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Targeting Training with Measures of Intensity

By Will Kirousis MS, CSCS, CISSN. ‚Äč | July 13, 2020, 4:19 p.m. (ET)

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When we train, there are many measures of intensity we can assess during training sessions to observe how we are responding to training.  The four most useful measures of intensity currently available are:

 

1.     Pace (swimming and running)

2.     Power output (cycling and running)

3.     Heart rate (cycling and running)

4.     Perceived exertion (swimming, cycling, and running)

 

These measures can effectively be used by themselves, but they are much more effective when used together to really target your approach during each training session.  Let’s look at what each tells us:

 

1.     Pace describes how fast you are moving.  In swimming, it is a solid measure of work.  Pace can be used running (with qualifiers for terrain and weather) as well.  By itself, though, pace does not give you a complete picture of how your body is responding to the effort.  For example, running at 6:00 per mile on a hot day is more stressful than running at 6:00 per mile on a very cool day.

2.     Power output (watts) tells you how much work you are doing.  Power output is an extremely precise measure of work when cycling or running.  By itself though, power output does not give you a complete picture of how your body is responding to the effort.  The temperature example above works with power as well, riding at 200 watts on a very hot day is more stressful than riding at 200 watts on a cool day.

3.     Heart rate (HR) tells you how much stress you are experiencing while you ride or run.  Said differently, HR sums your total response to the various stressors you are encountering.  For example, on one day you could be cycling at 200 watts, be well-hydrated, and have a heart rate of 160 beats per minute.  On another day, you could be cycling at 200 watts, be dehydrated, and have a heart rate of 165 beats per minute.

4.     Perceived exertion (RPE) Describes how you feel about what you are experiencing during any training/racing activity. RPE can be as useful as the more objective measures of intensity. 

 

Each of these variables is most useful when used with other measures of intensity.  Targeting this way allows you to form the most complete picture of what you are experiencing during a training session.  This information helps you manage and modify training sessions on the fly.  With experience, you will see trends develop.  For example, you will see how pace, power, heart rate and RPE relate to each other during training and how they are specific to you. 

 

The information below gives examples of how you can interpret these measures of intensity during training sessions:

 

All is Good

·       Pace/Power are where you are trying to keep them.

·       Heart rate is where it normally is for that pace/power.

·       RPE is where it normally is for that pace/power and HR.

·       Carry on with your training and have fun!

 

You are improving, keep it going

·       Pace/Power are where you are trying to keep them.

·       Heart rate is slightly lower than recent normal for that pace/power.

·       RPE is lower than normal.

·       Carry on with your training and have fun!

 

The heat is on

·       Pace/Power are where you are trying to keep them.

·       Heart rate is slightly high to start the training session, and gradually climbs higher than normal for the pace/power being sustained.

·       RPE is normal to slightly high as the session progresses.

·       Work to sustain/improve on your hydration plan and consider implementing heat acclimation strategies.  Consider reducing target intensity 10-30% during hot training sessions to get pace/power, HR, RPE a bit closer to normal as you acclimate to higher temps.

 

Acute fatigue (due to training session/life stress/cumulative training load)

·       Pace/Power are where you are trying to keep them or decreasing (within a training session).

·       Heart rate is slightly to solidly lower than recent normal (within that training session) for that pace/power.

·       RPE is higher than normal.

·       Reduce intensity and increase fueling rate during the training session, have a high carbohydrate recovery snack/drink after training and make the next 1-2 meals higher in carbohydrate than recent normal to ensure your glycogen tanks (stored carbohydrate in your body) are adequately stocked for the next training session.  You may need 1-2 days of light training more than normal to fully recover here – so resist the urge to train aggressively again until HR seems to rise quickly and fall quickly in response to efforts and your RPE is low to normal.

 

Chronic fatigue (due to training session/life stress/cumulative training load)

·       Pace/Power are hard to get to “normal” targets for the style of training sessions used.

·       Heart rate is slightly to solidly lower than recent normal for the pace/power attained.

·       RPE is higher than normal.

·       If you notice multiple training sessions where your RPE seems high and your power/pace feels hard to generate while your HR seems low relative to power/pace, you should take a recovery period in your training.  This means at least cutting training sessions to all low intensity and about 40% - 50% volume for 4-7 days, or, if you mentally feel really burnt out, taking a few days off totally to step away from training could be a better option for you.

 

As you train in the coming months, work to blend the metrics you have available to create the most complete picture of what you are experiencing while training. Use that information to help you modify and adjust your training, fostering the steadiest rate of long term improvement.

 

Enjoy your training!

 

 

Will Kirousis has presented and written for national and international organizations on endurance training and has been coaching triathletes and other endurance athletes for over 20 years.  He’s been fortunate to help athletes achieve a range of goals, from finishing their first triathlon, to winning age group national and world championships as well as professional national championships.  You can learn more about Will at www.tri-hard.com or by following him on twitter @willkirousis.