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What Is Zone 2 Training?


Like many new runners, when I first started running I tried to go as hard as I could on every mile, assuming it would make me faster. It worked — to a point. But any benefits I saw were short lived, and soon enough I ended up feeling gassed after every run, without enjoying any improvements in my pace. Later, I learned about zone 2 training, and my early plateau made more sense

Zone 2 training involves strategic pacing at lower heart rates, and it can actually be the ticket to your next PR. That’s because the body makes specific adaptations when we run easier that increase our cardiovascular fitness.

But many runners (raises hand) find it’s tricky to slow down enough to actually make that happen. “People who do a lot of 5K or 10K races, even half marathon to marathon, they get used to that feel of that race pace,” says running coach Amie Dworecki. A slow zone 2 run physically feels different — sometimes more like a little shuffle than a “real” run. And it doesn’t give you that endorphin rush-y runner’s high or feeling of accomplishment that comes with going all out.

Our egos can also get in the way: we often don’t want people to see us running “slowly,” either on the sidewalk or on social media. “It’s so easy to get into that comparison game with other runners,” running coach Allison Felsenthal says. By design, zone 2 training is slower than what we’re actually capable of, and hustle culture can make it hard to hold ourselves back.

But here’s why you might want to put on the brakes — and how to actually do it.

What Is Zone 2 Training?

Most experts break up cardio exercise into five heart rate training zones, each covering a percentage range of your maximum heart rate.

Zone 1 is the very lightest exercise, just above resting — it’s what you hit during an easy warmup. Zone 3 is 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate — it’s a six or seven out of 10 on your rate of perceived exertion.

Zone 2, on the other hand, happens when you’re pushing just a little with light aerobic exercise, reaching 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. It’s the hardest you can go while still keeping your workout fully aerobic, meaning your body can use oxygen for energy (rather than glucose, which your body taps into once a workout becomes anaerobic).

You can do zone 2 training with any kind of cardio workout — cycling, the elliptical, step class. But runners in particular have embraced the concept recently because of the way it allows you to increase your endurance without putting so much strain on your body.

The Benefits of Zone 2 Training

So what’s with all the hype over zone 2 training? The biggest draw might be its effects on our mitochondria, aka the “powerhouses of our cells” which break down fuel and put out energy. Zone 2 intensity both creates more mitochondria and makes the mitochondria more efficient at producing energy, increasing our stamina in the process. More robust mitochondria also have powerful longevity and blood sugar benefits.

What’s more, sticking to an easy pace helps you work out for longer, so you’re able to get in more training. “It challenges you enough that it works your cardiovascular fitness, but [it’s] not so hard that you have to stop after a while,” Dworecki says. “So you can do it more times a week and you can do it longer, and really increase your cardiovascular fitness overall.” As that happens, the average paces on your watch during easy efforts start to get faster without you putting in any extra effort. Neat, right?

Also, although all-out sprints can definitely feel satisfying, trying to make every step of every run your fastest is a recipe for burnout (and injury). Because zone 2 running is less taxing, it can make running more enjoyable. “You don’t have the pressure of feeling like you have to push yourself really hard all the time,” Dworecki says. Hitting that “conversational pace” also encourages you to be more social, which can make your miles a heck of a lot more fun.

How to Find Your Own Zone 2

For a general estimate of your personal zone 2, subtract your age from 220, and aim to keep your heart rate to 60 to 70 percent of that number. (So if you’re 30, you’d be aiming for 114 to 133 beats per minute.) But this simple heart rate calculation is not exact, so serious endurance athletes sometimes do intense lactate threshold tests to get more accurate parameters.

However, a far simpler way for the average gym-goer to figure out if they’re in the right spot is to base it off of effort. “If you can have a conversation while running, you’re probably in zone 2,” Dworecki says. “If you can only say a couple of words, you need to slow down.”

Or, as Felsenthal puts it, zone 2 training should have you “feeling like you can run forever.”

Tips to Actually Hit Zone 2

To get the benefits of zone 2 training, you have to slow down enough to keep your heart rate pretty darn low. Here are some ways you can realistically do that if you struggle to cool your jets.

Polarize your training

Experts say the best approach to endurance sports is polarized training: doing 20 percent of your running at a hard effort, and 80 percent easy in zone 2. “But a lot of people tend to just run at medium pace every day,” Dworecki says. That means you can’t run as hard when you really want to go fast during a workout or race. “Doing slow runs slower will allow you to run faster when it counts,” Felsenthal says. The inverse is also true: if you give your all during a workout on Wednesday, you’ll likely want to take it easier on Thursday’s run, helping you actually hit zone 2.

Take walk breaks whenever you need them

If you find your heart rate drifting up even when you’re trying to run slowly, walk for a while. Lots of runners follow a run-walk method, and it can be especially helpful for keeping your heart rate in check.

Skip the pump-up jams

Zone 2 runs are not the time to pull out your club anthems playlist. If you run to music, use slower, chiller songs to calm yourself down. Or listen to a podcast or audiobook that won’t rev your engine quite so much.

Make it social

Dworecki recommends running with friends on days you’re trying to stay in zone 2. Focusing on the convos rather than the numbers on your watch will encourage you to hit the right intensity.

Be strategic about your watch

Tracking your pace can be helpful — until it isn’t. If seeing slower splits tempts you to speed up, change your watch settings so the pace doesn’t show on the first screen. Or consider not tracking zone 2 runs at all and just running by feel.

Plan your runs by time rather than distance

If you head out for a three-mile run, speeding up just a tad will get it over with faster. But if you tell yourself you’ll run for 30 minutes, you’ve blocked out that half hour for your run, and no matter how fast or slow you go, it’s going to take the same amount of time. For a lot of runners, this can make it easier to actually go easy.

Cue your body to relax

When you feel yourself pushing too hard, take a moment to physically regroup. “Shake out your shoulders,” Felsenthal suggests. “Try to keep yourself relaxed.” Make sure you’re not tensing up — you should feel easy breezy from head to toe.

Pay attention to your breath

With zone 2 training, breathing should come easily. You should never feel like you need to gasp for air. “Try to keep your breathing consistent,” Felsenthal says. “I like to count one to inhale, one to exhale when I find myself kind of getting ahead of myself.”

Stay present

When you start thinking about how many miles you have left or what your Strava post will look like after your run, it can be tempting to pick things up. “I always say to myself, ‘stay here’ instead of thinking about what’s next,” Felsenthal says. Easy running should feel good, so focus on enjoying the scenery, or conversation, or time to daydream.

Don’t fret over the exact numbers

Some days, an extra cup of coffee or a missed deadline at work can raise your heart rate higher than usual. Heck, even stressing over staying right in zone 2 can bump up your heart rate. If you see you’re creeping up into zone 3, don’t worry. “It’s a continuum,” Dworecki says. “There’s not an on/off switch where if you go in zone 3, all of a sudden those benefits end.” Just keep an eye on how often that’s happening, Felsenthal says, because if you’re regularly pushing into zone 3, you aren’t maximizing the benefits you could get from zone 2 training.

Jennifer Heimlich is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in fitness and wellness journalism. She previously worked as the senior fitness editor for Well+Good and the editor in chief of Dance Magazine. A UESCA-certified running coach, she’s written about running and fitness for publications like Shape, GQ, Runner’s World, and The Atlantic.


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