By Brian Gregg

What are Training Zones?

There are five basic zones or levels used to classify different intensities of training. There are a number of indicators for different training intensities including blood lactate, breathing, heart rate and VO2/CO2. The following table provides a general overview of how these different indicators relate to each other and training zones. Every person has slightly different training zones and corresponding indicator levels, however, this table can serve as a rough guideline.

These zones can shift over time. Specialized physiology testing such as lactate testing or VO2 testing can be used to determine one’s specific personal training zones. These tests can be very useful but require special equipment and can be expensive. An alternative and inexpensive indicator of training intensity is heart rate.

Determine your Maximum Heart Rate

To take your heart rate, lightly place two fingers over one of the blood vessels on your neck, just to the side of your Adam’s apple. Count your pulse for six seconds and multiply that number by 10 to get your heart rate for one minute. Another option is to borrow or purchase a heart rate monitor. Heart rate monitors vary in quality and features but a basic one is only 50 bucks. Central Cross Country athletes use Polar RS800G3 and RS400 models.

The easy way to determine your maximum heart rate is to use the equation 220 minus age (Max HR = 220 – Age). This formula would say that a 40-year-old likely has a maximum heart rate of 180. Everyone is different and this rule may not be true for you.

The fun way to determine your maximum heart rate is to find a five-minute hill, warm up well and then race as hard as possible to the top. As soon as you get to the top, check your heart rate. By checking your heart rate at the end of hard efforts you will reach a pretty good understanding of your maximum heart rate, which you can use to determine your training zones.

Level 1 - Distance/Recovery

At Level 1, heart rate is at 60-70 percent of maximum, blood lactate is less than 1mmol/L, it is very easy to talk and the pace is constant and slow. The majority of training, roughly 80 percent of total yearly volume, is done in Level 1. You should become tired as a result of the length of the workout, not the intensity.

Pros: Level 1 training helps to increase endurance, and cardiovascular and respiratory efficiency. Training in Level 1 helps the body prepare for, and recover from, Levels 3, 4 and 5.

Cons: The easy pace of Level 1 training can ingrain slow muscle movements and, subsequently, poor technique.

Level 2 - Distance Technique Training

The Level 2 heart rate is 70-80 percent of maximum, blood lactate is 1-3mmol/L, it is easy to talk and the pace is constant and medium. Level 2 is often referred to as the “junk” level. Level 2 will happen as a part of most workouts but, for the most part, should be avoided. You will likely enter into Level 2 when on challenging terrain, warming up or cooling down for a hard effort or on shorter distance workouts. This is a common zone for inexperienced people to train in because it is fun, you are going fast but not really working very hard.

Pros: The higher pace of Level 2 can help ingrain quicker muscle movements.

Cons: The increased pace of Level 2 training increases the training load, making you more tired and may take away from Level 3, 4 and 5 work.

Level 3 - Threshold/Steady State

In Level 3, the heart rate is at 80-90 percent of maximum, blood lactate is 3-5mmol/L, it is hard to talk and pace is similar to a 50km race. During Level 3 training, you should feel that it would be relatively easy to go faster and longer in any given interval. One does not accumulate large amounts of lactic acid in Level 3.

Pros: Training in Level 3 teaches the body to buffer lactic acid. This is also an excellent time to work on technique and efficiency.

Level 4 - VO2 Max

At this level, heart rate is 90-100 percent of maximum, blood lactate is 5-10mmol/L, it is very hard to talk and the pace is similar to a 10km race. Level 4 intervals are hard and are typically longer than three minutes.

Pros: Level 4 training strengthens the heart and improves VO2 max and maximal aerobic work capacity.

Level 5 - Speed

This is as hard as you can go, blood lactate is greater than 10mmol/L, you can’t talk and the pace is similar to a 100m sprint. In Level 5 training there is a significant accumulation of lactate.

Pros: Level 5 training improves neuromuscular quickness.

Training in the Zone

Remember that zones are zones and that you have a little bit of mobility within them. If you are going up a hill and you start to enter Level 2, it isn’t necessary to stop and wait for your heart rate to go down. Simply relax and focus on being a bit more efficient. When you make it to the top, keep moving, but ease up on the pace and allow your body to recover.

The Next Step

Once personal training level/zones are determined it is time for a training plan. A training plan that incorporates work in different zones can improve your health, fitness and performance. For further information on developing a custom training plan check out