Four training zones every runner should know
Running seems like a simple sport. But once new runners start hanging out with other runners, they start hearing about long runs, pace runs, speed workouts, strides, hill workouts, and even “fartlek.” strange sounding. They come to learn that experienced runners do different types of training at different times and that coaches use all kinds of terms to describe races.
Over time, coaches have organized the various races and training into groups or zones. In each training zone you will find different types of races and workouts to help you develop the type of fitness you want. Understanding the why and how of each zone is helpful in determining which workouts work best for you and which workouts are ideal for preparing you for specific races.
I will introduce you to the training system that I use, consisting of four zones. I adopted these zones from exercise scientist David Martin, although I renamed them because his naming system was based on physiological terms. My zone names reflect the aspect of fitness the runner would improve by running in that zone: (1) stamina, (2) endurance, (3) speed, and (4) sprint.
Zone 1: the endurance zone
Most of a runner’s training takes place in the endurance zone. The reason for this is that most of the energy needed for running, including running, comes from the energy systems that are enhanced with endurance training. Additionally, running in the endurance zone gradually builds a stronger and stronger running body, so you can tolerate more and faster training in the future.
Endurance zone runs are continuous runs that can last anywhere from 10-15 minutes to several hours. For most runners, these are your regular runs, where you go out and simply cover the distance (or run to save time) at a “casual running” pace. Your breathing stays in control and you can carry on a conversation when running in the endurance zone.
There are three types of runs in the endurance zone: easy runs, long runs, and recovery runs. Easy runs are your daily comfortable miles, long runs are easy runs that last more than 90 minutes, and recovery runs are short, slow runs when you’re extra tired one day after a hard workout.
Zone 2: The endurance zone
The next zone is the endurance zone, or what some trainers call “threshold” training. As you run faster and faster, you cross a threshold where your body produces more lactic acid than it can eliminate, which makes you tired. Endurance zone workouts are designed to help push that “lactate threshold” at a faster rate.
There are four types of workouts in the endurance zone: steady-state runs, tempo runs, tempo intervals, and cruise intervals. You can repeat the same type of endurance training multiple times, but I find it best to do a mix of the four different endurance zone workouts.
Steady-state runs—also called “subthreshold runs” because the pace is slightly slower than lactate threshold—are continuous runs lasting at least 25 minutes and up to 75 minutes. Your effort changes to medium-easy, and your breathing speeds up a little while remaining under control.
Tempo runs are slightly more intense efforts than steady-state runs, and they happen right at the lactate threshold. They last between 15 and 30 minutes and are meant to be comfortably hard. Like steady-state running, tempo runs are continuous efforts, preceded by a thorough warm-up.
Tempo intervals are fast tempo runs divided into reps with relatively short recovery jogs. They last between 8 and 15 minutes, with two to five minutes of jogging between each repetition.
Cruising intervals are essentially shorter, slightly more intense tempo intervals. They last three to eight minutes, followed by short recovery jogs of 30 seconds to two minutes.
I like to squeeze one to two endurance zone workouts per week into the first few weeks of a 5k or 10k training plan, before the runner moves into speed zone workouts as they approach the race. Conversely, I focus on endurance zone workouts in the last few weeks of a half marathon or marathon plan, because endurance zone workouts are more like running for longer runs. long.
Zone Three: The Speed Zone
The speed zone is where you work on the maximum capacity of your aerobic system, also called maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 max. When experienced runners talk about speed work, that’s often what they’re talking about: reps at or around your VO2-max pace (your 5k running pace or slightly faster for most runners) , with short recovery jogs in between.
Reps in the speed zone typically last between 60 seconds and five minutes. Because the pace is faster, you should do a recovery jog for half the distance or the same duration as the fast rep. So if you run a 1,200 meter rep in five minutes, you’re running about 600 meters, or for five minutes, to recover. These workouts allow you to maintain your speed over a longer period of time.
The “talk test” is a good way to find out if your effort is suitable for the zone. In the stamina zone you can carry on a full conversation, in the stamina zone you can still speak complete sentences. In the speed zone, the effort progresses to medium-hard and your breathing is elevated to the point where you can really only get out very short sentences or even single words.
There are two types of speed zone workouts: track intervals and fartleks.
Track intervals are repetitions of specified distances, usually between 400 and 1600 meters. These are often repetitions of the same distance, for example, running 400 meters 12 times at a 5 km pace with an equal time recovery jog. Another popular option is to reduce the distance with each repetition – for example, 1600 meters, 1200 meters, 800 meters, 400 meters – or to go up and then down a “ladder” of distances.
You can also do speed zone races based on time and effort in what is called a fartlek race. Fartlek is a Scandinavian word meaning “speed game”, and the creators used fartlek racing as a way to train quickly without the requirement of a marked track or course, using effort as a measure instead than the rhythm. An example would be to perform ten repetitions of one minute “on” (difficult) and one minute “off” (easy).
Since speed zone workouts are like races for shorter events (under 10,000 meters), I include weekly track or fartlek training closer to the race to prepare runners for the physical demands and psychological specific to go fast. For longer races, I like to schedule occasional speed zone workouts at the start of the training plan, to help the pace of the race feel easier when runners start working on it a lot over the last few weeks of training.
Zone four: the sprint zone
The final training zone is the sprint zone. Workouts in this zone help you reach your maximum speed and consolidate your stride. The goal is to run really fast, let the body and mind recover, and then start again. You get two important adaptations from sprint zone training: first, you improve your ability to tolerate and eliminate lactic acid, and second, you improve your running form.
Like speed zone training described above, sprint zone workouts are intense repeated efforts with recovery jogs in between. They differ by being even faster, shorter and with longer recoveries.
There are two types of workouts in the sprint zone: sprint intervals and strides.
Sprint intervals (or lactic acid tolerance workouts) are repetitions that last only 100 to 400 meters and are performed at approximately your running pace effort of two minutes to eight minutes (a running pace of half a mile to a mile for most runners), with very long recovery intervals. You should take two to five times the duration, or one to two times the distance, of a brisk run as a recovery run before starting the next hard effort. For example, if you run 200 meters in 40 seconds for your hard interval, you run for 1 minute 20 seconds to 3 minutes 20 seconds, or for 200 to 400 meters before starting the next sprint.
The purpose of sprint intervals is to flood the muscles with lactic acid and then let them recover. With practice, your leg (and mental) strength and your ability to buffer lactic acid will improve, allowing you to sprint longer. Weekly sprint intervals in the final weeks of the training plan are ideal for track runners preparing for races under 5,000 meters, where lactic acid buffering is particularly important for the success.
Strides — also called wind sprints, pick-ups, striders, or stride outs — are short, quick accelerations. Stride improves your sprint technique by teaching the legs to turn around quickly.
We don’t want lactic acid to build up like it does during sprint intervals because lactic acid inhibits the nervous system and interferes with the neuromuscular adaptations we want. So strides only last 10-20 seconds, and you need to run easy for at least 30 seconds and up to a minute and a half to make sure your muscles are ready for the next sprint.
As you can imagine, the stride pace is very fast – a one minute to six minute run pace (a 200 meter to mile run pace for the most part). Note that this is not a full sprint. The goal of strides is to run fast but still maintain control and focus on great running form. You can incorporate four to twenty strides in the middle of your run or at the end.
Stride has become my secret weapon for most runners, running two to three times a week all year round. Stride teaches new runners how to run fast with great running form and prepares them for endurance and speed zone races. Experienced runners also benefit, as strides continue to aid in endurance and speed runs; Plus, they help fine-tune a finishing sprint. And for older runners, strides are a way to gradually reintroduce faster running while avoiding injury.
Excerpted and adapted from Running Nirvana: 50 lessons to improve your running, through Greg McMillan.