Training Intensity Zones For Runners

Improve the quality of your training with these five training intensity zones.


I was first introduced to training zones as a young triathlete back in New Zealand.

Even at a young age, the coaches emphasised the importance of training at different intensities. They were primarily interested in harnessing the potential of athletes in the most effective way possible.

I ran the zones by feel and as time passed, heart rate monitors and pace were introduced to make things more specific and to help me “dial in” my feel which I quickly learned was way out of whack.

Different coaches I worked with had different names for the zones.

Some used four zones, some seven.

Regardless, I understood the importance behind knowing how hard to do each session, and what the purpose of the session was suppose to be.

I don’t think I really appreciated how crucial training intensity was, until I progressed from hobbyist to professional athlete.

Most of all as a coach, I have seen (and continue to see) the dramatic effect these zones have on the performance of our athletes.

No matter your age or ability, you ensure training effectiveness by training with purpose and at the correct intensity.  

No matter your age or ability, you ensure training effectiveness by training with purpose and at the correct intensity.  

The Intensity Grey Zone

In my last post i spoke about why intensity trumps volume and the mistake of training in the “intensity grey zone”.

The grey zone is where many athletes spend their time running because they believe that to race fast you must train fast and constantly push the pace.

As a result, their “easy sessions” are done at an intensity level that doesn't properly develop their aerobic system and their “hard sessions” are done below the required intensity to fully develop their anaerobic system.

In other words, they train too hard when they should be going easier and are unable to muster the energy to train hard when they should be.

Training is unproductive and a colossal amount of time and energy is wasted.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the intensity itself, in fact it can provide some benefits when used wisely.

The problem comes when you do the majority of your running at this intensity in favour of executing your easier sessions as they should be: Easy!

To combat this common training pitfall, it is important to understand and use training zones during your training.

Pushing hard all the time leaves you tired and ensures you can't push hard enough when you need to.

Pushing hard all the time leaves you tired and ensures you can't push hard enough when you need to.

The Training Intensity Zones

During my last few years as a professional triathlete I was fortunate to work with an amazing coach, named John Hellemans.

John uses five zones and literally wrote the book on training intensity. I have continued to use his foundational expertise on training zones for our work at Coached.

Let’s take a look.

Zone 1: Easy

Focus: Recovery.
Perceived effort: 1 - 2 out of 10.
68 - 73% of Max HR
Talk Test: Complete conversation.

Easy is a low intensity zone used to establish a strong aerobic base and to aid in recovery from more intense sessions. At this effort you gain a high proportion of your energy from fat and when done in a fasted state you facilitate an improvement in your fat burning ability.

Zone 2: Steady

Focus: Endurance.
Perceived effort: 3 - 4 of 10.
73 - 80% of Max HR
Talk Test: Full sentences.

Steady is a moderate intensity zone used to develop your aerobic fitness and ability to generate energy from fat. The large majority of your training should be done in the low end of your Steady zone. The high end of this zone (along with the bottom end of the next zone) is what I referred to above as the “grey zone”).

Zone 3: Moderately Hard

Focus: Tempo.
Perceived effort: 5 - 6 of 10.
80 - 87% of Max HR
Talk Test: A few words at a time.

Moderately Hard training develops the ability of your intermediate muscle fibres (fast twitch fibres converted to slow twitch fibres via Easy and Steady training) to generate energy aerobically. The high end of this zone provides many of the benefits that Hard training provides but without the prolonged recovery time.

Excessive time in the low end of this zone should be avoided as it’s the upper edge of the grey zone we have discussed.

Zone 4: Hard

Focus: Threshold.
Perceived effort: 7 - 8 of 10.
87 - 93% of Max HR
Talk Test: I.....can’t.....talk…..right.....now.....

Hard is a high intensity zone used to improve VO2max and cardiac stroke volume. Periods of training at this intensity are useful for most runners after a strong aerobic base has been developed.

Zone 5: Very Hard

Focus: VO2max.
Perceived effort: 9 - 10 out of 10.
93 -100% of Max HR
Talk Test: Grunts

Very Hard training develops the ability of your oxygen delivery systems to get oxygen to the working muscles. This intensity constitutes a very small percentage of total training time.

Your ability to gauge intensity comes with practice and experience. Tools like heart rate and pace monitors can help you to dial in how you feel.

Your ability to gauge intensity comes with practice and experience. Tools like heart rate and pace monitors can help you to dial in how you feel.

The “Feel” vs Pace vs Heart Rate Debate

With the different training intensities now introduced and the benefits clear, the remaining posts will focus on measuring intensity. In particular, I'll share the pros and cons of running by feel, pace and heart rate.

Most runners have a preference on how they like to gauge intensity when they run and I hope the remaining posts will offer some insight into why we coach by heart rate (for now) and you can decide on what is the best method for you.