A few thoughts about training zones


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


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:


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?

7 Replies to “A few thoughts about training zones”

  1. Hey Alex,
    I think the key thing that the pyramid doesn’t explain to people is HOW those percentages are achieved. That is, if the 10% at maximum is achieved just through strides after every run, then this is drastically different than one hard track workout a week. And for the 15-20% at threshold, my personal opinion is that this can and should be achieved almost solely through one LONG tempo run (8-10 miles). That’s what works for me. As for the 10% at maximum, there is another variable: how much rest are you incorporating between intervals in a fartlek or track session? If you hit that 10% through a workout like 10x1k, taking one minute rest is a LOT different than taking 3.
    Those are my thoughts. I think for people training on their own, without coaching, and maybe new to the sport, it is tempting to run shorter tempos, and do speed work with longer rest. There can be a place for this. But I know a 3:10 marathoner who only runs 4-mile tempos, twice a week; and then does strides almost every day. He would see drastically different results with a longer tempo and a real track session. The key is that long tempos and track sessions are hard to make time for, mentally prepare for, and execute on your own.

  2. I also thought quality work tempo/intervals was a little on the high side. I think the novice runners over estimate % as they don’t put in enough mileage.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys — those are some good points. The pyramid definitely doesn’t provide enough info to construct a full training plan. Taking it to extremes, you could just go out every day and run 70% of your run in the aerobic zone, then accelerate to threshold for 20%, and finish with 10% at max. But that wouldn’t optimize your fitness compared to, as Jay says, hitting one long tempo and one solid interval session.

    As for the effect of mileage, I agree. When I was writing up those sample weeks, it occurred to me that many of my training partners were doing 4-5 morning runs per week instead of 2, and going longer on easy days (I’ve always had trouble handling high mileage). So their proportion of hard efforts was even lower than mine, but they were actually training “harder” than I was. For a novice training five days a week, it’ll be a lot easier to hit more than 30% at higher intensities.

  4. Love this discussion! I struggle with how long, and how fast, to run. I love to run fast, not so fond of running long, which seems odd to me since I am 61. Somehow coming home winded and sweating makes me feel young and strong, if only for a while. So for me this discussion is very helpful because it forces me to reconsider my habit of pushing it for fun.

    My debate is this: At my age, running long and longer leads to injuries. So, I think, ok, run faster shorter, like Tabatas, or tempos, and achieve max benefit with less time on my legs.

    My challenge is that I want to improve my 5k times. After that first mile at 6:42 or so, I fade down to 7:15, then 7:25 at the end. How do I increase speed endurance? Probably by running longer more often? Am I right or is that flawed thinking?

    Thank you, I rely mostly on McMillan site, wonderful guy.

  5. Elite coach Renato Canova gave a couple months of the exact training done by Kenyan XC champ Moses Mosop leading up to their national meet. In it he had how much mileage each week was done at his different training intensities. I calculated it up for the whole 2-3month period, and it came out to 81% of his training was done at general or slower speeds. 54% at recovery speeds and 27% at general speeds. Using Canova’s terminology, recovery is just what you’d think it would be easy to slow running, while general is more of the moderate/steady paced running but still not approaching marathon pace or anything like that.

    I’d have to look up the studies, but Billat, Esteve-Lanau and others have done research on elite and sub-elite runners and calculated their training distribution and it always comes out to be about 80% of their training is done at easy-moderate intensities.

  6. If the comment you quote is complete, the commenter misread your chart, and you in turn misread the comment.

    The commenter asks how you can average 4:00 per km 10 in a row when you don’t run a single km that fast in training: you spend 20% of your training slower than this and 80% (“the rest”) much slower. That would be a reasonable question, except that in fact, the chart prescribes spending 10% faster than the goal pace and only 70% aerobic.

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