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Why is it so hard to keep my heart rate in Zone 2?

noun_343728_ccZone 2 training is something I get asked about quite often. You may have heard us talk about it in the quick tip segment of MTA podcast episode 178.

Many people find that they have to slow way down or even add walking intervals to keep their heart rate in Zone 2.

This can be frustrating but it reflects the state of your aerobic system and the fact that a better endurance base needs to be built. So give it time!

3-6 Months

With regular Zone 2 training your speed will start to increase while keeping your heart rate down. But this process can take 3-6 months (depending on your starting point) so it’s important to have patience.

After this 3-6 month period when the progress you’ve made in Zone 2 has reached a plateau you can add in speed work again while keeping your easy runs in Zone 2 (similar to using the 80/20 method of easy/hard training).

The Maffetone Calculation

If you’re interested in using Zone 2 training it’s important to figure out what your Zone 2 numbers are because there are a variety of metrics out there.

The most accurate is getting a V02 max test done in an exercise laboratory. However, you can get a decent estimate by using the Maffetone calculation of 180-age= upper number of Zone 2.

To read more about the Maffetone method including the rationale behind it and frequently asked questions see www.philmaffetone.com/180-formula/

If you have a Garmin watch you may notice that Zone 3 there correlates more closely to Maffetone Zone 2.

Wearing a heart rate monitor and using heart rate training gives us information on how our body is functioning while running so that we can adjust the intensity accordingly to develop better cardiovascular endurance.

Simply put, a healthy aerobic system helps us run more effectively. Signs of a poor aerobic system can include higher body fat, performance plateaus, injuries, fatigue, and less than ideal health.

I wrote a much longer blog post about heart rate training in the past for those who want to dig deeper.

photo credit: Charlotte Vogel from Noun Project

26 Responses to Why is it so hard to keep my heart rate in Zone 2?

  1. Lewis Van Atta May 15, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

    One problem I have always had with Maffetone’s method: we always hear that we shouldn’t use 220 minus your age for a max heartrate guideline; BUT….Maffetone says use 180 minus your age for a guideline instead. Aren’t we trying to shoehorn individuals with different needs into the same formula in either case?

    (Plus from a scientific viewpoint, it just bugs me that Maffetone has never published his results in a peer-reviewed journal. He may well be on to something, it merely bugs me that he hasn’t published).

    Can you help me understand? 🙂

  2. Angie Spencer May 16, 2016 at 8:24 am #

    Hi Lewis, Thanks for the great comment and question. You’re absolutely right that 180 isn’t a magic number that is accurate in every case. That’s why there are a list of exceptions on how to modify that number to make it fit the individual better (https://philmaffetone.com/180-formula/). And since this method hasn’t been peer reviewed and published yet I’d say that MAF is more of an art than a science. However it is based on his research on athletes for over 40 years. He states, “The use of the number 180 is not significant other than as a means to finding the end heart rate. Plus, 180 minus age itself is not a meaningful number; for example, it is not associated with VO2max, lactate threshold, or other traditional measurements.” It kind of reminds me of calculations for BMI (body mass index) which don’t take things like muscle mass into consideration. It just tracks the ratio between weight and height. Interestingly, over on Maffetone’s website it looks like they are soliciting MAF results from people who have used this training method for 6 months. So hopefully in the near future we’ll see something published on this.

  3. Lewis Van Atta May 16, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    Thank you! I’ve listened and googled a little on this topic, but your answer is one the best and well-reasoned ones that I’ve seen.

  4. Chloe Allen Maycock May 21, 2016 at 12:06 am #

    Angie- I have been listening to yours and Trevor’s podcast and really love it. I’m a big believer in MAF training. Over the past two years, I have improved my pace at MAF heart rate by almost 2 minutes. I’m hoping that all of my slow miles will give me the endurance I need for a BQ! I infuse speed into my schedule as well, but the MAF training has made the biggest difference for me as a runner. Headed to Cancale France next Friday for a half marathon. If you want a report of that run (I’m doing it as a duomarathon with my friend, who is running the second half of our relay) I’d be happy to report afterwards. Thank you again for your podcast!

    • Angie Spencer May 21, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

      Thanks for the comment and for being a listener Chloe! It’s awesome to hear how effective MAF training has been for you. I’d love to hear how you’re upcoming half goes. Good luck!

  5. Jonathan May 23, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

    Hi guys,

    I enjoy your podcast and have been listening for about 10 months. Thanks.

    I started MAF in July last year and believe 100% in Phills work, I have listened to a lot of his interviews and he just makes a lot of sense. I have gone HFLC since January this year.

    My issue is, when I was training for a marathon in August/September last year and doing MAF i ended up injuring myself (DNS) as I have found to run at a peace to keep MAF I seem to loose form. No matter how much I try I seem to get floppy in the hips and that’s what caused my problem. Bad form. When I go harder my form stays tight. My MAF is 139 but to stop the pain I was getting in my leg (nerve pain) I end up running around 150-158. Do you have any tips as I really want to master MAF. thanks.

    • Angie Spencer May 23, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

      Hi Jonathan. I’m glad that you’ve been enjoying the podcast. It’s great to hear that you’ve been working on MAF and eating HFLC. But you’re absolutely right that keeping relaxed form while running slower is a challenge. One thing that you might want to work on is keeping your cadence higher with shorter strides so that your feet land under your hips. You can practice a higher cadence by running in place to a metronome set at 180 beats per minute. If your heart rate gets too high with a higher cadence you can build in regular walking intervals so that at least when you’re running your form is good. Another very helpful thing would be to add (or increase) the amount of core and hip strengthening exercises that you’re doing. Many runners are weak through the core muscles (especially glutes) and that can equal poor running form, pain and eventually injury. Good luck!

  6. Jonathan May 23, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks Angie. The run walk is a tip I haven’t really tried so will work on that. My cadence is between 180 and 184 consistently, forefoot strike under hips and I do Body Balance 2-3 times per week, TRX once and a Physio routine 30 minutes per day (working in trigger point, knee outs, squats and running men, then hip thrusters and pistol squats… My hips and glutes are getting much better now. Thanks again.

  7. Crystal Day March 30, 2018 at 7:46 am #

    “If you have a Garmin watch you may notice that Zone 3 there correlates more closely to Maffetone Zone 2.”. This is nowhere near the truth for me. Zone 3 on my Garmin is a 30 bpm above my Maffetone zone 2. Zone 1 on my Garmin correlates to my Zone 2 Maffetone.

    • Angie Spencer March 30, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

      You’re absolutely right Crystal. Each person’s heart rate metrics are unique so it’s important to figure them out personally so that you’re nailing those easy/recovery runs.

  8. rani sofyan June 7, 2018 at 12:35 am #

    what is the zone 2 training???

  9. Jon Marshall June 29, 2019 at 8:24 am #

    This is great perspective. I recently bought a Polar M430, which has a built-in monitor like most running watches nowadays, and figured I’d try out their heart-rate-based programs. I quickly found that, despite being able to run comfortably at a 9-10 minute pace for long periods, I couldn’t even jog for any length of time without flying out of Zone 2. It was essentially jog for 1 minute, walk for 2, and avoid running in any kind of heat.

    But after reading this, I’m going to stick with it and see what happens after 3-6 months like you’ve suggested.

    • Angie Spencer June 30, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      Hey Jon, Trying to stay in Zone 2 can definitely be very eye opening. It’s amazing how factors like heat and hills can bump the heart rate up quickly. If nothing else doing zone 2 training (especially for easy runs) brings a new awareness to your running as you see how your body responds. Good luck!

    • craig July 25, 2019 at 3:57 pm #

      Jon,

      I’m experiencing the same exact thing. I’ve been running for about 10 years, nothing formal, never any training, just go out and run. I’m 40 and up until today, have been running 3-4 miles 3x a week at 8:30-9:00/mi with my average HR around 175-182. I’m tired, but I feel good if that makes sense. Today, I tried my first Z2 “run” and holy smokes. I did my usual 5k and had to walk most of it. My avg. pace at the end was 14:30/mi and half of the “run” was in Z3 while half was in Z2.

      I cannot understand how I can sustain 175-180 for 30 minutes but have to walk to keep my HR below 135. Am I that bad of shape???

      Totally clueless and frustrated.

      • Angie Spencer July 26, 2019 at 3:47 pm #

        Hey Craig,

        I think anyone who has ever tried Zone 2 training has experienced this exact frustration. I remember having to walk large portions of my miles to keep my heart Z2 as well. It can be very humbling to realize that your endurance base isn’t quite as strong as you want it to be. Often the higher heart rates during normal runs can be an indication of under recovery or other stressors in life (things like caffeine intake, food, sleep, job, family, other workouts, age, hormones, weather, etc are all in play). A great book to read that talks about this topic (and others) is Run For Your Life by Dr. Mark Cucuzzella.

  10. Martin E Rheaume July 10, 2019 at 11:58 am #

    I’m trying to figure out what I should use as my Zone 2 ceiling because my MAF number is so much lower than the number I get from the 80/20 calculator.

    My MAF number is 142 (180 – 38). Whereas, my number based on my lactate threshold test is 157 (LTHR of 175 based on 30 minute time trial multiplied by .9). I’m having a hard time figuring out which one I should use so I’ve kind of been bouncing back and forth the last couple of years.

    Do you have any opinions on that?

    • Angie Spencer July 12, 2019 at 4:10 pm #

      Hey Martin,

      Great question! It can be confusing to figure out which metric to use for your “easy” or Zone 2 calculation. From the research I’ve done it seems like MAF is the most conservative in that the heart rate numbers are lower. Runners often struggle to keep their heart rates within the MAF zone so it’s something that should definitely be approached with patience (if you choose to stick with those numbers).

      I used MAF for 3 months to increase my cardiovascular endurance a few years ago and noticed great results (although I found that I had to throw in more walk intervals, especially in the heat and on hilly routes). After that strict period of MAF I transitioned to using those HR numbers only for easy runs.

      Based on my observations it seems like most runners do their easy runs too fast so applying the MAF numbers can be a great way to slow down and truly give the body more of a break. That’s why I’ve stuck with the MAF calculations for myself and have recommended this metric to coaching clients. Hope that helps!

  11. Steeve T July 24, 2019 at 4:13 pm #

    Is my ave. bpm must be in zone 2 or my entire run?

    • Angie Spencer July 25, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

      The goal would be to keep your heart rate in Zone 2 the entire run.

  12. Daisy July 30, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    Hi Angie, I just started paying more attention to my heart rate lately and noticed that my heart rate is relatively very high during runs. I am never in zone 2 (Garmin watch) even when I just go for a casual run. Using the MAF seems a little difficult for me, because I am training for a Marathon in October and don’t have too much time. I ran a half marathon race two weeks ago and my average HR was 180 and the max was 196. It seemed very high however I did not feel too hard when I ran. But I am concerned if I can keep my HR at 180 for almost five hours for that Marathon.
    So when I only have 2.5 months training time for a Marathon, how should I adjust my high heart rate? Is it normal to have such high HR? Wondering if I should go see a doctor to have it checked?

    Thank you so much for your suggestions in advance! 🙂

    • Angie Spencer July 31, 2019 at 11:33 am #

      Hi Daisy, Great questions! It’s definitely wise to be paying attention to your heart rate so that you’re not causing undue stress. A couple things that could be causing a higher heart rate include possibly faulty readings (if you’re using a wrist based heart rate monitor this can sometimes be off). Another possibility is that you’re running too fast for long distance efforts (you may want to gauge your effort level as well). With Garmin watches the “easy” or MAF zone 2 calculations often range up into the middle of zone 3. When I do the MAF calculation my easy zone is 130-140 beats per minute (because I’m 40 years old) and this corresponds up to the middle of Zone 3 on my Garmin watch. It’s also a good idea to get regular physicals through your healthcare provider and see if they have any reasons for concern about your cardiovascular functioning. They may choose to order a stress test to see what healthy heart rate zones are for you.

  13. Andrew M Spence September 11, 2019 at 11:37 am #

    So I’ve been running semi-regularly off and on for around 7-8 years. After a really disappointing race this year where I ended up walking much of the last 10km and finished with 4hr 9min, I took a long hard look at my training and realised just how similar in HR and pace a lot of my runs tended to be. I decided to give Maffetone/Zone 2 a go- I started just doing 45mins to an hour, twice a week, alongside two shorter runs in zone 4/5 (one hilly, one flat and sprinting). The zone 2 runs were the hardest, and like others in this thread, I barely managed more than a walk before my HR shot up. But week on week, I’ve increased the distance, and after 4-6 weeks I finally started to see my speed increase too. After 8 weeks, I’ve gone from running 5-6 miles with a pace of 12-13min/miles, to running 13+miles with a pace of 10-11min/miles.

    I have a marathon in just over 5 weeks, so ill keep you posted on what (if any) effect the training has had!

    • Angie Spencer September 13, 2019 at 12:12 pm #

      Hey Andrew, thanks for sharing your experience with Zone 2 training. It sounds like taking the time to focus on endurance has really paid off in terms of your pace. Best of luck with your upcoming marathon!! Be sure and let us know how it goes 🙂

  14. Jeff October 10, 2019 at 5:25 pm #

    So I’ve just started with my MAF runs and I’ve done 5 four mile run. My high end HR is 127, so what I’ve been trying to do is “run” up to the 127 and then walk it back down to about 110. By doing that I can get maybe 50 feet of very slow running before I’m at 127 again. The problem is if I do that it goes over 127 almost every time. One of these 5 runs I decided to walk the whole time and not only was it easier to keep my HR under 127 but I actually finished 90 seconds faster than any of the runs that had actual running in them. Would it be better to just walk for now? I want to believe in this method and give it a shot but I’m torn because I can run 50k and 50 mile trail runs and cardio is never the reason those distances suck, it’s body pain.

    Thanks

    • Angie Spencer October 15, 2019 at 11:39 am #

      Hey Jeff, Good question! If you’re serious about giving MAF training a go then I’d recommend keeping your HR within Zone 2 for all your training for at least 3 months. Like you found out it’s often better to stick to walking if that’s what allows you to stay in that zone most consistently. You’ll still be getting the endurance benefit and should start to see a positive change. Good luck!

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