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A few thoughts about training zones

May 23rd, 2010

Last week’s Jockology column about pacing and deliberate practice contained a “training zone” pyramid to illustrate roughly how you might divide your training time:

training-zones

One of the comments on the Globe site disagreed with this information:

I question the chart they put in this article. For a 40 minute 10 km, they say spend 20% of your training time at threshold, and threshold is 4:00 to 4:21 min / km, but to run a 40 minute 40 k your pace must be 4:00 for the race. I doubt you’d get there if you’re only running 4:10/km in training 20% of your time, and the rest at 4:45 – 5:25 as they’ve shown. Seems insufficient.

I was surprised to see this comment, because to be honest, I was worried it skewed too much in other direction — i.e. that the training it recommended was too hard! Some background: this idea of a 70:20:10 split between “aerobic,” “threshold” and “maximum” training zones (the names vary depending on who you talk to, but the ideas are fairly consistent) came from talking to Carl Foster, a professor at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. It’s by no means an iron-clad rule, as there are obviously many different ways to train successfully. But Foster said it was a common pattern that had emerged from studies across a variety of endurance sports like running and cross-country skiing. In my opinion, the key message here (and the reason I use this pyramid) is that the majority of your runs should actually be quite easy — something I think many beginners don’t realize. I know that when I started running, I was going as hard as I could every time I stepped out the door, and I think that’s a common experience.

When I check it against my own past training, I find that it gets me into the right ballpark — though I tend to do LESS training in the threshold zone than he recommends. To illustrate, here are a couple of sample weeks that I would alternate in a 14-day cycle when I was in my best shape (in kilometres):

Workout “aerobic” “threshold” “maximum”
Mon 8k easy 8
Tue am 8k easy 8
Tue pm 5x(800/300) 8 6
Wed 13k easy 13
Thu am 16k progression 11 5
Thu pm 12x60s hills 6 3
Fri 13k easy 13
Sat 1600/8k tempo/5×300 8 8 3
Sun 20k easy 20
TOTAL 120 95 13 12
Percent 100 79.16667 10.8333333 10
Mon off 0
Tue am 8k easy 8
Tue pm 6×1600 8 10
Wed 13k easy 13
Thu am 8k tempo 4 8
Thu pm 8×300 8 3
Fri 13k easy 13
Sat 26k progression 13 13 0
Sun 16k easy 16
TOTAL 117 83 21 13
Percent 100 70.94017 17.9487179 11.1111111
14-day average percentages: 75.10549 14.3459916 10.5485232

So I was generally right around 10% for the hardest zone, a little lower than recommended for the middle zone, and and little higher for the easiest zone.

Note that the McMillan pace calculator has quite a big gap between what I’m calling the “aerobic” and “threshold” zones. (Other coaches like Jack Daniels also agree with this approach, suggesting that this “dead zone” is fatiguing without offering any major training benefits.) For the 40-minute 10K runner above, there’s no training recommended between 4:21 and 4:46 per kilometres. For a 30-minute 10K runner, that dead zone is between 3:16 and 3:40 per kilometre. Because I did many progression runs (and even my “tempo” runs were generally run getting progressively faster), I actually spent quite a bit of training time in the dead zone. In the chart above, I’ve included those kilometres as “threshold,” so if anything I’m overestimating my time in that zone.

Of course, I didn’t always train like that. Those sample weeks were from 2003; in 2007-2008, I started doing a long tempo run on Saturdays, and often doing one other long fartlek that primarily stayed in the threshold zone, so I probably did more than 20% threshold (but less than 10% maximum).

Anyway, just thought I’d throw that out there and see what people think about the right balance. Do I need to stop using that pyramid?