Heart rate zone training is one of my favorite topics to talk about. You’ve likely heard a lot of the terminology getting tossed around, so I’m here to help you understand what it all means and how you can use it to your advantage. While each of these concepts alone warrants an entire thesis, I am going to break down the basic components of zone training and give you applicable ways to insert the techniques into your training. First-time runners and the veteran crowd alike can benefit from implementing the latest scientific breakthroughs into their existing routines.
Let’s begin with ventilatory thresholds. Every runner has two of them, and unique things happen when you cross over these boundaries. The energy systems that your body uses to keep you going will change, and you’ll notice significant shifts in your breathing patterns. If you’ve ever run with a friend who picked up the pace and you suddenly found that holding a conversation became impossible, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You may have even experienced an insurmountable buildup of lactate if you finished the run anaerobically with a sprint or finishing “kick.”
Most of the time, your runs will take place below your first ventilatory threshold and well within your aerobic capacity. If you can chat with your friend without feeling short of breath, you know you are in the right zone to train muscular endurance and consequently increase the distance you are able to run. Now if you start to “push the pace” and your breathing becomes heavy and labored, you are working somewhere between your first and second thresholds and making adaptations that will directly influence the overall capacity of your cardiovascular system as well. Think about it this way, you’re increasing the capacity of your heart and lungs in addition to your muscle and bone. Finally, work performed above your second ventilatory threshold is anaerobic (without oxygen) and is good for developing speed over very short distances. Think of this as your sprint or “kick” pace, which is a gear or two up from your “push” pace (which is still predominantly aerobic). Training in each zone will elicit a different set of adaptations, because the imposed stress differs in each case. If you want to run further, spend a lot of time in Zones 1 and 2 (between 60-80% of maximum effort). If you want to run faster, kick it up to Zones 3 and 4 (80-100% of maximum effort). Understanding what your specific goal for each workout is key to staying in the appropriate zone.
The best and easiest way to track your heart rate is a GPS or fitness tracker such as a Garmin. There is an easy formula you can use to lay out your training zones. For men, subtracting your age from 220 gives you 100% of your maximum heart rate. For women it’s a bit more complex, subtract 88 percent of your age from 206. Based on your 100% value, you can extrapolate your different zones and use those zones as a guideline throughout your workout. Things like stress levels and elevated temperatures can also increase your heart rate though, so it’s important to understand the “feel” of each zone in case your numbers become skewed based on these external conditions. Low zone work should feel relaxed and “comfortable”, with efforts between VT1 and VT2 feeling “hard, but sustainable” while anaerobic effort past VT2 just feels agonizing!
The other components of heart rate zone training you’ve likely been exposed to are things like VO2 max (a measurement of your body’s ability to utilize oxygen), heart rate recovery (which determines how quickly you can settle back into a normal pace after charging up a hill) and heart rate variability (a metric that many athletes use to determine how their body responds to or recovers from a tough training session). The list goes on and on, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds with a topic this complex. If you understand what training in each zone feels like, and what adaptations you are making by working in each zone, you have grasped one of the most fundamental concepts in the sport. It’s easier said than done though, and the best way to learn is by spending more time on your feet!