How Heather Jackson uses zones to maximize her training, recovery and readiness in a jam-packed race schedule
On October 21, 2023, Heather Jackson rode the Big Sugar Classic – a 100-mile gravel cycling race that spans two states.
It was the last in a series of six grueling gravel and mountain bike races called the LifeTime Grand Prix. From spring through fall, Jackson duked it out with other pros all over the country. Once that was over, most of us would call it a year, put our feet up and allow ourselves a little RnR.
Jackson isn’t most of us, though. On October 28 – one week later – she won the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile trail running race through the Arizona desert, besting a stacked pro field and earning an entry to the 2024 Western States 100.
This quick turnaround between herculean efforts was standard for Jackson in 2023. In addition to the LifeTime series, her schedule included gravel races like SBT GRVL, The Mid South and the Belgian Waffle Ride, and a sprinkling of trail ultramarathons like the Canyons 50K, Western States and Javelina.
We’ll get into how she did it next. But first, follow Heather on Strava so you can see it with your own eyes.
Guided by Zones
How did Jackson balance training, tapering, and recovering sufficiently with so much racing? How was she able to not only line up at 15 ultra-distance races in two different sports between March and October, but be competitive at all of them – and even win a few?
The answer is: She paid attention to her zones in training, and used them to ensure she was pushing when she could, but pulling back when she needed to. If you aren’t familiar with zones, we’ve covered what they are and how to use them in two previous articles.
“There has to be a purpose to every mile and every hour, whether it’s training or recovery,” she continues. “And zones help me make sure I’m making the best use of my time.”
Training for multiple sports is nothing new for Jackson: Between 2009 and 2019, she was one of the best Ironman-distance (2.4-mile swim, 111-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) and half-Ironman distance triathletes in the world. She’s won seven full Ironman races and finished as high as third at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
“I used zones a lot because in tri, you’re piling on volume and need to keep from overreaching,” she says.
The Off-Season: Building Blocks
The winter “off-season” is anything but “off” for Jackson, who takes advantage of the long lull in racing to log serious volume from her winter base in Tuscon, Arizona.
“It takes several weeks of work to build your fitness,” she says. “So when you have the time, it’s crucial to take advantage of it. Once the racing kicks up, you won’t have time to build fitness between racing and recovering.”
When time allows, she’ll log high-volume “blocks” that are three to four weeks long. Each week typically has six runs and six bike workouts, excluding warmups and cooldowns. “With two sports, every day has to have some quality,” she says.
During these larger training blocks, she spends a lot of time in easy-moderate Zone 2 (Z2), but adds some tempo-based Z3 and Z4 quality to improve her lactic threshold and prep her body and mind for long stretches of discomfort she’ll experience during races.
There has to be a purpose to every mile and every hour, whether it’s training or recovery... And zones help me make sure I’m making the best use of my time
“With running, each week includes a long run that is usually Z2 but can get to Z3 on hills,” she says. “It includes a hill rep day, where I’ll get into Z3 or Z4. And it includes a tempo build day – 2 x 10K, for example, where I’m mostly in Z4.”
The other days – plus her warmup and cooldown runs – are in Z2, even the super-easy Z1 if she feels like she needs to take it easier.
“On the bike, I have a day of climbing, which is Z3, and I’ll do some big-gear work up Mount Lemmon, which is Z2 or Z3,” she says. “And I go on two group rides in Tuscon that are very race-like – you’re hitting Z4, even [maxed-out] Z5 – then I’ll ride Z2 or Z3 on the way back.”
As to whether she uses heart rate or power-based zones on the bike?
“When I’m building my base, I’ll use power,” she says. “But when racing starts up, and recovery is more important, I’ll use heart rate more, because going off of how you feel is more important than hitting certain numbers.”
Sample Training Schedule: Off-Season
Total Distance: 339.2 miles
Cycling: 266.1 miles
Running: 73.1 miles
Racing Season: Race, Recover, Repeat
When races crowd the calendar, Jackson says it’s better to go into a race fresh than tired – so when in doubt, she always errs on the side of going easier during the week.
If it’s a bike race, she says she can push a little more right up to race day. “That’s nice because if all you do is super easy Z1, you’ll be slogging and not ready to race,” she says. “But you still need to pay attention to how you feel and limit how much you’re pushing higher than Z2 or Z3.”
Immediately following a race, Jackson prioritizes active recovery – a day or two of relatively short, easy effort that stays in Z1. “I’ll go by feel and cut it short if I’m feeling tired,” she says.
But with another race on the immediate horizon, she goes straight into prep mode after that. Tuesday through Thursday she scouts the course if possible, and puts in a longer ride of 3-4 hours in Z2 and Z3. “I try to do a solid two hours in Z3,” she says, noting that there are often other pros in the area she can ride with. “It keeps me feeling ready to race.”
The day before the race she’ll do bike reps of 5 x 1 minute or 4 x 90 seconds in Z4-Z5 – enough to prime her legs for the race but not enough to make her tired the next day.
For a running race, her schedule is similar, but lighter. “If I have a running race, I taper even harder because the impact on your body is so much higher,” she says.
For a Saturday running race, a light Monday is followed by an hour to 75 minutes in Z2 Tuesday, an easy Z1 jog Wednesday, and an off day Thursday. The day before the race, she’ll do a quick run off the bike when her heart rate is higher to start – this brief time in Z2 and Z3 primes the engine and reminds her body it’s go time the next day.
Sample Training and Race Schedule: Race Season
Jackson’s week of August 14 – 20, 2023 started with recovering from the 100-mile Leadville mountain bike race, held on Sunday, August 13, and ended with the 140-mile SBT GRVL gravel bike race on Sunday, August 20.
Total Distance: 280.4 miles
Cycling: 267.55 mi
Running: 12.85 mi
Total Time: 17h 34m
Total Elevation Gain: 19,970 ft