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A beginner's guide to zone 2 running: What is it and how to start

Going at a steady pace during your workouts has a lot of benefits.

A Beginner’s Guide to Zone 2 Running | Juniper

When you think about running, what do you picture?

If it's sweat dripping from every pore, or runners barely holding themselves upright on jelly legs after a half marathon — you wouldn't be the first to find it terrifying. But according to health experts and endurance athletes, it doesn't have to be.

In fact, we have some incredible news to share: going at a steady pace during your workouts actually has a lot of benefits. There's no need to punish yourself into a sweaty oblivion.

So the next time you're thinking about going for a run (or if you're just getting started on your fitness journey), you might not need to turn the effort level up to the max. Let's take a look at how you can use zone 2 running to get the most out of your workout — without feeling like you need to be going harder than Usain Bolt.

What is zone 2 training?

Zone 2 training is a type of heart rate training. The heart rate zone refers to the intensity level of your workout — it means keeping your heart rate within a set range of beats per minute. There are 6 heart rate zones, ranging from the lowest intensity (zone 1) to the highest intensity at zone 6 [1].

Zone 2 is a low-intensity zone, where you're typically staying at about 60-70% of your maximum heart rate [2]. Each fitness zone has its benefits: zone 2 is usually where people start with their aerobic fitness exercises.

Different zones also switch up the body's fuel source, meaning that you burn a different percentage of fat, carbohydrates, or protein depending on which heart rate zone you're in [3].

What does zone 2 mean in running?

Some exercise aficionados refer to zone 2 as the 'temperate zone'.

In running terms, you'll be going at a slow pace: you should be able to get to zone 2 by doing a light jog (or walking briskly if that's more your style). It's easy running that you should be able to maintain for longer periods of time [4].

Zone 2 is also sometimes called the 'base building' zone. Because it's a lower intensity zone, it should be easier on the body to spend a little more time here — building up your aerobic capacity and 'base' level of fitness [5].

Base training is great for preventing injury by going too hard too fast. It can also help kickstart your aerobic metabolism (a fancy name for the process your body uses to extract energy from carbohydrates, fatty acids, and amino acids) [6]. But the benefits of zone 2 training don't end there.

What are the benefits of zone 2 running?

We've talked a little bit about building your aerobic base and how zone 2 training is a good place to develop fitness, but what else can it do for your overall health? There are significant benefits, including:

Improved cardiovascular health

Zone 2 training can help your whole cardiovascular system function better, improving your heart health. It does this by strengthening the heart and helping it to supply oxygen throughout the body [5].

Increased mitochondrial density

No, we're not taking you back to Biology class, but we do need to talk about mitochondria and myoglobin for just a second.

Mitochondria are super important parts of your cells — the more you have, the more energy your body can create. As for myoglobin, these little friends carry oxygen to the mitochondria and help them produce energy. Training in zone 2 helps encourage this whole process and boost your metabolic health [5].

Burn fat more efficiently

Need we say more? It might feel like common sense that the more intense exercise we do, the easier it will be to burn body fat and lose weight. But research shows this isn't always the case.

When you're exercising, your body uses different energy systems to keep going. In zone 2, the main energy source your body relies on is burning fat. Combine this with the fact that most people can stay in this zone for longer than they can the others, it makes sense it's so popular for weight loss [5].

Other health benefits

As if that weren't already enough, there are a few more benefits to zone 2 training. It:

  • Stimulates muscle growth and increases the growth of type I muscle fibres (which help your body use energy more slowly)
  • Prevents heart disease
  • Reduces recovery time from your workouts
  • Increases lactate threshold (meaning your body gets better at flushing lactic acid, reducing soreness and fatigue)
  • Lowers resting heart rate [5]
  • Improves insulin sensitivity (which is important to prevent diabetes and for health in general) [7]

How do you know if you're in zone 2?

Zone 2 can be a bit of a trickster, and many runners accidentally skip it during their training.

Running in zone 2 is about finding the sweet spot — the perfect middle ground/moderate intensity where you're training hard enough to feel it, but not so hard that you can't hold a conversation [5].

The easiest way to know if you're in the right zone is by calculating your maximum heart rate. You can do this by looking up a heart rate calculator or chart online, but we'd also recommend chatting with a health professional or certified trainer. Your maximum heart rate is usually calculated using your age, but it's really important to take any health conditions or concerns into account [1].

Once you have your maximum heart rate, remember that in zone 2 you should be operating at 60-70% of this maximum. You can monitor this with a heart rate monitor or smart device — like an Apple watch or other fitness wearable [1].

In zone 2, you should be feeling less fatigued than if you were going at a faster pace. Fun fact: Zone 3 triggers the build-up of lactic acid, which can cause muscle stiffness and fatigue. Zone 3 is great for training the upper limit of your aerobic fitness — but zone 2 has incredible benefits without the same fatigue that comes with hard workouts [5].

How long should you run in zone 2?

How long and how often you should run in zone 2 will depend on your fitness level and training goals. There's no set training program that will suit everyone; that's why it's always important to get advice before you start.

For some people, they might start off doing 30-minute zone 2 training sessions a few times per week. For people who are already used to working out at higher intensities, they might stay in zone 2 for 40-60 minutes if they have the capacity to.

The most important part of zone 2 running is sticking to the same pace. Staying consistent throughout your run will prevent you from slipping into other heart rate zones accidentally [8].

If you're building a new training plan from scratch, we recommend getting some advice about where to start.

As part of the Juniper Weight Reset Programme, you can access expert health advice and coaching whenever it's convenient for you. If you're looking for a more informal chat in between sessions with your health coach, our online community is a great place to stay motivated. No fad diets, no body shaming — just genuine care and tips to help you reach your goals.

How to incorporate zone 2 running into your training

If you've decided zone 2 running is for you, where to start when adding it to your training plan will depend on your fitness level. If you're new to exercise, or coming back to it after a break, you might want to start with some shorter sessions and build up slowly [5].

Zone 2 training doesn't always have to be a run, either. It could just be a brisk walk, a session on the treadmill, or aerobic cross-training activities like cycling or using the elliptical machine. As your fitness level grows, you'll be able to spend more time in zone 2 [5].

For those who have been doing hard training or higher-intensity workouts for a while, zone 2 training might be a little bit of an adjustment — as you learn to stay at a slower pace.

Regardless of whether you're new to running or a marathon enthusiast, doing a zone 2 workout 1-3 times a week can help with weight loss and increased aerobic capacity and cardiovascular endurance [5].

It's also important to remember that even if you decide to move on from doing all your training in zone 2, you'll still need to maintain the aerobic fitness you've built up. In a nutshell, if you do lots of zone 4 and 5 workouts throughout your week, it's still important to incorporate some zone 2 training as well [5].

Whatever your fitness or weight loss goals are, the science has our back on this one: high-intensity level workouts don't always mean the weight starts falling away. So the next time you head to the gym or go for a jog, remember: zone 2 is your friend, and your efforts are enough.

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