Pyramid Training - What's the Deal?

by Jeffrey

Could you please explain pyramid training for different zones? I have seen it in running programs before and I actually didn't understand the method described on your tempo running page.

Answer by Dominique:
Hi there,
Thanks for your question about pyramids. And thanks for attaching a photo of yourself; it's always fun to see who I am talking to.

In all different types of exercises you can do pyramid sessions, whether it is running, biking or swimming for example. And it is a pretty good type of workout, so let's get right into it. I'll break it down as follows:

1. General explanation of pyramid training
2. Examples of pyramid training sessions
3. Extra pyramid training tips

General Explanation of Pyramid Training

pyramid training
The idea with pyramid training is that you use different intensities in a training session.

You gradually build up the intensity to a certain highest point, then gradually build it down, as if you were climbing a pyramid, then descending it.

You can even increase intensity, decrease intensity, then increase it again.

Now why would you do pyramid training? Well, here are a few benefits:

1. Enhances Speed and Endurance - by gradually increasing and decreasing running intensity, you can improve both your speed and endurance levels over time.

2. Breaks Monotony - pyramid training can make your workout routine more interesting, breaking the monotony of running at the same speed and intensity for long periods of time.

3. Builds mental toughness - especially in longer sessions in which you have to run fast on already tired legs, you are pushing your body, but also training your mind to withstand tough situations and not give up easily.

4. Increases Efficiency - by working at different paces, you can become more efficient and improve your running economy.

Examples of Pyramid Training Sessions

pyramid training
So, the pyramid-workouts I do are time-based. One of my favorites is a 90-minute session which includes some slower running (Zone 1), moderate / easy running (Zone 2) and tempo running (Zone 3).

This is a good combination of both long running and some tough running together.
The sequence I usually use is as follows:

Min 1-10: Zone 1
Min 11-20: Zone 2
Min 21-30: Zone 3
Min 31-40: Zone 2
Min 41-50: Zone 3
Min 51-60: Zone 2
Min 61-70: Zone 3
Min 71-80: Zone 2
Min 81-90: Zone 1

If you are not quite ready for 90 minutes of running, then you can still follow the same principles.

You could cut the run above in half by making all the intervals only 5 minutes in length.

Or you could do a 50-minute session as follows:

Min 1-10: Zone 1
Min 11-20: Zone 2
Min 21-30: Zone 3
Min 31-40: Zone 2
Min 41-50: Zone 1

The variations are endless.

Extra Pyramid Training Tips

pyramid training
Some further tips and pointers to get you going safely:

  • Always start with slow or easy running and always finish with slow or easy running. Never jump into more intense paces without a good warm-up.

  • Don't think you are Superman. Just because you can do a 90-minute long run, does not mean that the above 90-minute pyramid is a good idea. Build it up gradually.

  • Not quite able to run 30 minutes straight yet? Then don't worry too much about pyramids, heart rate zones etc. Just do slow/easy running and build up your stamina until you are able to run 30-40 minutes. It's best to work on building up your distance first. After that you can start playing with faster running.

  • When you want to include Zone 4 running (= interval running speed) into your pyramids, make sure to do consecutive Zone 4 running splits for only about 5 minutes. Much longer, especially in long pyramid sessions, is counterproductive. You won't be able to hold the intensity or the speed of Zone 4 running for much longer than 5 minutes. If you do, you are not doing your Zone 4 running fast enough.

  • Hope this helps.

    Make sure to also check out:

    Tempo running - page which features some of these pyramid sessions.

    Interval Running - About Zone 4 running and why you should keep these intervals shorter in length.

    Running Stretches - Finish your workout with a good cooling down via some easy running and a set of running stretches.

    Kind regards,

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