You should spend the majority of your time running in Zone 2. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice because it’s true. But that may have left you wondering what exactly is Zone 2 training, how do you use it and why is it so important?
Run slower to get faster. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? But that’s what zone 2 heart rate training is all about.
Plenty of elite athletes swear by it, and there’s a ton of scientific evidence to back up the claim that running the majority of your long runs in zone 2 can improve your performance, leading you to that PR you’ve been going for.
Today we’re going to help you better understand what it means to train in Zone 2, how it’s defined and why you should trust the benefits if endurance or long term training are goals.
What is Zone 2 Heart Rate?
Zone 2 heart rate refers to a specific intensity level in heart rate-based training. It’s generally considered to be at 60-72% of your maximum heart rate. This zone is often described as a “comfortable” or “conversational” pace, where you can carry on a conversation without gasping for breath.
*NOTE: Zones are calculated a variety of ways thanks to the confusion of different methods. In general, I would say Zone 2 is only up to 70% max, but for newer runners we actually need more leeway, so this is the chart I often use. I prefer the Karvonen method of calculation.
In Zone 2, your heart rate is elevated enough to provide cardiovascular benefits, but not so high as to cause excessive fatigue or stress. This level of exertion is sustainable over extended periods.
In this zone, your body’s energy production relies on a mix of fat and carbohydrates, with an emphasis on fat burning at lower intensities. The way your body produces energy efficiently during Zone 2 activities is thanks to mitochondria, the energy powerhouse of your cells.
Regular activity within Zone 2 can contribute to mitochondrial health, enhancing their ability to produce energy effectively.
Can You Talk in Zone 2?
Yes! In fact, this is a great sign that you are doing your runs easy enough. I love providing this chart to give runners an idea of how the effort level should feel for a Zone 2 easy run.
What Counts as Zone 2 Cardio?
It’s not limited to running. Any activity from biking to swimming to a hot yoga session that gets your heart rate in to the appropriate range can be counted towards your easy aerobic workouts.
For some people the Stairmaster is an excellent Zone 2 workout and for others it’s actually going to be hard enough to push you in to Zone 3 where we start to risk over training and injuries, but more on that below.
How Long Should Zone 2 Cardio Last?
Initially we want to start by focusing on where you are and building up slowly. We’d like to get to a place where you can consistently do 20-30 minute workouts without feeling completely exhausted or over worked.
From there everyone progresses based upon their own goals and timelines. Many runners in marathon training will easily do 3-4 hours on a long run in their Zone 2. It’s the place where they can work on extending time on feet, building endurance and training the body without breaking down excessively.
But it feels SO slow!!
Was that a turtle that just passed you?? I get it.
When you’re just starting out training this way, the pace can feel frustratingly slow. If you’re used to pushing your limits and feeling the rush of high-intensity workouts, adjusting to the more moderate pace can feel like you’re not doing enough.
Remember, Zone 2 training is not about how fast you’re moving but how effectively you are training your heart. This slower pace allows your body to adapt to using fat as a primary fuel source, improves your endurance, and builds a strong aerobic base. Keep those things in mind!!
Try to embrace this slower pace as a chance to enjoy your runs differently. Without the pressure to constantly push hard, you can focus more on the joy of running, the scenery around you, and even use this time for some mindful reflection. It can be a welcome change of pace. (See what I did there??)
Understanding Heart Rate Zones
Let’s take a quick step back to understand the complete picture of heart rate training. There are 5 zones—each calculated as a percentage of your max heart rate, with Zone 1 being the lowest intensity and Zone 5 being the highest.
Each of these heart rate training zones has a specific purpose, and your body responds differently depending on which zone you’re training in.
It’s extremely important that you learn how to calculate your max heart rate, to correctly set your zones.
Zone 1: (50-60% of max hr)
This feels effortless, great for warm up and cool down. Primarily engaging your slow-twitch muscle fibers. Blood flow to the muscles is moderate and supplies enough oxygen to sustain low-intensity activity like a leisurely walk or possibly a slow jog.
Zone 2: (60-72% of max hr)
Should be able to easily carry on a conversation, you won’t feel too fatigued afterwards, should be 80% of your training runs. Your body is relying heavily on fat oxidation as a primary fuel source rather than carbohydrates.
In this zone, you’re still working mainly with slow-twitch muscle fibers, but the demand for energy starts to increase, and more blood is pumped to your muscles to meet this demand.
Zone 3: (73-83% of max hr)
Conversation becomes limited to just a few words at a time, great for tempo runs or practicing your marathon pace. It’s often referred to as the “grey zone,” and is where many new runners accidentally end up spending the majority of their training. It’s too hard to be an easy run and not hard enough to be an intense speed workout.
The problem is, running too often in zone 3 doesn’t allow your body enough recovery between workouts.
Learn more about how to correctly training in Zone 3 >>
Zone 4: (84-93% of max hr)
This is a hard effort, you’re pushing your limits here with intervals, but not all-out sprinting. Instead this high intensity effort is often associated with lactate threshold training. This is the point where the body starts producing lactate at a faster rate than it can be cleared, leading to an increase in lactate levels in the blood.
Training in this zone is where you’ll increase your anaerobic tolerance.
Zone 5: (94-100% of max hr)
You’re at peak intensity and can’t sustain this level of effort longer than say 30 seconds to 1 minute. A true sprint is only 20 seconds.
This zone is all about short, sharp efforts, like sprinting or high-intensity interval training. Your body relies almost exclusively on glycogen, a form of stored glucose, for energy. Training in this zone enhances your body’s ability to perform at maximum capacity for short periods. It’s where you’re pushing your limits, like that last push to the finish line of a race.
Benefits of Zone 2 Training
What’s all the fuss about Zone 2? Why do we so often say that you need to spend 80% of your training volume in this easy zone? Because the benefits to your overall training are immense.
Training in Zone 2 develops your aerobic base, which is essential for endurance sports.
Zone 2 is the cornerstone for building an aerobic base, which is super important for endurance athletes. At these lower intensities, your body adapts to use oxygen more efficiently. This is important for exercises where exertion is required, like distance running, cycling, or swimming.
Working in Zone 2 also encourages fat burning, which is a sustainable energy source for longer activities. Endurance athletes rely on this aerobic base to maintain steady energy levels over extended periods, which makes it incredibly important for marathon or half-marathon training.
Reduced Risk of Injury
Running at a lower intensity reduces the stress on your body, decreasing the risk of overuse injuries.
Zone 2 workouts significantly reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Too much high-intensity training can lead to overexertion, causing strains and other injuries. Zone 2 training is gentler on the joints and muscles.
Improved Performance (Yay!)
By developing your aerobic system, you increase your efficiency and improve your performance.
This is what you’ve been waiting to hear!
Training in Zone 2 not only builds endurance but also improves overall performance. By focusing on this zone, your body becomes more efficient at utilizing oxygen and converting fuel sources like fat and carbohydrates into energy. A strong aerobic base contributes to better performance and stamina.
Lower intensity workouts means your body doesn’t need as much time to recover.
Zone 2 training is less taxing on your body, meaning quicker recovery time compared to high-intensity workouts. If you’re following a training plan where you’re running frequently, it allows for more consistent training without the long rest periods that might be necessary after high-intensity sessions. Faster recovery also means a reduced risk of chronic fatigue!
Zone 2 training strengthens your cardiovascular system, promoting heart health.
Working at a moderate intensity helps strengthen the heart muscle, improving its ability to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. This can lead to a reduced risk of chronic diseases or poor metabolic health. It also improves overall metabolic health because it enhances the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
How to Find Zone 2 Heart Rate?
To accurately find your Zone 2 heart rate, you need to know both your maximum and resting heart rates.
Everyone’s heart rates are unique, influenced by factors like age, fitness level, and even daily medications.
Step 1: Know Your Resting Heart Rate:
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you’re at rest. The best time to measure it is right after you wake up in the morning, while still in bed. This rate can vary widely, from as low as 40 bpm for well-trained athletes to around 80 bpm for those less active
. As you train and improve your fitness, your resting heart rate will likely go down and you may need to remeasure to adjust your training zones.
Step 2: Find Your Maximum Heart Rate
Your max heart rate is the highest number of beats per minute your heart can achieve during maximum effort.
Finding Your Max Heart Rate
A VO2Max test conducted in a lab is the most accurate way to determine your max hr. It’s accurate and comprehensive, but can be expensive and not everyone has access to this type of lab test. So I think it’s just fine to use one of these at home methods instead!
Try one of these options, like the track test:
- Start with a 1-2 mile warm-up.
- Run a mile at a tempo pace.
- Run 400m faster, then 400m at your maximum effort.
- The highest number recorded is your max heart rate.
You can also get a pretty good idea of your max hr by running a 5k race at your all-out effort. The highest recorded heart rate should be your max.
Note: Wrist heart rate monitors, like the ones used on fitness trackers like a Garmin or Apple Watch, aren’t as accurate as what you’ll get in a lab. If you’re tracking your heart rate on your own, I highly recommend using a chest strap monitor.
Find the best heart rate monitors>>
Step 3: Calculate Your Zone 2
As noted, I tend to lean towards the Karvonen method, otherwise known as the heart rate reserve (HRR) formula.
Max HR – Resting HR (RHR) = X[X x 0.70 (max intensity)] + RHR = Zone 2 Max Heart Rate
- Newer runners may need to use .75
- to find the low end of your zone use. 60
How to Run in Zone 2
If you’re new to heart rate training, running in zone 2 can be hard to get used to. It’s all about maintaining a balance between a moderate pace and effective cardiovascular exercise. Once you’ve determined your personal zone 2, you’ll want to do abotu 80% of your training runs (including your long runs) at this intensity level.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Start with a Dynamic Warm-Up: Ease into your run with a gentle warm-up. This should include some dynamic movements and brisk walk or a light jog to gradually increase your heart rate and prepare your body for the exercise ahead.
- Keep an Eye on Your Heart Rate: Regularly check your heart rate to ensure you’re staying within your Zone 2. If you find your heart rate climbing too high, slow down a bit. If it’s too low, slightly increase your pace. This is where it can be really beneficial to use things like the run-walk-run method.
- Focus on Your Breathing: Your breathing should be steady and controlled. You should be able to hold a conversation comfortably without gasping for air. This is a good indicator that you’re in the right zone.
- Be Patient and Consistent: Adapting to Zone 2 training takes time, especially if you’re used to running at higher intensities. Be patient and stick with it. Consistency is key to reaping the benefits of Zone 2 training.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Slow Down: Remember, Zone 2 training is not about speed. It’s okay to run slower than you’re used to. The goal here is to build endurance and improve your cardiovascular health, not to break speed records.
- Cool Down Properly: After your run, don’t forget to cool down. A slow jog or walk towards the end of your workout will help bring your heart rate back to normal gradually.
What if I Struggle to Keep My Heart Rate Down?
It’s not uncommon for runners to struggle with keeping their heart rate within the recommended range. If you find your heart rate frequently climbing above Zone 2, try the following:
- Focus on Your Breathing: Deep, controlled breathing can help in maintaining a lower heart rate. Try to breathe rhythmically and deeply, and pay attention to your body’s response.
- Consider the Terrain: Hills and uneven terrain can quickly push your heart rate up. If you’re consistently struggling to keep your heart rate down, try running on flatter and more even paths.
- Build Up Gradually: If you’re new to running or coming back from a break, your heart rate might be higher due to a lack of conditioning. Gradually increase your distance and intensity over time. As your fitness improves, it will become easier to maintain a lower heart rate.
- Try Power Walking: If running at any speed puts you above Zone 2, try power walking. Power walking can be an effective way to stay in Zone 2 while still getting a good workout.
- Stay Consistent: Consistency is key in training. The more regularly you run in Zone 2, the more your body will adapt to this style of running, and it will become easier to maintain a lower heart rate.
- Monitor Your Health: High heart rates can sometimes be a sign of overtraining, dehydration, or not enough recovery. Make sure you’re taking care of your overall health, which includes getting enough rest and staying hydrated.
If you’re consistently having trouble staying in Zone 2, it might be worth consulting a running coach. They can provide personalized advice and might suggest a reevaluation of your heart rate zones.
It can feel weird, running slower to get faster. But countless runners, coaches, and even sports scientists swear by it. Once you’ve built your aerobic base with Zone 2, you can start adding more challenging workouts like hill sprints and tempo runs – safely and effectively.
Some people may find their stride quickly, while others might need more time to adjust. The key is patience and consistency. You might just find yourself hitting those personal records and feeling stronger than ever – all by taking it a bit slower.
More on Heart Rate Zones To Guide Your Training
- How to Implement Low Heart Rate Training
- Guide to Running Heart Rate Zones
- Running with A High Heart Rate Concerns
- Learn How to Utilize the Run Walk Method to Improve
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