Training Zones: A Key To Your Marathon Success

I’ve been a professional endurance coach for just shy of fifteen years.

In that time, I’ve seen runners make all sorts of mistakes, from training structure to race execution; gear choices to lifestyle factors like poor sleep hygiene and a shitty diet.

Arguably, the most common mistake I see runners make has to do with training intensity. Specifically, how they gauge their effort and how hard they run in training.

At its core, running is a simple sport. All you need is a pair of shoes and some basic clothing. If you want to improve continually and run injury free, it’s far more complex.

Training zones are critical for all runners who want to improve and run injury free because they objectify intensity and provide guidance on how hard to run in each session.

We use five training zones at Coached.

Zone 1: Easy
Zone 2: Steady
Zone 3: Moderately Hard
Zone 4: Hard
Zone 5: Very Hard

The names of each zone represent their subjective feeling. Easy should feel easy, and hard should feel hard.

Zones one through three are aerobic zones, with the top of zone 3 representing your transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism. Zones four and five are anaerobic training zones.

When you run a marathon, over 99% of your energy comes from your aerobic metabolism. Even a one-mile race is around 80% aerobic.

To optimise your training quality, you need to know when you’re running aerobically and when you’re running anaerobically.

Far too many runners do their “easy” training too hard, running in a performance grey zone that’s too hard to train your aerobic system properly but too easy to prepare your anaerobic system properly. You must polarise your intensities.

This is where training zones are valuable.

Training zones are tagged to markers of metabolic activity like lactate, fuel utilisation, and VO2max. For this reason, you can feel confident that when you follow a plan and train in the correct zone, using the proper method, you are training optimally, improving your performance while keeping your injury risk low.


Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

How To Determine Training Zones

There are many formulas you can use to determine training zones. Whether they come from your device or an online source, formulas are rarely effective, and you should avoid them in favour of testing.

Testing is objective and specific to you as an individual.

Lab testing is the gold standard for establishing training zones, and we encourage any athlete with access to a lab to take advantage of it.

A lactate test is one of the best investments you can make in your preparation and development as an athlete. Besides setting your training zones for heart rate and pace (or power), you’ll get insight into your physiology and current fitness level.

Field testing is an option if you don’t have access to a lab or don’t wish to invest your money. Field testing in the form of a functional threshold pace (FTPa) test provides a more reliable way than formulas to obtain your zones.

The problem with FTPa testing is that it’s incredibly challenging, which rules it out for some runners. It’s also just an approximation of your anaerobic threshold, so it’s not as accurate as lactate testing.

Training Zones In Practice

Once you determine your zones, you have the choice to do your training based on heart rate, pace, or perceived effort.

Each method has pros and cons, so I encourage you to use a mix of each.

Heart rate is an input that responds to various external factors, like weather, terrain, fatigue, and dehydration. When conditions are harsh, or your body is under stress, you must slow your pace to maintain your desired heart rate.

Pace is an output and doesn’t respond to these external factors. 4:00 /km is 4:00 /km regardless of whether you are tired, hot, or running uphill. As such, pace is best used carefully for high-intensity and race-specific training.

Comparing your heart rate and pace against how you feel over time can hone your perceived effort. Having a true intuitive sense of how hard you work usually develops over time and is observed in experienced athletes with years of training under their belts.

Developing this sense is critical for runners of all levels.

Using a mix of heart rate, pace, and perceived effort helps you balance life’s stress with the stress of training and minimises your injury risk.

When paired with training by time rather than distance, you set yourself up for consistency – the ultimate performance enhancer.

If you need help structuring these runs within your week, why not try a 14-day free trial of Coached? We’ll set up a training plan for you and arrange a 15-minute coach call.


9 Mistakes Runners Make When Training For A Marathon

So, you’ve decided to run a marathon. That’s great.

The marathon is a demanding but satisfying distance to master, so you must get your preparation and race execution right.

To save you some pain and frustration, this article will share nine mistakes that runners regularly make when preparing for a marathon so that you can avoid them.

Mistake 1: Running Without A Plan

As Benjamin Franklin once said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Running is a simple sport, but if you want to run well and remain injury free, there’s more complexity and a certain amount of planning you must do.

The sooner you realise this and apply some structure to your training and fuelling, the better. Your performances will improve, you’ll suffer fewer injuries, and you’ll enjoy running more.

A good plan is the bridge between your goal and your personal best.

Mistake 2: Doing 30k+ Long Runs Regardless Of The Time It Takes

So many runners think you must clock a certain percentage of the marathon distance in a long run. It’s not unusual to see runners doing 30k, 32k, or 36k runs, even if it takes four or five hours to complete.

This thinking is nonsense. 2h 45m is plenty, regardless of the distance covered.

The stride length is the main difference between a runner covering 35k in 2h 45min and one who covers just 21km. Good runners are more conditioned and, as a result, have a longer stride.

The number of steps between the two runners is not significantly different, and it’s the steps that put stress on your joints, muscles, and connective tissues.

Legendary running coach Jack Daniels expresses my thoughts on this well in this short video.

Mistake 3: Training Too Hard, Too Often

When you run a marathon, almost all of the energy required to run the distance comes from your aerobic metabolism. Unfortunately, too many runners train at a pace that is too hard to prepare this vital system properly and show up on race day ill-prepared.

Mistake 4: Not Using Training Zones

You need training zones to know whether you’re running aerobically or anaerobically.

Training zones are tagged to markers of metabolic activity like lactate, fuel utilisation, and VO2max. For this reason, you can feel confident that when you follow a plan and train in the correct zone, you are training optimally, improving your performance while keeping your injury risk low.

I recommend you do your aerobic runs to heart rate and your anaerobic runs to pace.

Mistake 5: Not Doing Any Strength Training

Runners suffer a high rate of injury. It’s not surprising because running is a very high-impact sport that stresses the joints, bones, muscles, and connective tissues.

What is surprising is that most runners neglect strength training in their programme. In my view, strength training for runners is non-negotiable.

Strength training helps to correct the biomechanical imbalances that lead to many running injuries and conditions your body to be more resilient to fatigue.

Mistake 6: Not Doing Any Secondary Races

Racing is a skill; like any skill, you must practice if you want to improve. Well-timed and suitable secondary races are excellent preparation for your A-Race.

Secondary races give you feedback about your current fitness level and provide a place to practice your pacing skill and fuelling under race conditions. These races allow you to test your gear choices and make mistakes when the stakes are low.


Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

Mistake 7: Choosing Secondary Races That Are Not Complimentary

If you choose the wrong secondary races or do them at the wrong time, these races can do more harm than good.

For a marathon, a half marathon on similar terrain and conditions, four to six weeks before your marathon is best.  

Mistake 8: Last-Minute Equipment And Fuel Changes

Any experienced runner will tell you that you should never try anything new on race day.

Purchase all new gear and test it weeks in advance. Chafing, blisters, pain, and poor performance are the side effects of last-minute gear changes.

Likewise, start experimenting and testing your nutritional strategy early to avoid bloating, nausea, cramps, and poor performance on race day.

It’s a good idea to research and find out what is used on course in your race and practice with those brands.

Mistake 9: Thinking You Can Eat Whatever You Want

You’re mistaken if you’re a runner who thinks they can eat whatever they want. You may look lean, but your body is likely riddled with inflammation under the hood.

Inflammation is a serious roadblock to good health and will slow your recovery and limit your performance.

Eat wisely.

Choose minimally processed whole foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals. Avoid refined carbohydrates that spike blood sugar and raise insulin levels.

PB Your Next Marathon

Avoid these nine mistakes, and you’re well on your way to a personal best in your next marathon.

We’d love to work with you if you need help preparing for your next race.

Sign up for a 14-day free trial of our online coaching. We’ll set up a training plan for you and arrange a 15-minute Zoom Call to meet and discuss your goals and the plan.