ZONE 1 – just for recovery?

ZONE 1 – just for recovery?

Zone 2 is where it all starts for endurance athletes, right? Long steady training sessions with heart rate, pace or power in Zone 2. Zone 1 is too easy and its mainly or recovery anyway, isn’t it?

Let’s have a look at Zone 1 and state a case for why you should give it a chance:

*while there are many zonal training systems based on heart rate, pace, power, perceived exertion (RPE) and blood lactate, they all typically start at the bottom with Zone 1 (the easiest effort level).

  • The physiological demands of exercise in zone 1 far exceed that of sitting on the sofa watching TV. So we mustn’t think of it as pointless. For example, my personal running HR zones allow me to run up to 130bpm in Zone 1. Given that my resting HR is in the low 40s that’s a threefold increase! We are therefore stressing the body through exercise at this point.
  • The transition from zone 1 to zone 2 is typically set at a fairly arbitrary point. The continuum of intensity is actually fluid and there is nothing specific that occurs within the body as you cross from a Zone 1 HR to Zone 2 HR. Note that in the 3 zone model based on blood lactate the move from one zone to the next is marked by significant metabolic change.
  • Studies of elite endurance athletes suggest that they actually spend a huge amount of time in Zone 1. Perhaps dictated by their large training volumes and abundance of time in which to train. This suggests that if time allows then training within zone 1 can prove very beneficial. Of course when time poor we tend to try to compensate by increasing the intensity. A slightly risky strategy as you’ll see below.
  • Aerobic developments (principally related to mitochondrial function) come from controlled amounts of stress that trigger positive adaptive changes. In this regard the more regularly we train aerobically the greater the likelihood we will get aerobically fitter. If you can exercise more consistently by going a little easier in your sessions then this may be the better strategy. More minutes per session, more sessions per week, per month, per year.
  • The balance between easier work (typically seen as Zone 2) and harder interval sessions (the zone number varies from model to model but these are often at threshold or above) is crucial within a training plan (triathletes typically train 6 days a week and often twice per day ).The tough sessions require a fresh body and also a fresh and motivated mind that’s prepared to suffer and endure. Therefore one of the key aspects of the easier (longer sessions) is that they do not become too mentally and physically taxing (often referred to as polarized training in which easy is very easy and hard is, well, hard). If you begin to ride or run in zone 2 and your perceived effort on that particular day is quite high then I would argue that it would be sensible to drop the effort to a very manageable one and therefore likely into Z1.
  • Finally, Zone 1 training can be used to promote recovery (active recovery) but for many amateur athletes greater recovery will come from sound nutrition choices, rest and quality sleep. If using Z1 for recovery purposes then keep sessions very short as it’s the combination of effort level and duration that dictates whether recovery will be expedited. Ride your bike for 4hrs in zone 1 and you aren’t recovering!

So I rest my case on the often overlooked and under-appreciated training zone; Zone 1. Hope this helps you to find balance in your training.

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