Runners Plateau, break through Zone 3

Struggling to improve your run performance despite consistent and varied training sessions? The only thing that is increasing is your constant fatigue… Whilst your performance and your motivation are heading south. The chances are you are ending up in the grey area; otherwise known as zone 3 wilderness. How do you get out of this…

Struggling to improve your run performance despite consistent and varied training sessions? The only thing that is increasing is your constant fatigue… Whilst your performance and your motivation are heading south. The chances are you are ending up in the grey area; otherwise known as zone 3 wilderness. How do you get out of this rut and ideally do so without further damaging your performance from over training? Reaching your potential is within your gift – and probably EASIER than you think!

Is this you?

Do you find yourself validating a “good” run by looking at your average pace? Always feel you need to speed up when others are around. Or catch that runner up ahead of you, so you push a little harder? Desperate to break the four-hour marathon barrier or to get yourself under 1:30 in a half? Do you find that even though you’re pushing yourself ever harder, you don’t see any meaningful results? The reality is that you’re probably in a zone  3 plateau, which means you’re probably pushing too hard most of the time, and not running slow enough often enough. Whilst there are points in a training cycle when running at a set pace is very beneficial, the majority of the time it’s not. There are two types of runs; easy ones and hard ones. But the harsh reality is that many runners land between the two – and that achieves nothing useful. It doesn’t matter your pace, slowing down in most of your training, will (99% of the time) result in faster races.

Use optimal training zones

For runners endurance runners (endurance in athletics terms being 5k and above), there is little better slow Zone 2 base running. And yet many runners ‘run to ego’ and push a Zone 2 session too hard because they fall into the trap that running harder more often will lead to better results. However, Zone 3 work is above aerobic pace and has some increased lactate response, which means that it isn’t hard enough to elicit a desirable physical adaptation (to your vo2 or LT), and yet it’s too hard to enable maximal aerobic development.

Frequently running in Zone 3 is a habit of the time poor runner, where mileage and average pace is the only validator of training. Such runners can often find themselves in a rut and left wondering how they could work “so hard” for so little results. Continual Zone 3 work doesn’t allow for enough recovery (when running daily) and puts the runner in a state of increasing fatigue. So how can you get out of the rut, and start to make progress again?

The Importance of Heart Rate Zones

The first rule is that you want to keep your easy runs truly easy, and your hard runs hard. An easy hour in Zone 2 will always provide a better benefit than a moderately hard Zone 3 effort for that same hour. You want to create a schedule that allows you to run easy days in Zone 2 to illicit a recovery response, increase aerobic capacity, and increase fat metabolism. The latter is a major benefit of Zone 2 running, true aerobic running will burn more body fat. Zone 3 running will leave you burning a mixture of carbs and fat, never making you particularly efficient at utilising either carbs or fat.

Simply put, your hard days should be hard! With a high heart rate in Zone 4/ Zone 5 for increasingly longer periods (in accordance to your age, fitness and performance goals). There is no major benefit to be gained from Zone 3 when you could be doing high-end Zone 4 and Zone 5 (Threshold/ VO2 Max). The benefits for speed, lactate endurance and metabolism are maximized when you’re doing top-end Zone 4 and Zone 5 work. This is where you become efficient at mitigating lactic acid, more efficient at burning carbs, and thereby reach your optimal performance.

A model training plan

As you know I mostly coach adults who are over 40 and enjoy sport but are also trying to balance a busy career. They are very time poor, so long slow runs every day will be a struggle? How can they create a training plan that allows them to maximise the aerobic capability? The answer is variety of sessions. Varying intensity stimulates adaption and can be a great aid to the time poor runner.

The first thing a runner adopting this approach needs to do is to throw away their ego around “average pace” and stop worrying about what Strava friends will say! Two important things to do are to invest in a heart rate monitor (I use a wahoo, even though the rest of my ‘tech’ is Garmin) and calculate your Heart Rate Zones.

Use a two week programme to create enough opportunities for variation. For every hard training session you should allow at least two easy ones. I have assumed that you are only doing one training session a day, and we do not need to be fussy about the timing of training sessions during the day. Depending on your age, fitness and training history, you could either take a rest week every third week (much reduced volume and intensity) or every fifth (in which case you simply run two blocks back to back). For example a two week training block might look like this (actual duration of z2 and sessions content would need to be specific to you. This simply describes the cadence of the block):

45 min
45 min
60 min
Long Run
45 min
60 min
60 min
Long Run

As you can see, there is adequate recovery, maximise time, and allows even the most time poor athlete to get in two high quality workouts a week. What you will also not is that because you are running your easy sessions EASY, you can run every day and stay injury free). Many runners will see a big jump in fitness when they slow down for the majority of their training sessions. Whilst channelling their energy into the hard Zone 4/ Zone 5 days.

If you are used to running in zone 3 then believing that running slower to ultimately run faster can feel like a huge leap of faith. To help with this you might want to test your fitness more frequently with periodic fitness tests. These should be done on your hard days to prove to yourself that you are getting faster. It is pointless testing yourself more than once every four weeks, longer is better.

Train Slower and Race Faster

If you are serious about improving your run performance, and you are currently making little progress, try taking a “run slower to get faster” philosophy to your run training. Your mileage will probably be lower at first but the aerobic benefit you’ll receive will outweigh that considerably. You should expect to see an improvement in performance at four weeks but the main gains will be in around twelve weeks. It takes time for the body to adapt!


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