Beginners, Podcast, Running, Training

Training Zones part 3: Running | EP#30

 June 9, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Training Zones part 3: Running | EP#30

Training zones. You know of them, but do you know just how important it is that you use them? And most importantly, how to go about using them in swimming, biking and running?

In part 3 of this episode series on training zones, we cover how to use training zones in running.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How to determine training zones in running
  • How to use training zones in different types of run workouts
  • Should you do your run training according to heart rate or pace?
  • Using power zones in run training


If you’re new to show check out these related episodes:

The purpose of training zones

01:28 -

Key takeaway

The purpose of training zones is to ​train at the right intensity at the right time to make training effective.

How intensity is measured in running

2:24 -

1. Heart Rate

  • This is an input measure and is affected by many external and internal variables like heat, sleep, recovery level, caffeine intake, etc.​
  • I mostly prescribe heart rate zones for training sessions that are low intensity. (Zone 1 - Active Recovery or Zone 2 - Aerobic Endurance or "long slow distance").
  • Heart rate lags by approximately 3 minutes before it stabilizes at the level of the output you're producing.
  • In VO2max type of hard workouts with short intervals, heart rate is not a very useful measure.

2. Pace

  • A direct measure of output of what you producing and getting out of your running.
  • This has limitations with terrain and wind that affect pace.
  • As soon as we get quality training sessions like Zone 3 - Tempo, Zone 4 - Threshold, and Zone 5 - VO2 max, then I would use pace zones and not heart rate zones to prescribe workouts.
  • A more precise prescription compared to heart rate.

3. Power

  • Check out Episode 7 of That Triathlon Show for an interview with Jim Vance, who wrote the very first book on running with power meters.
  • A direct measure of output of what you're producing and getting out of your running.
  • The power you produce is always an objective measure regardless of if the terrain is uphill or downhill or into a headwind (or soon - headwinds are still not accounted for today by most power meters, but will be in the future).

Training zones in running

07:55 -

Zone 1 - Active recovery

08:14 -

  • Very easy recovery runs.
  • Most age group triathletes don’t need to do this run.
  • But if you’re a runner doing large volumes of training, you definitely need this one.

Zone 2 - Aerobic endurance

08:34 -

  • This is your bread and butter runs to build volume safely and effectively, not going too hard, easy conversational pace but not as slow as active recovery runs.​
  • This is basically the intensity of your long and slow distance runs.

Zone 3 - Tempo 

08:53 -

  • This is often the race pace intensity for many triathlon and running distances.​
  • Not as high as threshold. Functional threshold is the intensity that you can hold for one hour in a race.
  • For example, in an Olympic distance race, you will be running at an above threshold pace for many triathletes, and some would be just around threshold. When you go up to half distance or full distance triathlons then Zone 3 will be the zone that you would be running, or possibly Zone 2 in a marathon of an Ironman.
  • This zone is still a good zone to train for an olympic distance race because you can get a lot of stress even if the pace is slightly slower.

Zone 4 - Threshold

10:39 -

  • Threshold is the intensity that you can hold for one hour in a race situation.
  • Classic workout examples would be a continuous 20 minute run at threshold pace or power, or 3x10 minutes with 4 minutes jog recoveries.​

Zone 5 - VO2max / aerobic capacity

11:07 -

  • These are hard intervals of just a few minutes each.
  • A classic example would be 5x3 minutes with 2 minutes jog recovery and the intensity here is 5k pace or faster.

Functional Threshold

11:45 -

  • Training zones are based on percentage points of the functional threshold. Whether we are talking about heart rate, pace, or power zones, you will always have a functional threshold heart rate, functional threshold pace, and functional threshold power.​
  • Power, pace, and heart rate zones are always certain percentages of those functional thresholds.
  • Here’s a spreadsheet that I made that you can download and use to enter your threshold values, heart rate, pace or power and based on percentage points you will be able to get your zones.
  • But you need your threshold values that is obtained through field testing just as we did for biking.
  • The field test that I prefer is a 20 minute field test
    • Warm up for 20 minutes including some strideouts (accelerations for 20-25 seconds). Start out with an easy 10 minute jog, then start doing dynamic movements and drills, and then 3 or 4 x 25 seconds of accelerating to 95% effort throughout that strideout. So just accelerating, not going to full effort for 25 seconds. Then walk recoveries and then some more easy jogging, and another stride out just before starting the 20 minute test.
    • Then go all out, paced well for the 20 minutes. Try to go at an even steady (but hard!) pace.
    • Your functional threshold value is 95% of what you can sustain for the 20 minutes.
    • FT pace will be 95% of your 20 minute TT average pace, FT heart rate would be 95% of the average heart rate, and FT power is 95% of the average power from the 20 minute test.

Some people, like Joe Friel, our guest from Episode 1 and Jim Vance from Episode 7 prefer to use 30 minute tests and then take the last 20 minute segment of that 30 minute test and use it without reducing to 95%.

The 3-9 Power Test

16:32 -

  • In Jim Vance’s book "Run with Power", there was a test which was originally developed by Stryd which is the 3-9 test, a 3 minute all out time trial followed by 30 minutes (composed of a 5 minute walk, 10 minute easy jog, 5 minute walk, 5 minute easy jog, 5 minute walk), then finally a 9 minute all out time trial.​
  • If you listened to the episode on swimming zones, this is similar to the CSS-test where we also did 2 time trials.
  • Then take your average power from the 3 minute test and add it to the average power from the 9 minute test. For example, if you got 400 and 350 watts as your averages, add those together you get 750 watts, then divide by 2 which would be 375 watts and multiply by 0.9 (90%) which would be your functional threshold power.
  • Jim wrote in the book that this gives similar results to the 30 minute test as well.

Training zones as percentages of functional thresholds

Heart rate​

17:47 -

  • The percentage points that I use are based on Andy Coggan’s training zones.​
  • But I found that in practical use, the active recovery and endurance in Coggan’s zones are a bit low in my opinion and in my athletes’ opinions. I don't think this is us going too hard (certainly not me, I love running very slowly). Andy Coggan is definitely not wrong, this is just my opinion where I prefer to use slightly higher percentages for the lower zones.
  • Zone 1 upper limit is 75% of functional threshold heart rate.
  • Zone 2 upper limit is 85% of functional threshold heart rate.
  • Zone 3 upper limit is 95% of functional threshold heart rate (this is where Andy Coggan and I agree completely)
  • Zone 4 upper limit is in my system 102% of functional threshold heart rate (lower compared to Coggan’s 105% because I found that once you get past the 102% upper limit then your pace is always in the VO2 max zone)


19:14 -​

  • This is where things get interesting and very different compared to cycling.​
  • I’ve made my own zones based on my field observations. The way I did it was using online calculators from running gurus like Greg McMillan and Jack Daniels.
  • Also I use Matt Fritzgerald's 80/20 zone calculator
  • I used several different testing points for myself and for my athletes and I came up with my own test data and inputted those threshold values in these different calculators and looked at what the output for different zones were with different calculators. And then I tried to see where they overlap and didn’t overlap to come up with a compromise of the 3 calculators that would be the best of all worlds.
  • My findings are:
    • Zone 1 upper limit - lactate threshold pace multiplied by 1.29 (29% slower than your lactate threshold pace).
    • Zone 2 upper limit - lactate threshold pace multiplied by 1.14.
    • Zone 3 upper limit - lactate threshold pace multiplied by 1.04.
    • Zone 4 upper limit - lactate threshold pace multiplied by 0.97. This is now 3-6% faster than the functional threshold.
    • Zone 5 upper limit - lactate threshold pace multiplied by 0.8. This is now 20% faster than the functional threshold.


21:31 -

  • These power zones are based on Jim Vance’s Run with Power book​
  • They works just like the heart rate and pace percentages but with different values.
  • Zone 1 upper limit is 81% of functional threshold power
  • Zone 2 upper limit is 88% of FTP.
  • Zone 3 upper limit is 95% of FTP.
  • Zone 4 upper limit is 105% of FTP.
  • Zone 5 (high intensity) upper limit is 115% of FTP.
  • Zone 6 (VO2 max) upper limit is 126% of FTP.

How to train using running zones

22:20 -

  • For running, it is impossible for me to tell you because it is very individual.​
  • Essentially you could use the framework I put out in the Training zones for cycling episode which could go for running as well.
  • But things like how prone you are to injury and your background in running will come into play here.
  • Just a disclaimer, I don’t take any liability unless I coach you because these are not one size fits all frameworks 🙂
  • But here are framework examples for your reference:
    • If you run 2 days a week, 1 run would be a longer run in Zone 2, the other would be a Zone 4 or 5 quality workout depending on where you are in your season.
    • If you run 3 days a week, 1 run would be a longer run in Zone 2, then a Zone 4 or 5 quality threshold or VO2 max interval workout, then the 3rd run would be a brick run which would also be intense in Zone 3 or 4 but not too long, 10-20 minutes is plenty. 30 minutes at most when you're getting deep into your race preparations.
    • If you run 4 days a week, a Zone 2 long run, Zone 4 or 5 quality workout, then just a Zone 1 or 2 volume building workout, and a brick run in Zone 3 or 4.

Episode summary

24:14 -

  • I think within 2 years I will be completely focused on training with power in running and cycling.​
  • But for now, heart rate and pace also have their place.
  • Heart rate especially to hold you back in those lower intensity workouts (Zone 1 or 2) to put an upper limit on how hard you can go.
  • But for quality workouts in Zone 3, 4 or 5 (Tempo, Threshold or VO2 max), use pace or power because these are direct measures of output which ensures that you are getting the quality that you need to into that workout.

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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