How to use the three-zone model to improve cardio-efficiency

March 6, 2017

"How do I exercise more efficiently?" is a question I hear a lot. And the answer is simpler than your expect. When it comes to keeping your heart healthy with cardiovascular exercise, all you have to do is talk. The so-called Talk Test is just as accurate as expensive diagnostic tools to identify which training zone you're exercising in, and it's so simple to incorporate into your existing routine.

There are three training zones: Zone 1, 2, and 3 - I know, I know, the creativity here is out of control.

Think about the distribution of your time spent in each zone like an ice cream sundae. First, you have your ice cream, taking up a majority of the volume of your bowl, about 70% to be precise. Next you have your hot fudge, taking up a pretty small amount of space, about 10%. Finally, you've got the whip cream, taking up the remaining 20% of your bowl. What about the cherry, nuts, etc? We'll tie that in another time with your resistance training. For now, we'll stick to cardio.

So in the three-zone system, Zone 1 corresponds to the ice cream (70%), Zone 2 to the hot fudge (10%), and Zone 3 to the whip cream (20%). This is even how elite athletes distribute their training time. You might have thought that they're always focused on maximum intensity, but that's just not the case. Zone 1 is important because it utilizes aerobic power but it doesn't feel too strenuous - it's just the right intensity to get a heart workout.

Zone 2 is less important in your training approach. It is significantly taxing on your body and your perception of effort, but not so significant to cause large-scale physiological adaptations. On the other hand, Zone 3 does promote those adaptations because it is sufficiently difficult. This is the so-called anaerobic exercise we've all heard of. Most people will only be able to train in this zone for 30 seconds to 2 minutes without rest, but you can incorporate it into your workout several times, for example, at the beginning-middle-end by allowing a few minutes rest between.

"Why is this important?"

You may be spending too much time in Zone 2. If your goal is improving cardiovascular efficiency, there is a better way and it follows the ice cream sundae distribution above. If you run for 30 minutes, that means you should try to change running pace so that you spend about 21 minutes in Zone 1, 3 minutes (or less) in Zone 2, and about 6 minutes in Zone 3.

"Fine, how the heck do I know which zone I'm in?"

This brings us back to the Talk Test. It's very simple to perform this test while you're exercising. Try to speak a sentence while jogging, for example "Mary had a little lamb." If you can get that sentence out, you're in Zone 1. If you can get out "Mary had a little..." before gasping for another breath, you're in Zone 2. And if you can barely get 1-2 words out, you're in Zone 3.

Ultimately, you're going to achieve your goals by applying training methods that closely mimic the goal you're trying to achieve. The above notwithstanding, you should train similar to how you want to improve in your particular sport. Sprinters therefore, will want to spend more time in Zone 3 (maybe 30% instead of 20%), while marathoners would benefit from more time in Zone 1 (85% instead of 70%).

If you want to improve heart health and general performance, follow the sundae model (70:10:20). If you are a specialized athlete, sprinter, rower, marathon runner, you'll still use the sundae model, but you may have more ice cream, hot fudge, or whip cream depending on your goal.

Now, let's all go enjoy a sundae!

In good health,


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