Zone 2 training: the aerobic difference maker

This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer – Adam Willis

When it comes to any aerobic endeavour, whether running, rowing, swimming, cycling, triathlon etc you’ll always hear the term “build your aerobic base” and for good reason, your success in an aerobic endeavour is going to largely be determined by how big your aerobic base is.

The term aerobic base is well-known, however the training used to build it is often poorly executed due to training sessions being too hard, resulting in the person training in the wrong training zone and creating the wrong training stress. 

When it comes to building your aerobic base, the training required is largely going to be Zone 2 training. 

Zone 2 is the most trainable zone when it comes to developing your aerobic system. It has the highest potential for long-term aerobic development, and it has the greatest impact on increasing your Aerobic Threshold. 

Simply put, if you want to take your aerobic capabilities to a higher level, Zone 2 training is where a large majority of your training should be focused.

But before we move on and dive into Zone 2 training more, you may be thinking “what on earth is a training Zone?” so let me breakdown Zones 1-5 for you.

Zone training, or heart rate zone training, are a way to monitor how hard your training effort is, or should be, during a training session. 

There are 5 heart rate training zones, each based upon a certain intensity percentage of your maximum heart rate.

Zone 1: 50-60% of your max heart rate

Zone 2: 60-70% of your max heart rate

Zone 3: 70-80% of your max heart rate

Zone 4: 80-90% of your max heart rate

Zone 5: 90-100% of you max heart rate

Each zone creates a different training stress, and therefore different training adaptations and outcomes, so you want to ensure you’re training in the right zone for the outcome you desire to increase your training performance.

With that covered, let’s get back to energy system training and Zone 2 training.

When it comes to energy system training, it is divided into 2 focused areas, power, and capacity.

Power is the rate at which a specific energy system can produce energy.

Capacity is the duration capability of a specific energy system.

Both power and capacity are important when it comes to overall performance, however when you train them matters. You want to ensure you increase your capacity for a specific energy system first, before increasing its power capabilities. Without higher levels of capacity, your power output will always be limited by your duration capabilities.

When it comes to developing your aerobic performance, and, specifically developing its capacity, Zone 2 work should be your primary focus. 

What is Zone 2 work?

  • It’s low-moderate effort continuous aerobic training at ~60-70% of your max heart rate
  • It’s training performed below your cardiac output level, which for most people is below 150bpm, and that level will often decrease based upon age and current aerobic abilities.
  • It’s low stress training, both physically and mentally, so your ability to recover from it is much higher allowing for it to be trained more frequently each week and for longer weekly total durations.

An example of how Zone 2 is a lower stress training method:

If you run 5 miles hard with an average heart rate of 165bpm, this comes at a higher training stress cost due to the intensity based upon your heart rate in comparison to your max heart rate, and the zone you’re training in.

However, if you run those same 5 miles keeping your heart rate in Zone 2 [sub 150bpm], or 60-70% of your max heart rate, this comes at a much lower training stress cost allowing you to recover faster and therefore have greater potential to perform more of that type of training either per week, or in a session.

What are the benefits of Zone 2 work?

  • Increased aerobic efficiency and economy – If you’re more efficient you can work harder at lower heart rates.
  • Increased aerobic capacity – You’re going to build that all important aerobic base.
  • Increased Cardiac Output – This increases your heart’s ability to pump more blood per minute.
  • Increased Stroke Volume – This is a result of eccentric hypertrophy of the heart’s left ventricle. This results in more blood being pumped out of the heart per beat.
  • Decreased resting heart rate – This increases your aerobic heart rate range by “lowering the floor”.
  • Increase in Mitochondria density – Mitochondria are the aerobic power stations in each cell, more power stations allow you to train for longer or harder.
  • Increase in capillarisation – This increases the blood flow to your working muscles.
  • Increased ability to recover during and between training sessions – as recovery happens in an aerobic state, the greater your aerobic capacity, the greater your recovery capacity.
  • Increase in Slow Twitch Muscle Fibres – Increased efficiency and aerobic qualities of your slow twitch enhance your aerobic performance.

All sounds awesome, right? 

I know your next question. 

What do I need to do in my training to get these incredible benefits?

Zone 2 training guidelines

  • To maximise Zone 2 benefits, you ideally want your chosen activity to be continuous, like running, cycling, swimming etc.
  • Each session should ideally be 60-180+ minutes, again, to maximise your benefits. Obviously, ability and time available will dictate duration. If you’re new to aerobic training, or your fitness level isn’t very high, start low and build up gradually. Don’t start with a 60-minute run if you’ve not run for years, start with 20-30 minutes, and ramp up over the coming weeks and months.
  • To gain maximum benefit from Zone 2 training you want to be completing between 2-4 hours per week. Depending on your current level of aerobic fitness, and your aerobic goal needs, this may dictate if you’re on the lower or upper end of this spectrum. Ideally you want 60+ minutes of work to gain full benefit a couple of times a week, but 4x 30-minute sessions across 7 days will still see you hit the 2-hour total mark if that is what your current available time and ability allow for.
  • If you have an aerobic goal, Zone 2 work should be your priority focus for at least the first 8 weeks of a training cycle before sprinkling in harder interval work later. You want to build your aerobic capacity as big as possible, and even when you do have the harder intervals in your training you don’t abandon Zone 2 work, you just lower the total duration accumulated each week.

Zone 2 training may sound simple and easy, I mean it is just continuous activity at a low-moderate effort, but for a lot of people it can be a challenging transition from what they’re used to, especially if what they’re used to is running every single training session as hard or as fast as possible in the pursuit of faster times, further distances or just feeling tired or that they’ve “worked hard” in the training session.

Common struggles when it comes to transitioning to Zone 2 training are:

Keeping your heart rate in Zone 2

When you first transition to Zone 2 training, especially if you’re a runner, you may find yourself in a run/walk situation when you start. You will very likely have to keep slowing down and walking at times to stay in the right zone, and you’ll almost certainly have to walk up every hill you encounter. 

You must be disciplined and stick to your training objective of working in Zone 2. 

When your heart rate goes above Zone 2 don’t just say, “once I’m up the hill I’ll bring my heart rate back to the right zone” or “this feels easy at this pace, I’ll keep going even though I’m no longer in the right zone”.

Running cadence/pace

Running cadence/pace is very individual and somewhat rhythmical so you will first run at your normal pace and find your heart rate is above the desired Zone 2 effort purely due to habit. This means that you must then run slower than what you are used to, so it feels very strange and often creates a point of resistance as running no longer feels normal to you.


This goes hand in hand with the 2 points above. When your first start training in Zone 2 you feel like you’re running slowly, which you are compared to normal. 

You’ll often feel frustrated having to stop and walk or constantly slow down. 

You might be embarrassed if people see you walking instead of running or running slowly. 

You must shift away from these thoughts and leave your ego at home. 

Being focused, disciplined, and sticking to Zone 2 will allow you to run better, faster, and longer than ever before in the future.

It doesn’t feel hard. 

It being easy is literally the point of Zone 2 training, however people struggle with this. They’re used to running hard, to having tired legs, to being out of breath during and at the end of session. That is their indication of a successful training session. 

However, having those focuses and training in that manner is what is likely holding them back when it comes to developing their aerobic capabilities and ultimately running faster times or for longer distances. 

Zone 2 training is a difference-maker when it comes to taking your aerobic training to new heights. However, you must however be willing and disciplined enough to fully embrace it. 

You must let go of your ego, how you usually would train and often run or train slower than is familiar and comfortable for you if you want to maximise all the Zone 2 benefits. 

Keep it slow, low-moderate in effort and ensure that you’re accumulating close to 2-4 hours a week of Zone 2 training.

Zone 2 training will help you become an aerobic machine.

Zone 2 training: the aerobic difference maker was last modified: June 6th, 2022 by Adam Willis

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