Running Training Zones Simplifed: How to Train Smart

Going through the gears!

What does your training routine look like? Most inexperienced runners tend to keep it simple, doing a couple of runs a week at roughly the same pace. That’s great to start with but will only take you so far. We should try and spend some time training the various different 'energy systems’ we need to run hard, fast and long!

At a basic level there are 4 key types of Running Training sessions, and they relate to the primary methods in which ‘energy’ is created to fire your muscles. Energy is rarely produced by one method exclusively, with the balance shifting from aerobic energy production (using oxygen) toward anaerobic (without oxygen) as intensity increases. Its important to train your ability to produce energy in different ways- the better able you are to cope with changes in pace as you navigate different obstacles and terrain the better prepared you will be.

Here’s a basic introduction;

Long runs- Aerobic Conditioning training; 

These sessions involve running longer distances at a pace where you can maintain a conversation with a running partner (usually 30mins+). This type of running should form the basis of all training regimes and should make up the largest proportion of your training.

Running is like all other complex activities- the longer you spend practising the activity the more likely you are to improve.  If the majority of your training is spent at top speed you are guaranteed to breakdown very quickly. These sessions create a ‘running base’; building general running strength, particularly in the joints and tendons, and improving your ability to take in, transport and use oxygen, and remove carbon dioxide efficiently. Essentially we are building ‘A Strong Running Body’ with this training.

Threshold runs- Anaerobic Conditioning training;

These sessions involve efforts of 8mins+ (for elites they can be as long as 12-13miles) at a pace where you just start to struggle to take in enough oxygen to sustain the pace comfortably. You might manage to share a brief one sentence conversation with a running partner but nothing more.  

These runs are a perfect example of the cross-over of different energy ‘sources’ Oxygen in-take is hard to maintain you also start to produce energy anaerobically. When you start to do this you start to produce lactic acid as a by-product. Threshold running is essentially running at the threshold at which lactic acid is starting to  to accumulate in your muscles. By training at this pace you are aiming to increase this threshold, allowing you to run at a higher pace without lactic acid accumulating in the muscles and forcing you to slow down.

Training in this zone primarily strengthens the heart, as your body works harder to pump more oxygenated blood around the body, improving heart stroke volume, increasing capillary density and blood volume.

Aerobic capacity Interval training. 

Intervals of 2-6mins in duration with full recovery between each. these sessions involve a series of intervals where you run at your ‘maximum comfortable range of breathing’. You could probably manage three or four words with a running partner but nothing more. After each one you rest and regain your breathing before going again. They are run at a faster pace than the tempo run, and will involve the production of energy anaerobically. However due to their shorter duration and full recovery they primarily use the aerobic energy system.  Fartlek running or mile repetitions are great examples of this type of training.

Training in this ‘zone’ improves your ability to take on and use large volumes of oxygen in energy production, and is one of the key determinants of racing success.

Anaerobic capacity.  

Efforts of 30sec-2mins in duration, incomplete recovery.

These intervals are run even faster. You shouldn't really be able to do say anything! You won’t be able to take on enough oxygen on the run so will produce lactic acid more rapidly. If you have ever felt the ‘burn’ in your legs coming into the final stretch of a race then you know what it feels like to be in the anaerobic hurt-box!  

Training at this pace improves basic speed, increases blood buffering capacity and ability to tolerate and use lactic acid . That will be be especially important when you hit a sharp hill in the middle of a race.


On a basic level the 4 types of training could be thought of as 4 different gears. Gear  1, aerobic conditioning running, involves running at a conversational pace over long periods, and improves general running strength. Gear 2, anaerobic conditioning, involves running slightly quicker- a speed where you could probably manage a sentence or two if running with a partner. This training improves the strength of your heart. Gear 3 is Aerobic capacity- running at a pace where you could manage three or four words but no more, and specifically strengthens the body’s ability to use large volumes of oxygen in rapid energy production.. Gear 4 is Anaerobic capacity running, where to be quite honest you shouldn’t really be able to talk at all! This helps develop basic speed and improves your ability to tolerate high levels lactic acid. You’ll need this to unleash a killer kick at the end of your race.  
A good training plan, will include all four different types of training over the course of the training period.