Effortless Endurance | The 50 Zone Magazine : Mens Information On Wellness, Health, Weight Loss, Nutrition, Women, Style And Fashion


Effortless Endurance

Aerobic training done properly should feel effortless, if it doesn’t, then you’re pushing too hard. It doesn’t matter how fast you can climb a hill on the bike, or pound out intervals on the track, endurance all comes down to what average pace you can sustain over a long time period.

That said, many endurance athletes continue to undermine their health by exercising too intensively the majority of the time, producing excessive stress that suppresses the immune system and leads to over-use injuries. What’s the point of being fit if you are actually damaging your health in the process? It’s better to stay focused on the key to success in endurance sports and that’s aerobic development.

That’s why my endurance training approach is somewhat unique: stay focused on your aerobic development, train effortlessly, and let your speed develop naturally. When you train this way, not only do you maximize your endurance performance, but you also increase your health and decrease your injuries.

The following chart illustrates how much the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems contribute to performance at maximal intensity over a given time:

Time (min)              % Anaerobic           % Aerobic

1                                  70                                30

2                                  50                                50

4                                  35                                65

10                                15                                85

30                                5                                  95

60                                2                                  98

>120                           <1                                >99

Notice that once the hour mark is surpassed the majority of the metabolic energy for performance comes from your aerobic energy system. Hence, with an improvement in the function of this energy system through effortless aerobic training you’ll see an improvement in your endurance performance, even when you race at a higher intensity for shorter time frames.

The number one objective for serious endurance athletes is to increase their speed aerobically. It’s about being able to do more with less. If your average pace increases within your effortless training zone, then you’re becoming aerobically fit and you’ll race faster and endure longer. If you stay focused on efficiency as well as how fast you can train within your effortless training zone, then you’ll find your health improves as your race times decrease.

How do you go about getting faster for longer periods of time? Divide your training into two distinctive seasons: Base Training season and Pace Training season.

In the first season, focus exclusively on developing your aerobic base. Work on your technique and increase your training volume (duration and frequency) in your effortless training zone. This season can last from 2-10 months depending on the athlete’s current health and fitness and forms the bulk of an endurance athlete’s training. Basically, in this season, perform all your training aerobically. That’s right, no weights, hills, or intervals, just develop aerobic speed effortlessly through increasing training volume.

In the second season, expand your effortless speed with added race pace training to enhance your ability to hold a higher average pace. Once or twice a week focus on long, progressive intervals or hills emphasizing efficiency so that a high average pace can be maintained. This season typically lasts 2-4 months and coincides with your races. Often, races can be substituted for your race pace training days during this season.

The next step is to learn how to train your aerobic system properly using a heart rate monitor, while paying attention to sensations of effortlessness.

I use three methods to set the upper limit of an athlete’s effortless training zone (see side bar). Use a heart monitor to keep you honest and within your aerobic effortless training zone. With practice, you’ll become experienced and recognize how it feels to train effortlessly and “be” aerobic. You’ll train slowly to start, but over time you’ll be amazed by how your speed picks up at the same internal effort level.



Experiment with the three methods below to find the most effortless pace and heart rate where training feels empowering and flows easily.

Method 1: Ask yourself two empowering questions to dial-in the experience of effortlessness: Can I repeat the same workout right away? Did I have the sensation of effortlessness? Set your maximum training heart rate just above the level where you answered “yes” to both of these questions.

Method 2: Next, ask yourself at what heart rate do you lose your ability to comfortably breathe through your nose? Basically, where you have to open your mouth and start to huff and puff? Set your maximum heart rate at the point you lose your nasal breathing and start to experience labored breathing.

Method 3: Finally, you can obtain a blood lactate test or a Max VO2 test to confirm your training zones. Set your maximum training heart rate at your lactate threshold or at the top of zone 2 from your VO2 results.

Many individuals also like to fine-tune their zone based on the following detailed questions:

Can I exercise all day below this number?

Am I in the zone and feel flow under this number?

Is my breathing unconscious and comfortable?

Do I feel the sensation of comfort and balance?

Can I talk easily at this exercise intensity?

Do I recover quickly after a workout below this number?

If you answered “yes” to all of the above questions, then you are training at the right intensity. If at any point you experience struggle in your workouts, then you need to adjust your zone downward to recapture the feeling of effortlessness. Remember that the ETZ is the most optimal zone for your body’s current capabilities; it’s also the zone where your health and fitness are maximized simultaneously.


Here are three examples of how emphasizing effortless aerobic training improved the performances and health of these endurance athletes:

Ken McWilliams – Takes 4 Hours Off His Ironman Time

I first met Ken late in 2002. He had been training for triathlons for a year with a desire to participate in Ironman on a knee that had been surgically reconstructed. In his own words, he approached training by “running as fast and as far as I could each time I went out,” and based all his training on pace and distance. “Everything was done at race pace.”

Consequently, he required frequent visits to his doctor as his knee kept swelling, and his doctor told him he would never do Ironman. Ken eventually sought out effortless coaching because he was frustrated and wanted to see if there was a different way to approach this sport. As I use different training methods based on time and effortlessness, he committed to following my counter-intuitive guidance to avoid further injury and pain created by traditional training methods.

I told Ken your first step in this sport is to chill out, leave your race ego behind, strap on a heart rate monitor, and go out and train in your comfort zone. Ken like many others found this type of training “painfully slow!” He said that in the beginning it was hard for him to slow down, but he stuck with it. He started running in the 8 to 9min/km range and would joke that grandmothers routinely passed him on the pathways.

To determine Ken’s effortless training zone, I used the three methods fully explained in my book Effortless Exercise and outlined in the side bar. We also tested his lactate threshold and using all this information determined that Ken’s optimal training heart rate was about 145bpm. We then set the upper limit for his effortless training zone at 150bpm, with the advice to go over this limit only if he felt great and very occasionally.

In his first few years he trained keeping his heart rate exclusively in the 140s and by building his volume and consistency week to week. After two years of training progressively he built his weekly volume up to over 10 hours a week and went on to complete his first Ironman in 2004 in a time of 14:56.

But what was more important to me as his coach was that his knee was feeling much better. So good, in fact, that he never talked about it. Exercising effortlessly had made him healthier even during his Ironman training! This type of flow state training is very health promoting; going easy has many wellness benefits beyond performance.

Ken’s basic annual plan was to build his training base by progressively increasing his time while keeping his heart rate in his zone. In the last 8 weeks before his yearly key race he devoted one workout a week in each sport to going faster – at a pace he called his “race pace.” Other than that, all of his workouts were performed aerobically in his specific effortless training zone.

In 2005 he completed his second Ironman in 13:15. In 2006 he decide to add some marathon training to the mix and qualified for Boston on his first attempt, going on to run Boston the following year in 2007. You see, his old 8 to 9min/km pace had improved so much that he was now able to run 5:30min/km at his aerobic heart rate of 145bpm, which left him excited to try his hand at a faster marathon.

By spring his goal was to qualify for Kona. So that year he trained by adding more volume, building his weekly training to over 18 hours a week, all the while keeping it effortless in his aerobic zone and staying focused on his training base. That year brought an 11:42 Ironman finish – close to qualifying for Kona, but not quite there, so he signed up for Ironman one more time.

In 2008, after 6 years of consistent aerobic training, Ken completed his last Ironman in a time of 10:43, a full 4 hours and 13 minutes faster than his first race. He credits this entire improvement from consistent, injury free, effortless aerobic training. He just missed qualifying because his age group is very competitive, but his overall improvement over the years is quite remarkable.

Ken laughs when we talk about weights: he tried them a couple of times and after being sore and injuring his wrist he pitched that idea. So what does Ken tell people when they ask him how he trains? “Your heart monitor is your speedometer, it will tell you when you can speed up and it holds you back when you are having a bad day. Follow it and it will help guide you to the finish line.”

He will also tell you to make sure to warm-up and cool-down fully. To this day he still walks for 20 minutes at the start and end of every single run. That’s dedication to the process, and his knee has recovered because of his adherence to this protocol.

Peter Nieman – The Boston Quest

Peter, at the age of 54, hired me in 2010 because he wanted to qualify for the Boston marathon and needed a qualification run under 3:45:59. For the previous decade he ran about 40-60kms a week, was self coached, and finished about 5 marathons a year, but was frustrated with his times.

We began by testing his lactate threshold, which revealed a 140HR and defined an effortless training zone of 120-140HR. Next came a plan to increase his volume in this zone. We slowly cranked up his mileage to over 100kms a week with a progressive program based on previous successful schedules he had accomplished.

His training chart shows the 11 weeks of focused training from January to May of 2010. Each major division represents a week of training, and the vertical divisions represent an hour of running.


As you can see Peter runs every day, with longer runs every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. We progressively built up his training in two training cycles over 11 weeks and followed a pretty typical two-week taper before his race. ALL of his training was done in his ETZ of 120-140HR; he did a few tempo runs at a HR of 150 mid-way through his program simply because he wanted to stretch his legs out. He only ran hills on his regular routes, and he stayed in his ETZ when doing so.

Peter’s aerobic speed greatly improved, in just 11 short weeks he went from a 6:10min/km to a 5:05min/km and his marathon time fell 41 minutes from a 4:28 in Houston in January to a 3:47 in Vancouver in May. Unfortunately he missed his Boston qualifying time by a minute, he needed a 3:45:59, and so it was a bittersweet success.

Peter has gone on to complete 87 career marathons to date and is well on his way to achieving his personal goal of 100 marathons by age 60. But that’s not the whole story…

In fact, I think his latest quest is a truly remarkable achievement.

An interesting transformation occurred just prior to the Boston training. On December 16, 2009 he started a running streak. No, he doesn’t run naked through the streets of Calgary at 5am; he simply runs every day. That’s a running streak! Peter is now listed on the international running streakers association web page as one of the select few in the world that run every day.

What this means is that for four years straight he’s run every single day. Yes, every single day, he hasn’t missed a single step. On a few occasions when a busy day has slipped by and his wife has woken him up from a slumber on the couch at 10pm, he’s donned his running gear, leashed up his dog, and headed out for his daily jaunt – now that’s commitment!

Why, you ask? Peter has a passion for living life and going after his goals. He wants to inspire others through action and show that dreams can be achieved. He’s also living proof that you can be active every day of your life.

In his own words:

“I can honestly say that a huge part of these accomplishments are due to Grant’s philosophy of Effortless Exercise, it has helped me stay injury-free. Every run has been a joyful experience, especially when one follows the philosophy of harmonizing ones breathing and mind with one’s body rhythms and moods, rather than making each workout a ‘killer’ event.”

So if you have a chance to get out onto the paths around Glenmore reservoir between the hours of 5-7am there’s a very strong chance you’ll bump into Peter celebrating life by adding to his 1400 days of consecutive running, witnessing the sunrise, and basically walking (in this case running) the talk! Move over Forest Gump, you have serious competition!

Linda Kepler – Training for Ironman Arizona

Linda’s 50th birthday present from her family was their support for her to train for Ironman Arizona in the fall of 2013 and accomplish a significant personal fitness goal.

However, while building her aerobic base all spring, she got caught up doing a sprint run and injured her foot. Therefore we focused the summer training on cycling and swimming until she was fully healed and ready to resume running again.

Once recovered, I set out a simple program, which she initially hated as it was more walking than running, but this allowed her to regain leg strength and the cardio specific to endurance running. We started with 5 repeats of 2 minute runs and 5 minute walks, plus WALKING for 10 minutes to warm up and WALKING the last 10 minutes to cool down.

We added a minute to each of the run segments after she had completed three successful runs at the previous level. We only increased time when each level felt fine and she noted no problems. If she didn’t have enough time to complete 5 repeats, she always went out and did the warm up and cool down walks and threw in as many walk/run repeats as her schedule allowed.

Linda committed to this rigid but progressive schedule in order to get results as quickly as she could, after all Ironman was only a couple months away, so she chose to run almost every day.

In addition, she had her MaxVO2 tested and the upper limit of her aerobic training zone (zone 2) was set at 141bpm. So she kept her peak heart rate below this number at all times. Her run data taken from her watch is listed below.


As you can see she has gone from an 8:32min/km to a 6:43min/km in just 7 short weeks, all while staying aerobic and in her effortless training zone. Her aerobic pace is now below her predicted marathon pace in Ironman of 7:00min/km, and she plans to run a sub 5:00hour in Ironman.

Our focus at the time of writing is to slowly increase the length of time she can hold this pace and stay effortless. She should be able to reach a couple of hours over the next month, which is plenty of time and running to establish a base for her event and to secure a solid performance. In her own words, “I finally know what a base is after so many years of running without one!”

I have no doubt that her base will carry her to the finish line with a smile; she has already said that the distance no longer scares her. After all, she has put in the training time all year.

These three examples are common with endurance athletes that train smart and use science to their advantage. When you follow the science, stay in your ETZ zone, and approach every “workout” with a plan to increase your aerobic function, you find that your speed quickens naturally and your health improves at the same time.

So there you have it, a simple, practical, and effortless approach to developing endurance. It takes patience and consistency, but with dedication and follow-through your performance will improve effortlessly. I hope you’ll be amazed at how easy the training actually becomes.


Grant Molyneux, Mkin, AFLCA Trainer

For copies of his book entitled “Effortless Exercise” go to:





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