Running Training Zones 101

By Rick Morris

If you took all of the workouts you could come up with, using all of the possible combinations of training paces, interval distances, recovery times and run times – and put them in book form – you would have a publication so heavy you could use it to max out your bench press. Even though there are an almost unlimited number of running workouts there are actually only four basic training “zones” or groups.

Each of these training zones incorporates a range of training paces, exercise intensities and running volumes. Each training zone is also associated with a different physiological stimulus or training effect. All properly designed training programs will use each of these training zones on a year round basis. The specific ratio will depend upon your ultimate running goal, your strengths, weaknesses, experience level and time until your goal race or event.

The four basic training zones, which are commonly called aerobic conditioning; anaerobic conditioning; aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity, are similar to the four basic food groups. To maintain a healthy, balanced diet you should eat foods from each of the four food groups. To maintain a proper, balanced training program you need to perform workouts in each of the four training zones.

All of these zones have many different names and aliases. No matter what they are called they all refer to the same physiological process and training protocols. Training paces in each zone are ranges rather than specific paces. Specific pace training is a more detailed and complex training system that depends upon your goal race and experience level.

Aerobic Conditioning

This one makes up the larger percentage of a distance runners training menu. This zone is also known as endurance training, base training, conversational running, easy running and long-slow-distance running. This training zone will improve your overall endurance by increasing your blood volume, increasing oxygen supply to your muscles and improving your muscles ability to extract and use that oxygen to produce energy.

  • Training Distance – 3 miles to over 20 miles
  • Training Paces – Slower than marathon pace
  • Percent of VO2 max – 55% to 75%
  • Percent of MHR (maximum heart rate) – 70% to 80%
  • Perceived Intensity Level – Easy

Anaerobic Conditioning

Anaerobic conditioning is sometimes known as anaerobic threshold training, lactate threshold training or lactate turn point training. Running in this zone will improve your ability to run for long distances at high running intensities. It will improve your body’s ability to process accumulating lactic acid to produce energy and will train your neuromuscular system to deal with the physiological changes caused by higher intensity running. 10K pace is usually about 3% faster than anaerobic threshold. That makes training paces at or near 10K pace very effective at improving anaerobic threshold.

  • Training Distance – 1200 meters to 3 miles
  • Training Paces – 15 seconds slower than 10K pace to 5K pace
  • Percent of VO2 max – 75% to 90%
  • Percent of MHR – 80% to 90%
  • Perceived Intensity Level – Somewhat Hard to Hard

Aerobic Capacity

Aerobic capacity is a very accurate description of this training zone, which is also called VO2 max training, vVO2 max training (velocity @ VO2 max) and speed training. The purpose aerobic capacity is just what it says. It is intended to improve the capacity of your aerobic system – it improves your body’s maximum ability to deliver and use oxygen to produce energy. Aerobic capacity training is performed at between 5K and 3K paces.

  • Training Distance – 400 meters to 1 mile.
  • Training Paces – 5K pace to 3K pace
  • Percent of VO2 max – 90% to 100%
  • Percent of MHR – 90% to 98%
  • Perceived Intensity Level – Very Hard

Anaerobic Capacity

Just as aerobic capacity describes your body’s maximum ability to produce energy using oxygen, anaerobic capacity is you maximum ability to produce energy without oxygen. It is measure of your top short distance running speed. Training at your anaerobic capacity level involves running short distances at nearly all out pace.

  • Training Distance – 100 meters to 800 meters
  • Training Paces – Sprint pace to 2K pace
  • Percent of VO2 max – 100% to 140%
  • Percent of MHR – 98% to 100%
  • Perceived Intensity Level – Extreme – The coach is trying to kill me!