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How to maximise your workouts with training zones

Training zones offer a structured approach to optimising workouts, ensuring you're pushing your body effectively while minimising the risk of overtraining or injury.

runners having a drink after a long run

What are training zones?

Training zones are typically divided into 5 categories and are always a reference to maximum capacity.

The three most common ways to determine training zones is by calculating maximum heart rate, assessing power output (like an FTP test for cyclists), or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which is measured on a scale of 1-10.

Everyone’s training zones are unique and depend on factors such as age, gender and fitness levels.

Zone 1: Active Recovery (HR: 50%-60% RPE: 1-2)

Zone 2: Endurance (HR: 60%-70% RPE: 3-4)

Zone 3: Tempo (HR: 70%-80% RPE: 5-6)

Zones 4: Threshold (HR: 80%-90% RPE: 7-8)

Zone 5: Maximum Effort (HR: 90%-100% RPE: 9-10)

road cyclist on a Canyon bike in Girona

Training zones are a way to monitor how hard you are training. An effective training plan will include different types of workouts with varying intensities, duration and frequency, which will help optimise performance and minimise the risk of injury and burnout.

Zone 1 involves light exercise at 50%-60% of your maximum heart rate or RPE 1-2. For most people, this would include exercises such as walking or moving around the house which will boost recovery without causing fatigue.

Zone 2 is an essential part of every exercise programme. It should act as the foundation of your fitness pyramid and constitute 60-80% of your overall training regimen. Exercising in zone 2 should feel comfortable and at a pace which you could sustain for an extended period. It builds aerobic capacity and endurance, enhances the utilisation of both fat and carbohydrate stores, and the likelihood of needing recovery time from this training is minimal.

This zone is typically performed for 60+ minutes at 60%-70% of your maximum heart rate or RPE 3-4. It’s important to remember patience is key in this zone and it usually takes 2-3 months before any measurable benefits start showing, however the gains are worth it!

Zone 3 operates at a higher intensity compared to zone 2, but it’s crucial to note it’s not an all-out effort. It should feel challenging enough that you feel out of your comfort zone, but not hard enough that you can’t sustain it.

Many people nickname this zone ‘no man’s land’ or the ‘grey zone’ and a lot of amateur athletes make the mistake of spending most of their time training in it. Zone 3 or ‘tempo’ training is typically implemented into ‘interval’ workouts and is performed at around 70-80% of your maximum heart rate or RPE 5-6. It improves your lactate threshold and efficiency by enhancing your ability to sustain harder efforts for longer durations.

open water swimming training

Zone 4 is where the going gets tough! This zone pushes your limits, training your body to tolerate lactate better and improves overall speed and endurance. It should be performed at 80%-90% of your maximum heart rate or RPE 7-8 and represent around 10%-15% of your weekly training volume.

It is very taxing and puts a lot of stress on the body, so having an easier day following a zone 4 training session is advised to allow your body to recover and absorb the training load.

Zone 5 is the highest intensity zone. Your heart and respiratory system will be working as hard as it can. It enhances anaerobic capacity and speed and should be performed at 90%-100% of your maximum heart rate or RPE 9-10.

If you are just starting out, it’s unlikely you will need to train at this intensity, however for more serious athletes it is recommended to incorporate zone 5 into training 2-3 months before the race season.

first stage of the Tour des Femmes in Paris in 2022

Once you have determined your training zones through either heart rate, power, or rate of perceived exertion, it’s time to apply them to your workout. Variety is key, so the best way to do this is to create a structured workout plan that involves a mixture of workouts that vary in duration and intensity. This will ensure you are working the different energy systems, maintaining a sustainable approach to training and consequently unlocking your fitness potential.

Please get in touch if you'd like some support from our team with building a workout plan, and do join our weekly training sessions!

by Charley Wedderburn



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