Triathlete using a HRM in bike training
Training > Beginners

The triathlete's complete guide to heart rate zone training

We explain why using your pulse rate to fine-tune your training can help you reap big fitness rewards, and how to do it

When people typically make their first foray into triathlon, motivation is high while fitness is low. It’s a combination that means large gains can be made in a relatively short period, which helps to embed the philosophy that hard work pays dividends.

But while it’s true to an extent, those who stick with endurance sport soon learn a harsh lesson: tri life isn’t fair. The ‘go hard or go home’ approach might sound productive, but increasing your effort doesn’t automatically equate to increased improvement.

The fitter your get, the smaller the margins for improvement become, so measuring and understanding your effort is paramount – not only for reaping the benefits of training but also for controlling fatigue. It’s time to enter the world of training zones.

What are heart rate zones?

If you’ve ever spoken to other triathletes or picked up a copy of 220, you’ll have heard or seen terminology along the lines of ‘2hr bike, zone 1’ or ‘60min run, zone 2’. The prescribed zones are there to help athletes understand the effort required for the session yet can bamboozle even the most ardent multisport scholar. But the zone system really isn’t that complicated. 

“Zones simply define the target effort and allow you to assess that effort through monitoring,” says Joe Beer, coach and 220 contributor. Training zones are inextricably linked to heart rate. The harder you push, the faster your blood is pumped and although you can base your training on perceived effort, it’s difficult to control precisely as all too often ego gets in the way.

“Elite athletes might do a lot of training on feel because they’re very attuned to their bodies but lots of age-groupers say they’re going to train steady and find they can’t hold back,” Beer continues. “Heart rate is the best measure. It’s the same principle as a car’s tachometer – it shows you how fast your motor is ‘revving’.”

How to understand the different heart rate zones

Measuring your heart rate without understanding leaves us no further forward, though. And it was this that led physiologist Stephen Seiler to study the training and performance characteristics of 21 Norwegian international-level rowers using retrospective heart rate data from 1970-2001.

Seiler noted the rowers’ maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) increased 12% and their 6min rowing performance increased by almost 10% thanks to increasing their base training from 30 to 50 hours a month, and decreasing their race pace work from 23 to seven hours a month. His findings suggested that training long and slow could pay dividends.

Yet even if we accept our workouts should be split into zones based on heart rate ranges, how many zones do we need and how should we divide our time between them? 

Delving into the internet provides a muddled selection of answers. There are many proponents of five, six, seven and even eight zone systems with fluctuating upper and lower limits. Complicating matters further is a wide variety of labels given to these zones, such as recovery, endurance, economy and speed – all of which are nebulous terms without knowing the reasoning behind them.

Joe Beer checking his heart rate monitor

“There are lots of different ways to subdivide the zones,” Beer adds. “But much of it is nit-picking. For the beginner, suggesting that altering your heart rate by three beats per minute will lead to a big change is untrue. Having three zones gives people a base zone, competition zone and high-intensity zone, and there are very different perceptions of effort and physiological changes in each.”

With Joe’s help, over the following three pages we look at each of these three zones in more detail and prescribe sessions where applicable.

Calculate your HRmax

A few simple sums will help you set your target effort ranges to train precisely. Coach Joe Beer believes the smartest way to work out your HRmax is to look at the heart rate data you collect from training and races. The reason being not everyone can push themselves to the limit for the sake of a test so there may be another five beats per minute you didn’t realise you had. 

“I like people to build up a spectrum of numbers,” says Joe. “A 20min hard effort will be about 90% of your maximum, so after a while these results pull together to give you a range. 

“A simple test if you’re a beginner is to ride while breathing only through your nose and accelerate until you need to open your mouth to get enough oxygen. At which point your heart rate should be around 80% of your HRmax. Divide that number by 80 and multiply the result by 100 to work out what your maximum is.” 

Alternatively, you can do 2 x 3min runs at max effort with 2mins easy jogging in between. Take the highest HR reading from the second 3min effort as the max. You should be warmed up and in good health before performing this though.

To continue reading our guide to heart rate zone training, click here


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The article is very interesting, but I find as a 71yr old is that staying in Z1 is almost impossible on a turbo unless I really backoff. My max is 164 as shown on my Garmin when I am eyeballs out sprinting for the "sign" or strava segment on repeated tests. do I still sit in Z1 for training?


Thanks Jake328 for your post. If your max is 164 then the 80% point is (164x0.8) 131 beats per minute. If you ride below this level you should be able to nose breathe, feel no build up of strain in your muscles and be able to talk. Perhaps its:

1. Overly tight pressure on the rear wheel is making the resistance too hard - if you get it up to around 20 mph (assuming you can measure rear wheel speed) then is should take around 8-10 seconds to come to a halt. Significantly less than this and you need to ease off the rear wheel resistance/settings on any variable lever/dial.

2. That you do need to back off and ride at a conservative effort/cadence (85-90rpm and 65-75% HRmax - that is 110-125. Turbo does not equal higher effort, rather it means you can pedal for more constant periods than in the real world, using less kit, less bike wear BUT it does not test your balance, gear selection or pace judgement as well as real-world riding.

3. There may be resistance in the bike such as: bottom bracket bearings; dry chain; worn jockey wheels; dry/damaged rear wheel bearings - all these could make pedalling seem hard work despite not feeling like you are going hard.

I would recommend all triathletes get a bike HR max test to set their zones and understand how hard the various levels of effort are.

Happy to help,


Coach Joe Beer

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