Zone 2 training for fun and fitness

A few years ago I joined an incredible fitness class at my gym at Chelsea Piers Fitness in Chelsea, NYC. We call it the Chelsea Kettlebell Club, or CKC for short, and its focus is on using the kettlebell for fun and fitness. You can check it out on IG if you’re interested in seeing what we’re up to.

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Great practice tonight team! #kettlebell #kettlebellworkout #CKC #playwithpurpose #fitness

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The club is led by a very knowledgeable and practical trainer Mr. Wallbrook. Mr. Wallbrook not too long ago shared a very interesting podcast with the team from The Peter Attia Drive featuring Dr. Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D, true to his standard teaching strategy of planting seeds and watching them blossom in your head. The discussion covered a lot of ground so I highly recommend it even if you’re not interested in workouts. But one of the topics they went into detail with was Heart Rate Zone Training, particularly the benefits of Zone 2 training. A few years prior I remember reading about this new training protocol in passing, but there was little scientific data and prescriptive literature at the time so I left it on the shelf, until now. The studies were evolving, but the data seemed solid with practical recommendations and I was sold.

Fast forward to the COVID19 shutdown, I get the perfect opportunity to put pedal to the metal and give it a shot. And as with most motivators for me, it started with lots of pain. As the shutdown started easing, the club organized an outdoor training meetup at a park not too far from the gym. It was great to see some familiar faces, and get some solid training in. But just as we were wrapping up it became clear that I got a little too carried away and made that fatal newbie mistake all kettlebell swingers make: royally ripped my mitts up.

ripped my mitts up

I decided this is great time to give my hands a break from the KBs and try something new while the flesh wounds healed. I whipped out my notebook and pen and sketched out the plan as blood pooled on the page. Just kidding.

First, I needed to find my starting point. The premise of Heart Rate Zone Training is that the body behaves differently at different heart rates. Knowing that I’d be targetting my zone 2, I needed to find my target heart rate, which is defined as the 73%-80% of max heart rate rage. A rule of thumb to get your max heart rate is to take your age from 220, so I ended up with 187. 73%-80% of 187 is about 138-150 beats per minute. If I stay in that range I should be golden.

Next, I needed to figure out how to stay in that range. I’m a guy who at the slightest discomfort would start to think I’m going too hard, so I needed something more substantiative. One hallmark of zone 2 training is that you should be performing with not too much effort, able to go all day as they say. So a popular recommendation to keep yourself in the zone is the talk test - as long as you can keep a smooth convo going without struggling to get the words out you’re nailing it. I’m not much of a talker, so that’s a no-go. Instead, I decided to throw some money at the problem and buy a heart rate monitor. The Wyze band was available for $25 so I went with that. It’s a piece of shit but when it does work, it does the job.

Now its time to decide on the workout to use. I chose running mostly because I wanted to get outside as much as possible and take advantage of the great weather that was finally coming about. Masking up while outdoors would not pose a problem exactly because I knew if I had a hard time breathing I needed to slow down to get back into my zone. It was as if it was all meant to be.

At this point it was tempting to start mapping the run, but I decided against it. As a beginner, I figured I’d just give it an arbitrary shot and see how I felt the first few times. So I set out one evening (which is when I usually do my KB workouts) starting from the Queens Botanical Park nearby, looping around the unisphere in the Flushing Meadows Corona Park and back. This is what it looked like to the HR monitor:

first run

Super slow pace and still redlining the heart rate. Its a great start I think, only room for improvement. I commit to 2-3 weeks of this while my hands heal and started setting some goals:

  1. Keep a steady Zone 2 HR for 20-40 minutes
  2. Smooth controlled breathing throughout
  3. Minimal rests
  4. Start with 2 mile runs, then work up to 4 and 6 mile runs

It took a few more attempts, but soon I was hitting 2 miles with a comfortable pace and smooth breathing. One thing I quickly learned was that eventhough zone 2 training may look like a walk in the park, its actually a full workout, and thus require following all the practices that go with any workout:

  1. Roll out and stretch before
  2. Drink enough water, get enough rest
  3. Give yourself enough time to recover

Another interesting observation was that the workout was very meditative. I necessarily needed to keep an eye on my breathing all the while to make sure I was in my limits. I quickly noticed that slight variations in posture, and movement resulted in falling out of the zone, hence I had to maintain a calm awareness of myself all the while. I also had to be keenly aware at every stride about my environment: the effect of wind and incline on my drag; the sun’s heat easily burnt me out I learned, prompting me to head out earlier and earlier in the morning; and running through crowds blocking paths in the park (wag of my finger to them for breaking social distancing rules) is an easy way to slip into a higher gear. Importantly, maintaining steady focus on the present activity was crtical to an effective zone 2 run for me, which I thought was great additional mental training.

And now here is where I’m at 4 weeks in:

first run

My hands are healed, and I’m now pairing a light 100-swing KB workout on Monday-Wednesday-Fridays with a ~4 mile run. For some reason my HR seems well above the Zone 2 threshold, but my breathing and general feeling is like taking a light walk. My hypothesis is that my max HR actually went up and hence my zone 2 range but I’ll need to verify this somehow. At this point I’m considering moving up to 6 miles and looking for a jump in HR. However at the moment it seems like beginners growing pains have kicked in and my shins are now shot. Two weeks ago my thighs were extremely sore but that passed after more attention to stretching and rolling out throughout the day. I’m hoping for a similar resolution with my shins soon.

It’s way too early to see any physical rewards but I do much feel more nimble and confident taking on longer routes as a beginner runner starting with zone 2 training. But more importantly I’m extremely grateful for everything I’ve learned, including practicing paying attention and listening to my body during training. I’ll definitely be taking this experience to every other workout.

I hope this post encourages you to at least learn about the benefits of Zone 2 training, and maybe try some experiments of your own. Share your thoughts and lets swap tales in the Twitter post below: