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How to Run in Zone 2

How to Run in Zone 2 Without Feeling Like You are Banging Your Head Against a Wall

breathing improving running economy running economy running pace training training smarts Jul 07, 2024

Zone 2 training has been a hot topic this past year. And for good reason, there are significant benefits for building volume with zone 2…. But for some (or most) it can feel like you are banging your head against the wall when you first start! Here I’ll take you through my 4 steps to help you run in zone 2 without feeling like you are banging your head against a wall.


Benefits of Zone 2 Training 

At the heart of it, pun intended, zone 2 training improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system. With time spent* in zone 2 training:

  • Your heart gets stronger, increasing the amount of blood it can pump with each beat. Keeping your heart rate lower overall.
  • Capillary density increases, getting the blood to your muscles more efficiently.
  • Blood plasma increases over time increasing stroke volume, oxygen transport, and therefore VO2max.
  • Mitochondrial density in your muscles increases, increasing the amount of energy your muscle can produce.
  • Your metabolic flexibility increases. Training in zone 2 uses different metabolic pathways then harder efforts. When you run in zone 2 mixed with harder efforts you are giving your body more options for energy production.


Zone 2 training also allows you to build run volume with less stress on the body overall, saving your energy for those harder run workouts with their own sets of physiological benefits.


*Time spent being important here too. Changes don’t happen overnight. They happen over TIME with patience and consistency.

Steps to Run in Zone 2 (without feeling like you are banging your head against the wall!)

Running in zone 2 isn’t as easy as it sounds. Then the main advice you get when you feel like you are about to pull out your hair or just throw in the towel is “just run slower.”


For me it’s more of a yes… AND…


These steps will help you ease your way into zone 2 in a way that feels a lot more doable in my experience.


Step 1:

Don’t go by heart rate at all at first. Start by controlling your breathing.


In Zone 2, you should be able to breathe normally and naturally. That means predominately through your nose.


Build up to being able to run 30 minutes straight through your nose only before you even begin to track heart rate (the heart rate will stay close by default). You will likely have to start with run:walk intervals at first.


This will keep you out of your head and in your body. Getting in your head about the numbers and your watch beep at you to tell you are “out of range” is the hardest part about zone 2 running in my experience.


More on mastering that nasal breathing only (and improving your CO2 tolerance and oxygen efficiency along the way) here.

Step 2:

Find your REAL zone 2 (or close to it as possible).


2a: Find your HRM

Most devices use the outdated equation 220 - age to determine your maximum heart rate (HRM) and then your Zone 2 is based on that. This equation might not be accurate for you. Especially if it underestimates your HRM, you feel like you are banging your head against the wall trying to stay in zone 2.


The gold standard of course being the true laboratory VO2max test, however the following self tests can get you a fairly close estimate. Of course, using a chest strap heart rate monitor is a lot more accurate, but you can sometimes get a decent idea using a wristwatch. 


1 mile Time Trial

Warm up easy for about 10 minutes. Start the mile time trial at your ST or 10k pace. With one lap (or 400 meter remaining), begin increasing your pace, getting faster and faster so that you are close to and all out sprint for the last 100 meters.


The highest heart rate reached in that last lap will be your max heart rate. 


800 Meter Repeats

Warm up easy for about 10 minutes. Then run TWO all-out 800-meter repeats, resting by walking for 5 minutes between.


Your heart rate at the end of the 2nd repeat should be very close to your max heart rate.


5k Race

A race may also be a good option to consider because you are more inclined to push hard especially at the end.


The race strategy matters here for the accuracy of the test. You want to pace yourself enough that you have a strong finishing kick! In the last 2/3 of a mile (~1k), begin increasing your pace, getting faster and faster so that you are close to all out for the last 200 meters.


2b: Find your Zone 2


I prefer to use the Karvonen Formula which takes into account your resting heart rate (RHR) and maximum heart rate (HRM).


Target Heart Rate Intensity Zone = ((HRM − RHR) × %Intensity) + RHR


The low end of Zone 2 =  ((HRM − RHR) × 0.6) + RHR

The high end of Zone 2 =  ((HRM − RHR) × 0.7) + RHR

Step 3: 

Give Yourself a Buffer


Instead of setting your Zone 2 as 60% - 70%, widen the zone to 60% - 75%. As you get better at staying in that range, lower it back to 70%.


In other words, start at the high end of zone 2 =  ((HRM − RHR) × 0.75) + RHR to give you a little buffer at first, and then slowly creep it back down.


Step 4:

Use your breathing to help you stay in the zone.


Remember, in Zone 2, you should be able to breathe normally and naturally. That means predominately through your nose. If/when you get to that top end of zone 2, you can switch to a cyclic breathing pattern (in the nose and out the mouth) for a few breaths. This will offload a bit more CO2 and help keep your breathing rate and heart rate in check.


This idea comes from Shift/Adapt and their “Breathing Gear System.”


Other Factors That Affect Running in Zone 2 

Obviously, a big key to zone 2 is to SLOW DOWN. Especially in the summer heat and humidity, your zone 2 pace can decrease by 30s or even 2 minutes!


Stay hydrated! Even a small decrease in hydration can decrease your blood volume, requiring your heart rate to pick up to meet oxygen demands.


Remember, walk breaks are ok too!


Starting Zone 2 training in the summer can definitely feel like a “why bother” situation, but laying these foundations now can set you up for a fast fall!


Next on your reading list:

Breathe Easy: How to Train Your Lungs for a Better Running Experience

How to Set Your Running and Strength Training Weekly Schedule

Glutes And Pelvic Floor, How to Load Better, Improve Rotation, Run with Less Pain


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