Many times I see runners going out and running the same pace day after day – and I must admit, I’m guilty of it too! As a coach, one of the first things I do is slow down runners for some runs and speed them up for other runs. Runners love one of those more than the other, but both are crucial to training and improving efficiently.
What pace should you be running? It depends on where you are in your training cycle (macrocycle), the specific workout and its purpose. Learning different pace zones and when to use them is crucial to a beneficial workout. This is Part Two in a series on understanding and creating training plans. Check out Part One on periodization here.
For general purposes, you can split paces into four general training zones or “pace zones”.
1. Aerobic Recovery Zone
“Conversation pace” and slower. At this pace you should be able to converse with a training partner. In fact, you should be able to talk in full sentences, speak paragraphs, and even sing while you run.
When Should You Run in the Aerobic Recovery Zone?
These will be prescribed the day after a hard workout. These runs do not introduce any more acute stress to the body, instead they facilitate your body’s adaptation and recovery. If you run these workouts too fast, your body will still be trying to recover during your next hard bout – which will be to your detriment.
Training Duration: Minutes to hours
Perceived Effort: 4 or 5 on scale of 1-10 where 1 is walking
Heart Rate: 65-70% of maximum heart rate
2. Aerobic Training Zone
Conversation pace. You should be able to converse in full sentences with your training partner. You can do a “talk test” with the Pledge of Allegiance or The Brady Bunch theme song to make sure you can recite without getting out of breath.
When Should You Run in the Aerobic Training Zone?
Basically most of the time. As you will learn, this is where all the magic occurs. It builds a strong engine that you can use for any race from the 5K to an ultra marathon. Everyone needs these workouts in their training. Even Olympic athletes run 70-80% of their workouts in this pace zone.
Training Duration: Minutes to hours
Perceived Effort: 5 to 6 on scale of 1-10 where 1 is walking
Heart Rate: 70-80% of maximum heart rate
Aerobic training and recovery zone benefits:
- Increase capillaries
- Build mitochondria
- Burn fat sooner and more efficiently
- Increase glycogen storage in your muscles
- Increase your heart’s ability to pump more blood quickly
- Improve your muscles’ abilities to get oxygen
- Use oxygen more efficiently
3. Lactate Threshold Zone
This pace requires your attention and focus. You might be able to speak in short sentences. You can race for an hour at this pace.
This pace is dictated by your lactate threshold. Above your lactate threshold, your body starts to accumulate metabolic wastes as it works. The wastes build up, you feel like you’re dying, and you’re forced to slow down. By training just below or near this threshold, good things can happen.
When Should You Run in the Lactate Threshold Zone?
Often called tempo runs, I often prescribe these runs as their own mesocycle after you build your mileage base and before any race-specific speed intervals.
Training Duration: 10-30+ minutes
Perceived Effort: 7 to 8 on scale of 1-10 where 1 is walking
Heart Rate: 80-92% of maximum heart rate
Tempo Run Benefits:
- Push back your lactate threshold, allowing you to run faster for longer before fatigue sets in
- Mentally prepare yourself to run hard and maintain control
- Gain confidence at faster speeds
4. Anaerobic Zone
ALL-OUT running or sprinting. 5K pace, 1 mile pace, or short sprints. You’ll no longer be able to speak in full sentences. Maybe a word – it’ll probably be a curse word.
When Should You Run in the Anaerobic Zone?
Late in the macrocycle to improve leg speed and sharpen you for a race. Anaerobic training is particularly risky for novices, marathoners, and anyone with an injury or who is injury prone. Since almost all racing, even the 5K, is still primarily oxygen-based, training in the anaerobic zone has less benefits than aerobic training and one must balance its risks and benefits.
Training Duration: 30 seconds to 10 minutes
Perceived Effort: 9 to 10 on scale of 1-10 where 1 is walking
Heart Rate: 92-100% of maximum heart rate
Benefits of Anaerobic Zone:
- Improves fast twitch muscle ability
- Promotes a more efficient running form
- Teaches patience while managing physical discomfort
But What Are the Actual Numbers?
Figuring out the ranges for your pace zones takes some analysis, calculation, and finesse. As a coach, I use recent race times and training history to start. Then, I watch carefully how my clients’ bodies respond and recover from different workouts.
As an individual, you can input a recent and appropriate distance race into an online calculator to give you some starting guidelines. During a run, you can use the talk test to determine what zone you’re in. Remember that temperature, weather conditions, terrain, life stress, and health can all quickly change your training zone paces. For example, in the summer, you might add 30-90 seconds to your winter paces to stay in the same zone. The higher temperature changes your output, it doesn’t change the amount of work your body is doing.
Matching Paces and Workouts
Many times runners end up in a weird pace zone, going too fast for aerobic training and not effectively training to improve their lactate threshold. You will still benefit from running, especially as a new runner, but you won’t be training efficiently and you’ll eventually reach a plateau.
By identifying the pace zone for each workout in your training plan, you can make better decisions when substitutions or modifications are needed during the week. You can also use this information to prescribe your own pace zones if a cookie-cutter plan only gives mileage or to modify a plan that doesn’t quite match up to your experience.
Next week I’ll show you how to use periodization and pace zones to build a logical training plan using my spring marathon as an example.