Training Zones: Perceived Efforts or Numbers?

By Rodrigo Tosta, coach,  ironguides.net, Brazil

There is a hype around training tools that measure effort, be it in training or racing. But is this the best way to track and analyze your efforts?

Age group athletes are bombarded from all angles with tools that measure data such as power meters, heart rate monitors and portable GPS. They all provide a certain type of information that, if used in the right way, can provide you with very accurate feedback that is supposed to help improve your performance in training and racing.

But is this really the best way to measure our efforts?

Let’s start by looking at swimming, a sport in which records are being broken year in, year out. Swimmers are getting faster all the time, without a doubt. However, we don’t see them caught up in the gadget trend. Swimmers are still being coached under perceived effort, using minimalist terminologies similar to the ones ironguides use, or very basic terms such as A1, A2 and A3.

Their sessions give swimmers a lot of flexibility and freedom, since they are usually structured on fixed send-offs or rests in between sets. It is up to the swimmer to develop a feel for the session to achieve the goal and train the right system.

Another example comes from my own experience, when I was racing an Ironman in 2007. In preparation I had done heart rate zone training and my race strategy was based on either heart rate or pace (splits).

Once out of the water and onto the bike, I realized my bike computer wasn’t working. If riding 180km in itself wasn’t stressful enough, I now had the worry of not knowing if I was riding at my goal pace. I either felt too quick, or too slow.

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I made the decision to just forget about my heart rate and my pace, and use perceived effort to guide me through that race instead. I tried to remember how I’d felt on my training rides and just hoped for the best since I’d so far been a slave of numbers. With a broken bike computer, I had no statistics to chase.

Little did I know that it was the perfect opportunity to learn how we can improve when we listen to ourselves and our bodies.

Until that day, my best Ironman bike split had been was 5hr 50—in this race, guided by perceived effort, I managed a 5hr 15, and an overall finish time PB to boot.


When we stick to the numbers alone, we run the risk of misreading our fitness which can result in either an under performance race or going faster than we should be. Let’s say, you are used to running at 12km/hr in your race efforts. However, there will be days that you simply won’t achieve that speed—yet the aerobic load remains the same, regardless of your speed. On the flip side, you might not be training hard enough if you are having a great day with fresh legs—you could have been training at 13km/hr.

Heart rate is no different. If you test yourself and set your anaerobic threshold zone at about 170 beats per minute, you might be under-performing when training at that rate, since it was based on only one day. On a day that you are feeling great, you perhaps should be training at 180bpm. And when you feel tired, training at 160bpm will give you the same benefits of the original zone.

You see how we can limit ourselves by using the numbers?

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Most age groupers face a lifestyle that does not allow the human body to work as a precise machine. Fatigue, lack of sleep, improper diet and, most importantly, levels of stress (including personal, financial, work) have an impact on your physiology and on your motivation. They will also impact the numbers you’ll read on the gadgets you’re using to guide your training, including heart rate and power output.

Try to do your next bike ride or run without the heart rate monitor. Stick to that for a couple weeks and you will soon understand the benefits of being able to listen to your body, to train by effort and to detach from numbers.

Enjoy your training!


ironguides is the leading Lifestyle Facilitation company for athletes of all abilities. We provide coaching and training services, plans and programs, as well training education, health and fitness products to help you learn and live a healthy lifestyle. Come get fit with one of our monthly training subscriptions, event-specific training plans, coaching services, or a triathlon training camp in an exotic location! ironguides also provides Corporate Health services including Corporate Triathlons, Healthy Living retreats and speaking engagements. At ironguides, your best is our business!

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