Know Your Training Zones and How to Use Them

Know Your Training Zones and How to Use Them

I remember the first time a coach told me to train in a particular zone.  My response was that confused, “deer in the headlights” look made worse by everyone around me seeming to know what she was talking about.  Being entirely unclear on how to translate that into my workout, questions raced through my mind.  What does zone 1, 2, 3…even mean?  How do I know what zone I’m in and why is that so important?  How do I leverage this information to help me improve?  Needless to say, that first zone workout was not very effective for me.  I didn’t have the knowledge or tools to really use this information to my advantage and so began my journey of discovery.  

I was always a sprinter and believed that to go faster I just needed to train faster and harder.  As a kid, that’s also how my coaches operated and directed my training.  It didn’t make sense to me that going slow could help me go fast.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that research in this area got more attention and the concept of training zones started to take hold.  The latest research seems to all agree that training in multiple zones is a best practice and recovery time is essential.  Each training zone elicits specific physiological and metabolic changes to improve health and performance.  It is important to know what physiological and metabolic adaptations occur while at different intensities and how they can be used in training to improve performance.  

Before I get into each zone let me cover some basics.  You will typically see 5 different training zones defined with zone 1 being the least intense and zone 5 being the most intense zone.  Intensity is measured as a percentage of Maximum Heart Rate (MHR).  These zones have been color coded so you may run into references talking about the zones based on their respective colors as follows:




















In order to use this information as a training tool, you first must understand your MHR.  There are a couple of ways to accomplish this task.  One of the simplest is to use a formula based on your age to approximate your MHR.    Your MHR naturally declines with age and evidence suggests that the older you are, the faster it declines.  If you are under 40 the formula is 220-AGE = MHR.  For people over 40 the formula is 208-(0.7 x AGE) = MHR.  If you are already fit, the following calculations can we used.  For women 211-(AGE/2) = MHR and for men the calculation is 205-(AGE/2) = MHR.

A more accurate way to determine your MHR is to warm up and then go at a fast, even pace that you can barely maintain for 3 mins.  Then keep exercising at a slower pace for 2 minutes.    Finally perform the exercise at the same fast pace for another 3 mins.  Take the highest heart rate you achieved on the second 3 minute session and that is your MHR.  It’s best to do this while doing your chosen sport/activity to get the most accurate results.  Max heart rate stress testing and elevated heart rate training should only be attempted if you are healthy, fit and medically cleared to do so by your physician.  You will need a heart rate monitor in order to make the best use of this information.  There are many available on the market so do your research and choose one that works well with your chosen activity or sport.

Depending on your goals your training will need to vary.  Getting ready for a big open water race will require a much different approach than training for a sprint between flags.  Knowing how the training zones translate to improved performance is critical in designing a training plan that will enable you to achieve those goals.

Zone 1

Zone 1 is very low intensity and typically used by people just starting a fitness program or to warm up if you are already regularly exercising.  It is great for starting to build your aerobic base, the ability to take in oxygen and efficiently transport it to working muscles.  Starting at just 50% of your MHR, this zone affords a very comfortable level of exercise.  You will not sweat profusely and will be able to easily carry on a conversation.

If you are just starting an exercise program you will spend plenty of time in this zone building your fitness base.  You will see improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and percentage of body fat.  Muscle mass will start to increase, improving metabolism.  This is a great zone to work in if you are just starting to exercise and your goal is overall improvement of your health.  If weight loss is a goal, you’ll need to get into the higher intensity zones as zone 1 burns few calories (4-6 per minute).  

For the experienced athlete this zone will primarily be used for warming up.  Even though you are not working hard, you are still receiving benefits from time in this zone.  Your muscles are developing a greater ability to utilize oxygen to make fuel to support your exercise.  Your capillary (small blood vessel) beds are expanding, and our heart and lungs are getting stronger.  Training at this intensity will boost your recovery and get you ready to train in the higher heart rate zones.

Zone 2

Exercising in heart rate zone 2 is moderate, comfortable and you can carry on a conversation.  You can exercise this level every day without too much concern that you will over-train.  You’ll burn about 6-10 calories per minute with 70-85% of those calories coming from fat stores.  While you are burning fat, you are also gaining muscle mass.  For endurance athletes this is the zone that typically includes your long slow distance training.

Training in this zone improves your general endurance: your body will get better at burning fat and your muscular fitness will increase along with your capillary density.    Research shows that it is the foundation from which to begin to build a faster pace and enables an athlete to maintain a fast pace for a longer period of time.  The low to moderate continuous intensity level of zone 2 enhances oxygen supply and enables a more efficient use of oxygen (i.e., oxygen economy) translating into better performance. The stronger your aerobic capacity, the better your ability to recover quicker between those higher intensity efforts in zone 4.  Zone 2 training is essential to improving performance and coaches today suggest that 60-75% of your entire training time should be in zone 2.  

Zone 3

Zone 3 is known as the aerobic zone.  It is the zone in which you start burning more carbohydrates than fat for your energy.  You will be sweating and can talk in short phrases.  You can think of the first two zones as improving health zones and the last two zones as improving performance zones, making zone 3 the transition zone.  This is where you begin to realize the changes that lead to athletic conditioning vs basic health and overall fitness.  You’ll feel like you have had a workout, but you won’t feel any of the burn or the pain. If you do, you have pushed yourself through zone 3 and into zone 4. 

Zone 3 is where enhancements to the functional capacity of the heart, lungs, vascular and skeletal systems really occur.  It is where aerobic capacity is expanded to a great extent and your anaerobic threshold is improved resulting in your ability to work at higher intensities for longer periods without tiring.  It’s an endurance-building zone, building resistance to fatigue and increasing cardiovascular efficiency.  Endorphins can increase up to five times over a resting state when training in zones 3 and 4, resulting in mood improvements.  This has also been implicated in increased pain tolerance and reductions in anxiety and stress.  Training in this HR zone will make moderate efforts easier and improve your efficiency.  This is a good recovery zone for intermediate to advanced exercisers during interval training as well as a good zone for sustained efforts of 20 minutes or more.

Zone 4

Heart rate zone 4 is where the going gets tough. You’ll be sweating and breathing hard, unable to talk and working aerobically. Lactate can really build in the upper ranges of this training zone.  New exercisers should spend no time in Zone 4 as you will fatigue too quickly to gain full benefits from the workout or may injure yourself.  As you gain fitness, you will be able to sustain longer periods in this zone.  It’s best to start with short intervals in zone 4 followed by longer recovery time in zones 2 or 3.  

For intermediate or advanced athletes, Zone 4 is great for building your fitness level.  Challenge yourself to hold this intensity for 10 minutes or longer at a time.  You can also use this in interval training where you do an interval at zone 4 followed by a shorter recovery interval at zone 2 or 3.  Zone 4 will potentially increase your maximal oxygen uptake, the ability to take in and use oxygen efficiently.  You’ll improve your speed endurance and your body will get better at using carbohydrates for energy.  You’ll also be able to withstand higher levels of lactic acid in your blood for longer periods of time.

Zone 5

Heart rate zone 5 is your maximal effort and the place where your feel like your heart will explode and your body weighs a ton. Your heart and your blood and respiratory system will be working at their maximal capacity. Lactic acid will build up in your blood and after a minute or two you won’t be able to continue at this intensity.  Only very fit athletes with the approval of their physician should spend time training in zone 5.  

Zone 5 is similar to zone 4 in terms of benefits.  This is the zone where you leave it all on water, or the field, or the road, depending on your sport.  Lactate builds up faster than your body can metabolize it thus conditioning you to withstand the high acidosis levels, the primary benefit of training in this zone.  You can maintain this zone for only minutes at a time and there are some serious consequences of hanging out too long in this zone. Muscles cell enzymes are affected which impacts training and weakens your immune system.  If you train in this zone do your research and use intervals with adequate recovery time to ensure you do not over train and cause injury or harm.  


Each training zone has its place in a training plan.  Depending on your starting point and your goals, how you use each zone will vary.  Keep in mind that you have to train in a specific zone to get its specific benefits. If you love zone 2, but you really need to improve your endurance, you’re going to have to speed up and do some zone 3 workouts. Or, if you really need to improve your cardiovascular fitness you will need to spend more time in zone 4.  If it’s about weight loss, you may need to slow down and spend more time in zones 1 and 2.  Use this information to plan your workouts and watch the improvements stack up.  

As always, consult your physician or health care professional before starting any exercise or training program.

1 comment

  • Interesting, I have been delving more into this strategy. At age 71, meaningful training comes first. We may not be as strong as before, but we are smarter.

    Roji Oyama

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published