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Intensity Demystified

One of the most common questions we get when new athletes come on board relates to the (numerous) terms we use for intensity.

It turns out there are a lot of different ways to describe a specific intensity level.

Let’s take the effort level that relates to building your aerobic energy system. (You can argue that almost all intensity levels do this to some extent, but that’s another post all together.) Depending on who you are talking to (or what day you’re talking to them), it may be any one of the following:

  • L2
  • Level 2
  • Z2
  • Zone 2
  • Endurance effort
  • Sub-moderate
  • Base mode
  • Long run pace

The list goes on….

If you haven’t been in the endurance game that long, there’s a good chance all those terms are nothing more than gibberish (hence the need to demystify!).

With all the gadgets and gizmos for data tracking, people tend to want to be told exactly what pace, power, or zone to train or race in at all times.

The problem with ONLY using this data is you never learn to analyze the physical cues your body is sending to your brain. As a result, you never figure out how to adjust things on the fly to keep yourself pushing at a high level.

We are not talking about just “pushing” through fatigue. We are talking pushing through extreme pain (the kind that comes from high intensity, not the injury type of pain), uncontrollable spikes in intensity (you roadies will understand), and other mentally challenging things like oxygen debt.

The more aware you are of your own body, it’s movements, and its signals, the better athlete you will become. The more you ONLY pay attention to your data, the more like a robot you will become.

Heck, there are A LOT of athletes who never know what their “limits” are because they always shut things down before they get there.

(Note from the lawyers…if we had lawyers: you should not test these limits without doctor’s approval. You should also not test these limits EVERY workout.)

Now before you call me a hypocrite (I am a coach who makes my athletes use data), don’t take this the wrong way. We love data. And having the data is imperative to creating a truly custom program for someone. But the main function of having all that data is to gauge progress over time.

The second function is to make sure you are not going too hard on easy days and too easy on hard days. The purpose of the data is not to lock you into a veritable performance prison. The goal is to use this data, and your zone settings within it, to make sure you working the specific energy system you are trying to improve.

It is not to hold you back if you feel good. Why? Because your zones WILL shift based on your level fitness. They are not static. You must use them in conjunction with perceived effort and the physical cues in order for them to actually be of serious use.

Alright, with all that said, we’ve done our best to group together a lot of the common terms, zones, and comparative efforts so you can get a better feel for each “zone” you may see on your training plans.

This is not the end-all-be-all as it leaves out a lot of the newer high-end power zones that Coggin has developed. We also left out the common Borg scale (0-10, 10 being maximal) because it can be skewed based on the person performing the effort and is rarely consistent, even from the same athlete (that’s our experience).

RecoveryEasyModerateTempoHard TempoThresholdVO2 MaxNeuromuscular/Max
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Z1
Closest Running Race Pace: Ultra Marathon
Cycling Power Zone: Z1
Cycling Comparison Effort: All Day Long – Commute
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace + 10s or more per 100
Notes: Super easy. Almost too easy. May contain a lot of stops or walk breaks.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Z2
Closest Running Race Pace: Slightly Below Marathon
Cycling Power Zone: Z2
Cycling Comparison Effort: 4+ Hours Steady, Age Group IM bike effort
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace +9s per 100 – warm up effort
Notes: Best for building metabolic efficiency and mitochondrial density. Can hold a conversation with full sentences.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Upper Z2 into Z3
Closest Running Race Pace: Age Group Marathon
Cycling Power Zone: Upper Z2 into Z3
Cycling Comparison Effort: Long Ride of 2-3 Hours, AG half IM bike effort
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace +6s per 100 – Age Group Ironman Swim Pace
Notes: Breathing increases. Communicate in short sentences. Great for increasing fatigue resistance.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Z3
Closest Running Race Pace: Half Marathon
Cycling Power Zone: Z3
Cycling Comparison Effort: Max 90 min- 2 hrs effort
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace + 3s per 100 – Age Group Olympic to Half IM Pace
Notes: Steady focused breathing is now required. One or 2 word responses.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Upper Z3 into Z4
Closest Running Race Pace: 10k to 10 mi pace
Cycling Power Zone: Upper Z3 into Z4
Cycling Comparison Effort: Max 60-90 min effort, Age Group Olympic Tri Effort
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace
Notes: Hard but repeatable – labored but controlled breathing. Talking not a good idea. Getting into threshold and lactate clearance.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Z4
Closest Running Race Pace: 5k to 10k pace
Cycling Power Zone: Z4
Cycling Comparison Effort: Max 60 min effort – max 40k TT
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace – 3s per 100 – 1500m all out
Notes: Very labored breathing but sustainable for 60 ish minutes. Teaching body to be better at clearing blood lactate.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Z5
Closest Running Race Pace: 1k to 3k
Cycling Power Zone: Z5
Cycling Comparison Effort: Generally 3-8 min max effort
Swim Pace Comparison (CSS Pace): CSS Pace – 6s per 100 – Roughly 400m all out
Notes: Drooling on oneself is not uncommon. Teaching body to be more efficient at consuming lots of oxygen and processing it quickly.
Running/Cycling HR Zone: Close to or at Max
Closest Running Race Pace: 100 to 800m
Cycling Power Zone: Z6/7
Cycling Comparison Effort: 10s to 3 min max effort
Swim Pace Comparison: All Out Repeats – Usually 25/50/100 max
Notes: HR may not respond immediatey due to short efforts. Teaching brain to recuit more muscle fibers.

*CSS pace was developed by the guys at Swim Smooth.

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