What is the Best Measure of Training Intensity

With so many different ways to measure your training intensity available, which one is the best and which one should you be using. It will all depend on what technology you have available, but what I am going to describe is a hierarchy of intensities and you should use the highest one you have available to you.

Cycling

Ironman Training NZI’m starting with cycling because your power can be measured. This is a direct measure of output and therefore it is directly related to intensity rather than the body’s response to intensity which is what Heart Rate (HR) monitoring is.

For cycling the hierarchy is:

  1. Power
  2. Heart Rate (HR)
  3. Subjective

Third on the hierarchy is subjective.  Although this is not as good as power or heart rate measuring, not everyone has a power meter or HR monitor. It is better than speed because speed depends significantly on the terrain being ridden on and the weather conditions. For that reason speed is a really poor measure and has not been included on the list. Gunnar Borg was an Eastern block sports scientist who developed a couple of numerical based systems that can be used to describe exercise intensity subjectively.  I use his 0-10 system.

The various exercise intensities all roughly align to the the five different Levels of intensity that I use to describe the intensity of various workouts.

Level Power Zone HR Zone Borg
Level I Recovery Power Zone Recovery HR Zone Borg 0-1
Level II Endurance Power Zone Endurance HR Zone Borg 2-3
Level III Tempo Power Zone Tempo HR Zone Borg 4-5
Level IV Threshold Power Zone Threshold HR Zone Borg 6-7
Level V VO2 Max Power Zone VO2 Max HR Zone Borg 8-10

Running

Marathon Training NZAlthough not a direct measure of output in the same way that power is, running pace (on the flat) gives us a great indication of intensity that is not influenced by temperature, caffeine consumption, hydration status etc. like HR is.  Consequently that is higher on the hierarchy than HR monitoring, with subjectivity coming in third again.

  1. Pace
  2. Heart Rate (HR)
  3. Subjective

When I set hill rep sessions, pace becomes a poor indication of intensity so you will have to use either HR or the Borg scale to ensure you are putting in the effort, however there is nothing stopping you from using your GPS watch to record your session so your coach can review it. I still encourage you to use it for the warm up and cool down portions of the session.

Level Pace Zone HR Zone Borg
Level I PZ2 Recovery HR Zone Borg 0-1
Level II PZ3 Endurance HR Zone Borg 2-3
Level III PZ4 Tempo HR Zone Borg 4-5
Level IV PZ6 Threshold HR Zone Borg 6-7
Level V PZ8 VO2 Max HR Zone Borg 8-10

Swimming

Tri Swim Training NZAs it is nigh on impossible to swim along looking at your HR monitor or something on your wrist to determine if you are training or exercising at the correct intensity, you are forced to rely on subjective measures. If only everyone had a heads up display on their goggles!!

For this reason I am not proposing a hierarchy for swimming as it will not impact how you measure your intensity. However for all my athletes reading this, still wear your watch to record the data so it can be analysed after your training session.

Further Reading

Allen & Coggan (2010) Training and Racing with a Power Meter 2nd Edition Velo Press

McGregor & Fitzgerald (2010) The Runner’s Edge – High-tech Training For Peak Performance Human Kinetics

If you would like further advice feel free to contact Coach Ray.

Coach Ray is the Head Coach & Director of Qwik Kiwi – Endurance Sports Consultant.

Coach Ray specialises in assisting first timers and recreational athletes to achieve their sporting goals. He can be contacted at coachray@coachray.nz and 021 348 729. Make sure you sign up to his monthly informative newsletter.

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