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  • Chris Gordon

Let’s get into the zone:

Zone training has long been used by the endurance and running world as an effective method to build optimal performance. In training, athletes will likely move through each of the five zones during some point in their weekly training sessions. Let’s get to know the zones and their purposes:


- Zone 1 for long, easy workouts, for recovery efforts, or an all day activity; while here two major things are happening- blood flow and recovery. When here the heart rate will remain at 50-60% of max HR.


- Zone 2 is a notch above Zone 1, where you can still hold a conversation with someone, and most of the breathing can be done through the nose. Although this feels like an easy effort and you may not feel like you’re training hard enough, there is plenty of value of being here for an extended period of time. Frequent visits to this zone at 60-70% max HR will allow the body to become better at burning fat and increasing muscular endurance.


- Zone 3 is where the conversation will likely cease. When we are here we will be at 70-80% of our max HR, and may feel a bit on the uncomfortable side. Not so uncomfortable that we have to stop and rest, but for someone less conditioned this experience may be outside of their comfort zone. For those well-conditioned this may not feel like much of an “intense” workout, but there are beneficial things happening with regard to muscle efficiency due to stronger capillary networks. In other words, oxygen is being transported to working muscles more efficiently.


- Zone 4 is where we are working hard, but not an “all out effort.” Interval-based workouts are great for training in Zone 4 as these efforts are generally shorter with equal or a near equal rest period. Ultimately if we can get the heart rate up into the 80-90% max HR area, we can play in the anaerobic threshold region chasing power and small twitch muscle fiber adaptation. The kicker when working in this zone is to be disciplined and stay in this zone and not go for it and creep into Zone 5.


- Zone 5 is where we rip the band aid off, light the hair and fire and go HAM; however, this would only be for a short amount of time, usually less than a minute. Performing true Tabata intervals (20 sec on 10 sec rest) for 8 sets are a common example of training in this zone. During this type of zone training we are looking at 90-100% of max HR. A good indicator of when to finish the workout is when a return to zone 1 or 2 is not happening after 2-3 minutes of rest.



Now that we have a basic understanding of the different zones, let's take a look at a typical training week:


Monday (FIT)- 4 Rounds of 3 minute work intervals followed by 3 minutes rest, working primarily in Zone 4, with a focus on increasing work completed in each work interval.


Tuesday (LIFT or TONE)-Strength training


Wednesday (FIT)- On a 40 minute clock, steady state cardio plus interchanging core work, generally working within Zone 3.


Thursday (LIFT or TONE)- Strength training


Friday (FIT)- Every 5 minutes for 5 rounds complete 1 round of work allowing for at least 2 minutes of rest, hanging in and around Zone 4 intensity.


The most favorable adaptations in exercise happens when frequency, intensity and volume are all being properly dosed. This is why each day we exercise in a different heart rate training zone, and constantly vary our focus and intent. We have found that doing too much, too often and always working at, or close to max effort is a recipe for burnout, and injury.


For some who have spent time training primarily with high intensity intervals or CrossFit style workouts for time, the idea of throttling back on the intensity may not be overly appealing. Psychologically not reaching “that feeling” during a workout tends to lead to second-guessing if the time in the gym was well spent for that day.


Here's a main takeaway. The majority of us are casual exercisers, which means we do an okay job of taking care of ourselves outside of the gym. We probably eat an okay diet of ~80% unprocessed and whole foods, we are probably drinking some water, and doing an okay job of managing our stress and sleep. Because we are casual fitness'ers we probably do not really need to hitting all of our workouts like it is race day. But, because we are casual exercisers, we can see huge benefits by going at a couple workouts a week in that 85-95% zone. That is, once we have attained a level of fitness that allows us to hit this zone safely. The chart below gives us some guidance.


Now, there are many who may find solace in knowing that workouts can still be challenging without being soul crushing; and, have better long-term benefits. In our experience we have seen increased frequency and better adherence since flipping to a different format and focus.


Whichever camp one lands it is important to be aware that there is not a best exercise program out there. There are better options, of course, but the best program is the one that keeps one engaged for an extended period of time. For us it’s all about exercise sustainability for the long-term; it’s about reaching one goal….


The ability to Go Out And Live.


Until next time... keep showing up, keep working hard.

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