September 27, 2022

Training Zones: A Key To Your Marathon Success

Learn how training zones can help optimise your training and improve your chances of running a PB in your next marathon.

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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.

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.