In The Zone

Photo by James Killeen from My Protein ‘Own the Summer’ campaign.

A few weeks ago I began reading ‘Finding Ultra’ by Rich Roll. It’s amazing how the right books always seem to come to me at the right time. I had never heard of Rich Roll before however somebody I know shared a meme/quote of his on Facebook which was along the lines of not becoming the successful person (in all capacities) he is today until later in life.

I am always extremely inspired by these particular types of stories, more so than I am by those who have achieved great things very young. I’m not saying one is better than the other, it isn’t. Some people work extremely hard from a young age and do extremely well for themselves as a result. Others are provided with more opportunities than less fortunate people but make the most of them. Some are gifted and entitled tool boxes but we try not to spend too much time focusing on those, or at least we should be. But for those who have reached an age which is considered past your prime, and let’s face it, that to any young person is 30 (which is ridiculous but true) and for the vast majority it’s definitely 40, yet still managed to change things, mainly their mind-set, work ferociously hard and become somebody at the top of their chosen field later in life, I personally have a pure, unconditional level of respect for. Perhaps this is because I’d like to think of myself as somebody who will one day have a story like that. I certainly don’t have one yet anyway. I’m 31… well past it!

Rich’s book is excellent by the way! I won’t give too much away but yes, it is about ultra-endurance training and competing in that, it is about changing to a “plant powered” diet and it is undoubtedly about finding yourself. His journey even before that though is one of significant importance and identification to myself, however even if you have no interest in any of these things, or think “finding yourself” is a load of self-help, low self-esteem, be gentle with each other rubbish, it’s still worth a read for the sake of appreciating one man’s journey from something he wasn’t happy with, to a life of meaning. That, in fact, is the only reason you need to pick up this book and read it! An appreciation for somebody else other than yourself. We seem to miss a lot of that these days.

I’m into my running. Not necessarily ultra-endurance level, but I enjoy running, I think it’s important for me (and people, especially men) physically and mentally and I’m becoming more and more interested in it. This seems to fall in line with getting better at it too. But my attitude towards running training was always go out and run as fast as you can for a desired length and if you’re not hitting PBs every time you have nothing to be happy about. Sounds awful and very self-punishing doesn’t it? It is! It’s not a good attitude to have around training!

I have understood for some time now that in the gym you will not hit a PB on a lift every session. That has to be worked up to via a program and then once goals have been met there needs to a cycle where you taper off for a bit, to progress again and continue to build that way. Why, therefore, would I not approach running in the same way? Maybe I didn’t want to at first and didn’t care as much. Running was more about just getting out and doing it. But the longer I did that for, the more I wanted more out of it, which was becoming harder and harder to get.

In his book, Rich talks about training in Zone 2 (heart rate) for endurance and anything above isn’t worth the miles you’re putting your body through. Let’s understand this comment further first. Rich is an ultra-endurance athlete. He is concerned with running, cycling and swimming very long distances. So his training naturally is extremely focused on that and that only. However I knew there was something in this information that I needed to take. I’ve already explained in other articles how I believe I’m guided by a higher power and when things come up for me it’s either because I need to try something or I need to drop something, or someone! This book appearing out of nowhere to me at a time when I was beginning to want to run more was definitely a sign that there was something I needed to learn.

Going hard every single session just isn’t good for you. It holds no benefit in the long run (pun-intended). Professional athletes do not train that way, when they train, they train! They leave the maximal effort to competition day. When you’re not a professional though, that is sometimes hard to get your head around, as you may not have a set time and goal you’re working towards, so it can get a bit messy. I often train in that way. I don’t have a desired outcome other than to just get better. But the best in World always have a well-executed plan to be able to do just that, get better! If the best in the World are doing that, it’s definitely worth doing.

So I decided to begin my week beginning 26.10.2020 with a Zone 2 heart rate run and see how it felt. It was horrible! I was using my Garmin watch to monitor my heart rate and I was trying to keep my heart rate below 130 (131 took me into Zone 3 which apparently is a sin and there is a special place in hell reserved for any runner who trains in Zone 3). I planned to do a 10K (around 6 miles) as I felt if I was going slower, I would need to run for a bit longer than usual (3/4 mile blasts). About a mile in I had to walk just to bring my heart rate back down, which for me is counter intuitive because I run to run, walking kind of defeats the object. I had to do this many times over the course of this run and I eventually cut my route short and took a quicker detour home as it was raining heavily, which wouldn’t matter if I was actually running, but this pace was that slow I was actually getting cold! After the first mile or so I was literally averaging 12 minute miles and I didn’t enjoy the run at all. I really am all for trying new things, especially if there is evidence to back up why this kind of training is effective and more so testaments from actual athletes. But all I could feel after I had completed Monday’s run was that this, is not why I run!

I did some more research around heart rate training and staying “in the zone”. Rich was 39 when he began changing his life around and endurance training. I’m not quite sure how old he was when he started training for ultra-endurance, I’m sure it will say in the book but I can’t remember, so let’s say he was 40 (he wouldn’t have been much older). A 40 year old will have a lower max-heart rate than I would just off age alone. A basic way to work out your max-heart rate is 220 minus your age. That puts me currently at 189. According to Runners World, a better way to estimate your max-heart rate is (208 – 0.7 X age). That one would put mine at 186.3. Now these calculations are only estimates. Many other factors come into play where your heart rate is concerned like fitness, overall health and weight just to name a few. Obviously the most accurate way of finding out your true max-heart rate is to test it in a lab. But as most of us don’t have that luxury we’ll have to do our best with the simple equations.

Here’s the thing… when I’m flat out sprinting my heart rate can go above 200, easily. I’ve ran 3.8 miles before (a regular run of mine) where my heart rate was 190+ for the majority of that run. Training at your max heart rate should been extremely fatiguing and not something you can do for a prolonged period of time. The general consensus here for most normal people (elite athletes do not fall into this category) it is anywhere from 10 seconds to one minute, peaking at 2 minutes for very fit athletes. The World’s best could be a bit longer but there is definitely no way I’m spending 15-20 minutes training at my max-heart rate. With all that being said, I may need to look at mine more as it sounds like I don’t have a clue about my own, however I can only share my truth.

Anyway, working out I’m around 10 years younger than Rich Roll (when he started training in the book), if he should be staying below 140 (I did 130 because I made a mistake on that first run), I should be staying below 150. So the next morning, Tuesday 27.10.2020, I did just that. 190 X 0.8 gives me 80% of my estimated max (I’m using the higher estimate as 186 seems too low). 80% is 152. So if I stay below 150 I am working between 70 and 80%. Now according to most online sources Zone 2 is usually lower than 70-75% but I had to use my intuition a bit here too, I’ve spoken about this before with regards to training and diet, and I knew that staying below 150 would be a very easy pace for me but nevertheless working.

Side Note: It is said that an easy run (which is what I was trying to do), should feel EASY! If you finish feeling like you haven’t done much, that’s good. It is also said that Zone 2 (easy) running is where your body learns to burn fat as it’s primary source of fuel. Zone 4, going into your anaerobic threshold, is where your body burns carbs. So for those wanting to lose body fat, Zone 2 training is very much worth taking a further look at.

I planned a 6 mile run again and this time it was a great run. Yes it was slow. But I didn’t need to walk, the pace felt manageable, luckily I ran at about 6am so I didn’t need to worry about some casual taking over me and my ego being affected, I just locked my mind into what I had to do, got in a rhythm (which is very important and harder than it sounds) and checked my watch (probably an unhealthy amount) to make sure I was staying in the zone I intended to train in. Now from what my watch says 150bpm is Zone 3 and probably a high Zone 3 which again, if you read online about this, that’s the zone you want to avoid like the plague. But using my intuition and going with what other runners online have described how these zones should feel, I knew this was the right place for me to be building my aerobic capacity. You can also set your own zones on your watch, something I may have to look more into, so just because the watch has predicted zones for you based on your age, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are accurate; actually they’re more than likely not the most accurate at all.

For the entirety of that 6 mile run I floated between 140 and 150 for 5 miles mainly staying around 145, great! Then as soon as my watch told me I was into my last mile, I picked up the pace and aimed to get a mile done in less than 8 minutes. My heart rate went up to an average of 176 for this ending with a 0.1 mile sprint where it peaked at 198. I decided I wanted to up it at the end as even though I had probably made improvements to my fitness by training in this way (my V02 max has increased each run but that’s another articles worth of info), I love the feeling of pushing myself in training and I feel unsatisfied if I don’t feel like I’ve give it some welly (like the day before). I know when trying to train progressively you have to take the ego out of it, but I’d done that for 5 miles, my mental well-being needs a bit of blast too so that’s what I did at the end!

Now I won’t bore you (if you’ve made it this far then fair play) with every other run I did that week but I continued to train in this way, 5 miles steady and slow and canning it at the end, for the remainder of the week. I didn’t run every day but I logged over 21 miles that week over 4 runs (Mon-Fri). By Friday the miles (keeping heart rate under 150) had gone from 10:30 average minutes to 9:45ish. This meant they were getting a bit quicker whilst my heart rate was staying low, something Rich talks about happening in his book, and this is just one week.

I continued this training into the next week starting on Monday 02.11.2020. I was back at work this week so longer, slower runs meant getting up very early, 4:30-4:45 which sounds like hell but I was really in the zone (again, pun intended) and made sure I went to bed earlier to compensate. I did an easy 4.45 miler on Monday staying around 145bpm averaging 10 minute miles, then upped it at the very end to run at a 6:44 per mile pace with my heart rate peaking at 195. This, to this day still, is the best run I’ve done for really feeling like I fell into a natural rhythm with the pace.

Tuesday I had other priorities however Wednesday I did pretty much the same again, yet this time I felt as though my heart rate was all over the place and I had to really slow down at one point, which led to me feeling unfulfilled again and blasting mile 4 where I ran a full mile in 6:41 (that felt good though). This particular morning was very cold so I don’t know if that affected the heart rate readings or my watch is having problems, I’ve experienced this a couple of times since. However another successful run logged which I’m glad I upped towards the end.

Now Thursday, after a couple of weeks of doing much slower paced runs I decided to try and go for it again. I have something I like to do on a Thursday morning which starts at 7am so in order to run before, get ready for work and still make my commitment I obviously have to get up very early and make the training quick. I decided to go for a 5K (3.1 miles) and aim for a new PB. I always know within the first mile of any run if I’m going to hit a PB or not. If my first mile is below 7 minutes I have a chance. If it isn’t there is no way I can catch up as I’ve ran some good runs in the past where I’ve averaged all miles in less than 7 minutes.

I stepped outside at 5:30am on a brisk Thursday morning, pitch black and stretched my calves out (essential). Then I set off at 5:35am going as fast as I could whilst knowing I would have to maintain this pace throughout. First mile, 6:46! At this point I knew a PB was achievable today! I kept my mind on running (thinking about anything else will literally slow you down without you even realising it), second mile, 6:47. Now usually when I’ve hit a PB in the 5 or 10K it’s been too close to call. I literally haven’t known if I would or wouldn’t until completion. And although that was kind of the case here, I knew I was in the best place I’ve ever been in for hitting one. The last mile is where it all counts; it will either make or break you. You know you can’t slow down! You have to either maintain pace or speed up, which is very difficult when you’re running as fast as you can. The paradox is, speed up too much and you could run out of gas before the end. The increase in pace has to be just right!

At this moment I envisioned my good mate Jim, who is well faster than me, behind me as if he was trying to catch me. I just kept saying to myself in my head “Don’t let him catch you!” OK, I was a bit more offensive than that, I went into how he is small and hasn’t got the stride length to catch me and how he only runs on treadmills these days and isn’t ready for the road work! Basically, anything I could do to stop this visual representation of someone I compete with all the time catching me and beating me in this race. In all honesty, had he been there, he probably would have caught me as he is a lot quicker than me. But this worked! Mile 3, 6:42 and then a full pace sprint finish for the last tenth of a mile. An outstanding effort on my part to hold more or less exactly the same pace throughout. I haven’t done that ever before.

I hit a 5K PB of 20:53. My Strava says 21:02 for some reason but I didn’t even use Strava, it’s connected to my Garmin so when it uploaded there must be an error which is slightly annoying but I’ve got the watch data to prove it. This is a good 30 seconds quicker than my last PB over 5K. The heart rate data went out of the window for this one, I didn’t care, it was all about pace, that’s what racing is! You use the heart rate data to train but on race day it’s all about pace. The heart rate data I have for this run must be incorrect too because it says I didn’t go above 161 throughout and I must have been easily at 190-200 with the speed I was running at but anyway, crying over spilt milk and all that, it really doesn’t matter!

The most phenomenal thing to come out of this run though was how I felt afterwards. The last time I hit a 5K PB I felt disgusting. The last time I hit a 10K PB I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But on this day, I felt amazing! I’m not saying I could have gone any quicker, I don’t know if I could, but within a few minutes and a quick walk around the block I felt recovered and really good! There’s more in that than there is in any data readings and numbers.

So I suppose what I’m trying to get across here is, I hadn’t ran a PB in months. I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I’d been doing more weight training with the gyms being back open so I just put it down to I wasn’t running enough and wasn’t as quick as earlier in the year. Which is probably true as over the last two weeks I’ve ran a lot. But they’ve all been slow! Very slow for me in fact. And by slowing down, and just logging the miles in a way which improves my fitness, but has a low impact on my body and recovery (the entire point of training in this zone-related way), I have managed to hit a new 5K PB, with relative ease and by a good amount, within 2 weeks.

I’ll be going for a 10K PB in a week or two. I’ll let you know how I get on. But yeah… if you run and you’ve not made any “gains” (yes roid-heads, you can make cardio gains too) for a while, maybe try looking at using your heart rate zones for training. I think you can buy basic heart rate monitors for fairly cheap; you don’t need an expensive watch (mine was a gift anyway). Get “in the zone”, get out and do a bit, and get in touch with how you get on!


*Rich Roll – ‘Finding Ultra’:

This book can also be bought via Amazon which is where I purchased it but I thought linking you to the source first would be best.

*Heart Rate Zones – Runners World:

This is a great article with some good information on around using the heart rate zones for your training.

*A Guide to Heart Rate Training – Runners World:

Another great article with some good examples of training. (This article is the one I identify the most with regarding zone percentages).

Want to know even more… do the rest yourself!

3 thoughts on “In The Zone

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