Which Zone Should You Race In?
The fundamental goal of racing is very simple: to reach the finish line in the least amount of time possible. But what is simple in principle is often difficult in practice, and this is definitely true with respect to race pacing, which is the art of reaching the finish line in the least amount of time possible.
This art has two components: goal-setting and execution. For a thorough discussion of both components of pacing as they relate to triathlon specifically, check out Chapter 14 of 80/20 Triathlon. For a concise treatment of the topic of goal-setting as it relates to running events, read this article from our blog.
One thing you will notice if you do read these items is that we discourage athletes from thinking in terms of intensity zones when setting race time goals. The reason is that intensity zones are too broad to suffice on their own to get athletes to the finish line of a race in the least amount of time possible. The fastest running pace you are able to sustain for 13.1 miles, for example, is an exact number, not a range.
That being said, if you succeed in pacing a given race optimally (that is, if you succeed in getting to the finish line in the least amount of time possible), your average pace, power, and/or heart rate will fall within one of the seven 80/20 intensity zones. Race data collected from large numbers of athletes enables other athletes to anticipate which zone they will or should find themselves in when participating in a future race at an unfamiliar distance. Because athletes who train under the 80/20 system are accustomed to thinking in terms of zones, you may draw some comfort from knowing which intensity zone corresponds with optimal race intensity for an upcoming event, even as you recognize that this knowledge alone won’t get you to the finish line in the least amount of time possible.
The wrinkle is that not all athletes race in the same zone over a given distance. This is because it is actually time, not distance, that determines race intensity, and faster athletes cover equal distances in less time. For example, a very fast runner can complete a 5K race in 15 minutes, whereas a slower runner may need twice as much time—30 minutes—to cover the same distance. Thus, for the faster runner, a 5K should be regarded as a 15-minute effort and should be done at the highest intensity he or she can sustain for that amount of time, which is likely to be Zone 4, whereas for the slower runner, the same race distance should be regarded as a 30-minute effort and should be done at the highest intensity he or she can sustain for that amount of time, which is likely to be Zone 3.
Use the table below to get a sense of the intensity zone you can expect to find yourself in during your next race.