Tactical pace management in an otherwise simple workout

On Monday I had a fast finish training run scheduled, 45 minutes. I usually run these with just my Garmin watch timing and monitoring stats. But this time around I decided to program the workout in and have it monitor my heart rate:

  • First 5 minutes within Zone 1 (50-60% of heart rate reserve (HRR), easy aerobic).
  • Next 30 minutes within Zone 2 (60-70% HRR, mid/high aerobic).
  • Final 10 minutes within Zone 3 (70-80% HRR, from aerobic threshold to lactate threshold).

When running a programmed workout with defined pace/HR parameters, the watch beeps at you when you’re not within them. Typically I’ll run by feel unless doing a speed or other goal-specific workout.

Monday, though, I decided I would practice staying within the zones, something I’d worked to do more in previous training plans.

When an experienced runner like myself starts a run, I’m well below the Zone 1 minimum. It takes a minute to get to Zone 1 and the watch will beep annoyingly at you until you get there.

Today though I decided to try and get to Zone 1 as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to quickly accelerate into and hold a faster stride-effort until the watch reaches Zone 1. After you get there, relax back into an easy/steady effort, as maintaining Zone 1 and above is now a lot easier.

This worked like a charm. I hit Zone 1 within the first 30 seconds. After easing back up, my easy effort maintained a faster pace than prior, more conventional runs where I eased in. And the initial easy effort felt like less effort than prior runs.

As I migrated into the middle zone 2 phase, I once again had to surge to get into the next zone. But this zone was harder to stay in, as my body typically likes to sit zone 1 for a while longer, so I quickly went back to that surge effort and went harder until I settled comfortably into zone 2. I still had to touch-and-go a couple of these efforts before I could maintain zone 2 for good.

… that is, until I began to warm up and suddenly I was tapping zone 3. Now, I had to tactically dial back my effort, but didn’t want to slow down dramatically. This is where the form adjustments come in, relaxing your technique, your shoulders, moving through the hips as fluidly as you can, and breathing as calmly as you can manage. Plus, obviously, you have to hold back the urge to go harder, faster, and keep hands on the reins of your effort.

This was a new touch-and-go effort, where I would run steady for a few minutes, and then at times find myself consciously relaxing through the run to keep out of zone 3… through this zone 2 phase.

Finally, the watch transitioned into the Fast Finish and Zone 3. Instead of surging like before, I simply went into the increased effort I had been holding myself back from to stay in zone 2, and was easily able to get into zone 3. Like the initial zone 2 phase, I had a harder time staying there at first, but by demanding a moderately steady effort of myself I was able to sustain zone 3.

Now I had an additional personal challenge: Technically the low end of zone 3 is the No Man’s Land Of Heart Zones. The area beyond aerobic threshold is a dreaded moderate pace that’s too low to challenge your lactate threshold and anaerobic systems… but too demanding of your aerobic system while providing too little marginal training benefit beyond the aerobic threshold to benefit your fitness and eventual recovery more than just running easier.

It’s a long story but basically that 70-75% HRR range, while around most people’s marathon pace and effort, is an inefficient zone 3 training range compared to the 75-80% range. Matt Fitzgerald in 80/20 Running in fact will set a gap in the 80/20 training zones between zones 2 and 3, establishing that you shouldn’t be running within that heart rate. It’s a Burnout Zone.

But, of course, I digress. The point is that, once I made it to zone 3 in this workout, now I wanted two things:

  • Get to the higher 75-80% end of zone 3 and cruise there until the workout is over.
  • Don’t overdo the surge and slide into zone 4, which is beyond the scope of this workout.

I also incidentally had a helpful environmental factor for the final section: This part of my route traveled on a slight but sustained uphill. To maintain the desired solid, steady effort along this extended stretch I had to push into the higher end of zone 3.

Because effort and heart rate were the goal rather than pace, this part ended up being the easiest (thanks in no small part to the uphill as well), and I finished the workout strong.

All of that may seem like a lot of thought and effort into what should generally be a straight-forward workout. But, for where I am in my training right now and on a macro level, I get a lot more bang for the buck out of this level of engagement in my training runs than by just intuitively running easy and then running harder in the final minutes.

I wouldn’t necessarily make any coaching clients do this on a general workout like a fast finish, unless they too were this naturally attentive and engaged, and balancing all this was natural and easy for them.

In fact, for most clients I’d probably recommend they not program any specific heart rate parameters for such a workout, beyond setting a sub-zone-3 max HR to start and then setting a zone 3-4 minimum HR for the final fast finish. I’d generally keep the workout simple and let the needs of the workout come to them by feel, e.g. go easy and then finish by going as hard as you want.

Meanwhile, on my personal training end, I auto-regulate fairly well. There will probably be times where I just keep a workout like this simple. Also, I’ve mentioned before I’m using a Stryd and focusing on running power stats, so I typically will focus on my running power in these workouts.

Right now, I can maximize workouts like this by tactically running to work within the heart rate parameters of the workout, taking advantage of the opportunities to mix up plus moderate my effort and hone my running form.

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