Heart-rate zone training is helping Phil Nicholls return to form, writes Ruth Jones

When Phil Nicholls broke 30 minutes for 10km for the first time in five years at Trafford in March and produced the third fastest short leg at the National 12-Stage Relays at Sutton Park in April, both performances represented big milestones in a welcome return to form.

The Wolverhampton & Bilston AC athlete credited Doncaster-based coach Dave Tune for his impressive upsurge in form, together with his new heart-rate training schedule, in which he runs in specific zones depending on the session.

The 31-year-old veteran of three World Cross campaigns and the winner of the Edinburgh Marathon in 2011 said: “Since teaming up with Dave last September, he has made me believe in myself again, and, together with my teaching career and family life with my young son, I now have a balance with my running. In the past I didn’t always fully respect the hard work coaches put into me, and as a result didn’t train as hard as I could have.”

Nicholls trains in three heart-rate zones: recovery (144-155bpm), threshold (156-171bpm) and tempo (172-189bpm), which were set for him after completing a lactate threshold test.

The test involves running for three increasingly fast three-minute intervals on a treadmill wearing a heart-rate monitor, with the lactic acid levels being measured at intervals, resulting in the heart-rate zones being set for training.

The Coseley School PE teacher likes to do much of his running off-road, favouring farm tracks, canal paths and the softer ground at Baggeridge Park and Himley Park near Wolverhampton, but prefers country lanes for long runs, where drinks stations are easily set up and provide long stretches of good-quality terrain.

Nicholls adds: “In the winter my sessions are more endurance-based, such as 4x8min at threshold pace, 5x6min at tempo pace or 10x3min at race pace, carried out on an undulating road route or off-road where possible.

“In the summer I concentrate on shorter track sessions such as 16x400m. I still feel like that I have unfinished business in the marathon (his PB stands at 2:19:21 from 2011) and so that is something I will be working on in the future.”

Nicholls on pre-race and post-race food

“My general diet has improved a great deal since having Dave as my coach. Before, I used to snack on rubbish and not drink enough, leaving me feeling sluggish at the end of the day and lacking energy. I now eat bigger and better breakfasts and lunches with ingredients that are going to fuel the morning and afternoon periods, increasing my fruit, vegetable and protein intake, and drinking more water.

“Before a race I’ll avoid anything too fatty or likely to sit badly on my stomach. I’m a big believer in the pre-race breakfast of jam on toast and coffee, plus a couple of jammy dodgers – they are my secret weapon and are like rocket fuel! After runs and races I now have a homemade recovery shake, my current favourite being banana, honey, peanut butter and skimmed milk.”

On his favourite and least favourite session

“My least favourite would be the long runs and my favourite are good track sessions. There is nothing better than running relaxed at speed. Stepping off the track after a good session gives me a big buzz – when sessions start to click, you know you are in shape. I love seeing the measurable improvements in sessions such as 400m reps – one week can be 66-67 seconds feeling awful, but a few weeks down the line they can be 63 seconds and feeling great.

“There’s nothing better than a warm summer’s evening track session. It’s what running is all about!”

On music

“I never listen to music when running. I think it can be dangerous and I like to hear what’s around me. Having music banging in my ears defeats the object of the run, which is to relax and switch off.”

On his goals

“My racing goals for this year are to run a full track season and see where I stand in regards to my PBs. I would like to hit a couple of good 10km road races too over the next three months and go into the cross-country season fit and healthy.

“Ultimately, I would like another stab at the marathon. I’m in a good place with my running now, and my goals are simple – keep enjoying it, keep fit and keep healthy and the results will come.”


Monday: (pm) 60min run in recovery HR zone (144-155bpm), ranging from 5:55 to 6:20 per mile, depending on where I am in the zone. These are done off-road where possible.

Tuesday: (pm) Track, road or grass session. Sessions vary depending on the time of year and also what is needed in the training cycle. Currently it’s track sessions at Aldersley Stadium, such as 16x400m off 45sec; 10x500m cruising through 400m and attacking the last 100m; 6-8x800m, or 25x200m off short recoveries. The pace will vary between 3km, 5km and 10km race pace off short recoveries on the longer sessions with longer intervals on the shorter reps.

Wednesday: (pm) 60min run at lower end of recovery zone to recover from Tuesday’s session. Evening core session at home, including a mix of 20-30 reps of sit-ups, plank, leg raises, medicine ball, Swiss ball and more dynamic exercises with the Bosu ball to keep the core and back strong.

Thursday: (pm) Sessions vary depending on race plans for the weekend. A lot of work is done at threshold or tempo pace, and often involves running at 4:45-5:00 mile pace, depending on fitness and terrain. The zone training works great on these sessions and sticking within them allows me to monitor pace. The basics of this session are to enhance strength and make me stronger when running at speed.

Example sessions include a mix of hills, then threshold work such as 10x45sec hills, then 20min in my threshold zone, or 60min with 30min threshold in the middle. These sessions will start to get shorter and quicker in the track season, and may include hills to improve leg strength and turn over.

Friday: (pm) Easy recovery day where I will run how I feel for as long as needed. I always try to run over 45min, but never longer than an hour in the winter – in the summer nothing below 35min. I include plenty of strides on grass to keep the legs ticking over.

Saturday: (am) Sessions vary. Right now, I’m moving into a regular track session to link in with Tuesday’s sessions, so it could be a 400m session again. In the winter these will be longer reps, such as 10x3min at race pace.

Sunday: Long run, the only session of the week I dread. I always try to do this off-road and this varies from 80-100min depending on the season in the low end of my recovery zone, which usually equates to 5:55 pace. It always helps to have a group around you on these runs, and concentrate on building strength and not making it too slow.

» The above sessions are specific to the individual athlete and may not be suitable for other athletes