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What is zone 2 training anyway?

Should you bother with zone 2 cardio?

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If you’ve watched sports or listened to athlete interviews, you may hear some of the world’s most extraordinary talk about getting into a “zone.” When a person is in the zone, they’re hyper-focused and seemingly impossible to stop. You may also feel that way when you’re working out.

However, the type of mental zone that wins championships and helps you complete an extra rep is separate from zone training, which is buzzy on social media and fitness apps nowadays. You can just browse through services like Peloton and TikTok, and you’ll likely get advice on zone workout plans. Zone 2 training is particularly buzzing. What is zone 2 training, and should you bother with the approach?

These are excellent questions. When you work out, you likely have a goal in mind—perhaps to get faster, boost your heart health, or even zone out (no pun intended) and enjoy the stress relief exercise provides. You want to ensure your workout plan helps you reach your goals and not the other way around. Will zone 2 cardio work? Maybe, probably, but sometimes no. Here’s what to know about zone 2 training.

What is zone 2 training?

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While zone 2 cardio may be having a moment in the sun on apps and social media, the concept is nothing new. Backing up and taking a wider-lens view, zone training is based on the idea that there are five heart rate zones, which help gauge workout intensity. Zone 1 is the least intense, while zone 2 is the highest. Zone 2 is low-low-intensity and about 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate. People use zone training for any cardio, like running, cycling, rowing, and dancing.

Benefits of zone 2 training

While you may think you need to go hard and hit zones 4 and 5, experts generally say zone 2 cardio should make up most of your workout (with some pushes into zone 3), especially if you’re training for a distance event like a half marathon. Why? As experts have learned, “harder” does not always equal “better” results. Here’s why:

  • Base training. Zone 2 cardio is also known as “base training” because the approach is the foundation of a workout regimen.
  • You’ll get stronger over time. While zone 2 training may feel “easy” compared to an all-out sprint, remember training is a marathon (even if you’re not training for a 26.2-mile race). Initially, zone 2 cardio may mean running 12-minute miles. Over time, you’ll realize you’ll be in zone 2 even while running faster because your aerobic capacity increases.
  • Injury prevention. Going all-out all the time can increase your risk of injury, especially if you are a beginner. Slow and steady wins the race, and zone 2 cardio plays into this idea.
  • Mental boost. Whether you can take time to appreciate the endorphins or feel a sense of accomplishment that comes with shaving time off your “base pace,” zone 2 cardio can help you mentally. Moreover, the “easier” pace of zone 2 can prevent hard-and-fast burnout that comes with chronic training in zones 4 and 5.

Risks of zone 2 training

Zone 2 training is generally safe and, as we mentioned, can help lower your chances of injury. Still, anyone with underlying health conditions, especially of the heart, or who is recovering from injury should speak with a healthcare provider first. This advice is true of any workout.

Additionally, you may find zone 2 training isn’t all that great for your mental health—everyone is different. Perhaps you spend all day tracking numbers and use running or cycling to escape all that. Looking down at a device or merely thinking about how hard you’re working may stress you out. In these cases, focusing on being in zone 2 cardio may not be the best fit for you.

How to get started with zone 2 cardio

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Interested in giving zone 2 training a try? First, you’ll want to determine what zone 2 cardio means for you. You can do this one of two ways: With a device or through the perceived exertion method.

To determine your max heart rate, you’ll subtract your age from 220 (220 minus your age). Zone 2 cardio is 60% to 70% of your max heart rate. Say you’re 40 years old. 220-40=180. Your max heart rate is 180 beats per minute. For you, zone 2 cardio would be 108 to 126 beats per minute (60-70% of 180). You can track your heart rate on devices like fitness trackers — while not 100% accurate, they’re a good gauge.

You can also try the “talk test.” If you can have a conversation during your workout, you’re in zone 2. You’ll want to stay in this zone for most of your weekly training.

Summary

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Andres Ayrton / Pexels

Zone 2 training is cardio at 60% to 70% of the target heart rate. Generally, fitness experts believe people should spend most of their time in zone 2 when doing cardio, particularly when training for distance races. Zone 2 cardio helps people boost aerobic capacity to improve their times and fitness. In other words, by going “easier,” you’ll be able to go “harder” when needed — and “harder” will look faster over time. Determining what qualifies as zone 2, staying in the zone, and being patient enough with yourself as you learn to slow down can be challenging. Give yourself grace. However, you may find zone training way too stressful after a solid trial. You don’t have to focus on zones in this case. What’s important is that your workout helps you hit your personal goals, whatever they may be.

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BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on healthline.com and parents.com. In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
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