It sounds counterintuitive, we know, but if you want to become a faster runner, you probably need to slow down your pace. And we mean really slow it down.
“The easier, the better,” Nico Montañez, Mammoth Lakes-based ASICS-sponsored pro marathoner and coach with RunDoyen, tells Runner’s World.
Many athletes, when left to their own training, tend to execute all of their workouts “at an inappropriately fast pace,” Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and coach with Running Strong in Atlanta tells Runner’s World. And that means they’re not doing much (if any) training in zone 2, generally defined as a low-effort level where your heart rate averages between 60 to 70 percent of its maximum.
Zone 2 training may sound like a skippable component of training, but it’s important to prioritize since it offers a host of truly awesome benefits, including boosted blood volume and increased heart size and strength, to name a few. As Hamilton sums it up: “Basically all the things that go into what we globally refer to as ‘improved fitness’” occur with consistent zone 2 training. And improved fitness means you can tackle both longer and shorter distance races without tiring as easily, allowing you to maintain faster finish times.
Keep in mind: Though zone 2 training is defined by a specific heart rate range, you don’t need to obsessively track bpms to ensure you’re actually hitting this target. In fact, experts say to avoid placing too much emphasis on heart rate data, considering heart rate monitors can vary in accuracy. Instead, take heart rate into account alongside pace and perceived effort. If you’re logging miles significantly slower than your max effort pace, your bpms aren’t skyrocketing, and the overall exertion feels breezy, then you’re probably in the right zone.
Now that you know what zone 2 is and why it’s worth your while, here comes the hard part: Actually executing it. Like we mentioned, many runners tend to naturally push the pace, so keeping things easy is, well, easier said than done.
To help you step out of turbo mode, we tapped Hamilton and Montañez for advice on actually nailing zone 2 training. Here are the strategies worth trying.
1. Enlist a Chatty Friend
A hallmark sign of running in zone 2 is being able to carry on a conversation. Wield this fact to your advantage by scheduling runs with a friend that you can’t help but gab with as you go. The company will automatically make the workout more fun—helpful if you’re someone who considers easy running “boring”—while also keeping your pace in check.
“If you get to a point where you’re saying one word responses because you can’t breathe, you’re probably going too hard,” says Montañez. Dial your pace back accordingly so you’re able to chit-chat the entire run.
2. Chant the ABCs
Perhaps it’s not feasible to run with a buddy for every zone 2 workout. No sweat! You can still monitor your effort level with the ABCs test: Say the ABCs out loud and try to get to the letter G without having to take a breath. If you’re able to hit that mark, you’re “probably in the right zone,” says Montañez.
If it’s all but impossible,take it as a cue to slow things down. Montañez recommends testing yourself twice during a run: Once in the middle after you’ve warmed up, and again towards the end when you may be subconsciously tempted to ratchet up your speed.
3. Take Walk Breaks
Injecting your run with periodic walk breaks can be a great way to keep your effort level low. These breaks can be spontaneous—simply walk whenever you feel like your exertion is climbing beyond easy. Or, plan them out. For example, take a one-minute walk break every five minutes, says Hamilton. Just be sure to keep things light and easy during the run segments. You’re not trying to “make up for” the walk breaks by sprinting the runs, but instead are striving for an overall low-effort workout.
3. Hit the Trails
Taking your workouts off the roads and to the trails can be a simple way to execute zone 2 training. That’s because the unpredictable terrain can force you into an easier pace compared to what you’d run on a more predictable surface like a road, sidewalk, or treadmill, says Hamilton. On trails, “you’re trying not to faceplant,” she explains, and the concentration needed for that can help you subconsciously pump the brakes.
Bonus: The peaceful scenery that typically surrounds trails can set the tone for a chill pace. Hamilton often tells her athletes: “I want you to relax and enjoy the scenery around you and really take this as a ‘no agenda’ workout. Your agenda for this workout is to go have a nice pleasant trot in the woods.”
4. Schedule Treadmill Sessions
We know, we know: Treadmill runs aren’t a fan favorite, but occasionally taking your workouts there can be a surefire way to execute a slow pace, condsidering you can set the belt to a relaxed cadence and resist the urge to dial it up any further. Just avoid relying on treadmills for all your zone 2 training runs, if you can.
“I don’t particularly encourage runners to use treadmills because they’re really a simulation of running; it’s not the same as running over Mother Earth,” says Hamilton. But, she adds, they are a tool that you can have in your arsenal of workout options.
5. Stride With Someone Slower Than You
Intentionally lacing up alongside a slower runner and/or someone who is new to the sport can be a no-brainer way to tamp down your efforts. “Not only does it help you to relax, and ease the pace, what better way to build our running community than to bring someone else into it?” says Hamilton.
Of course, for this to be effective (and to avoid being a jerk), you’ll want to be respectful of your partner’s ability level. “Be willing to take walk breaks when they need a walk break or run at their pace,” says Hamilton. “Don’t push them.”
6. Commit to a Trial Period—and Track How You Feel
Having a set schedule can make it easier to adhere to consistent zone 2 training. Hamilton suggests committing to two low-effort runs a week and then paying attention to how your body responds after six weeks of consistent adherence.
Track your resting heart rate, or your average heart at a given pace, and note if/how it changed over the six weeks. Chances are, those metrics will have improved as a result of the physiological effects of zone 2 training. Taking stock of those effects may be just the motivation you need to stick with easy-effort training for the long haul.
Jenny is a Boulder, Colorado-based health and fitness journalist. She’s been freelancing for Runner’s World since 2015 and especially loves to write human interest profiles, in-depth service pieces and stories that explore the intersection of exercise and mental health. Her work has also been published by SELF, Men’s Journal, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other outlets. When she’s not running or writing, Jenny enjoys coaching youth swimming, rereading Harry Potter, and buying too many houseplants.
As a seasoned fitness enthusiast and running expert, I've not only studied the physiological aspects of running but also applied these principles in my own training and coaching. My experience spans various terrains, distances, and training methodologies. I understand the intricate balance between pushing limits and allowing for essential recovery. Now, let's delve into the concepts outlined in the article and explore the scientific foundation behind them.
1. Zone 2 Training: Zone 2 refers to a training intensity where your effort level is maintained at a low to moderate level. In this context, it's defined as a heart rate range between 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Zone 2 training offers several benefits, including enhanced blood volume, increased heart size and strength, and overall improved fitness. These adaptations contribute to better performance in both shorter and longer distance races.
2. Importance of Zone 2 Training: Zone 2 training is essential for achieving well-rounded fitness. It stimulates physiological changes that lead to improved cardiovascular endurance, making it easier to handle various race distances. The article mentions that consistent zone 2 training encompasses all the components that contribute to enhanced fitness.
3. Monitoring Zone 2: While the article suggests a specific heart rate range for Zone 2, it emphasizes the importance of not fixating solely on heart rate data. Instead, factors like pace and perceived effort should also be considered. This flexibility acknowledges the limitations and variations in heart rate monitor accuracy.
4. Strategies for Zone 2 Training:
- Chatty Friend: Engaging in conversation during runs is a practical way to gauge and maintain the appropriate pace for Zone 2 training.
- ABCs Test: An on-the-go self-assessment, where reciting the alphabet without a need for a breath indicates being in the right training zone.
- Walk Breaks: Strategic walking intervals during runs can help manage exertion levels, ensuring an overall low-effort workout.
- Trail Running: Opting for trails introduces variability in terrain, naturally moderating pace and encouraging a relaxed running style.
- Treadmill Sessions: While not a replacement for outdoor running, treadmills can be a tool for controlling pace and executing slow runs.
- Running with Slower Partners: Matching your pace with a slower running partner helps in maintaining a controlled effort and fosters a sense of community.
5. Commitment and Tracking: The article recommends committing to a set schedule of two low-effort runs per week for six weeks. Tracking metrics like resting heart rate and perceived exertion can provide tangible evidence of the positive physiological effects of consistent Zone 2 training.
In conclusion, the article provides practical insights into the often overlooked but crucial aspect of Zone 2 training for runners. By incorporating these strategies, individuals can optimize their training, improve overall fitness, and enhance their performance in various race distances.