Help understanding zones…

  • Creator
  • #6847


    I’ve been using a very simple watch with a chest band to monitor my workouts up until now that I purchased a GPS sportwatch. With the old one, it only had one feature where you could input one HR zone and it told you how much time you spent there and I just entered the correspondent HR Zone that my workout was supposed to be in, and this was extracted from the TFNA book.
    Now with the new one I can set each zone and configure them, and I can make predetermined workouts and training sessions, but I’m a bit confused by something. Z1 in the watch and all workouts I see online is “recovery”, very easy, and all note Zone 2 as “aerobic”, wich I understood from TFNA that was Z1 and Z2. So, if i have a long Z1 workout in my TFNA plan, it would be very low intensity for another training plan I see online, this Z1 would be Z2 for the others.

    Because I can customize my training zones this is not a real problem, but with the TFNA settings my watch says I’m doing a long Z1 all the time in “recovery” zone…

    I hope I’m making sense, my question is more or less: are the zones described in TFNA some sort of “custom” or there is a standard?


  • Participant
    Robert on #6855

    Hi Carlosdvg,

    “Zones” can be very confusing as they are not “universal” and there are therefore numerous approaches and definitions out there, including those used in TftNA. As a scientist I have preferred using a system that is based on a fairly well defined physiological exertion threshold. The one I use is lactate threshold (LT) or that transition where lactate begins to exponentially accumulate. The approximate location (in bpm) of this threshold can be determined using blood lactate testing- something that has become commonplace with accurate portable measuring tools that are readily available. There are also reliable field tests that can determine LT to an accuracy that is more than sufficient for setting up your training zones.

    If you set your zones up based on LT you will have an easily measured reference to monitor and adjust as necessary since LT will move around a bit based on the specifics of one’s training. Basing your zones on max HR (as is outlined in TftNA) is another valid approach albeit one that will require monitoring your max HR from time to time (max HR will not likely move around as much as LT). Determining your max HR is somewhat more painful than determining your LT (and some say doing so is more dangerous as well due to the stress put on your CV system). But I have found you will likely get to about the same individual training zones either way.

    Another issue with training zones is that the numerous approaches use different “numbers” for the same zones, so there is often a disconnect in discussions about the zones as participants have different zone number definitions. For instance TftNA has the following zone definitions:

    zone 1 (recovery) 55%-75% of max HR
    zone 2 (No man’s land) 75%-80% max HR
    zone 3 (uppermost aeorobic training) 80%-90% max HR
    zone 4 (anaerobic zone) 90%-95% max HR
    zone 5 (maximum effort) 95%+ max HR

    Joe Friel (one the developers of Training Peaks) uses the following protocol based off of LT (this system is the default system in TP and the one I use):

    zone 1 (active recovery) <85% of LT
    zone 2 (aerobic threshold) 85%-91% of LT
    zone 3 (tempo) 91%-95% of LT
    zone 4 (sub-lactate threshold) 95-100% of LT
    zone 5a (lactate threshold) 100%-102% of LT
    zone 5b (aerobic capacity) 102%-106% of LT
    zone 5c (anaerobic capacity) 106%+ of LT

    Using my own data as an example- max HR 170, LT 155

    my TftNA zones are:

    zone 1 93.5-127.5 bpm
    zone 2 127.5-136 bpm
    zone 3 136-153 bpm
    zone 4 153-161.5 bpm
    zone 5 161.5+ bpm

    and my Friel zones are:

    zone 1 <132 bpm
    zone 2 132-141
    zone 3 142-148
    zone 4 149-154
    zone 5a 155-158
    zone 5b 159-164
    zone 5c 165+

    You can probably see the confusion that can develop where, for instance, the TftNA zone 4 is zone 5a-b in Friel’s system and the TftNA zone 3 includes Friel’s zone 3 and some of his zone 2 and zone 4.

    These two systems agree on the approximate location of the aerobic threshold (AeT) were TftNA defines it as the top of zone 2 (136 bpm for me) and Friel indicates that it is in the low end of his zone 2 (again about 136 bpm for me (although when peaking my AeT rises to around 140 bpm)). They also have similar LT values (for me 153 bpm in the TftNA system and 155 bpm in the Freil system (and as measured via blood lactate and field tests)). These LTs differ by a couple of beats but I do not find that sort of error to make a significant difference in what I do for training.

    Another difference is that Friel does not reference a “no man’s land”. He does this because for some endurance event lengths part of the TftNA zone 2 is race pace and is therefore important in training plans associated with such events and he prescribes workouts in this zone for such athletes.

    Since Uphill Athlete suggests that one will be well served by using TP as a training analysis tool, it is important to understand the approach that TP is taking as it concerns zones. Of course you can put in custom zones in TP that are allied with the TftNA system and thereby avoid the confusion. But if you happen to be discussing endurance training with someone who is not on the TftNA system it will be productive to have an understanding of some of the other systems that are in use. I run into this regularly with cross country skiers who use the USSA protocol (which is more like TftNA than the Friel system I use) and we plan to do intervals together. I need to understand that when they speak to, for example, doing zone 4 intervals- they are zone 5a-b for me.

    Per your question on zone 1 and zone 2 and other training plans that you see online- well the other plans may be using an entirely different set of definitions for zones. My advice is pick a system and stick with it. So long as the system in use has a physiologic basis, provides physiologic explanations of the reasons for training in each zone, provides example workouts for such zones, and provides a periodization protocol (all of which are extant and provided for by TftNA) it should yield effective training progression when applied correctly.

    Anonymous on #6876


    Robert gave a good description of the Zone system with all its warts.

    When we wrote TftNA we were writing for an audience of climbers, virtually none of whom trained using any sort of scientific principles. Really! 10 years ago you could count number of alpinists and mountaineers who training on one hand. So, we were writing for a very unsophisticated audience. We did not expect to create a movement that would change the way people prepared for big mountains. We honestly thought we might sell 1000 copies of our book but we are approaching 100,000 copies.

    We just wanted to give some very basic outlines on how a beginner could control the intensity of training. We debated about using the zone system because we wee very aware of its failings. In the end we used it because it, in one for or another, is pretty universal. We wanted to use a simple system because no climbers even used HR monitors then. So we defaulted to a fairly well accepted system. With the changes that have happened since our book came out we would not do it the same way again.

    What we generally suggest and what you will see in our next book is a zone system based on the 2 main metabolic markers as defined as Aerobic and Anaerobic Thresholds (don’t even go there on the naming inconsistencies of these two things). The first one occurs when blood lactate begins to rise above its base level (pretty well shows fat vs carb use as 50% each. The second threshold (by whatever name) is the endurance limit. It is the maximum intensity that can be sustained for long time. How long depends on the event. For our types of event we can safely use a 30 min max test for someone less trained and 60 min of maximal effort for a well trained athlete. I prefer a field test for determining the Anaerobic threshold rather than trying to find the point in a graded exercise test where the lactate begins to rise rapidly. This is the test Robert suggests above and it is the lab standard test. I only use field performance tests like a 30 to 60 min time trial (done in a sport specific way if at all possible) rather than rely on a lab test for this metabolic threshold. We describe this test procedure in detail in an article on the site.


    carlosdvg on #6879

    Wow, that was a lot of info, and eye opening. Thanks a lot

    This is being a bit overwhelming for me as a total beginner to structured training, so having these kind of explanations is a big help, but it raises more questions… 🙂

    When I was starting my transition period right after reading the book I did a max HR test as described in the book and it gave a max HR of 182bpm. This made Z1 feel very easy in most situations (except maybe hiking fast uphill). I know it says so in the book, but I find difficult going below top Z1 or Z2 if running slowly uphill or fast in straight terrain. In other words, will a point come when the top of Z1 will rise and start feeling more like “recovery”? Maybe I got my zones wrong and I’m doing work in Z2 and that’s why i feel it somewhat hard?

    Man, this organized training is hard. Maybe I do need a coach!

    carlosdvg on #6890

    To try to clarify a little more my concerns. I live in a hilly place with mountains all around, not really flat courses nearby. I stablished my zones as:

    Z1: 101-138
    Z2: 138-142 (usig MAF AeT method, my top Z2 would be this)
    Z3: 142-166
    Z4: 166-175
    Z5: 175-184

    So my running always gets me on top Z1/Z2 very easily. To maintain a Z1 workout for say, 45m I would only have to walk uphill not so fast, and if want to hit the whole Z1 I definetely cannot run at all. I know from the book that Z1 workouts should feel easy and be done at conversational pace, but I find that Z1 exclusively its maybe too easy…

    So again, maybe I got the zones wrong? And now that I’m in Base period and I’m having long Z1/2 runs, if I got this wrong from the transition should I get back to the beginning? I’m cheating a little bit in my long Z1 workouts and hitting maybe 5/10 minutes of Z2 for a 1 1/2 workout because it’s hard to maintain a slow pace… this “long” workouts leave a bit tired, but I can go the next day as new.

    What I’m confused about is that maybe I’m overtraining with the numbers, but I certainly don’t feel that way…

    Thanks again.

    Chris R on #6911

    Great thread, I also struggled with this. I ended up creating custom zones in TP named after the TFtNA convention (I think there is some inconsistency even in TFtNA: sometimes AeT is called upper end if Z1, sometimes upper end of Z2)

    For my AeT 140 and AnT 167 I went for
    Zone 1: Basic Endurance 128-140
    Zone 2: No Man’s Land 141-152
    Zone 3: Uppermost Aerobic 153-167
    And a few more I dont want to be in while training 😉

    I also use a Garmin fenix HR watch where I configured the same zones (it only supports Z1-Z5 system). In practice for my workouts at or just below AeT the watch thinks I’m in the “resting” zone, but thats just cosmetic.

    Anyway, I found only 2 points matter: AeT and AnT. During endurance training I am trying to stay at just below one of these two numbers.

    I like Scott’s suggestion that in the next book (exciting!!!) this will be the basis of the zone model.

    Btw: it would be nice to have an official FAQ on setting up TP zones for TFtNA on the website. And what would even better would be if TP let me select “TFtNA Zones” from their list of Zone systems. With so many copies sold (congrats!) I would think TP might be willing to do it?

    Another random TP tip: I do my AeT and AnT workouts on a 15% treadmill and use the Indoor Running garmin activity. After each workout is done, I then set TP to use hrTSS instead of rTSS (only possible on website not app). I wish I could default that somehow, or that TP could be configured with the incline so the rTSS model would be more accurate.


    carlosdvg on #6923

    Hi Chris

    Wouldn’t your AeT be top of Z2? Then low/mid Z1 would be very low and VERY easy, as it happens to me and it kind of confuses me…

    And regarding the Fenix, I just got one and I’ve set up the custom zones as in TFNA, and I’ve been wondering this first week using it if the info it gives back with that zones is correct, say if I make a long Z1 (1 1/2h) hike it records the whole time in “warm up” mode, and I don’t know if it counts it as “real” training as it says after the workouts in the training stats “your aerobic capacity is maintained but not improved” and it gives a score of about 2.4 over 5… That’s whats confusing me and I don’t know if I’m setting the tools correctly to have a valid recording of the workouts…

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