Slow and Steady – Zone Training Experiment

Remember this? The morning of the CIM last year. Pouring rain, fear, excitement, and body-chilling wind?

CIM drop off

And this? Learning how to walk again after 26.2 miles.

CIM walking

And this?

CIM hugs

All of it being 100% worth after crossing the finish line. Having my family’s support, running to raise money for ALS, and running alongside Team Veg to shout to the world that a plant-based athlete is not only capable of running a marathon, but we can do it well!


If you are doing the CIM, your training is probably in full swing, but this year, I’m not running the whole thing. It was a tough decision to make because I really wanted to beat my time from last year. But I decided that I will do the re-lay with Team Veg instead, and save the marathon for next year.

If I’m going to commit myself to a full marathon, I would want to do it right – train properly and get a PR. That’s how I operate. This year a few things got in the way, so I decided to use this time for a little experiment.

I often see a few reoccurring patterns amongst my running and cycling friends and Pilates clients – and I have been through some of the same issues myself over the years.

  • overuse injuries
  • fatigue
  • performance caps – lack of improvement
  • weight gain (yes, it happens even when you train!)
  • burn out

These things happen for a variety of important reasons – bad form, nutritional gaps, hormone imbalances, and improper training and/or recovery.

Being that I’m a personal trainer and often work with runners and cyclists and love training for races myself, I decided to do my own experiment. So, instead of training for a marathon, I will spend the next few months zone training. If you have not heard of zone training, here is a very quick and dirty explanation.

What is Zone Training?

You can think of every training session as a certain zone. To keep it simple, we can split your training into 5 zones.

Zone 5 – high power, muscle-building zone. Body uses fast-twitch muscles and creatine as an energy source.
Example: an intense weightlifting session, or a short, all out sprint.

Zone 4 – high exertion effort. Body uses fast-twitch muscles and burns carbohydrates for energy. In this zone, the body frees up energy quickly and fatigues quickly.
Example: sprint efforts of about 2 minutes in duration.

Zone 3 – hard, sustained effort. Pre-race conditioning, or what would be your race-pace zone for a slightly longer race. Body burns carbohydrates for fuel.
Example: half-marathon, marathon race pace.

Zone 2 – aerobic energy system. This is your capacity building zone. Body provides a slow released fuel that is available for a long period of time – fat – and uses slow-twitch muscles. Slow twitch muscles have a high degree of mitochondria, which convert fat with some carbs into energy. This helps you do a long training session without fatiguing.
Example: a long, slower pace training run.

Zone 1 – aerobic energy system. This is your recovery zone. Body uses slow-twitch muscle and fat for fuel. Enhances blood flow to help the body recover.
Example: stretching, or a slow-pace yoga session

Why Does it Matter?

Every workout should have a purpose – a recovery run should be just that  – a gently and slow run. Tempo running should be saved for pre-race conditioning, and speed work, should be…well… speed work. Zone 2 then, has an important purpose as well. Slow and long runs should be long enough and slow enough to build your aerobic capacity, strengthen the mitochondria mechanism, and help your body efficiently burn fat for fuel.

The trouble sets in when in the interest in saving time, or feeling like “we are doing something” we go hard every single time. I’ve been there many times myself. We say, “I just have one hour, so I will go as hard as I can for that one hour”. The trouble sets in when we do this day in and day out. That puts us in Zone 3 every time we train.

We burn carbohydrates for fuel, and we run too hard see an increase in overall aerobic capacity but not hard enough to see any significant gains in speed.

Too much Zone 3 training may eventually lead to fatigue and even burn outs without big gains.

The Zone theory goes that  too many moderate sessions in Zone 3 are not enough, and that Zone 3 should we used more for pre-race conditioning than a default training zone.

My Experiment

Although while training for races I normally map out every workout and its purpose, I have not been meticulous about my heart rate or tracking my zones.

I’m going to spend the next few months experimenting with polarized training – meaning I will go between Zone 2 and Zone 4 in my running program. Polarized training is training that’s done a combination of low intensity and very high intensity –  some low impact high volume sessions and some hard interval sessions. This type of training has been showing very impressive results across multiple scientific studies and is widely used by professional athletes.

My personal goal is to increase my aerobic capacity, which will hopefully (and over a long time) lower my heart race during runs, make me more efficient at burning fat for fuel, and increase my running efficiency allowing me to go longer with less effort.

Next time I run a marathon, I will hopefully be much stronger overall.

Want to find your zones? Here’s a simple (but slightly less accurate) way to do it.

DIY – How to Find Your Zone 2 (you will need a heart rate monitor)

  • warm-up for least a mile. The warm-up is crucial because your heart rate tends to fluctuate when you first start running.
  • go as hard as you can for 20 minutes at a sustainable pace. A sustainable pace means that you can keep the same pace for 20 minutes. If you start to slow down, you are going to fast.
  • stop your heart rate monitor after 20 minutes and find your average heart rate.
  • your average heart rate for the maximum sustainable effort for those 20 minutes is your Zone 4.

Zone 4 – heart rate you found after 20 minutes (+/- 3)
Example: let’s say that after 20 minutes your average heart rate is 160, then you add (+/- 3) to that. Your Zone 4 is 160 (+/- 3)

Zone 2 – we will skip Zone 3 for a moment and find your Zone 2 first. Your zone 2 will be that Zone 4 -20.
Example: 160 (+/- 3) – 20 = 140 (+/- 3)

Zone 3 – based on the example, your Zone 3 would be anything between 163 and 143.  This will be your tempo/race pace zone.

The two other zones that are left are Zone 1 and Zone 5.

Zone 1 – below 137

Zone 5 – above 163

Cool, right? If you are interested in in this, but a little (understandably) confused,  follow-up with me.

The way I see it is that every workout, including running, should have a purpose – whether it’s to recover, clear your head, or train for a specific race. I’ve made the mistake in the past when training for races – I ran hard day in and day out. I thought that because I had very little time to run, I have to go hard so it would “count”.

And even though I was getting faster for a while, I eventually plateaued. My body reached it’s capacity with my running method and I then I realized that it was time to take a different approach.

Till next time, tribe.

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  1. Jedidiah Soliz
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I love this blog Maria! You give a wonderful and detailed descrption about zone training! I am familiar with the concept, but not the term and breakdown. Being a competitive athlete myself, I can tell you that it is indeed very important to pay attention to all of those zone stages. Depending on what race you are training for, some zones will be focused on more then others, but all should really be applied at some time or another for any race distance training. My zone focus has definately shifted from when I first started running competitively, until now. Back then I was training for a 4 mile cross country race, so I would spend alot more time in zone 3, 4 and 5. Now, I train for Half Marathons and Marathons, so zone 1, 2 and 3 are my most used zoned now. I try and be a well rounded runner, so I still do some good zone 4 and 5 training, but considerably less then I used to. There is a saying for Marathoners to go by, and that is, “make your easy runs, really easy!” The bulk of my mileage is generally easy because that is the time I need to recover and build my slow twitch endurance, so zone 1 and 2 come in really handy :)

    • Posted September 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Jed. Looking forward to going for a run sometime with you soon.

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    My name is Maria and I live in California. I love teaching high-energy Pilates classes, going on long runs, and making connections with all of you! Hope you find a few useful articles, fitness tips, and recipes while you're here.

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