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The Grey Zone

Or is it The Gray Zone??

Generally, when I get a new athlete who doesn’t have a ton of running history, and I start looking over their training, I notice a predictable pattern. They Spend a lot of time in the Grey Zone. Now, I’ve debated with some other intelligent running coaches, and we agree there’s a time and place for that type of running, but we need to get out of the Grey Zone, so we better understand when that might be the case. Regardless of that, spending too much time in the Grey Zone is the number one mistake I see runners making.


What is the Grey Zone?

Well, I made a diagram.


a diagram of the zones of running training zone 3

The Grey Zone is typically the zone in between marathon pace and Easy pace. Now, there’s a lot more nuance to that. It might better be defined as being in between sub aerobic threshold and high end Zone 2 running, but most of the time we can generalize it as being in between easy pace and marathon pace. On a 5-zone system, it’s probably Zone 3.

That’ll do for today.

Okay, I got it. Now, is it bad? Well, you know how all of these types of questions always have the answer of ‘it depends’? Well, I’m going to be bold and say, yeah, it is bad.

Now, if you’re like me, a contrarian, you might be able to come up with examples of when it’s not bad, and I’m happy for you. But this zone, most of the time, is bad, so we’re going to generalize today.


Why is it bad?

There are a lot of reasons. The more I think about it, the more reasons I come up with.

One reason is that people get stuck there. When I talk to runners who haven’t had formal training or coaching before, they naturally flock towards Zone 3, the Grey Zone, and often, they’ve been doing runs in and out of this zone for years without results.


I think the most significant way the Grey Zone lets us down is that it’s difficult but not specific. Runs in this zone can have very similar fatiguing impacts as faster interval workouts without many of the benefits.


When we correctly perform easy runs in Zones 1 and 2, we get a lot of the aerobic benefits as well as the slow twitch muscle fiber enhancements with VERY little fatigue. Benefit HIGH, cost LOW.

When we’re doing targeted race pace intervals and aerobic threshold sessions, we’re working in those advantageous zones, where we will most likely create some waste products in our muscles and the resulting fatigue, BUT we usually see big jumps in fitness. These workouts are also specific. This means the exact movements and muscles we need to run our goal paces are being trained and improved. It takes a particular amount of energy and coordination to propel our bodies forward at our goal race pace; we need to practice it! As we practice those paces at the correct dosage, our body adapts and responds. We’re slowly introducing our bodies to the movement we’re hoping to do for longer. Then, the beautiful process of adaptation occurs, and over time, we get better at those specific paces! Specificity for the win! Relative Speed to save the day!


But in the Grey Zone, there is no specificity to be had. We run hard, we get tired, and we don’t introduce our muscles to the specific movement we’re hoping to do. It’s like we drove all the way to Disneyland, got to the front gate, and then went home. All the work, none of the benefits.


I think the worst thing that too much Zone 3 and Grey Zone running does is that it robs athletes of the enjoyable experience of running. Easy Runs, Zone 1 and 2 runs, eventually feel good. Running becomes a delight, not a chore. Our bodies begin to appreciate the light aerobic stimulus. We can then start to view running in a different way. It doesn’t need to be a punishment. It can be so enjoyable! Easy Runs should be. If they aren’t, slow down. And then slow down a little bit more.


So there it is. Grow the gap between the easy days and the hard days. Savor the easy runs. Enjoy them. Relax. Push yourself even harder on your interval days. And let’s stay out of the Grey Zone together.


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