Training Intensity and Training Zones for Paddlers

Training at the appropriate intensity is a key element to improving your performance and staying injury free. Harder is not always better. A majority of workouts should be performed at an easy to medium intensity with short intervals of high intensity. Use the information in this article to help gauge your intensity during your training sessions.

Determining the proper intensity for workouts can be difficult for paddle athletes, especially beginners. Putting a quantifiable number on our level of exertion can properly gauge each workout and ensure we are paddling with the prescribed intensity. This is why all of our customized paddle training programs use prescribed heart rate training zones to describe a workout. Describing a workout as “hard” or “easy” is not sufficient for accurately measuring intensity.

Determining Training Intensity

Intensity can be measured in several ways described below:

Power Measurement

Power output is the rate at which energy is used over time and is typically measured in watts. Power output is the most accurate and repeatable measurement for gauging an athlete’s work rate because it is independent of both weather and conditions. Whether it is windy or raining, chop or flatwater, power is power. Generally speaking, the more power you produce, the faster you will be moving on your stand up paddle board or outrigger canoe.

The measurement of power output will potentially provide more accurate training intensity prescription, the ability to objectively test equipment and the ability to accurately apply strategic decision making in races.

Unfortunately, there are no consumer-based power measurement devices for SUP or outrigger available yet. However, power (and the means to measure it) has already been seen in kayaking, rowing and dragon boat research so it is likely that sooner or later it will come to SUP and outrigger. As a result, it is still important to understand what power is.

Heart Rate Measurement

Heart rate is our body’s response to the work that we are doing. It not the best method of intensity measurement because heart rate is not always directly correlated to the power being produced.

Let’s say you go for a paddle and you feel terrible. Your heart rate is high but your power just is not there. You could be overtrained or getting sick. Therefore, your heart rate will not be an accurate gauge of intensity on this day.

Additionally, the heart rates response to exercise can suffer from lag. It takes time to respond to an increase or decrease in effort. By the time the heart rate hits your chosen intensity, the physiological damage may have already been done. Therefore, while it is useful for monitoring your efforts, it isn’t as useful for defining very short duration, high intensity changes in pace.

However, until we get accurate power measurement devices for SUP and outrigger, using a heart rate monitor will be the next best way to ensure training is prescribed at the proper intensity. A heart rate monitor will give immediate feedback about your training effort and minimise any guesswork. Invest in a heart rate monitor to maximize your training efficiency and accurately gauge your effort using the information in this article.

All of the Paddle Society customized training programs use heart rate-based training zones to prescribe the intensity of each workout.

Speed Measurement

Speed is typically recorded using GPS devices. Speed by itself is generally an inaccurate measurement for training intensity. We can produce a lot of power/intensity and have a low board speed when paddling into chop, wind or current. The opposite can be true when you have a high board speed but produce a low amount of power/intensity (such as paddling downwind).

While heart rate monitors are a more accurate reflection of physical effort, the measurement of board speed increases in value if you paddle in conditions free from wind or current or when repeated intervals are conducted over the same stretch of water in the same direction.

Stroke Rate/Length Measurement

Stroke rate is the number of strokes performed by a paddler per minute. Distance per stroke is the distance taken from when the paddle blade enters the water and is then repeated. In other paddle sports, it has been shown that stroke rate does typically increase as a response to both increases in speed and intensity.

However, stroke rate is a faulty measurement for the same reasons as board speed. Stroke length can be affected by either current or wind. We could also produce a low stroke rate paddling into the wind, but the power could be through the roof. Read about stroke rate, to learn the application of stroke rate to training and racing.

Heart Rate Training For Paddlers

Now that you know why we use heart rate to measure intensity, let’s take a look at the specifics of using heart rate measurements. In all Paddle Society customized training programs, specific heart rate parameters and perceived levels of exertion are established for workouts to help gauge effort and maximize training benefits.

Heart rate training zones are generally expressed as a percentage of maximum heart rate (MHR) or as a percentage of the lactate threshold (LT). Determining max heart rate is difficult and not as good of an indicator for intensity as using lactate threshold. Therefore, the training zones used in our programs are based on a lactate threshold heart rate.


What Is Lactate Threshold?

Lactate threshold is the point during exhaustive, all-out exercise at which lactate, a by-product of exercise, builds up in the bloodstream faster than the body can remove it. Anaerobic metabolism produces energy for short, high-intensity bursts of activity lasting no more than a few minutes before the lactate build-up reaches a threshold. The point where lactate can no longer be absorbed and, subsequently, accumulates is known as the lactate threshold.

Are you still with me?

When an athlete’s lactate threshold is reached, it can cause fatigue and reduce the power of muscle contractions. At this point an athlete is forced to slow down or back off his/her intensity. Training to gain a higher lactate threshold allows an athlete to continue at a high-intensity effort with a longer time until exhaustion.

This is the reason we use targeted high intensity intervals in all of our members’ customized training programs. Lactate threshold is considered a good way to predict athletic performance in high-intensity endurance sports, and is why we will use it to determine your training zones.


Determining Heart Rate Training Zones

The most accurate method for determining lactate threshold is through laboratory testing. To save a trip to the lab, you can determine lactate threshold heart rate through on the water paddling tests that offer relatively accurate results.

To determine your lactate threshold as a percentage of your heart rate, you will need a heart rate monitor and calm, flat paddling conditions. Keep in mind that your lactate threshold heart rate will fluctuate due to changes in your fitness. It is best to retest these training zones every three to four months in order to maintain accurate training intensity scales.

Testing Protocol

Be sure to warm up 10-15 minutes before testing. The field test is going to be an individual time trial for a total of 30 minutes. Your effort should be hard, but not so hard that you slow down at the end. This effort will be roughly a 12-17 on the Rated Perceived Exertion Scale shown on the far left of the Training Zones chart below.

After warming up, start your time trail. Paddle for 10 minutes at a solid effort and then restart your heart rate monitor or create a new lap in your timing settings. Paddle for another 20 minutes at the same consistent pace. The average heart rate for the last 20 minutes of your 30 minute time trial is your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) estimate.

Putting It All Together

Not only can gauging the intensity of your workout with LTHR alone be difficult, but it can also make you too reliant on your heart rate monitor. During training, use the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion and combine it into your training zone scale below. This will help give a complete and accurate gauge for your training intensity.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is widely used to provide a subjective reflection of the physical response during exercise and enable an athlete to regulate effort to gain the maximum benefit.

We’re all about utilizing technology and data to maximize your paddling performance. However, remember to keep paddling fun. If you don’t feel like using a heart rate monitor during a week of training, then don’t!

In fact, it is valuable to learn to train at appropriate intensities based on your perceived exertion without the use of a heart rate monitor. You will be a better athlete as you become more in tune with your body and you will not feel so reliant on technology.

Using the information below, calculate your training zones based on your LTHR from the field test. Finally, use the Training Zones Chart¹ to get a complete picture for determining your different training zones. These training zones will help monitor training effort and ensure you do not go too easy or burn yourself out.

Heart Rate Training Zones

Zone 1

Easy – Less than 75% LTHR – Active Recovery

Research indicates that after a hard workout, a very easy workout can accelerate recovery more than complete rest. Easy aerobic training stimulates circulation which speeds up the healing of tissues that have been damaged by intense training. For this purpose, it is important to maintain an intensity that is enough to increase blood circulation and trigger a growth hormone release, but not intense enough to increase the damage you are trying to recover from. Don’t paddle hard when this training zone is prescribed, you will be doing more harm than good!

Zone 2

Moderate – 76-90% LTHR – Aerobic Endurance

Training at this intensity overloads the slow-twitch muscle fibers, increasing endurance. Since these fibers produce most of the energy and power for any paddle event lasting over four minutes, workouts at this intensity should comprise most of your training.

At low intensities, fat is the primary fuel for exercise. This is important for body-fat reduction but it is also important when training for events of two hours or longer. The body stores 1,000-2,000 calories as carbohydrate, but even the leanest athlete stores thousands of calories as fat. Carbohydrate will always run out before fat. Therefore, fat is the ideal fuel for long distance racing. Training at this intensity increases fat burning and decreases carbohydrate burning.

Athletes training for shorter events with higher intensity need to perform much of their training at this level to stimulate improvements in the slow-twitch fibers. Performing aerobic workouts at too high intensity reduces the effectiveness of harder workouts on subsequent days by fatiguing and/or depleting carbohydrate stores of the fast twitch fibers.

This zone should feel easy, but don’t mistake the ease for a need to go harder. For many paddlers, the most difficult part of following a structured heart-rate training program is keeping the intensity low enough on the easy days. Staying in Zone 2 when the training protocol calls for it is critical to your success. Going too hard in Zone 1 and 2 is the number one cause of overtraining.

Zone 3

Race Pace – 91-100% LTHR – Lactate Threshold

The effort in this zone can be comfortable, but should not be easy. Conversation is possible, however, not as easy as Zone 2. This zone is sometimes referred to as tempo training because the body is still functioning aerobically. This might be described as your race pace depending on your level of training and experience. The more you train, the easier it should be to stay in this zone. You will not train in this zone everyday, but it will be an important zone to use to monitor your progress.

Zone 4

Sprint – 101%+ LTHR – VO2 Max

While aerobic conditioning is important to paddling performance, situations arise in races where the energy cost far exceeds your aerobic capacity. These situations call for high levels of anaerobic energy production followed by a period of recovery. Training for short durations in this zone will help prepare you for these demands. Even in a long distance race, you must use this zone to sprint at the start of a race and position yourself in the pack of paddlers you are trying to beat.

In addition to increasing your sprint power, training at this intensity will improve your overall efficiency. Workouts in this zone will take longer to recover from but will provide great benefits if done properly. Again, these benefits can be quickly erased if too much time is spent in this zone or not enough recovery is allowed. Follow your customized training plan and listen to your body to make sure you do not negatively affect your performance.

Training Zones Chart


Pro TipPro Paddle Trip

Although you can certainly use a heart rate monitor during all of your workouts, do not overthink your training. Using your heart rate monitor for every training session can cause burnout and a loss of motivation during training. The more you train, you will begin to develop an awareness of your heart rate, training zones and overall exertion to the point that you can train by feel. Whether you use a heart rate monitor or not, do whatever it takes to prevent yourself from going too hard or too easy during workouts.


Training Intensity and Training Zones for Paddlers Recap

Training is ALL about intensity. You can paddle as much as you want, but if you are not working at the appropriate intensities when you need to, you will not see results. All of our customized training programs have specific intensity zones listed for each part of a workout. This allows paddlers to follow the prescribed training plan as closely as it was meant to be completed and obtain results. If you are forming your own training plan, it is still important to know your training zones so that you can gauge intensity.

How often do you train with a heart rate monitor? Let us know and join the conversation on the Paddle Society Forum!


  1. The Training Zones chart has been adapted from the 4-Zone heart rate format introduced by Roch Frey and Paul Huddle.
By | 2017-03-27T15:12:14-05:00 January 7th, 2017|Categories: Foundational Stand Up Paddle Content, Outrigger Paddling, Stand Up Paddle, Training, Training|