Swimming is a great example of Zone 2 training.

If you’re new to Zone 2 training, this blog’s for you! In this guide to Zone 2 training for beginners, we’ll cover the what, the why, and the how of it.

You’ll get the exact steps to get started, including how to find your ideal heart rate zone and how to structure your workouts.

One of the reasons Zone 2 fell out of favor with fitness enthusiasts in recent years is that it’s not the sexy choice compared to high-intensity training (HIIT). Most fitness enthusiasts associate the feeling of exhaustion with a successful workout. Trying to convince people into a repetitive, slow pace training that takes a fair bit of time out of their week was always going to be hard.

Zone 2 Training is exactly what most people need.

Regardless of how you bake it, Zone 2 training has significant health and performance benefits that are difficult or impossible to get from any other form of conditioning.

 

Man cycling through field to get in his Zone 2 training.

What is Zone 2 training?

Your cardiovascular conditioning intensity can fit into six different training zones. Zone 1 is the easiest and equivalent of a leisurely walk for most people. Zone 6 is a brief, all-out max-intensity effort rarely lasting more than 80 seconds.

In Zone 2 your heart rate sits at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate for an extended time, ideally for at least 20 minutes. But often for 45 minutes, and beyond. You can do Zone 2 training with any repetitive activity as long as you stick with the specific heart rate range.

 

The benefits of Zone 2

Improved heart health

When you train at Zone 2 your heart gets stronger by increasing the size of your left ventricle. That’s the final chamber of your heart responsible for pumping blood out of the heart and throughout your body.

As the heart builds muscle on the outside of the left ventricle it leads to a decrease in your resting heart rate and an increase in the amount of blood the heart can pump with each beat. All of this makes the heart more efficient and puts less stress on the body.

Endurance goes up

Most weekend warriors either train too hard or go too easy. Often missing the Zone 2 benefits altogether. But endurance athletes know better.

Endurance athletes spend the vast majority of their training time in Zone 2 which allows them to go faster with lower heart rates, and be more effective at burning fat as fuel. As they’re increasing their speed without having to step over the lactate threshold, they could technically keep going forever.

And even if you couldn’t care less about endurance sports, these endurance benefits transfer to gym training as well.

Recover faster, save time

High heart rates produce more lactate than a slower-beating heart. The faster your heart rate comes down after an effort, the quicker you recover. Instead of having to take excessively long breaks, you can get more work done in a shorter time.

Zone 2 adaptations make the heart more efficient at pumping oxygen-loaded blood into the body. This allows you to recover faster between sets of heavy squats or high-intensity interval training.

Maintain your sports skills when tired

If you play a sport that requires a lot of skill (is there a sport that doesn’t?), know how to perform that skill when fresh, but lose it when tired, it’s not that you need more skill training. You just need to improve your Zone 2 conditioning to not get as tired in the first place.

Reduce the risk of injuries and improve recovery

Training at higher heart rates reduces the oxygen levels in the joints and muscles and makes them more acidic. Both of which elevate the risk of injury.

Having a strong Zone 2 heart means that you can train and perform harder with a lower heart rate. Therefore having more oxygen and lower ph levels in the joints and muscles.

And if you do get injured, Zone 2 training will help your injury recovery by circulating more oxygen in the body and the injured area. Leading to lower ph levels and a better environment for healing.

Reduce the risk of most chronic diseases

Zone 2 training is the optimal training intensity to reap the mitochondria benefits. Mitochondria are the engines in your cells and as cell function affects everything in your body, healthier cells mean a healthier body.

The mitochondrial function relates to muscle contraction (including the heart) brain function, nerve function, cellular repair and healing, and hormone signaling.

And because better mitochondria function improves your fat energy production, you have a lower chance of developing a metabolic disease, such as diabetes, dementia, and cancer. At least from the mitochondrial point of view.

 

The best activities for Zone 2

Jogging, cycling, swimming, rowing, elliptical… anything really. As long as your heart rate sits within 60-70%% of your max. Ideally, you want to choose activities that you’re good at and can do for a relatively long time without raising your heart rate too high, and without feeling aches and pains.

For some, that’s jogging. For others, it’s getting on a stationary bike. Walking however is a too low-level activity for most people. But adding a light backpack is often enough to get into Zone 2.

The upside of indoor stationary equipment is that they allow you to go at the exact right pace. Without having to stop for traffic or excessively chatty neighbors.

You don’t have to stick with the same activity each time! Feel free to change your activities based on how you feel and the equipment availability.

How much each week?

The biggest challenge about Zone 2 training is the time. At the absolute minimum, we recommend 120 minutes of dedicated Zone 2 training a week for most people. Whether that’s 2x60min, 4x30min, or 6x20min.

According to Dr. Iñigo San-Millán, one of the leading researchers in Zone 2, the minimum effective dose to get the mitochondrial benefits is to do sessions that are at least 45 minutes long. But we understand that two hours of Zone 2 a week, or 45 minutes at a time can be daunting, even impossible for some.

Just know that anything is better than nothing. Try to get as many 20-minute blocks in as you can with the time you have available.

Can you do too much of Zone 2?

There’s no upper limit to Zone 2 training volume. As long as you’re not doing it with exercise modalities that hurt your joints.

And as long the Zone 2 training isn’t eating all the time away from your weekly strength and mobility training.

What are the signs that you need to do more?

The clearest sign of needing more Zone 2 training is your current lack of Zone 2 training. In other words, if you’re not doing any right now, it’s time to start. But that’s rather obvious, so let’s look at some other potential markers that signal a lack of aerobic conditioning.

An average resting heart rate (taken first thing in the morning for a month) that’s >60-63bpm, is a clear sign that you need more zone 2 training.

You might also look at your current mitochondrial function as a sign of low Zone 2 capacity. Some signs of sub-optimal mitochondria include chronic pain, low energy, mental health struggles, brain fog, struggle focusing, sleep issues, and memory issues.

Just because you’re dealing with one of the above issues doesn’t automatically mean a sub-optimal mitochondrial function. But it’s an important conversation to have with your doctor.

 

Walking at a brisk pace can raise your heart rate to Zone 2.

 

Calculating your training heart rate

To find your theoretical maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For a 30-year-old, the theoretical maximum heart rate would be 190 (220-30) beats per minute (bpm).

Then go ahead and calculate the 60% (190 x .60) and 70% (190 x .70) out of the max. The Zone 2 training heart rate for a 30-year-old would be between 114-133 bpm.

Your level of conditioning and overall health affects your maximum heart rate. But 220 – your age is a good starting point.

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can also use a perceived rate effort (PRE) scale.

On a scale of 1 (easy) and 10 (Extremely difficult), Zone 2 feels like a 5-5.5.

At this level, you should be able to hold a conversation and comfortably breathe through your nose only.

How to start Zone 2 training

If you’re new to Zone 2 training, aim for at least 20 minutes per session a few times a week. Gradually increase your time each session and work your way to 45-90 minutes.

Choose an exercise modality you’re confident doing and enjoy. It is easier to keep your heart rate between 60-70% of your maximum heart rate when the activity itself isn’t a constant struggle. Steer clear of the rower and ski erg, unless you’re highly proficient at them.

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, stick with a pace that feels like a 5-5.5 effort out of 10. And allows you to hold a conversation without getting out of breath.

How to incorporate Zone 2 into your existing workouts

If you find it impossible to do separate Zone 2 workouts, because of time or other constraints, try tagging additional 20+ minutes of Zone 2 at the end of your current strength, mobility, or interval session.

Program example

With running, rucking, swimming, and any other type of “cardio”, Zone 2 training is very simple. Get your heart rate to 60%+ of your heart rate max. And don’t let it drop below that or go over 70% for the duration of your session. That’s it.

Since Zone 2 training is a low-level activity, you don’t need a specific warm-up to get going, but you know we love our daily mobility routine.

Resistance training for Zone 2

Keep the weights relatively low and pick exercises that lend themselves to a cyclical motion. No one wants (or can) to do a continuous 20+ minutes of squats. Mainly because it would absolutely suck. But also because regardless of the weight, the heart rate would shoot too high.

Instead, do low-level intervals. You can try 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, or 15 seconds on, and 15 seconds off. Keep that going for 20-40 minutes.

With weights, it can get difficult and unsafe to keep your eye on the clock. So we recommend picking a rep number that takes either 30 or 15 seconds and aiming for that with each set.

Kettlebell swings work well here. But as with the more traditional cardio options, choose movements you’re good at.

 

Here’s a resistance training option with bodyweight:

8x Split squats on the left

15s rest

8x Push ups

15s rest

8x Split squats on the right

15s rest

8x TRX rows

15s rest

Repeat x 20-40min

 

If that’s too intense, you can also do a low-level warm-up movement flow:

4x Spiderman to reach alternating

15s rest

5x Downward dog

15s rest

4x Crawls each way

15s rest

8x Hip bridge

15s rest

10x Marching on the spot

15s rest

Repeat

 

With movement flow or resistance training, you want the first set to feel exactly as challenging as set 40. So go light. Much lighter than you think. And then a bit lighter.

 

Summary of Zone 2 training for beginners

Zone 2 training is all about consistency over intensity. It has significant health and performance benefits that are difficult or impossible to get from any other form of training.

It improves your endurance and work capacity, fights off chronic disease, increases fat burning, and speeds up recovery.

What you do doesn’t matter as much as keeping the heart rate in the zone. Choose an exercise you’re confident with and enjoy. And remember to keep the weights light if you’re using resistance training in your Zone 2 training.

 

Next, check out our blog on the Heart Benefits of HIIT vs Zone 2 Training. 

 

Zone 2 is part of our personalized coaching. We can write a program for you! Learn more.

 

References:
Drive podcast with Iñigo San-Millán, Ph.D.
Charlie Weingroff How Do You Train for the Healthy Heart

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