Jim Vance’s Running Power Zones

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from Run with Power: The Complete Guide to Power Meters for Running by Jim Vance. Please contact VeloPress for republication permissions.

Run with Power by Jim Vance

Chapter 5 of my book Run with Power discusses efficiency, the factors that contribute to effi­ciency, and how to monitor it. That chapter had to come before Power Zones because I believe it is most important for runners to focus on efficiency first and foremost. Maximizing your speed per watt is critical. But as you will see, training according to zones can be very helpful both for your targeted races or goals and also for your yearly planning.

What Are Power Zones for Running?

So what are power zones exactly? If you use technology, or if you’ve taken your training seriously, you likely have some experience with heart rate (HR) zones and training according to HR. It’s a simple and effective method for training that provides a guide to intensities in different sessions according to your goals. You might even have some expe­rience using a GPS watch and training according to pace zones, wherein the pace the athlete runs is tied to intensities that correspond to different physio­logical energy systems.

So running power zones are discrete ranges of running inten­sity that mostly rely on a specific energy system to run. I stress “mostly” because no energy system is 100 percent in use or out of use. As a corollary, training at one intensity can have effects on the other energy systems and their development, even when those systems are not the focus of a workout. For example, a beginner runner who goes out to do some easy running will find his ability to run a 5K will greatly improve over time, even if he hasn’t done any intensity training specific to a 5K. The fact that he has devel­oped his basic aerobic fitness carries over to anaerobic efforts as well. I will discuss this in more detail soon.

First, I want you to pause on the idea of jumping right into training by run power zones for a moment, as it is not as simple for running as it is in the sport of cycling. Power meters for run­ning are much more complex than for cycling because, as we’ve noted before, we are dealing with different planes of movement in running. Unlike in cycling, where we simply measure the force applied to the crankarm, pedals, or rear hub, in running we do not isolate the power reading solely to what is actually making you run at your pace. We have productive work (horizontal mostly) that we are measuring, and unproductive work (vertical and lateral) that we are also measuring. Run with Power describes the cons—and also the pros—of measuring power this way. We’ll skip that for now so we can get right to the Power Zones.

For now, know that you can certainly training according to power zones. Running Power Zones are an incredibly powerful tool, but I believe efficient runners will see more benefit from training by power zones than inefficient runners. The more efficient you are, the better your data and the more effectively you can train.

How Efficient Should I Be Before I Can Train with Power Zones?

That’s a great question. I can’t give you a specific number or a test that will tell you that you are ready for zone training. This technology is still so new that we simply don’t have the baseline data yet. My book goes into a lot more detail on this topic, though.

Run with Power offers a specific, 5-step guide on how to train with Running Power Zones and offers 8 power-based training plans from 5K to marathon. I encourage you to make the modest investment. It’ll change how you view training forever. Order Run with Power from your local bookstore, running shop, or online.

Defining Power Zones

Those from a cycling or triathlon background are probably familiar with Dr. Andrew Coggan’s power zones. He developed seven power zones for cycling, based on an athlete’s Functional Threshold Power (FTP). I have adopted his style and the number of zones, and modified the ranges to better represent the demands of running based upon my experience in coaching runners of varying abilities. I have developed the zones with the help of 3D power meters. Although I do not have enough experience to confirm these zones for 2D meters, I have no reason to think they won’t be accurate, since they are based on a percentage of Running Functional Threshold Power (rFTPw).

Table 6.1 shows the power zones, the name of each zone, the percentage of rFTPw they represent, and the general time range one could sustain in such a zone.

Jim Vance's Running Power Zones from Run with Power

Table 6.2 shows how these zones break down for an example athlete who has a rFTPw of 383 watts.

Run with Power by Jim Vance

Let’s look more closely at each of these zones and determine what they actually represent from the standpoint of training intensity.

JIM VANCE’S POWER ZONES FOR RUNNING

ZONE 1: WALKING/RECOVERY (80 PERCENT OR LESS OF rFTPw)

This is the lightest and easiest zone of training. The amount of intensity in this zone is defined as 80 percent or less of rFTPw. Though this might seem high to those with experience using a cycling power meter, it really isn’t. Running uses such large groups of muscles that the range between easy and threshold wattages is not as great as in cycling power zones. For all runners, this zone would include walking and light jogging, like warm-ups and easy recovery paces. For slower to moderately quick runners it might even include some easy to mod­erate base training intensity, as there is some aerobic development that can happen in this zone. Athletes should be able to sustain this intensity for quite a long time, theoretically over the course of many hours, although it is not likely to be used or needed for that long.

ZONE 2: ENDURANCE (81–88 PERCENT OF rFTPw)

This zone is a moderate aerobic training intensity. Dr. Coggan commonly calls Zone 2 “endurance,” a term I like because it effectively describes what is happening. This intensity is specific for developing aerobic endurance in runners. It is more intense than Zone 1, and therefore has stronger likeli­hood of aerobic development, but is not so hard that an athlete can’t have a conversation while running. Slower to moderately quick runners might find this zone to be in line with their marathon intensity, as it can be sustained for a few hours.

ZONE 3: TEMPO (89–95 PERCENT OF rFTPw)

Most runners have done a tempo run at some point in their running careers. Most know this type of effort is above moderate aerobic endurance intensity, and not one that could be or is advised to be sustained for many hours. Faster runners would likely find this similar to their marathon intensity, while slower runners might find it to be more in line with their half-marathon intensity.

ZONE 4: THRESHOLD (96–105 PERCENT OF rFTPw)

Remember that rFTPw is the best power output that you can hold for one hour. Notice that the initial time ranges in Zones 1–3 lasted a few hours, and then just a couple hours. Now we are at about one hour, as this is the threshold zone where 100 percent of rFTPw can be found. You can train just below rFTPw and still see that value benefit. You can train slightly above it and see strong ben­efits too. Any race distance that requires close to one hour to complete would be highlighted in this zone. For slower runners, this might be a 10K; for elite runners, it might be as far as a half-marathon.

ZONE 5: HIGH INTENSITY (106–115 PERCENT OF rFTPw)

Zone 5 has one of the largest ranges. That may seem odd, but Zone 5 incor­porates a rather wide time range for training, especially for races, interval training, or hard runs. This range begins above threshold watts and ends just around the point of VO2max work being the main point of training. The time range to hold this intensity is somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes. If you wonder why it doesn’t go closer to an hour, remember that it is above thresh­old, and by definition you can’t really go up to an hour above your threshold. Note that the time ranges, like the zones, have a bit of overlap. You’re never training just one energy system, and there isn’t a draconian cutoff where 46 minutes suddenly becomes the Threshold Zone and not High Intensity. Some of these intensities are also dependent on the athlete’s ability, as better run­ners may be able to hold intensities longer.

ZONE 6: VO2 (116–128 PERCENT OF rFTPw)

This zone is called VO2 because it is where the intensities begin to focus on the body’s ability to use a maximal amount of oxygen. The length of time an ath­lete can be in this zone varies. The ability of the runner plays a role, as does the willingness to maintain a high level of discomfort. Some athletes simply can’t push themselves as hard as others, so the ability to stay in this zone for a long time has a lot to do with the individual athlete.

The general time range I would expect to see in this zone would be two min­utes at the highest end of the intensity, and as much as 18 to 20 minutes for the lower percentage. You can see this covers everything from an 800-meter run to possibly a 5K, depending on the athlete. Faster athletes will find this zone to be very common in speed endurance workouts, while slower athletes might find this to be more like speed development.

ZONE 7: ANAEROBIC CAPACITY/PEAK POWER (129+ PERCENT OF rFTPw)

Your peak power—the highest output you can possibly deliver over a very short period of time (only a few seconds)—lies within in this zone. It is highly neuromuscular in its outputs, dealing with how well the brain can deliver a message to the muscles to fire quickly and effectively. These intensities are so high, and the durations so short, that you could never hold them very long. The durations in this zone range up to about two minutes, depending on the athlete, but are likely to be less.

This zone is unlikely to be used much by slower or beginning runners. The intensity is so high that it carries a lot of injury risk. Experienced or faster run­ners might use it for speed endurance or for speed development (commonly called speed work). This trains the athlete’s ability to recruit more muscle fibers and generate high force at the fastest speeds possible.

Table 6.3 further illustrates the training response crossover of these seven zones. It is based upon Dr. Coggan’s seven power zones for cycling. Remember that while easy efforts can contribute to a training response for harder efforts, training response is maximized when the stimulus is specific. Table 6.3 shows which zones are most effective for the various training responses.

Run with Power by Jim Vance

Run with Power by Jim VanceRUN WITH POWER is the groundbreaking guide you need to tap the true potential of your running power meter like SHFTStryd, or RPM2. From 5K to ultramarathon, a power meter can make you faster—but only if you know how to use it. Just viewing your numbers is not enough; you can only become a faster, stronger, more efficient runner when you know what your key numbers mean for your workouts, races, and your season-long training. In Run with Power, TrainingBible coach Jim Vance offers the comprehensive guide you need to find the speed you want.

Run with Power is available now from your local bookstore, tri or running shop, and from these online retailers:
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