling Tempo

The cycling tempo workout does an excellent job at muscular endurance, and should be used as a method to either verify or re-establish current HR Zones. A difficult workout, pacing is key. Start slightly lower and finish stronger. Some brief forays into Zone 4 are acceptable.

RAe

Run

Running Aerobic Intervals

This running aerobic interval set is intended to prepare the athlete for the specific intensity and stress of half and full Ironman racing. The Zone 2 intervals should be done at the expected intensity of the athlete’s next half or full Ironman. For new athletes, this will be low to mid Zone 2. For more experienced athletes, this intensity will take place in upper Zone 2. For advanced athletes, these intervals can even include Zone X, a rare exception to the 80/20 system.

RAn

Run

Running Anaerobic

When executed properly, this anaerobic interval set is the most effective method at increasing an athlete’s VO2max. While VO2max is only one component an athlete’s success, it is a direct predictor of endurance performance. Additionally, VO2 intervals have been proven to be more effective at improving overall economy than submaximal (threshold) or supramaximal intervals. Thus, a successful integration of these intervals in the General phase of training places the athlete in an advantageous position for the upcoming Specific phase, and ultimately their endurance performance results. These intervals are challenging, and the athlete must take great care to not perform them at a Zone 3 or Zone 5 intensity. The unusually high rest period compared to a Zone 3 work reflects the difficulty of the interval. The 80/20 principle is fundamental to executing these anaerobic intervals, as the athlete has deliberately trained easy 80% of the time in order to have the form necessary to maintain this repeated Zone 4 intensity. These anaerobic intervals are permission to go very hard. Be bold, but measured. A successful anaerobic interval set will have the athlete’s output (pace, speed, power) be almost identical for each interval, in Zone 4, and without fade.

RCI

Run

Running Cruise Intervals

Muscular endurance is arguably the most important ability an endurance athlete can develop, and no other interval improves muscular endurance better than the cruise interval. The application of the cruise interval is broad. The only interval type appropriate for both the General and Specific phase of training, its benefit spans all triathlon distances. The 80/20 principle makes the cruise interval possible, by ensuring the athlete is sufficiently rested in order to achieve the required Zone 3 intensity. The cruise interval is the antithesis of Zone X. A successful cruise interval set has the output for each interval nearly identical to the previous, while maintaining solid Zone 3 intensity. Consider reducing the rest time from 3 minutes to 2 minutes and then 2 minutes to 1 minute if previous cruise intervals sets have been successful.

Rest

Rest

Rest

Athletes can consider adding a strength workout to this day, and beginner swimmers can consider adding a swim. However, rest is a critical element of improving fitness. Adding activity to this rest day is a high risk decision. Very few athletes, of any ability level, can maintain a 16+ week training program without regular days off.

RF

Run

Running Foundation

Discipline is required for the running foundation set. If rested, the temptation is to drift into Zone X. However, save your energy for the 20% of the 80/20 plan, and stay in Zone 1-2 for this workout. Avoid running with individuals who will tempt you to exceed Zone 2.

RFF

Run

Running Fast Finish

One of the few workouts designed with the intensity scheduled for the end of the workout, the intent is to expose the athlete to high intensity while slightly fatigued. An excellent simulation of a triathlon finish.

RHR

Run

Running Hill Repeats

Because the run hill repeats are so short, the athlete will have to often use perceived effort to gauge intensity, as HR may not reach Zone 5 prior to the interval ending. This workout is an excellent time to go very hard, but aim to have each interval with a similar output and avoid fading near the end of the interval. If hills are unavailable, a treadmill is recommended. If neither option is available, the prescribed intensity and duration can still be met.

RLI

Run

Running Long Intervals

Highly intense and rarely used, these heavy Zone 4 intervals mimic their fraternal twin, the anaerobic intervals (code RAn). The extended Zone 4 duration and reduced recovery interval reserve this workout for advanced athletes.

RMI

Run

Running Mixed Intervals

Complex in execution, the reward is high. This workout is best done pre-programmed into a watch (such as a Garmin).

RRe

Run

Running Recovery

Take advantage of this day with active recovery. Avoid even Zone 2.

RSI

Run

Running Short Intervals

Unlike the very similar running hill repeats (RHR) the running short interval is done on a flat surface. Feel free to go hard.

RT

Run

Running Tempo

The running tempo workout does an excellent job at muscular endurance, and should be used as a method to either verify or re-establish current HR Zones. A difficult workout, pacing is key. Start slightly lower and finish stronger. Some brief forays into Zone 4 are acceptable.

Rta

Run

Running Taper

Brief, but fast intervals to promote the taper.

SAe

Swim

Swimming Aerobic

For half and full Ironman athletes, these intervals can be used to simulate the intensity of race day swimming at upper Zone 2, with perhaps some intensity in Zone X. For Sprint and Olympic athletes, best to keep these at mid Zone 2, and use the more intense Zone 3+ workouts to prepare for racing.

SCI

Swim

Swimming Cruise Intervals

Designed to increase Critical Velocity, these intervals are done at upper Zone 3. Be careful not to get sloppy, form should not be sacrificed for what feels like more power. These are an excellent way to test different techniques, as the athlete can compare the effect of slight conscious changes to the swim stroke on each interval.

SF

Swim

Swimming Foundation

For half and full Ironman athletes, these workouts can be used to simulate the intensity of race day swimming at upper Zone 2, with perhaps some intensity in Zone X. For Sprint and Olympic athletes, best to keep these at mid Zone 2, and use the more intense Zone 3+ workouts to prepare for racing.

SMI

Swim

Swimming Mixed Intervals

Consider using different strokes for this workout. The purpose is intensity, and therefore the athlete is not limited to freestyle.

SRe

Swim

Swimming Recovery

Consider using multiple strokes for this recovery swim. Easy pace.

SSI

Swim

Swimming Short Intervals

This extremely high intensity and frequency will test your ability to maintain form at high speed.

SSP

Swim

Swimming Speedplay

This set should ultimately help improve Critical Velocity, and provide a significant challenge that helps the workout fly by!

ST

Swim

Swimming Tempo

The “big brother” of the swim cruise interval (SCI), take care not to start too fast and fade. Target your Z3 Critical Velocity and hold on to your form.

STa

Swim

Swimming Taper

If possible, in open water at the race venue or similar environment. Brief, but fast intervals to promote the taper.

STT

Swim

Swimming Time Trial

This set is designed to confirm or reestablish your Critical Velocity. Suppose you swim your four-hundred-yard test in 5:55 (5.92 minutes) and your two-hundred-yard test in 2:50 (2.83 minutes). Your critical velocity, then, is (400y – 200y) ÷ (5.92 min. – 2.83 min.) = 64.7 yards/ min. It is customary to express critical speed in the form of time per hundred yards. To make this conversion, divide one hundred by your critical velocity. In this example, 100 ÷ 86.6 = 1.55, or 1 minute 33 seconds.

 

 

Intensity Guidelines for Running

We recommend also reading Understanding Your Running Plan.

Your 80/20 Run plan employs a seven-zone intensity scale. Performing each workout and workout segment at the right intensity is at the heart of SOAR  training. This article provides all of the information you’ll need to determine your intensity zones so you can monitor your intensity during workouts and ensure you’re always in the right zone.

Your personal intensity zones can be automatically calculated based on the protocols described below at the SOAR Zone Calculator. Beginner athletes may find these tests difficult, so feel free to use perceived effort (explained in the second-to-last section) until you are comfortable doing the tests.

There are four ways to measure running intensity: pace, heart rate, power, and perceived effort. Each intensity type has advantages and disadvantages relative to the others:

Pace is useful because it’s a performance-relevant variable. You race on the clock, so why not also train by the clock? However, pace becomes less reliable when you’re running uphill or downhill.

Heart rate is helpful because it helps runners avoid the single most common training mistake: pushing too hard in runs that are supposed to be done at low intensity (Zones 1 and 2). But heart rate is not a reliable way to monitor intensity during short efforts at high intensity because heart rate lags behind abrupt changes in pace. HR for a given effort is also easily influenced by environmental factors such as temperature.

Power is the newest way to measure running intensity, and perhaps the most versatile. Using a running power meter, such as a Stryd, provides instant feedback on running output and is not compromised by terrain or temperature.

Perceived effort—or your subjective sense of how hard you are running—is important because it ultimately determines how fast you run in races. You may set and pursue time-based goals, but perceived effort has the final say in deciding whether you actually do maintain your goal pace or run faster or slower. However, perceived effort is poorly calibrated in many runners and relying on it exclusively carries some risk. In particular, most runners end up running at Zone X (in the gap between Zones 2 and 3) whenever they intend to run at low intensity if they go by feel. Whenever possible, use one of the more objective measures of intensity—pace, heart rate, or power—as your primary intensity metric.

Once you have chosen a method of monitoring intensity in your 80/20 training plan (and you may use more than one), you need establish personal intensity zones for that specific metric, which is done through lactate threshold testing.

 

Lactate Threshold

Team Iron Cowboy run plans use lactate threshold testing to determine training zones. Lactate threshold is defined as the exercise intensity at which lactate, an intermediate product of glucose metabolism, begins to accumulate in the blood. In practical terms, it’s the highest exercise intensity that can be sustained for up to 60 minutes. The most reliable field tests for use in identifying appropriate individual training intensities are those that pinpoint the lactate threshold (LT). Although monitoring the blood lactate concentration during exercise isn’t practical or easy, this isn’t a problem. The lactate threshold field tests detailed below are designed to reveal your pace, power, or heart rate at LT intensity, allowing you to use these more practical intensity metrics to regulate your effort in workouts.

LT represents the top end of Zone 3 in the 80/20 intensity scale and is the polestar for determining all other zones in the SOAR Zone Calculator.

 

Run Pace 

Our training plans use a proprietary calculation for pace-based training zones. To determine your pace zones, visit the SOAR Zone Calculator and enter a known Threshold Pace (TP) from a previous testing protocol at the SOAR Zone Calculator.

If you don't know your threshold pace, perform a 30-minute time trial (covering as much distance as possible in 30 minutes). This is a brutal, but precise method to establish your threshold pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, run as far as you can in 30 minutes, being careful to avoid starting at a pace that’s too fast to sustain and thus slowing down involuntarily near the end. Your average pace for that 30 minutes is your threshold pace.

This test can be modified to just a 20 minute time trial, but using just 95% of your 20-minute speed in miles (or kilometers) per hour to determine your threshold pace. For example, if your average pace for 20 minutes was 8:45 per mile, first convert this result to decimal form, or 8.75 minutes per mile. Then, convert that value to miles (or kilometers) per hour. In this example, 8.75 minutes per mile converts to 6.86 miles per hour. Multiply 6.86 times 0.95 for an TP of value of 6.52 miles per hour. Convert 6.52 miles per hour back to minutes per mile, or 9.2 minutes per mile in this example, which is a TP of 9:12 per mile.

If you already know your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your TP with an even shorter field test. After warming up, play with your pace until your heart rate settles in at your previously established LTHR for 10 minutes. Your pace at this heart rate is close to your TP.

When using the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and TP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and pace, as this enables you to establish LTHR and TP in the same field test.

 

Heart Rate 

The simplest way to determine your seven heart-rate based training zones is to back into them through pace. First, follow the guidelines under the Run Pace Section of this article and use the SOAR Zone Calculator to establish your run pace zones and Threshold Pace (TP).

The next step is to determine your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) from your TP. To do this, warm up with 10 minutes of easy jogging and then accelerate to your TP on a smooth, flat path or road. Wait for your heart rate to stop increasing and plateau. The number you see after it levels off is your LTHR. Now go to the Run and Cycling Heart Rate section of the SOAR Zone Calculator and enter your lactate threshold heart rate. Your seven heart rate training zones will be calculated automatically.

If you have not yet established your TP, you can find your LTHR independently through a time trial. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, increase your effort to the highest level you feel you can sustain for 30 minutes and hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor watch. 10 minutes into the time trial, press the lap button again. At the end of the 30-minute time-trial, hit the lap button one last time. Your LTHR is your average heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) for the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute test. The reason we use the last 20 minutes of the 30-minute test is that it often takes up to 10 minutes at lactate threshold effort for heart rate to “catch up” to your output.

Note that lactate threshold heart rate is slightly different in running than it is in other aerobic activities, so if you choose to cross-train, you’ll need to do separate tests in each of them.

 

Run Power

The protocol is similar finding your Run Pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Then, perform a 30-minute time trial. Your average power for that 30 minutes is your running threshold power, or rFTP.

Our colleague Jim Vance has developed a different protocol to find your rFTP. Additionally, the power meter manufacturer Stryd has developed a shorter test. This test should be performed on a running track, preferably a 400-meter track, and not on a treadmill. It can also be done with a GPS watch if you program the workout distance and duration in advance. Warm up for 15 minutes, then hit your lap button and run 1,200 meters (three laps) as fast as you can. Recover with a full 30-minute easy jog. Now run 2,400 meters (six laps) at maximal effort. Finally, cool down for 10 to 15 minutes. Find your average power for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts and your total time for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts. Your rFTP is calculated as follows:

(6-lap power x 6-lap time) – (3-lap power x 3-lap time) / (6-lap time – 3-lap time)

For example, if your average power was 350 watts for the 1,200-meter effort and 300 watts for the 2,400-meter effort, and your times were 5:20 (5.34 minutes) and 11:10 (11.17 minutes), respectively, the result would be:

(300 x 11.17) – (350 x 5.34) / (11.17 – 5.34) = 254 watts

The Vance or Stryd protocol can replace the Zone 3 section of a scheduled RT workout.

Regardless of which method you choose, enter the results into the Running Power section of the SOAR Zone Calculator to determine your zones

 

Perceived Effort

While we don’t recommend that you use perceived effort as your primary intensity metric in training, it does have its place. Because perceived effort responds quickly to changes in intensity, it is a useful tool for establishing the right intensity at the start of each workout segment, before you have a chance to capture a split time and before your heart rate has had a chance to adjust to the change of intensity.

Note, however, that perceived effort increases the longer you go at any intensity, so it is only useful for establishing initial intensity. For example, at the end of a very long run at a moderate pace, your perceived effort level may be “14” even though you are still in Zone 2.

Use the guidelines in the following table to regulate your workout intensity by perceived effort. Note that these guidelines work in running as well as all in cross-training activities.

Rating

RPE Description

80/20 Zone

6

No exertion

 

7

Extremely light

Zone 1

8

 

9

Very light

10

 

Zone 2

11

Light

12

 

13

Somewhat hard

Zone X

14

 

15

Hard

Zone 3

16

 

17

Very hard

Zone Y and Zone 4

18

 

Zone 4

19

Extremely hard

Zone 5

20

Maximum exertion

 

Using Scheduled RT Workouts to Verify Zones

Because your fitness level and lactate threshold can change quickly, it’s important to keep your zones current throughout the training process by retesting your lactate threshold every few weeks. Repeating your chosen field test in every recovery week (recovery weeks fall ever third or fourth week in our Run plans) is the theoretical ideal. As a practical matter, however, this is onerous for many athletes.

Fortunately, your Team Iron Cowboy training plan includes frequent RT (Running Tempo) workouts that may serve as zone testing sessions. Most of these sessions feature Zone 3 effort that are less than 30 minutes in duration. Advanced athletes can replace these with the full 30- or alternative 20-minute time trials described above. Another option is to use the “backing in” method of verifying threshold pace or power. Because LTHR changes less than TP and rFTP over the course of a training plan, you can retest either of these variables in the context of RT workouts featuring Zone 3 efforts as short as 10 minutes by adjusting your effort until your heart rate levels off at your previously determined LTHR and observing the pace or wattage that corresponds to it.

Note that RT sessions occur less frequently in the L2 and L3 plans because 1) the high volume of these plans makes frequent high-intensity/high-duration testing risky, 2) we assume advanced athletes have a longer running history and are already confident in their lactate threshold, and 3) advanced athletes tend to experience smaller changes in lactate threshold than do beginner athletes. But if you ever feel you’re “outgrowing” your zones, feel free to insert one of the easier testing options into your next recovery week if it does not already contain an RT session.

 

 

Intensity Guidelines for Triathlon

We recommend also reading Understanding Your 80/20 Triathlon Plan.

Your 80/20 Triathlon plan employs a seven-zone intensity scale. Performing each workout and workout segment at the right intensity is at the heart of SOAR training. This article provides all of the information you’ll need to determine your intensity zones so you can monitor your intensity during workouts and ensure you’re always in the right zone.

Your personal intensity zones can be automatically calculated based on the protocols described below at the SOAR Zone Calculator. Beginner athletes may find the these tests difficult, so feel free to use perceived effort (explained in the second-to-last section) until you are comfortable doing the testing below.

There are four ways to measure intensity: pace, heart rate, power, and perceived effort. The testing protocols for all four types are listed below. Each metric has different applications among the three triathlon disciplines.

Pace is useful in swimming and running because it’s a performance-relevant variable. You race on the clock, so why not also train by the clock? However, pace becomes less reliable when you’re running uphill or downhill and is not recommended for cycling.

Heart rate is useful in cycling and running because it helps triathletes avoid the single most common training mistake: pushing too hard in workouts that are supposed to be done at low intensity (Zones 1 and 2). But heart rate is not a reliable way to monitor intensity during short efforts at high intensity because heart rate lags behind abrupt changes in pace. HR for a given effort is also easily influenced by environmental factors, such as temperature, and is impractical to measure in real time when swimming.

Power is the newest way to measure running intensity and has become the gold-standard intensity metric for cycling. Power monitoring provides instant feedback on workout output and its reliability is not compromised by terrain or temperature. Cycling and running power meters are expensive, however, and power monitoring during swimming is not yet possible except with some land-based training systems, such as the Vasa Ergometer.

Rate of Perceived Effort— RPE, or your subjective sense of how hard you are running—is important because it ultimately determines how fast you run in races. You may set and pursue time-based goals, but perceived effort has the final say in deciding whether you actually do maintain your goal pace or run faster or slower. However, perceived effort is poorly calibrated in many triathletes and relying on it exclusively carries some risk. In particular, most end up running at Zone X (in the gap between Zones 2 and 3) whenever they intend to train at low intensity if they go by feel. Whenever possible, use one of the more objective measures of intensity—pace, heart rate or power—as your primary intensity metric.

The table below ranks the four intensity metrics as they apply to each triathlon discipline.

 

Swim

Bike

Run

1

Pace

Power

Power

2

Power

Heart Rate

Pace

3

RPE

RPE

Heart Rate

4

Heart Rate

X

RPE

Once you have chosen a method of monitoring intensity in your 80/20 training plan (and you may use more than one), you need establish personal intensity zones for that specific metric, which is done through lactate threshold testing.

 

Lactate Threshold

80/20 triathlon plans use lactate threshold testing to determine training zones. Lactate threshold is defined as the exercise intensity at which lactate, an intermediate product of glucose metabolism, begins to accumulate in the blood. In practical terms, it’s the highest exercise intensity that can be sustained for up to 60 minutes. The most reliable field tests for use in identifying appropriate individual training intensities are those that pinpoint the lactate threshold (LT). Although monitoring the blood lactate concentration during exercise isn’t practical or easy, this isn’t a problem. The lactate threshold field tests detailed below are designed to reveal your pace, power, or heart rate at LT intensity, allowing you to use these more practical intensity metrics to regulate your effort in workouts.

LT represents the top end of Zone 3 in the SOAR intensity scale and is the polestar for determining all other zones in the SOAR Zone Calculator.

 

Swim Pace

Pace is the most useful intensity metric for swimming. Your seven custom swim pace training zones are based on your lactate threshold swim pace (LTSP). There are two ways to determine your LTSP. The first is called the critical velocity test. It’s fairly simple: Go to the pool, warm up with some easy swimming, and then swim 400 meters or yards as fast as you can, recording your time. Rest for several minutes and then swim 200 meters or yards as fast as you can, again recording your time. Your plan has regular swim workouts scheduled every 3-4 weeks to test your critical velocity in order to re-establish your zones. Note that your zones will be specific to meters or yards, and if you train in a pool measured differently than the one you tested in, you will have to adjust that session (your pace zones for 100 yards will be approximately 10 percent faster than your pace zones for 100 meters).

After your test, use the SOAR Zone Calculator determine your swim zones, or calculate your threshold swim pace based on the following formula (the online calculator is much easier):

Critical velocity (CV) = (400 meters/yards – 200 meters/yards) ÷ (400 time – 200 time)

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you swim your 400-yard test in 4:21 (4.35 minutes) and your 200-yard test in 2:02 (2.04 minutes). Your critical velocity, then, is (400y – 200y) ÷ (4.35 min. – 2.02 min.) = 86.6 yards/min. However, it is customary to express critical speed in the form of time per 100 yards. To make this conversion, divide 100 by your critical speed. In this example, 100 ÷ 86.6 = 1.15. So your lactate threshold pace per 100 yards is 1.15 minutes, or 1 minute and 9 seconds. Again, the SOAR Zone Calculator makes this much easier.

An easier version of this test is to just perform a 1000 meter/yard time trial. Your average pace per 100 meters/yards is your LTSP, and you can enter that value as well at the SOAR Zone Calculator.

 

Run Pace 

Our training plans use a proprietary calculation for pace-based training zones. To determine your pace zones, visit the SOAR Zone Calculator and enter a recent performance for one of the distances listed. The performance does not have to be a race, but it should reflect your current maximum capability for a given distance whether it comes from competition or training, or is simply an estimate of how fast you could run a given distance today.

Alternatively, you may enter a known Threshold Pace (TP) from a previous testing protocol at the SOAR Zone Calculator.

A more accurate test is a 30-minute time trial (covering as much distance as possible in 30 minutes). This is a brutal, but precise method to establish your threshold pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, run as far as you can in 30 minutes, being careful to avoid starting at a pace that’s too fast to sustain and thus slowing down involuntarily near the end. Your average pace for that 30 minutes is your threshold pace.

This test can be modified to just a 20 minute time trial, but using just 95% of your 20-minute speed in miles (or kilometers) per hour to determine your threshold pace. For example, if your average pace for 20 minutes was 8:45 per mile, first convert this result to decimal form, or 8.75 minutes per mile. Then, convert that value to miles (or kilometers) per hour. In this example, 8.75 minutes per mile converts to 6.86 miles per hour. Multiply 6.86 times 0.95 for an TP of value of 6.52 miles per hour. Convert 6.52 miles per hour back to minutes per mile, or 9.2 minutes per mile in this example, which is a TP of 9:12 per mile.

If you already know your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your TP with an even shorter field test. After warming up, play with your pace until your heart rate settles in at your previously established LTHR for 10 minutes. Your pace at this heart rate is close to your TP.

When using the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and TP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and pace, as this enables you to establish LTHR and TP in the same field test.

 

Run Heart Rate

The simplest way to determine your seven heart-rate based training zones is to back into them through pace. First, follow the guidelines under the Run Pace Section of this article and use the SOAR Zone Calculator to establish your run pace zones and Threshold Pace (TP).

The next step is to determine your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) from your TP. To do this, warm up with 10 minutes of easy jogging and then accelerate to your TP on a smooth, flat path or road. Wait for your heart rate to stop increasing and plateau. The number you see after it levels off is your LTHR. Now go to the Run and Cycling Heart Rate section of the SOAR Zone Calculator and enter your lactate threshold heart rate. Your seven heart rate training zones will be calculated automatically.

If you have not yet established your TP, you can find your LTHR independently through a time trial. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Next, increase your effort to the highest level you feel you can sustain for 30 minutes and hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor watch. 10 minutes into the time trial, press the lap button again. At the end of the 30-minute time-trial, hit the lap button one last time. Your LTHR is your average heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) for the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute test. The reason we use the last 20 minutes of the 30-minute test is that it often takes up to 10 minutes at lactate threshold effort for heart rate to “catch up” to your output.

Note that lactate threshold heart rate is slightly different in running than it is in other aerobic activities, so if you choose to cross-train, you’ll need to do separate tests in each of them.

 

Cycling Heart Rate

The processes for finding your cycling LTHR are nearly identical to the running protocols. The most commonly used method is the time trial test. Warmup for 15 minutes. Next, increase your effort to the highest level you feel you can sustain for 30 minutes and hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor watch. Ten minutes into the time trial, press the lap button again. At the end of the 30-minute time-trial, hit the lap button one last time. Your cycling LTHR is your average heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) for the final 20 minutes of the 30-minute test.

You can find your cycling heart rate training zones through power also. First, follow the guidelines under the Cycling Power section of this article and use the SOAR Zone Calculator to establish your cycling power zones and FTP.

The next step is to determine your running cycling LTHR from FTP. To do this, warm up with 10 minutes of easy cycling and then accelerate to your FTP on a smooth, flat road. Wait for your heart rate to stop increasing and plateau. The number you see after it levels off is your cycling LTHR. Now go to the Running and Cycling Heart Rate section of the SOAR Zone Calculator and enter your lactate threshold heart rate. Your seven heart rate training zones will be calculated automatically.

 

Run Power

The protocol is similar finding your Run Pace. Begin with a warm-up that consists of 15 minutes of easy jogging with a few 15-second surges at the pace you intend to run for the time trial. Then, perform a 30-minute time trial. Your average power for that 30 minutes is your running threshold power, or rFTP.

Our colleague Jim Vance has developed a different protocol to find your rFTP. Additionally, the power meter manufacturer Stryd has developed a shorter test. This test should be performed on a running track, preferably a 400-meter track, and not on a treadmill. It can also be done with a GPS watch if you program the workout distance and duration in advance. Warm up for 15 minutes, then hit your lap button and run 1,200 meters (three laps) as fast as you can. Recover with a full 30-minute easy jog. Now run 2,400 meters (six laps) at maximal effort. Finally, cool down for 10 to 15 minutes. Find your average power for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts and your total time for the 1,200- and 2,400-meter efforts. Your rFTP is calculated as follows:

(6-lap power x 6-lap time) – (3-lap power x 3-lap time) / (6-lap time – 3-lap time)

For example, if your average power was 350 watts for the 1,200-meter effort and 300 watts for the 2,400-meter effort, and your times were 5:20 (5.34 minutes) and 11:10 (11.17 minutes), respectively, the result would be:

(300 x 11.17) – (350 x 5.34) / (11.17 – 5.34) = 254 watts

The Vance or Stryd protocol can replace the Zone 3 section of a scheduled RT workout.

Regardless of which method you choose, enter the results into the Running Power section of the SOAR Zone Calculator to determine your zones.

 

Cycling Power

As you might expect, the processes for establishing cycling power zones is similar to the those used to determine run power zones. The time-trial method starts with a 15-minute warm-up that combines easy pedaling with a few 10-second bursts at the effort level you anticipate sustaining through the upcoming time-trial. When your warm-up is complete, ride as far as you can in 30 minutes, taking care to avoid starting too fast and losing power before you finish. Your average power for that 30 minutes is your cycling functional threshold power, or FTP. Enter the results into the Cycling Power section of the SOAR Zone Calculator to determine your zones.

This test is no easier than the running version. As with the Run Pace test, you may perform a shorter 20-minute test and take 95 percent of your average power therein as your cycling FTP.

If you already know your cycling lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), you can use it to find your FTP with an even shorter field test. After warming up, increase your intensity until your heart rate settles in at your previously established cycling LTHR for 10 minutes. Your power at this heart rate is close to your FTP. This method is useful when your training plans calls for a CT workout during a rest week, as the CT workouts are long, uninterrupted efforts in upper Zone 3.

Note that with the full 30-minute protocol, the need to perform separate tests for LTHR and FTP is dispensed with entirely if you have a device that captures both heart rate and power, as this enables you to establish LTHR and FTP in the same field test.

 

Perceived Effort 

While we don’t recommend that you use perceived effort as your primary intensity metric in training, it does have its place. Because perceived effort responds quickly to changes in intensity, it is a useful tool for establishing the right intensity at the start of each workout segment, before you have a chance to capture a split time and before your heart rate has had a chance to adjust to the change of intensity.

Note, however, that perceived effort increases the longer you go at any intensity, so it is only useful for establishing initial intensity. For example, at the end of a very long run at a moderate pace, your perceived effort level may be “14” even though you are still in Zone 2.

Use the guidelines in the following table to regulate your workout intensity by perceived effort. Note that these guidelines work in running as well as in all types of cross-training activities.

Rating

RPE Description

80/20 Zone

6

No exertion

 

7

Extremely light

Zone 1

8

 

9

Very light

10

 

Zone 2

11

Light

12

 

13

Somewhat hard

Zone X

14

 

15

Hard

Zone 3

16

 

17

Very hard

Zone Y and Zone 4

18

 

Zone 4

19

Extremely hard

Zone 5

20

Maximum exertion

 

Using Scheduled RT, CT, and STT Workouts to Verify Zones

Because your fitness level and lactate threshold can change quickly, it’s important to keep your zones current throughout the training process by retesting your lactate threshold every few weeks. Repeating your chosen field test in every recovery week (recovery weeks fall ever third or fourth week in our 80/20 Triathlon plans) is the theoretical ideal. As a practical matter, however, this is onerous for many athletes.

Fortunately, your training plan includes Swim Time Trial (STT), Cycling Tempo (CT), and Running Tempo (RT) workouts that may serve as zone testing sessions. Most of these sessions feature Zone 3 effort that are less than 30 minutes in duration. Advanced athletes can replace these with the full 30- or alternative 20-minute time trials described above. Another option is to use the “backing in” method of verifying running threshold pace or cycling or running threshold power. Because LTHR changes less than TP and rFTP over the course of a training plan, you can retest either of these variables in the context of CT and RT workouts featuring Zone 3 efforts as short as 10 minutes by adjusting your effort until your heart rate levels off at your previously determined LTHR and observing the pace or wattage that corresponds to it.

 

Note that CT and RT sessions occur less frequently in the L2 and L3 plans because 1) the high volume of these plans makes frequent high-intensity/high-duration testing risky, 2) we assume advanced athletes have a longer training history and are already confident in their lactate threshold, and 3) advanced athletes tend to experience smaller changes in lactate threshold than do beginner athletes. But if you ever feel you’re “outgrowing” your zones, feel free to insert one of the easier testing options into your next recovery week if it does not already contain a CT or RT session.

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