In this piece, New Levels Coach Matt Long builds on the recent podcast led by Lewis Moses (insert link) by discussing how the zonal system of training can be interlinked and cross referenced with scales of perceived exertion. 

Borg Scales

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) has become a time-honoured way of measuring intensity levels across a range of sports. It’s ordinarily a 1 to 10 scale (1 being dead easy, 10 being really hard) of perceived exertion is how hard you feel like you are running.  So the scale is a way of quantifying what are really fundamentally subjective perceptions. It tends to come naturally to us in our wider culture. We see national newspapers rating the likes of Marcus Rashford or Jack Grealish in terms of their football performances on a scale of 1-10 when we read about them on the Sunday. If we tune in to ‘Strictly come Dancing’ on a Saturday evening, celebrity contestants are subject to a 1-10 rating from the panel of judges. When we go out to a local restaurant for a meal we may say to our partner as we travel home how we rated the food and the table service out of ten.

New Levels Coach Matt Long in action at a recent Steve Cram Training Camp

Zonal Systems

So doing the above for our running should really come quite naturally in terms of habituation. Our next step towards bridging an holistic understanding of perceived exertion is to link our 1-10 scale to a Zonal system, which tends to be used by sports scientists, physiologists and some coaches as a way of monitoring more specific training intensities in conjunction with our energy systems. Its worth pointing out that the zonal system in this blog piece is 6-tiered but this being said, zonal systems are social constructs and they change over time and are refined between diverse coaching cultures and so on. So here goes….

Zone 1 runs tend to take two forms- namely ‘Recovery’ runs on the one hand and so-called ‘Shakeout’ runs on the other and are a 1-2 on a Borg Scale. The former tend to be used to help regenerate the system both after hard training sessions and races and the latter may be used the day before a target race to proverbially get the legs ‘turning over’. 

Zone 2 runs are best framed as ‘Easy Runs’ and are typically used the day before a harder session so their volume tends to be higher than the aforementioned Zone 1 runs but their intensity could be framed as a 3-4 on a Borge Scale.

Zone 3 runs are framed as ‘steady runs’ and are still low in intensity but typically faster than ‘recovery’ or ‘easy’ runs. Effected at 5-6 out of 10 on a Borg Scale this may typically be a traditional long weekend run where one is trying to build aerobic volume and mileage. Its important to note that due to the mechanical loading incurred due to volume that these runs may start off as a 3-4 on a Borg Scale but end up feeling like a 5-6. This is perhaps the biggest mistake some runners make in failing to give the traditional long run the respect it serves. It’s often undertaken the day after a Saturday race or hard session when the body isn’t fully recovered so the full range of training adaptations are unable to take place. 

Zone 4 running is ‘threshold’ running and is that which is effected above Lactate Threshold (let’s think of this as a 7 on the Borg scale) but below Lactate Turn Point (8 on a Borg scale. Threshold running is deigned to be ‘comfortably hard’ in the words of the esteemed coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels. Another internationally respected coach, Kevin Beck, likens it to holding one’s finger to the flame. Threshold running is conducted at the intensity at which the body has the ability to clear as much lactate as it produces and is the fastest pace at which you can run aerobically. 

Zone 5 running is indicative of Intensive Aerobic Intervals and V02 max work which corresponds to a 9 out of 10 on a Borg Scale. To do this, the distance or time governing each rep usually needs to be a minimum of 3 minutes as it takes around 2 minutes to reach the point where the body is operating at VO2max – the purpose of the workout. If effecting shorter duration reps (e.g. 1 minute reps) then recovery must be reduced so that one is not fully recovered before the start of the next rep. You should aim for equal to (if taking active recovery), or a little less (if taking complete rest – generally half the rep duration) than the rep duration. 

Zone 6 work is indicative anaerobic speed or speed endurance and heavily utilises the lactate energy system. As a 10 out of 10 on the Borg Scale you will inevitably feel ‘flat out’. This type of work involves you running number of short repetitions with relatively generous passive recovery time to allow each subsequent run to be just as efficient as the first repetition of the session. 

The above leaves us with a couple of questions for self-reflection:

  1. What kind of scale of perceived exertion works for me? Do I stick with a 1-10 scale or regress to a 1-5 scale or alternatively do I feel a more expansive scale of 1-20 would suit my needs? 
  2. How do I plan my training so that I am aware of which training zone I am likely to be in when effecting a particular session?

Matt Long is a Loughborough University based New Levels Coach who has team staffed for his country either as manager or coach on 19 occasions. He has guided two athletes to world titles and two to European titles. An England Athletics tutor, he is a former winner of the British Milers’ Club annual Horwill Award for outstanding coach education research having penned more than 350 coaching articles for a range of national magazines.