Feel for Zones

How to find Zones by feel.

Feel Your Run Zones

I think the coaching world is pretty much all on board with the idea of training at different intensities for different reasons. You probably have a set of Zones based on some kind of threshold benchmark testing, likely a threshold run test, possibly a lactate test. I won’t delve into the benefits of training using these zones, maybe we’ll do that on another post. This post is about using feel for your run zones.


Your Data Zones

Coaches love data, usually. They form a clear pattern that allows them to analyze an athletes performance. At PB+J we absolutely set zones for our athletes, but they are always advised to race and train by feel. Here’s why.

Zones are a great long-term way of establishing different levels of performance. But we are not robots. Throughout the day, training week, training block, training season we fluctuate for various reasons. Sleep, stress, food, hydration, training fatigue, I could go on.

Athletes who stick to their digital training zones will fall into a few categories.

  • They may be training in about the right place, which is great, that is what the zones are for.
  • They will also hold themselves back. Improvements in ability mean you’ll go faster for the same effort. Train strictly to digital zones and you’ll be hindering your improvement.
  • More commonly, and worse of all, they will push too hard. The chances of us feeling a bit ‘off’ are much greater than the chances of sudden improvement. We will often train slightly fatigued or we may just not feel up to it. If we keep pushing to hit our digital zones rather than training by feel, we end up overextending ourselves and becoming even more fatigued.


Indication over Incarceration

PB+J Coaching advocates running by feel, using your various zones as a guide and as an ‘Indication’ of what we might consider a normal range. We always run by feel, and if that feeling goes against the normal range then it makes us question why, and then we can deal with it accordingly.

Blindly being incarcerated within your specific pace or HR training zones is a bad idea. It can reduce progression but, more usually, force you to train harder than you should be. Don’t enter the prison cell of data-driven training zones!


Nothing New

This isn’t anything new. Most good coaches will follow a similar principle. Where things get missed is in how that ‘go by feel’ translates for the athlete. How does a Zone 2 feel? How does a Zone 4 feel?

Sure, we have the digital zones as a guide. But, as mentioned above, these data points might not be right for us on the day. We have a list of Zones in our TRAINING ZONES blog post, but how can we place something more tangible on training by feel than simply feel itself?


Breathing for Zones

Some days I just don’t feel I am being honest with my running. As we mentioned, it’s rare the day we suddenly improve, but common the day when we find the workout is tough. Even if it is a ‘normal’ day. Sometimes I get the sneaking suspicion that I am training harder than I should be. Seeing a quick pace on your run watch is a nice high!

On these days when I struggle with honesty in my pace, I revert to honesty via breathing. Breathing is a great way to bring you back down to earth. Your zones are related to effort levels, your heart rate will rise according to your effort levels in order to get oxygen around your system and remove Co2. Breathing gets oxygen into the system and CO2 out. So, your breathing should line up with your zones to some degree.

What does this mean?


The Technique

Breathing patterns are made up of a breath in and a breath out. The breath duration is measured in footsteps. A 4/4 breath pattern is you breathing slowly in for four steps, then exhaling for the next four. The slower you run the longer your breathing pattern can be. As we speed up, our exertion increases, our cardio and respiratory need increases, and therefore our breathing pattern naturally gets faster. Our breathing is a natural indicator of effort.

To put this into practice.

  • For Zone 1 / Zone 2 – You should easily be able to breathe 4/4
  • In Zone 3 – You should be able to breathe 3/3
  • Zone 4 – You will be likely be breathing 2/2
  • Zone 5 – Get all the breathe you can!

So, are you being honest with your Zone 2 run? Try running with a 4/4 breathing pattern for a while. If you can’t then you are likely running too quickly.


Other benefits

Practicing using these breathing patterns can also really help improve your lung use. Like we mentioned before, fresh air in, CO2 out. This means a nice full lungs of air and a nice empty expulsion. A lot of unexperienced runners seem to underutilize their lung capacity, breathing in short, shallow bursts.

Tip 1 -Focus on the ‘out’ or the exhale. The inhale will look after itself. Trust me on that one, it will! Most ‘shallow breathers’ simply do not exhale enough.

Tip 2 – The very end of the inhale and the very end of the exhale requires more effort and stress than they are worth. Focus on a steady ‘fill’ until it starts to get hard, that is far enough. Same with the exhale, don’t squeeze out every last drop, the effort and stress are far from worth it. Clean and smooth in, clean and smooth out.

Take a look at this article ‘Breathe Hour Way to a Faster Run‘ for more info on the importance of breathing.



What is one way of establishing running by feel? Use breathing patterns. If you can’t hold the breathing patterns for a reasonable period of time then you are likely running outside of your particular zone for that day.