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Training Zones Explained

Heart rate training can be confusing due to all the terminology used and there are many opinions on how to determine your threshold zone .... here's my ten pence worth!

The goal for this article is to give you a good basic understanding of how and why to test for heart rate zones, which training zones you should spend the most time in and how to make this a simple process.

Definition of Training Zones

Zone 1

…. is a super easy effort, probably a 4/10 on the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) chart (See Below &  Okhane Useful Training Stuff page). It's so easy that you should feel ‘guilty' when you are done. You will probably think you did not go hard enough; it didn't feel like a workout; you don't think there was any benefit because it felt too easy. If you have these types of thoughts after a Zone 1 workout, then congratulations, you are doing it right!

Zone 2

…. should feel pretty easy as well, at least in the beginning. But you should feel as though you have to work if you've been doing this several hours. You may even see cardiac drift towards the end of this workout. How easy is easy for Zone 2? …. somewhere between 3 & 5 on the RPE scale. You should be able to hold a conversation for the duration of this workout, and I mean being able to talk in full sentences, not one or two-word gasps.

Zone 3

…. gets a little grey, and literally it is a ‘grey zone'. You typically aren't going easy enough to get the benefits of a nice easy effort and you aren't going hard enough to get the benefits of a ‘Race Pace' workout. This is an effort of 6 touching into 7 out of 10 on the RPE scale, and you can talk in one to two word answers.

Zone 4

…. is your "Race Pace" zone - this is where you have burning legs and lungs and you can't keep the effort up for much more than an hour. And yes, you have to be pretty fit to keep this effort up for an hour, but by definition, your threshold is an effort you can manage for one hour. You know when you are in Zone 4 as your breathing is laboured, your arms and legs get very heavy and all you want to do is stop. This effort is 7 to 9 on the RPE scale.

Zone 5

…. and up are for shorter efforts and these are usually the top end of 9 and upwards to 10 on the RPE scale. These efforts may last from a few seconds to maybe five or six minutes. This zone is beneficial if you are doing a lot of racing that has hard but very short efforts, such as bike racing or racing short events on the track in running.

Consider that a 400M race around the track that takes world class runners about 40 seconds to complete is around 86 percent aerobic. Now, if you are running a 5K, how much of that race do you think is aerobic? The answer is probably somewhere around 97 to 99 percent.

For the average endurance athlete, the percentage of time you should spend training in each zone is roughly as follows:

  • Zone 1 and 2: 80 to 85 percent
  • Zone 4: 10 to 15 percent
  • Zone 5: 2 to 5 percent

For those of us that are training for the longer distances, there should be a percentage of Zone 3 training as well, but still that percentage may only be 15 to 20 percent each week.

The Importance of Zone 1 and Zone 2 Training

Zone 1 and Zone 2 training help you build endurance, durability and strength. In addition, these easy training sessions help build capillary pathways that transport oxygen to your muscles and carry waste (lactate) away from your muscles. The more capillary pathways that you can build, the more efficient you will be. Efficiency is equal to free speed.

If at first you can't keep your HR under Zone 2, then you need to slow down. If that means you run for three minutes and walk for two minutes to keep your HR down then, by all means, do it. For a fitter athlete getting back into training, best to start training without a heart rate monitor for two weeks. Put it back on once you have a sense of fitness coming back. You may feel that training in Zone 2 and under is a step back, but you will see the progress over time and you will be thankful you were patient during this important phase.

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Adaptation for everyone will be different. Some people will see changes right away, and for others it may take months. At any and all levels, improvement is possible. You just need to have faith in the philosophy and, above all else, be patient.

Check out our Performance Calculators page which are free for you to use. There are also useful articles explaining each one and how to use them as well as the data you get back.

Also currently under construction is our Okhane Useful Training Stuff page which will be full of information, articles, documents and presentations to help our visitors build a better understanding of the what, whys and hows of training. Okhane wants to empower our visitors with the knowledge, motivation and inspiration to constantly improve their quality of life through better health & wellbeing, to achieve their goals, targets and ambitions.

…. To be Fit For Life!

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