How to understand your training zones
Have you ever left the front door not sure how fast to run? You may have a training plan, but just how hard is an easy run, and how should your threshold or interval training feel?
Let’s have a look at our effort levels and what these should feel like.
Easy/recovery running – 6/10 effort – approx. 60% MHR (max heart rate) – zone 2
For those of you who are very new to running we promise that this sport doesn’t have to be exhausting and each run shouldn’t leave you tired for days.
The early runs where we are learning to cover distance and time should be completed at the ‘speed of chat’. That’s right, you should be able to still talk to the person next to you whilst running. We call this the ‘talk test’ and it is great to use to gauge your effort level. Build this zone of running and become comfortable with it before trying to run faster, or complete hard interval sessions.
For those who are more experienced, running at the ‘speed of chat’ is how your easy runs should feel in a structured training week. You should feel totally in control, relaxed and able to talk whilst running.
It’s easier to check whilst running with a friend, but if on your own, you may find you are running along the street talking to yourself – which is no bad thing if it helps you gauge the effort!
If you wanted to give this type of running a score on an effort level from 1-10 (1 being the easiest) it could be 6/10. In heart rate terms, it might be zone two, or around 60% of your maximum heart (MHR).
If experienced and running before breakfast, your easy runs could become crucial in your half, full marathon and even ultramarathon training. Running at 6/10, or around 60% of MHR will ensure much of your energy comes from stored fats.
In events where you will be working for longer than 90 minutes at a consistent effort, becoming efficient at metabolising stored fats as a fuel source will become crucial in your quest for a new PB, even if you take gels and have a good breakfast on race day.
Its therefore very wise to make some (2-3 a week max) of your easy/recovery runs pre-breakfast moments, stimulating this stored fat system and preparing the body to use both stored fats and carbohydrates on race day. Be careful though, as running before breakfast every day can leave you over tired or depleted. Varying the time you run is always a good idea, too.
Top tip: The key to this zone is making sure you can hold a conversation easily at anytime and feel totally in control.
Steady running – 7/10 – approx. 70% MHR – zone 3
The next level… this is steady running and often the backbone of training for the more experienced. It isn’t complicated but does require honesty. You can push this area too hard and run junk miles that leave you too tired for clever sessions that we will talk about next. This area is perhaps a 7/10 on your effort scorecard and is still conversational, although the chat or sentence is slightly strained.
Top tip: Many runners run or drift along at a steady effort on their easy and recovery days never allowing their bodies to regenerate in an optimum way. Be careful not to compromise your next harder day or key session by running steady all week or always running at the same effort!
Threshold & tempo running – 7.5-8.5/10 – approx. 75-85% MHR – zone 4
If you want to train like a pro and begin to see your heart get stronger, your stroke volume improve, and ultimately your running economy progress, then this is the magic area. We often refer to this zone as the area that will help to improve your maximum aerobic speed the most.
We describe it as ‘uncomfortable running’ or ‘controlled discomfort’ The real key though is that you can still talk between each breath, but it’s only a 3-4 word answer effort. If you can utter a couple of distressed words you are working too hard. Conversely, if you can say most of a sentence you are not working hard enough.
This is running uncomfortably, but with control… just! It is certainly not sprinting or running to exhaustion. Initially, you might only be ready to include a few 3 minute blocks of this in a run each week, but it can grow and you can build the volume and time spent in this zone over the months. We call this type of running ‘the bedrock’ and it is vital when becoming a better runner in endurance events.
Sessions could grow from 4 x 5 minutes with a jog recovery; to 3 x 10 mins; and ultimately 20-30 mins all controlled and cruising at a consistent pace, but still just in the aerobic zone. In time, you will see your maximum aerobic speed, or speed at threshold effort improve.
Our 3-4 word talk test is pretty accurate to get in this zone, but for those of you wanting to get this spot on and nail the marginal gains we suggest a lab test to establish lactate levels versus heart rate and even your current VO2 max. Your heart rate monitor will then guide you perfectly with training zones that match your personal running.
Interestingly, Polar have just released their latest Vantage 2 model which offers a running performance test involving gradually progressing your speed on a run whilst measuring your heart rate. From this test, it is now possible to calculate your maximum aerobic speed (a great sign of aerobic fitness) and your VO2 max (maximum oxygen uptake). Exciting times if you want key fitness metrics at your fingertips!
Top tip: The key to this magic zone is making sure it feels like 3-4 word answer pace and not progressively harder. You shouldn’t feel like you are in the final stages of a 5K or 10K. Keep that control… just! For the experienced it can feel like somewhere between 10K and half marathon best effort intensity.
Interval training & VO2 max/high lactate sessions – 8.5+/10 – approx. 85% MHR – zone 5
If experienced, it’s time to visit the hurt locker, as we often say.
To a point, how 5K/10K effort or intense interval training feels is up to you. You could be wise and hold back slightly, letting the pace and intensity prescribed build the pain for you; or you could be the head banger who loves to hit it harder and hang on. The choice is yours, but remember to be consistent in this zone. It is meant to hurt and sessions such as 6-8 x 1K or 6 x 4 mins off 75-90 seconds’ recovery are very tough and require focus.
They will certainly boost your VO2 max though and make that engine of yours (heart) a few cylinders stronger. It is often described as raising the roof on your fitness, but you can’t visit this zone too often without becoming tired or risking injury and over training.
Recovery is always the key!
Top tip: Maybe try this type of session once a week or every 10 days when in a key phase in a training build up.
Training zones summary
The next time you leave the front door, have a planned route and know what you want from your training. Have a purpose and always listen to your body as you run.
Remember these 4 key levels/zones:
- Easy run: Fully conversational at the speed of chat – about 6/10 effort level – approx. 60-65% max heart rate – zone 2;
- Steady run: Conversational, controlled, but slightly strained – about 7/10 – approx. 70-75% MHR – zone 3;
- Threshold running: Controlled discomfort and 3-4 word answer pace – 8-9/10 – approx. 80-85% MHR (but get tested if you want to be sure!) – zone 4;
- Interval training & 5K/10K effort or quicker: No time to chat here. It’s 1 or 2 word answer time and perhaps more of a grunt! – 9+/10 (85%+ MHR (…ouch!) – zone 5.
Make every run count… Smile and relax along the way.
As a UKA Level 4 Endurance Coach, England Athletics ‘flying coach’, and British Athletics squad manager, with over 25 years of running experience, Nick knows his stuff. To learn more, check out the links below…
Thanks to Polar for the photos: polar.com