Avoiding the Dreaded Gray Zone!

One of the most common mistakes made by uncoached runners is spending the majority of their training in the dreaded grey zone – Zone 3 – too hard an intensity for aerobic development and too easy an intensity for lactate threshold and VO2 max gains. They end up tired from overtraining and frustrated from a plateau in fitness gains.

To fix this common training problem, runners need to pay attention to training intensity – specifically the feel of a conversational pace. A conversational pace means that you can easily hold a conversation while running. This doesn’t meet gasping out a quick sentence before sucking in a big breath; it means easily carrying on a conversation with your running partner. If you run alone, try singing a song or reciting a poem to check in on your pace. I remember learning about a conversational pace when I ran cross country in high school. My coach would check in with us periodically as we ran on our easy days to make sure the conversation was rolling “like a chicken in the hen house”, as he liked to say. He was the first to teach me about capillarization – the formation of an increase in capillaries that surround a muscle. These easy training sessions – running at a conversational pace or Zone 2 running – help build capillary pathways that transport oxygen to your muscles and carry waste (lactate) away from your muscles. The more capillary pathways that you can build, the more efficient you will be. Running at a conversational pace also increases mitochondrial density and enhances oxidative enzyme activity allowing your body to better transport and use oxygen for energy. This is a good thing! The 80%-20% rule applies here. Science tells us that approximately 80% of our training should be in Zone 1 and Zone 2 (easy running) and only 20% should be in the moderate to high-intensity range (Zone 4 and Zone 5). The actual distribution varies by athlete but in general, the 80%-20% rule is very effective.

The 20% of your training that falls in the moderate to high-intensity range should feel hard! This is where you will find tempo runs, hill repeats, and speed intervals. Tempo workouts can seem kind of nebulous as you’ll find lots of different definitions out there on the interwebs. I like to define them as ‘comfortably hard’ – breathing deeply but not harshly. Like tempo runs, hill repeats and speed intervals can come in many different forms but the overall goals include positively impacting speed, form, strength, neuromuscular activity, lactate threshold, and VO2 max.

Remember, to achieve the fitness goals you are chasing, most of your running should be low-intensity and should feel really easy. The little bit of your training that falls in the moderate to high-intensity range should feel really hard! Don’t fall somewhere in the middle! There are lots of fancy ways to monitor training intensity but paying attention to your conversational pace is a low-tech option available to everyone and guaranteed to keep you at an easy intensity. Good luck and have fun out there!

Can you imagine these ladies having a good heart-to-heart in the hen house?

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