Zone 2 Training – Part 1

heart-rate-zonesI picked up this concept in Rich Roll’s book “Finding Ultra”. The concept was not completely new to me, but Rich Roll had a way of describing it that made it seem new, which is kind of magical. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll spend a little time going through the background and basics, then explain why you should care. Finally, a little practical advice that I’ve come up with while trying to use Zone 2 training.

What are Zones?

Zones are heart rate zones. This is a range of heart rates that are a rough indicator of how strenuous the physical activity you are doing is at any given time. Most people talk about 5 heart rate zones:

Zone 1: Very Light, at the end of a work out you feel guilty that you haven’t worked hard enough – walking on a treadmill at a speed that seems easy.

Zone 2: Light, you should be able to converse with someone while working out. Converse, as in speak in sentences, not one or two word grunts – walking or running at a speed that seems easy at first, but over time requires more effort.

Zone 3: Moderate, your heart rate is getting a bit higher, your breath a little faster, you can talk a little, but definitely not hold a conversation – probably where you now spend a lot of time in your work out life

Zone 4: Hard, heart rate higher, breathing faster, this is a sustainable pace, but just. You’re pushing yourself now

Zone 5: Maximm, you’ve pushed your pace to it’s limit and can’t sustain this for very long at all.  For me, I have always thought of this as the place where I “lose my breathing” and have to walk for a moment to get things back on track. A big hill at the end of a workout where you’ve already pushed yourself a bit.

Each of these zones has a heart rate range associated with it and these ranges change with both your age and physical fitness. The most simplistic calculations go something like this: 220 – your age = your maximum heart rate (MHR). Zone 1 is 50–60% of MHR, Zone 2 60–70%, Zone 3 70–80%, Zone 4 80–90% and Zone 5 90–100%. This is pretty much what a LifeFitness machine at a gym will do if you tell it you want to do a “fat burning” workout (Zone 2) or an “aerobic” workout (Zone 3). For me, at age 54, my MHR is 220-54 or 166. Zone 1 is then up to 100, Zone 2 is up to 116, Zone 3 up to 133, etc.

Why do Zones matter?

Unfortunately, most of us grew up with the ridiculous “no pain, no gain” mantra of working out and we just can’t shake it. When it comes to cardiovascular fitness, however, nothing could be further from the truth. I get it that most of us are not looking to do marathons, ironman triathlons, ultra marathons, or more. But it seems like we are looking to “get fit”. So take a moment and ask yourself (because I’m guessing you have never really done it before) what does that mean to you? Is getting fit having bigger muscles, less weight, just feeling better in your skin, or actually increasing your capacity for exercise? Obviously, if you’re into weight lifting, it’s bigger muscles, but I would argue that for everyone else the answer should be increasing your capacity for exercise. This is what would let you exercise more efficiently, for your body to improve it’s ability to use energy to do physical work and would, as a consequence, likely result in some body reshaping and weight loss as well as improving your times. So, for almost everyone who is interested in fitness, I think you should seriously consider thinking about how you go about increasing your capacity for exercise or, in more technical terms, increasing your aerobic capacity.

Chances are that you, like me, have been doing it wrong.

This was my revelation from Rich Roll. I, like almost everyone, have been doing it completely wrong. I’ve been running seriously for 8 or 9 years. I’ve run 9 half-marathons (13.1 miles), so I’m not completely new to the running scene. I have an MD degree and am interested in exercise and physiology (how the body works) and I thought I had a good handle on what I was doing. And yet, despite my efforts over the last years, I had a miserable year in 2016 with running and haven’t really made any significant improvements in my times over the last several years. Why? Because I was doing it all wrong.

When you are exercising and you let your heart rate wander up into Zone 3 and Zone 4, you lose the benefit of actually improving your aerobic capacity. Yes, you work your body harder, but you don’t actually make your body more fit. The only way to do that is to exercise in Zone 2. Exercising at this reduced effort forces your body to adapt to the stress the exercise puts on your body. The adaptation is the thing you’re doing all that work for in the first place. It makes your body add blood vessels to deliver more oxygen and fuel to muscle cells and the muscle cells add a lot of mitochondria, the little power plants that convert oxygen and fuel into work. By adding mitochondria to the cells and growing a richer network of blood vessels to support the muscles, you get more work out of the same effort. It turns out that elite athletes, like Rich Roll, spend 80–90% of their exercise time working out in Zone 2. So why aren’t you?

I’m guessing that you, like me, haven’t been doing it because 1) you had no idea (this is relatively newish exercise physiology stuff), 2) you don’t know how to make it work and 3) you still kind of believe that your exercise has to be really hard to make any serious pay off. But, now you know and I’m going to tell you how to make it work and I’ll try and talk you down off the ledge for number 3, all in the next post….  🙂

8 thoughts on “Zone 2 Training – Part 1”

    1. You’re welcome! Always interesting to find out that you don’t have to kill yourself to maximize your benefit. In fact, it’s exactly opposite. Slow down and work out at a pace that allows your to converse. You get all the benefit and none of the pain.

  1. Hi Clayton…this was a great post for me. I’m struggling with getting back into my workouts after having baby and it’s even tougher than I thought it would be!

    1. Hey Tanya! It was pretty much of a revelation for me too. I was struggling to get back into running after almost 4 months off from infectious mononucleosis. I was back running a week before I got plantar fasciitis. As that healed, I was reading the Rick Roll book. I’m feel like I’m making huge progress at this point and I’m not killing myself.

  2. I’ve started to be more serious about cross training. I think that has helped me work out longer in zone 2, and my running times have certainly dropped since doing so. I’ll test the theory as soon as I get a heart rate monitor.

    1. I completely agree and my experience, so far, has been the same. Reading what a lot of these real endurance athletes do for cross training, it’s clear that they favor cycling for Zone 2 work as it allows them to spend more time in Zone 2 with less trauma.

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