We should all be doing more of this lighter form of exercise, according to experts.
Do you finish every cardio session looking as red as a beetroot and sweating from every pore? While getting your heart rate up close to its max has its benefits, not every session needs to be incredibly intense. Actually, training with a lower heart rate can be good for you.
That’s particularly true of ‘zone two’ cardio. “Zone two training is a form of aerobic exercise that’s loosely defined as 65-70% of someone’s maximum heart rate,” explains Richard Malpass, a personal trainer and founder of FACTR gym.
“Generally speaking, this will mean exercising with a heart rate of around 120-140 beats per minute. For most people, it will be an easy pace, a bit tougher than a warm-up but maintainable for an extended period of time.”
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What are the benefits of zone two cardio?
Like any form of exercise, zone two is packed with muscular and cardiovascular benefits.“Zone two training enhances your endurance and stamina by improving bone density and muscular adaptation while reducing the chance of injury when performed consistently over time,” says UK Athletics coach Arj Thiruchelvam.
“It is particularly effective at capillarisation, the process of increasing the number of capillaries that serve a muscle and thus improve your muscular and aerobic endurance by delivering oxygen to that area of the body.”
For Malpass, the benefits go beyond just the physical changes: “It can be a far more social activity and due to the reduced intensity it can often be less daunting. The barrier to entry for this type of workout is lower, as you are able to spend time having a chat and you won’t be too fatigued.”
Yes, it’s good for beginners, but even pros should do zone two training, says Thiruchelvam. “It’s often overlooked by runners and cyclists because it’s ‘not challenging’, but it should be an integral component of their training,” he says.
How to do zone two cardio training
First, you need to pick your workout. You can use any form of cyclical cardio, like running, cycling, rowing or even a brisk walk. Avoid HIIT or weight training as this makes your heart rate go up and down, rather than stay within one zone.
“Many people struggle to actually slow down enough to stay in zone two and their heart rate often strays above the desired rate,” says Malpass. “So when choosing a method, ensure you pick something that you are proficient at and have some element of control over the pace or intensity.”
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That might mean an indoor treadmill where you can pick the pace, but one of the joys of zone two is that it can be done with friends or without too much struggle. “The best method is the one you enjoy most; if you prefer hiking rather than an indoor bike in the gym, then that’s absolutely fine,” says Malpass.
Thiruchelvam adds: “If you are including zone two cardio as part of your training for an event, it’s best to mimic the activity, like running if you are working towards a half marathon.”
Ideally, zone two will make up the bulk of your cardio, says Thiruchelvam. “Very often it will form around 60-70% of your entire aerobic training. Faster and more intense sessions should only contribute to about 30% of your week,” he explains.
That might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to swap all of your HIIT sessions for lower-intensity movement. A brisk walk will probably get you in the heart rate zone, which most of us will already be doing daily – a reminder that your daily walk has huge health benefits.
How to measure zone two cardio
If you’re serious about keeping yourself in the zone, use a tracker. You can either measure your maximum heart rate then work out what 65-70% of it is or simply aim to keep it within the general 120-140bpm range.
If you don’t have a tracker or don’t like using them, they try the ‘talk test’. “If you can maintain a steady conversation whilst exercising, then you’re probably in zone 2, whereas if your conversation is broken up and it feels unnatural, then you may have strayed into zone 3 or above, which is more intense,” says Malpass.
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