Here’s a Curious and Creative Threshold Cue!

This may seem a little curious or strange, but I want to share with you a kind of funny way I explained threshold to my students during a threshold intervals ride.

First a backstory…

The other day I saw a woman jogging with her dog on a leash. It was a young dog, maybe a year old, a rather large lab mix who was in desperate need of some discipline. He was pulling pretty hard on the leash, but she still had control and his tugging hadn’t yet disturbed her running stride much. He started pulling a little harder and a little harder. She looked like she was about to lose her stride, but she held on. Then at one point…boom! He pulled so hard he was almost dragging her. Her stride broke, her arm was outstretched, she was pitched forward.

The first thing that popped into my head? “Whoa, she just exceeded her dog-walking-threshold!” (I can’t help it! These kinds of analogies are always popping into my head!)

Let’s just say she was not successful at disciplining her dog in any way…but that’s beside the point! By the way, I’m sure Christine Nielsen will certainly get a kick out of this…did you know one of her other many skills is a dog trainer? I bet none of her dogs will take her out of Zone 1 on the leash! 😉

Not long after I saw that on the trail behind my house, I left to go teach my class. I was planning 3 sets of 8- to 12-minute intervals right around LT. This is a periodized 12-week program I’ve been teaching, and we are getting close to the end, so this challenging workout is a great way to improve lactate threshold.

You know when you are teaching, and you’re completely in the groove, and things just pop into your head? You feel creative and spontaneous, and you just go with it? Well, what popped into my head as I was explaining the effort was that dog on the leash! Here is how I used it…

During the first interval, which was not to threshold (it really was just an extension of the warm-up), we stepped up to mid-Zone 3 for 3 minutes, then high Zone 3 for 3 minutes, then low Zone 4 for 1 minute. I said:

Imagine taking a big, undisciplined dog out for a walk on a leash as you are jogging. Maybe you are dog sitting for a friend, and you’re unfamiliar with how this dog behaves on a leash.

When that dog is walking calmly at your side, it’s like your warm-up. He’s not pulling, and you are enjoying your outing with him. Then he starts to run a little faster, but the leash is still slack, so no worries. That would be Zone 2. Then he gets ahead of you, the leash is getting less slack, but it’s not tight. You think, “Hmmm, I hope he behaves!” It doesn’t jar your stride, and you are still in control. That’s like this mid-Zone 3 effort. Noticing your breath, aware of the effort, but not worried.

Then he starts pulling a little more. That’s an analogy for the high Zone 3 effort I want you to reach for the next 3 minutes. Still in control, still mastering your breath (i.e., the dog), but making a mental note to stay prepared.

Now in low Zone 4, he’s pulling more, your arm is outstretched, the leash is straight, but not super tight. You can still keep your normal stride as you run with this dog…on the bike, your breath becomes much deeper, you could still do this for an extended period, but you’re on alert right now.

Now the dog relaxes and comes back to your side, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You can jog at your relaxed pace, not worried. This is your recovery before our next interval. But…you don’t know what the dog might see around the next corner!

Next interval: You pick up your pace; the dog sees another dog in the distance and begins pulling very hard, extending your arm, but you STILL have him under your control. I want you to take it to that edge, where one or two more heartbeats would mean you’d have to back off. With our dog analogy, if he pulls so hard you start to lose your stride, pitching forward slapping your feet on the path…that would indicate you’ve gone over the edge and beyond your threshold! (Thanks to the dog!)

Oh, and if this happens:

Canine education


…then believe me, you’ve gone into Zone 5c! 😉

My riders got a kick out of the analogy, and it brought smiles to their faces. A few of the women are always discussing their dogs in the locker room, and one has been late a few times because she had to rush home after work to take the dog out before coming to class. So I knew I would have an interested audience! One of the guys asked, “Is it Julie’s dog?”

So, if you seek unique ways to describe effort using analogies, this may work for you. I wouldn’t use this, or something like it, if you haven’t already set the stage for understanding perceived exertion at each level of intensity. It may confuse them. But once they already can identify the sensations of effort in Zones 2, 3, 4, and above threshold in Zone 5, fun and creative analogies like this add some humor and variety to your coaching.

Please share below if you’ve come up with fun, even strange ways to describe effort!


  1. Fun post, Jennifer. You won’t be surprised that I have a few observations .

    First, the dog you observed didn’t need discipline. It needed to learn, to be instructed. It is very likely that it had been told a lot about what it shouldn’t do but that no one took the time and care to explain/teach the desirable behaviour.

    Second, you’re right. My dogs rarely go out of ‘Zone 1′ as you describe it but that’s because of a consistent application of science-based training.

    Third, I love the use of real-life analogies like this one. The more ways we can find to describe sensations in ways that are relatable to our students’ “real lives” the more successful we will be as communicators.

    Fourth, great work for a cat person!

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