Train Smarter Not Harder: Why You Should Be Spending More Time In Your Zone 2

It’s the Monday after your long run, yesterday you felt like an animal! You went out, logged some serious millage, and even set some PR’s on Strava. But now you are feeling wiped out. You hide out at your desk and hope your coworkers leave you alone. You are run down and deeply fatigued, but it’s not your muscles that are killing you, what is going on?!

Train smarter not harder, we have all heard it before. But what does it really mean? In a culture of “give it all you got,” and “if their is no pain no gain,” how are we truly supposed to train? If you are an endurance athlete than it is likely you can take a punishing, that is after all what ultimately makes an endurance champion. But just because you are mental tough, and can roll with the punches doesn’t mean you should be beating your body down 24/7. With a love of the train hard, sweat hard, feel the burn aspect of running, biking, and swimming, we often neglect an even more important aspect of our training, recovery.

What is happening when we train?

When we train we tear our body down, we break down muscle fibers, we produce waste products, we go into metabolic debt. Because of this our bodies need time to recover, remove waste products and rebuild stronger than we were before. This is where the true magic of exercise happens. Without recovery we see no gains. Chances are you have heard this all before, so you may be asking what does this have to do with spending more time in your heart rate zone 2? The answer is EVERYTHING!

Did you know that elite and professional athletes spend the majority of their training time in zone 2? 80% of their time is spent in their aerobic zone 2 or lower. Compare that with most age group athletes who spend less than half of their training time in zone 2. If we aren’t training in out zone 2 than where are we training? Most adult athletes spend nearly half their training time in the dead zone, black hole training as it is often called, zone 3.

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Why is training in zone 3 a problem?

You may ask why training in zone 3 is a problem, you are pushing yourself harder than the pros on a daily bases! Let me ask you this, are you getting faster? How do you feel? Because chances are sooner or later training in this fashion will lead to burn out, injury or illness. Up to 79% of runners will be injured in a given year! If you don’t want to be in the majority it’s time to start training smarter. There are several issues with constantly training in zone 3.  These issues range from negative impact on your performance, to stressing your heart and your body.

Negative impact on your performance

Spending most of your time training in zone 3 is not an efficient strategy for peak performance. To understand why let’s talk about your energy systems. In your training you are primarily working on one of two energy system, your aerobic energy system or your anaerobic energy system. To train your aerobic system you have to be in zone two. Spending time in zone two will help you develop the physiological changes necessary to go further, faster, with better economy. The better your economy the less resource are needed to fuel your activity. This becomes very important when you are training for long course racing. Not spending enough time training your aerobic zone isn’t the only issue. When you spend all of your time training in zone 3 you are never truly recovered for your hard workouts. This means on days you are supposed to give it your all, you physically can’t. Because you are not able to push hard into that lactate threshold you fail to stress your anaerobic system to a point that induces change. Your body is already too run down from all that zone 3 training. That is why it is recommended that you spend the bulk of your time training in zone 2, about 80% by doing this you allow your body to make important adaptations while also allowing for proper recovery. This means your will be fresh and ready to drop the hammer on the days when a hard workout is required.

Negative impact on your heart

Training properly isn’t just about improved performance or preventing burnout, it is important for your health and longevity as well. There has been a lot of buzz lately about endurance racing being bad for your ticker. You may have heard many of the once great cyclists and triathletes are now having to turn in their bikes due to a condition called atrial fibrillation. This condition indicates that there has been damage to the athletes heart. This damage causes a short circuit in the nerve bundles in the heart. This faulty wiring causes an irregular heart beat that can be life threatening during intense exercises.

But wait a minute I thought exercises was supposed to be good for my heart? isn’t that why I started running in the first place? Exercises is good for you, but like a strong drug it’s all about the dose and frequency. Bringing us back to zone 2 training. Zone 2 training is a safe stimulus for your heart. You will get the benefits of exercises without placing too much demand on your ticker. It is important to remember, unlike your muscles, your heart is not wired with the nerves to tell you STOP, “I’m done.” When your quads are toast, you cramp up. and slow to a walk. Your heart on the other hand never stops working, and wont tell you when it’s time to throw in the towel, the decision is up to you! That is why it is so important to spend the majority of your time training in zone 2. Your heart is able to handle the stress, without thickening or inuring damage. Save intense training for your sprints, hill repeats, and race day

Places too much stress on your body

If protecting your heart and improving your race performance isn’t incentive enough let’s add more fuel to the fire. Training constantly at high intensity is a sure fire way to raise your cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because it is raised in response to stress. Exercises, as much as it helps us relive stress, is it’self a stressor. Too much high intensity exercises will actually leave your body more stressed than you where before your sweat session. Proper cortisol balance is important for regulating sleep and maintaining a healthy weight. When cortisol is out of whack the whole system is effected which can make you tired in the afternoon, awake, at night, and unable to lose that suborn belly fat! So if for no other reason than to look good naked it is important to train smart.

Train smarter not harder

It is easy to get wrapped up in our own ego with training. When I first came back to triathlon training after having my second child I started off slow, I didn’t use my heart rate monitor, I took walks, and I tried to build back up gradually. You can check out my Postpartum Running Tips here. As my fitness improved I began to regain that competitive spark that all triathlete have! Unfortunately I didn’t start using my heart rate monitor again for almost a year. It wasn’t until I started logging those long miles and began to feel completely drained for no apparent reason that I decided I needed a real training plan again. Training smarter not harder, I mapped out my season, brought my heart rate monitor back out and settled in to a nice zone 2 base period. I have to say what an amazing difference training the right way makes! Staying in zone 2 is both mentally challenging and humbling when you haven’t been developing that system. You have to slow down and trust the process. But the proof is in the results, I log long miles on the weekend and wake up Monday mornings with sore muscles but a great attitude and tons of energy! Exercises isn’t a punishment, it is a privilege that we get to enjoy! Make sure that you are training smart and treating that amazing machine that you get to call your body with respect.

If you need help training smarter not harder make sure to check out my Triathlon Coaching services. I offer customized coaching specifically tailored to your needs.

Do you use a heart rate monitor when you train? Are you spending the bulk of your time in zone 2? Comment below I would love to hear from you!

Looking for more #fitsperation? Check out the Fitness Health and Happiness Link Up with Jill Conyers.


  1. says

    I have a hard time using heart rate monitors, as I haven’t been able to find one that doesn’t slide down my torso. But I do agree that training in heart rate zones can be very beneficial and I try to listen to my body to determine where I’m at with my intensity. I encourage my clients to do the same. Your post is very informative.

    • says

      Sorry to hear you’ve had trouble finding heart rate strap that fits you well! I use the flexible Garmin strap which is actually really comfortable and just slides in right under my bra. That’s great that you listen to your body though, if you understand your body well and what signs to look for that is a very effective form of training as well!

  2. says

    I have no idea what these zones are you’re talking about :/ I haven’t used my HRM in over a year (I think) because I kept getting frustrated with the chest strap not wanting to always read my rate. I even sent it into Polar and they said nothing was wrong with any part of it.

    • says

      Sorry to hear HR training has been frustrating for you! Here is any easy way to work on your zone 2 training without a heart rate monitor, Keep your mouth closed during your workout and only breath through your nose. You should easily be able to breath through your nose if you are staying in your zone 2, if you find you need more air it is time to slow down.

  3. says

    Great post! I train by heart rate, but rarely do anything in Zone 3, except speed work & when I do hills on my bike. Thank you for sharing this information 🙂

    • says

      Right?! I think we need the reminder sometimes, we all get addicted to that feeling of accomplishment that comes from a tough sweat session, but we need to recover if we want to see those gains 😉

  4. says

    Timely post! I just bought a HRM for the same reasons you describe and it has really helped me managed to stay in the HR zones I need to be during my training.

  5. balancedberry says

    This is such a helpful post. While I personally am not a runner, I do think it is incredibly beneficial to understand the heart rate as it relates to fitness and training. Thanks for sharing!

  6. says

    I definitely used to be a zone 3 trainer but an injury had me reevaluating that real quick. I don’t run as often these days, but when I do I’m very careful not to overdo it.

    • says

      Giselle it’s too bad when it takes an injury to make us rethink our training but that’s great that you are training smart now!

    • says

      Haha, right?! I think we all need reminders 😉 I remember reading that the main job of a coach to an elite athlete is to reign them in and keep them from training over the edge because elite athletes are incredibly self motivated!

  7. says

    I love training in zone 2, although I do train in zone 3 a couple of days a week, I feel better when I spend most of my time in zone 2. Great info on Wh it’s so important!

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