Understanding my training zones

29.7.2016
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? Our coaching partners Running With Us explain the different effort levels and what these should feel like.

Easy/Recovery running
Gi_WomanOnTreadmill_RT2croppedFor 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 you 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 gage your effort level.

For those who are more experienced, running at ‘the speed of chat’ is how your easy runs should feel in a training week. You should feel totally in control, relaxed and able to talk whilst running. This is 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. It’s not a bad thing as long as it helps you gage your effort! If you wanted to give this type of running a score on an effort level 1-10 (1 being the easiest) it should be 6/10.

If experienced and running before breakfast, your easy runs could become crucial in your half, full and even ultra marathon training. Running at 6/10 or around the 60% of max heart rate 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 when you take gels and have a good breakfast on race day. It is therefore very wise to make some of your easy/recovery runs pre-breakfast moments, stimulating this stored fat system and preparing the body to use both stored fat and carbohydrate on race day.

Effort level: 6 out of 10 or around 60% of your maximum heart rate (MHR)

Top Tip – The key to this zone is making sure you can hold a conversation easily at anytime and feeling totally in control.

Steady Running
The next level: this is steady running and 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 the important sessions that we will talk about next. This area is perhaps a 7/10 on your scorecard and is still conversational, although the chat is slightly strained.

Effort level: 7/10 or around 70% MHR

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!
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Threshold & tempo running
If you really want to train like a pro and begin to see your heart get stronger, stoke volume improve and ultimately your running economy progress then this is the magic area. We call this ‘uncomfortable running’ or ‘controlled discomfort.’

The real key though is that you can still talk between each breath but it’s only 3-4 word answers. If you can utter a couple of distressed words, you are working too hard and 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 over the months. We call this type of running ‘the bedrock’ and it is vital when becoming a better runner. 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.

Our 3-4 word talk test is pretty accurate 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 against 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 DNA.

Effort level: 8/10 0r around 80-85% MHR

Top Tip – The key to this magic zone is keeping it feeling 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!

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Interval training & VO2 max/high lactate sessions
It’s time to visit the hurt locker! To a point, how a 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 1km or 6 x 4 mins off 75-90 seconds recovery can really hurt and require focus.

Runners often prefer to train in a group when doing these sessions, hunting as a pack and helping to push each other on. These sessions will certainly boost your VO2 max though and make that engine of yours (the heart) a few cylinders stronger but you can’t visit this zone too often. Maybe once a week in a thought out training plan but only when you are already running threshold each week and feeling good.

Effort level: above 8.5/10 or higher than 85% MHR

Top tip – Join a running group, club or friends to complete these sessions. Completing weekly interval sessions with others adds competition, company and disguises the true pain and mental strength required to nail the moment.

Training PlanSo the next time you leave the front door have a planned route and know what you want from your training. Have a purpose and listen to your body as you run.

Remember these 4 key levels/zones:
• Easy run – fully conversational at the speed of chat and about 6/10 (60-65% max heart rate)
• Steady run – conversational, controlled but slightly strained and about 7/10 (70-75% max heart rate)
• Threshold running – controlled discomfort and 3-4 word answer pace or8-9/10 (80 – 85% max heart rate, but get tested to be sure)
• Interval training & 5k/10k effort or quicker – No time to chat here and 9/10 or more as the session progresses. It’s 1 or 2 word answer time and perhaps more of a grunt (85% -over 90% max heart rate…ouch!)