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understand running Training zones

You certainly have heard about the use of "zones" and how beneficial they can be to your training, but do you understand why athletes use them? In this article, we will define what training zones are, why they are worth using, and how to calculate them. We are interested in training zones calculated without laboratory testing, as only a few athletes have access to advanced testing (VO2max, lactate levels). Amateur runners must rely on training zone formulas based on time trial efforts.

Training zones are a great tool that can help you improve the quality of your training; they allow you to understand which intensity/speed you should run at to match your training goals. Serious runners use them daily to pace sessions and measure their training load. This guide will help you understand these training formulas, so continue reading!

What are training zones and why do athletes use them?

Training zones are a classification of training intensity/speed (based on a fitness test or performance). They offer a scale that links intensity levels with physiological gains. This allows athletes to plan training sessions to target specific adaptations and measure their training load (duration x intensity).

For example: Doing multiple repeats of 1-2min at 90-100% of max heart rate will increase VO2max. At the end of the session, athletes can ensure they met the targets by measuring the time they spent in each zone.

Pros and cons?

Training zones are easy to measure. Runners simply must perform a running test which involves a maximal effort over a duration or distance and then use a calculator to identify their zones. However, this ease of use comes at a cost, training zone formulas generalise the physiology of athletes to bring a user-friendly intensity scale.

For example, if tested in a lab, two runners of similar fitness level (same race time over a distance) will have different training zones as no athletes share identical physiological traits (qualities).

Different type of training zones:

This is where it becomes confusing. Training zones can be based on much metrics, we describe the most popular bellow. Each method is valid and will have pros and cons (not described here).

- Pace

- Threshold pace

- Heart rate

- Threshold heart rate

- Vo2max

- Power

- Max/min heart rate

- Perceived effort

- …

You can read more on a blog post from Training Peaks (Training peaks 2022).

How to choose the best method?

In my opinion, you should choose a method that is easy to use, and that is associated with a repeatable test. This way you can regularly measure your progress. Personally, I like the VDOT calculator developed in Daniel's formula book (Daniels 2022), it allows runners to calculate training zones based on race results (3k, 5k, 10k, HM & marathon) and is based on paces which I find easy to follow.

To increase the accuracy of my results I base my training zones on a 5km time trial done at the same parkrun location, with my result, I connect on the calculator (VDOTO2, Jack Daniel's) and define my zones.

For example:

I ran a 17:31 parkrun which gives me the following training zones:

Easy pace: 04:32 to 05:00/km

Marathon pace: 03:59/km

Threshold pace: 03:46/km

Interval pace: 03:28/km

Repeat pace: 03:13/km

To summarise:

Defining your training zones will offer a pacing guide, which you should use to achieve the goals set in your training schedule. However, it is important not to think too rigidly about zones. First, because they are based on a generalisation, to fit most runners and be easy enough to use (the only way to gain accuracy in your zone definition is to follow lab testing). Second, because your training outcomes are not dependant to the zone you train at, training at VO2max zone will most likely provide the best VO2 gains, however training at zone 1 or 2 will still provide some VO2 gains, to a lesser extent.

Plan your training, train mostly at the right intensity, and HAVE FUN!

If you have questions, you can contact us.


Daniels, J. 2022, Daniels' running formula, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

Jack Daniel's VDOT Calculator, <>.


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