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Training Basics Part 2: Training Zones

This is the second in a series of articles outlining the foundations of running specific training.  This article explains the four key training zones and their specific purpose.  The next article in the series will explore how to apply them in building a training plan.

As discussed in the first article of this series, the purpose of training is to prepare your body to cover a given distance in as little time as possible.  To do that, you need to condition various systems of your body to support running long distances in short periods of time.  It should also be noted that while it is important to have a sense of the biology and chemistry at play, there are better resources for those looking for a more scientific understanding of running specific training.  Before getting into the different training zones, let's first look at some ways to measure effort that will become important frames of reference for determining the appropriate training zone.  

Measures of Effort

VO2max 
When exercising you consume oxygen and VO2max is a measure of your capacity to consume oxygen.  VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen consumed in mL, per minute per minute per kg of body mass.  The higher one's fitness level the greater their VO2max and thus their ability to exercise at a high rate of intensity.  VO2max can be improved with training. VO2max is a major component of performance but not the only one.  Running economy and mental toughness also play a factor.  VO2max is measured through a laboratory test and thus is a concept to understand rather than a tangible metric to be used by most runners.  

Max Heart Rate 
This is the highest heart rate (beats per minute or bpm) that your heart can achieve.  This is not a function of your fitness level but rather genetics and age.  There are rules of thumb for estimating Max Heart Rate such as 220 - your age but those tend to be rough estimates as they are based on population averages.  The best method is simply perform a test to see how high your heart rate goes.  If you are going to be doing any heart rate based training it is safe to assume you have a heart rate monitor device to measure your heart rate.  Simply perform an all out time trial or very hard workout and see how high your heart rate gets.  Some people suggest adding a beat or two to this figure as it can be difficult to reach all out exertion in a time trial or workout situation.  
Max Heart Rate % is the measured heart rate divided by Max Heart Rate = % * Max Heart Rate

Reserve Heart Rate 
This measure is similar to Max Heart Rate but takes into account your resting heart rate.  Unlike Max Heart Rate, Resting Heart Rate is a function of your fitness level.  To measure Resting Heart Rate, take your pulse when you first wake up, before you get out of bed.  This number should be much, much lower than your normal heart rate. 
Reserve Heart Rate % = (Max Heart - Resting Heart Rate) * % - Resting Heart Rate

The Four Training Zones

Aerobic Conditioning
Also known as base work.  This is the zone where the vast majority of training occurs.  Even elite runners do most of their training in this zone (their pace just happens to be much faster than everyone else's pace).  Workouts in this zone include regular maintenance runs, long runs and cross-training efforts.  This training zone is defined as being between 70 and 85% of Max Heart Rate or 62 and 75% of Reserve Heart Rate typically for 30 to 120 minutes.  The pace should be conversational.  The goal is to create the physiological building blocks of running.  Training at this pace develops joint and tendon strength, teaches you to store and utilize glycogen and fat as fuel, builds heart and running muscles, develop capillaries for blood delivery, create more mitochondria to power cells, improves O2 delivery and CO2 removal.  

Anaerobic Conditioning
Also known as Lactic Threshold training.  Workouts in this zone should feel comfortably hard.  Workouts in this zone occur at 88 to 92% of Max Heart Rate or 83 to 87% of Reserve Heart Rate.  The pace of runs in this zone usually corresponds closely to Half Marathon pace.  When we exercise we produce lactic acid that fatigues a muscle and represents a natural defense mechanism against over exertion.  At the same time we process lactic acid.  Lactic acid training occurs at the level of exertion where we are producing and processing lactic acid at the same time, which in turn increases our ability to process lactic acid.  Imagine a bucket with a hole at the bottom.  Now imagine carefully filling the bucket so that the rate of water entering the bucket is the same as the rate of water leaving the bucket at the bottom.  Lactic Threshold training also increases capillary and blood volume as well as the stroke volume in your heart.  

Aerobic Capacity
Also known as VO2max training.  The purpose of this type of training is to improve your ability to consume oxygen when running by training your body to deliver and process it.  This occurs at a Heart Rate greater than 92% of Max Heart Rate.  Training in this zone is done through interval training at 90 to 100% of the pace at which you could hold for approximately 12 minutes or 3,000 to 5,000 meter race pace .  These intervals are 3 to 5 minutes in length.  

Anaerobic  Capacity
Also known as Speed training.  As mentioned earlier, VO2max is not the only determinant of running success.  Running economy is another important factor in determining running performance.  Running economy is the elimination of wasteful motion and recruiting of most desirable muscles.  This zone involves short intervals of 30 to 120 seconds at the highest levels of intensity.  

Next up...how to use this knowledge of specific training zones to create workouts and a specific training plan.