When I took up running, I had one pace. It wasn’t quite easy, it wasn’t quite hard. I’d look up a training program online, usually via Google Image search. I wouldn’t read any of it except the column that told me the distance. Then I’d run that distance at my not-quite-easy-not-quite-hard pace. This worked pretty well for me in the beginning. I managed to get all the way up to a half marathon distance in my training using this strategy.
For someone who is completely new to running, this is actually the strategy I would recommend. If you are trying to get into running, it’s all about behaviour change. We humans don’t like to change our behaviour. Having to learn about different types of training run, running up and down the same hill a bunch of times or strapping a heart rate monitor on before every run adds psychological barriers to just getting out there and doing it. We just can’t be bothered. So if you took up running recently and are trying to build a running habit, please just bookmark this blog and come back to it in a few months. However, if you’re looking to improve your race times, or run a longer race, then read on.
Targeting Physiological Systems
My one-pace running story is not uncommon. I would say about 50% of the recreational runners I work with in the clinic every day do all of their runs at this not-quite-easy-not-quite-hard pace. Like I said, this is not such a bad thing if you just want to run to stay healthy or if you’re just getting into running. However, if you’re training for a race, the single not-quite-easy-not-quite-hard pace strategy is not the best way to train.
If you’ve got hold of a training program for your next race you will have noticed most of the runs come with a description like “easy run”, “tempo run” or “threshold run”. Usually these come with some kind of an explanation on how to do the run. The idea here is to target and train different physiological systems. Training these different systems specifically with different training runs will optimize their development. On race day these systems will all come together to propel you as fast and as far as you can possibly go.
Many training programs will use a 5 zone system to distinguish between different types of training run. Others use different terms like “steady run” or “VO2 max intervals”. Other training plans use heart rate training zones. This can lead to a lot of confusion with terms often being used interchangeably. So I’ve taken the different zones, heart rate targets and terminologies and dropped them all into a table to help make sense of it. You can download your own copy here.
Understanding the Running Training Zones
This column refers to the zone number. Going from zone 1 at the lowest intensity to zone 5 at the highest.
This column refers to which physiological system the training run is targeting. I’ve written previously on how important low intensity running is for endurance races. For the marathon and half marathon you will be spending most of your time developing the aerobic system in zones 1 and 2. For faster events like the 5K you will do a lot of work on the anaerobic system in zones 4 and 5.
Intensity refers to how hard you are pushing during the workout. Low intensity work should feel fairly easy. High intensity work should feel like you want to puke.
% of Lactate Threshold
Your Lactate Threshold is the intensity level at which the volume of lactate in your blood starts to climb rapidly. This means you can no longer recycle the lactate you are generating as a result of respiration by your muscle cells. This is all a bit complicated to explain here so check out this article if you would like to understand it a bit better. In simple terms, you are starting to produce more lactate than you can reuse. Within about an hour that lactate will build up and stop you producing force with your muscles. That’s when you’ll stop running. As you become a fitter and more efficient runner, the pace you can run before you reach the your lactate threshold will increase. That’s one of the reasons your race times improve with training.
% of Max Heart Rate
Using heart rate training zones based on the old 220 minus your age is probably a bit over-simplistic for any runner who is really interested in optimizing their training. There are some articles out there that try to help you calculate or self-test your maximum heart rate without going to a lab. The heart rate training zones are then calculated as a percentage of your maximum heart rate.
Common Training Runs
These are some common descriptions for the different types of run included in most training programs. Unfortunately, sometimes the terms are not used to describe the same type of run and this can be confusing. If your training plan includes a description of the run you can usually read between the lines. Using the table above you should be able to tell if a ‘Steady’ run in your program is actually a zone 2 or a zone 3 run for example, as this term can be used to refer to either.
RPE – Rate of Perceived Exertion
The RPE scale is a 1-10 scale based on how hard you feel you are working. With 1/10 feeling like you can continue all day and 10/10 feeling like you might die if you continue for more than a minute. I talk more about this scale in my article on slow running to improve performance.
The feeling column refers to how it should feel to you at different intensities. This is also often described as an internal cue.
The duration refers to how long you could sustain this level of intensity for. This is a really helpful way to help you dial in the intensity as people are much better at deciding “yeh, I think I could keep this up for about an hour” than we are at determining what “comfortably hard” is. You can also use this column to help you determine how the different zones, heart rates and intensity levels relate to different races. Most people will do their 5k in 15-45 minutes for example, that means a 5k race is a 3-4 zone race and you can use this information to get an idea on how hard it should feel and what your heart rate is likely to be. The marathon however, usually takes people a few hours and is a zone 2-3 effort. This is also helpful for when training programs refer to “race-pace” or “10 second per km less than race pace”.
Using the Table
What can be really helpful is to print out a copy of the table and then write your heart rate zones and paces in to next to the various zones. Alternatively you can click here to download a spreadsheet with these columns included. Then you will have a really good idea of your intensity levels and how they relate to different workouts.
So, does this help you understand your training program? Still confused? Let us know in the comments.
I talk through these ideas in this video…