My running shoesI am a slow runner, but I can run far. I am fond of telling people “I can run to China if you need me to, just don’t ask me to get there fast.”

I have been training for triathlons for the past three years. When I began, I couldn’t run around the block so I can see there is much progress. My 2013 goal is my biggest yet: to race an IronMan (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). 140.6 miles constitutes “far” in my book. But I don’t want to finish it in the nick of time, I want to get a little faster, even if just a tiny bit faster.

Enter speed-work.

Simply said: I don’t like speed-work but understand its necessity to meet my goal. Part of my intense dislike is that unpleasant feeling where I am convinced I am going to collapse on the ground from the exertion. That is not fun; but its also a mental game.

Enter zone workouts.

My coach sends me cryptic workouts that read like this:

5 x 8’@upper Z4 x 2’recovery at Z2 followed by 2’@lower Z5 and a 10’’ sprint at upper Z5

Translation: eight minutes at upper zone four effort with a two minute recovery at zone two effort followed by two minutes at lower zone five effort and a ten second sprint at upper zone five. Repeat five times.

Tough and effective to gain speed, however even with translation this workout STILL doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know what your zones are.

Loosely, zones are your effort levels where zone 1 you are saying “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy this is boring” and zone 5 you are so exhausted by your all-out effort you can no longer think at all.

If your goal is to build endurance, your training is focused on long Zone 2 and 3 workouts. If your goal is to increase speed and cardiovascular fitness, your training will focus on shorter, high intensity, workouts in zones 4 and 5.

Speed Workout

You can tell this is a speed workout because of the differences between Averages and Maximums (pace and heart beats)

There are different ways to determine your zones.

Perceived Effort: As the name implies, you determine what you feel. If you are running in zone 4, you should not be able to carry a conversation. If you are running in zone 1 you could practically be having a philosophical debate.

Running Pace: This measurement will tell you at what speed, or pace, you should be running in order to stay in a particular zone. In order to get this number you run a 5k (or similar distance) as fast as you possibly can. You then enter your time into a run pace calculator such as this one or this one.

For example: if you run a 5k in 28 minutes, your zone 1 or easy run should be at a 11:25 minute mile pace and your equivalent of a zone 5 should be approximately an eight minute mile.

Heart rate: This measurement tells you what your heart rate should be in each zone. To find it, first get your resting heart rate, the one while you are still laying in bed before getting up. This is best done by actually sleeping with a heart rate monitor, and checking your pulse the moment you wake up even before you move or think. Then you need to find your maximum heart rate (go for a short run with an all out perceived effort) and enter the information in a heart rate pace calculator like this one or this one.

For example if your resting heart rate is 79 beats per minute and your highest effort is 181 beats per minute the calculator will tell you that your zone 3 effort should be between 151 -161 beats per minute.

A great summary of these can be found in this handy chart from Runners World.

Vo2Max: Some claim that Vo2 testing is the most accurate way of measuring your zones. The test is done by a professional using specialized equipment which measures the rate in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min).

Yes. Exactly. That’s why it’s done by a professional on a treadmill or stationary bike. You run for about twenty minutes with increasing speeds and difficulty. You wear both a heart rate monitor and a mask, which collects the data of how much oxygen you are inhaling and exhaling. Vo2Max is the number that determines the maximum volume of oxygen that your body can consume to convert into energy. The higher that number, the more fit you are because your heart is being able to deliver oxygen efficiently even if it is beating like crazy. From the Vo2Max, your target heart rates for each zone are determined much like the Heart Rate measurement results above.

Taking Vo2Max Test

It’s not an alien on a treadmill, it’s just me doing the Vo2Max test

What do I use to help fulfill my now not-so-secret goal of going a bit faster?

I use a combination of everything. I did a Vo2Max test recently that showed, much to my surprise, that I was functioning as a “well trained athlete.” Therefore the test helped me gain confidence that I really can push myself a little more, and that maybe my perceived effort measure could be a little higher. I then compared my Vo2Max heart rate levels to the simple heart rate test I did using the method and calculator above. Luckily, the ranges were the almost the same so there was no need to guess.

Now, because I am ultra skeptical, I double check my heart rate zones with my pace indicator. Does my zone 5 heart rate zones correspond to an eight minute mile? If so, everything adds up.

My coach has handed me a slew of speed workouts that I will need to endure for the next three months or so and then I will re-test everything and see if I am on target.

Soon, I hope to say “I can run to China if you need me to, and I can get there faster than I could before.”

Getting faster

Getting faster means looking like this after a speed workout