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Pro Secrets For Triathlon Run: Why Train With Low Heart Rate

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to training for an Iron-distance triathlon.

On one side of the fence, you have athletes and coaches who advocate for a volume-based approach. These individuals see results after spending more time training, but at a significantly lower intensity. The other side argues the opposite — you can show up to the starting line in the best shape of your life after a training block full of frequent, shorter, more intense workouts.

Sure, this might be an oversimplification — a mix of both volume and intensity leads to a more balanced approach — but essentially, neither side is wrong. What works for one athlete may not be right for another.

There seems to be a trend in the professional ranks for a more volume-based training regimen. This makes sense — training full-time for months on end can increase the risk of injury and the potential for burning out, so upping the volume and decreasing the intensity can help alleviate some of the burden from training stress.

For professional triathlete Chris Leiferman from the BMC Vi-Fit Pro Triathlon Team training at low intensity has seemed to yield results as he had a stellar season in 2018, winning both IRONMAN Boulder and IRONMAN Louisville. Currently, he has his eyes set west on the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, HI.

Chris spends most of his time in HR Zone 2 when he’s training for the run or on the bike (for him, this means between 135 to 145 bpm), so we asked him why this works for him, how he tracks his efforts and how this translates to race pace.

Why DO you do most of your Triathlon run training in Zone 2?

I do most of my running in HR Zone 2 because I respond better to volume, and when I get in HR Zone 3, 4 or 5, it starts messing up my immune system and I start to break down a little bit. After a few weeks of volume in Zone 2, my speed tends to pick up just based off of talent. I’m pretty fortunate in that way I guess.

I do some pace work as well, but maybe once a week. That’s five runs in Zone 2, and one session at race pace each week.

What kind of workouts doEs Your triathlon run Training include?

Zone 2 is just an aerobic run, usually a distance run. I use Zone 1 as a super easy run, just for some recovery.

A workout with a faster pace will be kind of a fartlek, and something I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t be on the track too often. I just do a lot of staying in that endurance Zone 2 pace, and then pepping it up to Zone 4 or 5 for up to 15 minutes, then backing it off to Zone 2. I’ll repeat that back and forth a few times.  

How did you figure out that Zone 2 was your sweet spot?

I just responded well to running, and getting the volume up and staying injury free. Zone 2 is the sweet spot where you can run forever and it’s forgiving on your body.

Once you get into Zone 4 or Zone 5, it really puts a lot of stress on the body. It’s important for me, if I’m doing short-course stuff, to hammer Zone 4 or Zone 5, but for IRONMAN training specifically, Zone 2 has just been a good marker for me.

Do you use the same approach when prepping for Kona?

In the final weeks, I’ll probably back down the volume and pick up the pace a little bit, but right now I do a fartlek once a week for speedwork and that’s it.

Maybe in the last three weeks I’ll include a little bit more spicy workouts stepping up to Zone 4 or Zone 5, but not sustain it much at all. It will all be within a Zone 2 workout, I’ll stay in that endurance pace and speed up from there and back down.

How do you calculate your zones?

I race and wear a heart rate monitor, which gives me a good idea. It’s also based on max heart rate, and interestingly, I’ve never gotten my heart rate above 182 before so I’m already starting at a lower zone than most people.

I’ve clocked in at 32 bpm resting heart rate in the morning, and I’ve never gone over 182, so I take it into account that I have a lower set number than most people. I’ve only done a VO2 max test once, and that was years ago for college.

What metrics do you track?

Running Power has been a parameter I look at after the effort. If I know I was in Zone 2 with an average of 400 to 410 watts, it was pretty good and I didn’t overexert myself. If I see 420, then I know I went a little too hard.

On some of the longer workouts, I try to go by feel so I know when I get out to a race I know how to pace myself. The main running metrics I keep on my Polar Vantage V are pace, heart rate, duration and cadence, and that’s what’s on my main screen for a long Zone 2 run.

How Do Kona-Specific (Extreme) conditions affect Your heart rate and zones?

It does – it’s definitely going to be a big factor because if you start to get dehydrated, your heart rate is going to start spiking up. You should feel fresh going into Kona, or any race, so your heart rate should have a normal response.

If you start seeing in hour three that your heart rate is spiking at the same power that you’re trying to achieve, then you’re going to dig yourself into a hole. It’s definitely a big factor.

Which other factors, besides dehydration, influence heart rate?

It’s important to keep up with your nutrition and carbs. This will help plateau your heart rate and increase your ability to keep the heart rate on a steady uphill slope and not spike. If you’re able to continue your power upwards, and your heart rate responds in an upwards slope, then you know you’re staying on top of your nutrition.

You’re always looking at the decoupling of your heart rate and power throughout a race, especially in an Ironman. In a 70.3, you might not notice this within two hours, but in 86 percent humidity on a four-hour bike you’ll notice some decoupling.

do you keep the same Zone 2 mindset WHEN YOU’RE TRAINING FOR THE BIKE?

Yes, staying in Zone 2 is actually more important for me on the bike, and on the bike you have more parameters that are very accurate.

Power on the bike is raw power and the feedback is more instant. You can see the data while riding versus looking at your wrist while running.

On the bike, I almost do everything by heart rate, and power is a side parameter to follow so I know to not go over a certain number even though your heart rate might creep up.

If you do a five-minute interval at a certain heart rate, you probably won’t hit that heart rate until the end of the five minutes. You have to look at power, cadence, time and the averages of each, so there’s a lot more attention on the bike.

Did You Notice any health effects when you used to train with more intensity?

I’d get sick, and my body would start breaking down. I’d get stress fractures with too much above Zone 2.

I’d be doing speed sessions sometimes three times a week, and compound that with bike work and all the run volume, it was just way too much for me.

I just needed to back off and trust that I could run fast with a foundation of good volume and day after day, week after week of healthy training.

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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