Speed - it’s what every cyclist wants, but feverishly hammering it in every workout is a dead-end approach that often leads to burnout and slow progress. It may seem counterintuitive, but the secret to improving as a cyclist actually lies in slowing down – a lot! Welcome to the world of Zone 2 training, the maximum efficiency heart-rate range that builds your fat-burning capabilities, lets you ride all day, every day, and transforms you into a lean, mean, cycling machine.
What is Zone 2 Riding?
Zone 2 riding is defined as regular bike riding at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. In this zone, which is situated just below your lactate threshold, your body primarily uses fat for fuel (70% fat, 30% carbohydrate) and can clear lactate faster than it produces. This contrasts with the higher intensity efforts of Zones 3+ where glycogen breakdown and lactate buildup are accelerated, often leading to the dreaded ‘bonk’ if your food intake isn’t adequately managed. Continuously training in Zone 2 actually gets you used to burning more fat and then gives you a gradual increase of your fat-burning riding speed to boot.
Riding in Zone 2 feels easy – often too easy for many athletes who are used to chasing PRs and ‘smashing it’ on every ride, so they find it hard to fully grasp the benefits of it. The key is keeping your heart rate consistently in that 60-75% range and resisting the urge to push beyond it. Over time, your speed at Zone 2 will improve as fat adaptation occurs.
Weight Loss Support
If losing weight is one of your cycling goals and you’re getting excited at seeing all this talk of fat burning, then Zone 2 is your new best friend!
By riding at an intensity that prefers body fat over limited glycogen stores for fuel, long Zone 2 days teach your body to become excellent at burning fat. A 150-pound cyclist can burn upwards of 65+ grams per hour at a sustained pace just below their lactate threshold. Regular Zone 2 rides further maximize the body’s capacity to use fat for energy so as your proficiency in burning fat improves, your reliance on carbohydrates decreases saving your glycogen for the harder efforts.
More Time in the Saddle
Zone 2’s pleasurable mild effort level is the key to promoting high training volume without overtaxing the body.
Easy-to-recover-from rides allow you to safely increase weekly mileage – a key stimulus for fitness gains. Low intensity also prevents the muscle damage associated with glycogen depletion, enabling more frequent training. With Zone 2 rides, 4-5 ride days per week or more is entirely doable, with the aerobic adaptations stimulated by all that time in the saddle paying noticeable dividends in improved speed, endurance, and lactate processing capabilities over time.
Heart Health and Longevity
Studies show Zone 2 cardio activity reduces blood pressure, decreases resting heart rate, increases stroke volume and cardiac output, and protects the heart muscle itself through coronary artery dilation. The easy pace makes Zone 2 cycling highly accessible exercise for a wide range of ages and fitness levels. Even elite cyclists reap cardiovascular rewards from building their aerobic base through Zone 2 work. And notably, research links moderate intensity (not vigorous) exercise with longevity and protection against chronic illnesses.
A Stress Reliever
The mellow, fatty-acid-fueled efforts of Zone 2 provide mood-boosting benefits as well. The steady pace and physiological balance make Zone 2 a meditative, stress-relieving ride compared to intense interval sessions. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) released during aerobic activity may play a role here in regulating brain health and staving off anxiety. The intrinsic enjoyment and satisfaction cyclists experience from Zone 2’s high mileage rides shouldn’t be underestimated either, and if you’re riding in a group, the ability to maintain a pleasant conversation also brings social benefits to rides.
Putting Zone 2 to Use
Clearly, Zone 2 offers tremendous fitness-boosting potential without undue strain on the body. If you’re interested in utilising it, here’s how to incorporate it into your training:
Find Your Zone: Calculate your max heart rate (220-age) then determine your Zone 2 range (60-75% maxHR). Use a heart rate monitor to objectively guide effort. Check it with the talk test- if you’re unable to speak in full sentences to someone next to you then it means your intensity is too high.
Tracking Ride Heart Rate: You can either use a wrist-worn heart rate monitor that allows you to set alarms for different upper and lower heart rate limits, or a chest strap heart rate monitor that links to a handlebar-mounted cycle computer with a clear display that you can easily monitor. As you progress you’ll start to instinctively know your heart rate when riding, something the pros call ‘riding on feel’.
Planning: Plan your rides to ramp up to 60-80% of weekly training time to be spent in Zone 2 depending on your cycling discipline. Your sustainability will improve at the higher ranges.
Gearing: A Low Gear is Your Friend! As you ride you’ll find that Zone 2 is best achieved using low gears to enable a higher cadence, minimise fatigue, and avoid surging above heart rate zones. Smooth spinning recruits more slow twitch fibres.
Route Choice: You’ll find it easier to stay within your Zone 2 heart rate zones if your route is flat. Going up hills is liable to tip you past your 75% maxHR limit, and get you burning glycogen. If you exceed Zone 2 it can take up to 30 minutes until your body returns to Zone 2 , and I’ll effect your recovery for rides on the following days. If you live in a hilly area, consider getting a general-purpose e-bike, to ensure you stay in Zone 2. It may sound like cheating, but it’s actually a very effective way to keep within exact heart rate parameters, and even a basic e-bike can be an excellent training tool.
Adaptation Takes Time: Stay patient in the process of building your aerobic base via Zone 2. Your speed improvements will take a few months to manifest, so remember… consistency is key!
Integrate Other Workouts: Balance Zone 2 rides with HIIT, race pace efforts, sprint and hill intervals that target different energy pathways, on other days. Just limit their use to avoid overtraining - as a general rule of thumb, spend 90% of your time doing Zone 2, and 10% on speedwork when you have an established Zone 2 base.
The best cyclists understand that faster racing speeds rely first on establishing an expansive aerobic engine and fat-burning capabilities. Dedicating consistent training time to Zone 2 preparation sets you up optimally to reap all the performance, weight loss and longevity benefits that cycling offers. By slowing down now, your speed potential expands greatly.