Using Training Zones to Exercise More Effectively


When you have limited time for a workout in between class and extracurriculars, it can be tempting to opt for a quick, hard run or bicycle ride to make the best of your time. However, exercise science highlights the importance of using all five training zones for different purposes, and a familiarity with these exercise levels can help you optimize your workouts.

Photo by Nick Penzel

Endurance athletes train at five different levels, ranked from one to five by amount of exertion. Level one entails a leisurely pace that can be maintained for hours; you can achat with your friends without pausing to catch your breath. Level one is extremely important because it increases your body’s ability to efficiently circulate blood. The majority of training for endurance athletes should be at level one, because it builds endurance and overall fitness.

Level two requires a slightly higher level of exertion than level one; you can carry on a conversation but it may be interrupted by occasional pauses for breath. While level two might seem more intense and rewarding than level one, its benefits are minimal. While athletes training at level two achieve the same benefits of level one exercise, although at a slightly faster rate, it takes longer to recover after level two workouts. Thus, training at a level two offers fewer +fitness rewards for your effort as compared to level one.

Upon reaching level three, it becomes difficult to carry on a conversation and your exertion could be described as “comfortably hard,” meaning you can maintain it with effort for an extended period of time, but it’s not a casual workout. At level three, an athlete is at their lactate threshold, meaning that their body is producing lactic acid (the chemical that causes muscle fatigue) at the same rate that it processes it. Because a net gain in lactic acid does not occur, this pace is sustainable for relatively long periods of time. The primary purpose of level three training is to raise your lactate threshold because a higher threshold means you can run faster and harder at a pace that can be maintained. This type of training is integral when preparing for most types of endurance races.

Level four is best implemented in intense intervals lasting several minutes and is mostly used as training for shorter races. At the high end of level four, athletes reach their vO2 max, the point at which their rate of consumption of oxygen is as high as the body is capable. By training in level four, athletes can increase their body’s aerobic capacity and they become capable of consuming more oxygen at a faster rate. Level four training is useful for improving fitness for short and medium distance races.

Level five is where the most intense training occurs, and the body must operate in an anaerobic state. Level five is used in short, intense intervals to improve an athlete’s top speed and ability to perform without oxygen (anaerobic performance). Though level five training is beneficial for all athletes, it is especially important when training for sprint or medium distance races.

Whatever your training goals, using levels in your workouts can help improve your endurance, efficiency, and top speed. All athletes, however, should treat these training levels as a pyramid. Level five is at the top of the pyramid and you should spend the least amount of time training in this zone, while level one is at the bottom, with most time spent training in this zone. Whether you’re training for a marathon, a 5K, or simply want to run, ski, or ride faster for longer, knowing the five training zones can help you more intentionally craft beneficial workouts.

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