Zone Training is Broken: Steve Magness on Science Versus Experience

Steve Magness has written a fine article, Physiological Model of Training- Why it and “zone training” are outdated.

I like Steve’s views – not least because they agree with my own.

Steve Magness is a coach with the Nike Oregon Project
As a coach for the Nike Oregon Project, Steve Magness work with elite runners like Galen Rupp.

Magness has a master’s in sports physiology from George Mason University, but he doesn’t let it get in his way. Despite that obstacle, Magness was hired by Nike, at Alberto Salazar’s request, to be a hands-on coach of elite runners at the Nike Oregon Project.

The idea was that Steve would help Alberto manage the runners’ training, while keeping an eye on the latest discoveries in sports science.

Steve was an excellent choice in my humble opinion, because he’s more than a scientist. He’s also more than a coach and a runner with PRs of 4:01 in the mile and 50 minutes for 10 miles.

He’s the very unusual kind of numbers guy who has a profound and enduring, outspoken distrust of numbers.

“I hate zone training.  It’s a pet peeve of mine.  I hate the idea and the concept behind it.”

Anyone who starts an article with words like those will get my undivided attention.

But Steve doesn’t leave it there. He takes great pains to explain why zone training is a deeply flawed, fatablly fallible guide for runners. And why it so often lets runners down.

I won’t go into the details, because the article is longish. It covers a great deal of fascinating science in a readable way, with interesting tidbits from the history of training.

What Steve’s argument ultimately boils down to is that each runner is absolutely unique. Thus broad, general, numbers-based systems don’t offer sufficient guidance of the fine-grained variety that individual runners need every day.

A chart of running zones can’t tell us how to train on a given day. That’s because each day is different. Our conditions change every day – my current state recovery is always different on Wednesday than it is on Thursday. And, well, different by how much? No chart of numbers can say.

Steve talks about “our human notion to want to compartmentalize, our need for structure, and our seeing Science as the next ultimate step to solve all of our problems.”

That’s the temptation – to falsely believe that a comforting, concise, easy-to-understand set of numbers can tell us everything we need to know. But when it comes to zone training, Steve concludes after looking hard at the science, “The model’s basic foundation and premise are broken.”

So, where can we go for solace? Who can tell us how to train? Must we hire a personal coach?

My firm belief is that the ultimate, most reliable approach to training has two aspects.

First, good training is demonstrated by performance and a sense of well-being.

Second, training must be adjusted daily by referring to our inner feelings.

The body talks to us continually. When we abuse our kidneys by eating too much protein and chocolate, etc., the body announces its displeasure by giving us “low back pain.”

When we overtrain, we feel zero enthusiasm for running and our legs feel like fat sausages, our hearts lack all joy, and our minds are dull and unfocused.

At the end of the article, Steve asks: “But what the heck do we do about it, if I make this claim that the model is broken? After all, I can’t just sit here and tear something down without suggesting an alternative.”

He promises he’ll share his answer in a future article.

I’m sure that whatever he says, I’ll agree.

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