2 min read
23 Oct
Training Effort Levels - A simplified approach

One of the questions I see asked most often on running forums relates to understanding your training zones and what heart rate formula to use to set them.  Runners often start exploring this as they look at trying some more structured training for the first time, but, in my opinion for runners at this level there is no need to overcomplicate it and a more holistic approach of running by feel can be just as, if not more beneficial.

The traffic light training system

I like to use an approach that I call the traffic light training system which breaks the training down to three key zones.

  1. GREEN - Easy effort runs that allow you to hold a conversation with ease.
  2. AMBER - Moderate effort runs where you can still hold a conversation      but only in short, broken sentences.
  3. RED - Hard effort - Shut up I can't talk now effort.

By incorporating these three zones into your training you can train in a manner which promotes many of the key physiological adaptions which allow us to perform better in the future, some examples of which are listed below.


  1. Increase the blood's oxygen carrying capacity
  2. Helps strengthen ligaments, tendons and muscles
  3. Releases endorphins (these are good)
  4. Improves recovery (helps the body flush out the metabolic waste


  1. Increase the body's ability to utilise oxygen
  2. Improves lactate tolerance (maintain faster pace longer)
  3. Improved running economy (less effort for the same outcome)
  4. Build mental resilience


  1. Increases muscle strength and power
  2. Develop your fast twitch muscle fibres (the ones used for high-intensity exercise)
  3. Great for improving performance at short distances

When I use this method for my athletes I use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) within the science training platform to structure the runs, but all the athletes really need to focus on during their run with regards to effort is how they feel relative to the traffic lights, there is no need to check their heart rate or pace which in itself makes for a more enjoyable run.

GREEN - RPE 1-3 


RED - RPE 8-10

Zones in workouts

The runs often do not fall into just one category.  Most running is at GREEN (easy effort) so for example recovery runs would be all GREEN effort while a threshold run might consist of, as an example:

10 minutes GREEN to warm.

3 x 5min at AMBER with 2min at GREEN to recover.

10 min GREEN to cool down.

Different intensities can be achieved in different ways for example increases in pace, steady hill repeats, hill sprints, strides, intervals etc but all can be judged by focusing on staying in the  GREEN, AMBER or RED zone.

Want to talk about training intensities?

This is only a very brief outline, if you would like more detail about this approach, applying it to your training or a more detailed explanation of anything covered in this brief article then leave a comment and I will answer as soon as I can.

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