We’re in the heart of marathon training season. I’ve got my first half marathon in a couple weeks, and I know a lot of other runners who are focused on Chicago, New York or some other great marathon. With so much momentum built up around training, I thought I’d write something about training zones. Training zones are the bones of your training plan, and help you build a path to the finish line.
All training plans have recovery days built into them. They may be referred to as “light” or “easy” days, with the whole point being to keep your body in an active state without taxing reserves too much. Your body, specifically the muscles in your body, need time to repair after several continuous days of hard work.
The work you do within the recovery zone should stay between 50 – 65% of your maximum heart rate. If you’re not familiar with your maximum heart rate, it’s generally in the ball park of 220 – your age. Typically, both volume and intensity are decreased on these days, depending where you are in your workout plan.
The famed aerobic zone that has long been touted as the “fat burning zone” has you working somewhere between 65 – 75% of your maximum heart rate. There is a lot of value in training within this zone. Mile after mile of a long run are largely spent working here, building your slow twitch muscle fibers, stamina and ultimately (most importantly) the mental endurance it takes to cross the finish line.
As for fat loss…I think the aerobic zone is a good place to be when training. It takes a lot of hard work just to be able to run for an hour or two without resting. That said, there have been a lot of new studies that show the next two zones are where it’s at for weight loss.
Everything changes once you hit your lactate threshold. Legs start feeling heavier, breathing is not as controlled and you generally start to suffer a lot more. What happened? Five minutes ago you felt great! Your lactate threshold is the point in a run where your body can’t absorb lactic acid at the same rate that muscles are churning it out. Your body produces lactate in every stage of training. In fact, every time you move lactate is being produced. For most athletes, getting to or over the lactate threshold means you’re no longer working aerobically, thus oxygen isn’t as readily available to your cells. The byproduct is lactate.
As unpleasant as this may sound, these are the workouts in your plan that you want to really commit to in order to become stronger and faster while finishing pain free for as long as possible. It would make sense to say that lactate threshold is generally between 75 – 80% of your maximum heart rate (and that could very well be true for well-trained athletes), but it could be considerably lower for entry-level athletes. It really depends where you are in your training.
Workouts that fall into this category are tempo runs, half-mile repeats, mile repeats, or any longer interval-style workout. My go-to is always a good, solid tempo run. Your tempo run should be just under the pace you expect to run for the event you’re training. An example of a tempo workout would be three (3) 12-minute intervals held at a pace that’s 25 seconds below the pace/mile you expect to finish in a 10K race or 35 seconds below the pace/mile you expect to finish in a 5k race. Recover two minutes between each interval.
Within the world of endurance athletics, the anaerobic threshold means one thing: speed. Brining your heart rate between 80 – 90% can be somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least, however, this zone, like the Lactate Threshold Zone, makes a big difference in the results of your training. Fortunately, because the intensity of these workouts is so great, volume is much less. Any speed workout needs a good warm up of about 15 minutes. Personally, I feel better going into a speed workout after 30 minutes of running, but everyone is different.
A couple examples of an anaerobic threshold workout would be:
Six (6) 400-meter intervals with two minutes rest in between sets;
Eight (8) intervals at 200, 400, 600, 800, 800, 600, 400, 200 meters with two minutes rest in between sets