How Non-Athletes Can Benefit from Training Zones
An enjoyable way you can get the most out of exercise — it involves humming.
Bio-hackers and influencers, baring their abs, entreat us to do high-intensity interval training, also known as HIIT. If it has worked for them, it will work for you. If it is not working, you are not doing it properly, or you are not committed enough. Maybe you need to buy their supplement?
Why You Need to Know About Training Zones
Exercise is a stress that the body responds to by adapting. If the stress is too great the body’s ability to adapt may be insufficient, leading to fatigue, injury, and inflammation. If the stress is insufficient, adaption does not occur. For optimal adaption, you want the stress to be at just the right level. For most of us, the optimal stress is exercising in Zone 2.
For most non-athletes, the adaptions we seek from exercise are fat loss and health. For these goals, we want our bodies to get efficient at using stored food (fat) as fuel. The wonderful little organelles that convert stored food into fuel are the mitochondria. Most cells in the body have hundreds of mitochondria working tirelessly for us.
Zone 2 is where your mitochondria are happily using oxygen to churn out energy from your food stores. Once the oxygen levels drop, as in anaerobic exercise, the energy production becomes inefficient and extra damage to cell structures occurs. Inigo San Millan, Ph.D. suggests that enhancing mitochondrial health starts with Zone 2 training.
The science behind Zone 2 training is based on the work of the Dr Philip Maffetone who developed what he calls the Maximum Aerobic Function. This is where the body is burning fat and improving aerobic capacity. He has used this method to improve health and performance in athletes and non-athletes alike.
Perception and The Dead Zone
Zone 3 is the dead zone where you are likely to exert the most stress for the least adaption.
You don’t need to know about the other training zones with one important caveat, Zone 3. If you stray into Zone 3 too often, you may end up injured and discouraged. Zone 3 is the dead zone where you are likely to exert the most stress for the least adaption; a grey zone that delivers little value for increased effort.
Zones 3 to 6 are used judiciously by those who aim to progress their training and have a good understanding of training loads, energy supply, and recovery requirements. HIIT which usually takes you into Zone 4 through to 6, is often unsustainable for the average person. It hurts and it requires a lot of motivation. I have also seen clients in whom HIIT was counterproductive and caused harm.
Training zones correlate with “Rate of Perceived Exertion” or RPE. RPE is based on the Borg scale and has been adapted as a method of determining intensity and stress during exercise. RPE is accurate without the need to be hooked up to a variety of machines and having blood drawn while running on a treadmill.
Zone 2 is perceived as easy and can be continued for hours. Prof. Grant Schofield, a researcher at the School of Sport and Recreation, AUT, explains training zones in his book, What The Fat? Sports Performance. The table below is based on his work.
Easily Getting to Know Your Training Zones
The only measure you need is your voice. The talk test is considered a valid measure of exertion. To check you are in Zone 2 you should be able to speak comfortably rather than freely. You should feel that you are about to get short of breath but you are not quite there yet.
A second way of knowing whether you are in Zone 2 is to monitor your heart rate. In Zone 2 your heart rate should be between 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. You can assess this using an exhaustive exercise test. Not fun. Thankfully, online calculators can do a decent job of assessing this for you. I have found that this calculator most closely matches the results of my exhaustive exercise test.
I have been exercising in Zone 2 for two years, gently running on a track that meanders alongside a river. My overall fitness has improved and I have noticed that my excess energy stores are diminishing.
I usually monitor my heart rate. This is now less necessary as I have become aware of what it feels like to be in Zone 2. I have found that I am in Zone 2 when I can hum out-loud. Disturbingly, the tune that usually pops into my head is Baby Shark. At least it has a good rhythm!
Just Do It — While Humming
While the results of Zone 2 training take time, the risks are low and the side-benefits include increasing your musical repertoire!
Optimal adaption for health and fat-loss requires optimal stress. We may feel that we are not doing enough unless we sweat and puff our way to exhaustion. However, if your goals are health, resilience, and weight loss, then long and slow is where it is at.