Sometimes you need to ride slow to be fast.

For cyclists, the discipline of slowing down for an extended training period adds three important tools to your arsenal:

  1. Better aerobic capacity and top-end speed, so you can smash the climbs and rock the sprints
  2. Endurance, so you have strength at the end of long rides and races
  3. Protection against overuse injuries, because this is a lifetime sport.

Zone 2 training could be the component you need to reach your next performance level. Zone 2 is a shorthand term that means training within a specific band of moderate intensity. Zone 2 training maintains a workload that teaches the body to efficiently utilize oxygen for energy production. The effort is typically measured by Heart Rate (HR) or Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Zone 2 is typically defined as exercising with a heart rate (HR) between 60-70% of your maximum, or power output that is 55%-75% of your FTP (the highest average power you can sustain for an hour, measured in watts).

Here is a heart rate calculator to help you find your zones based on age and your max heart rate. Take this with a grain of salt, as heart rate can vary by individual, age, fitness, fatigue, altitude, stress, heat exhaustion, and other factors (this is why power is a better measure).

Attaining these benefits takes months of accumulated effort. Fall and Winter are prime times to accumulate base miles at a sustainable intensity. This allows your body to take a break from hard rides and reset for the next season.

How to Ride Zone 2: The Numbers

Structured, Zone 2 training requires riding at a steady power over time regardless of terrain – flats, climbs, rollers, even down hill. Avoid big surges in power such as might occur during a hard paceline, sprinting to beat a red light, or chasing people up climbs. Continual surges will push you beyond your Zone 2 training pace. That can have negative effects on your ability to recover, and put in long hours on the bike, especially if you’ve had a long season racing.

The challenge of using heart rate alone is that a 5 or 10 second sprint won’t reflect your real-time effort. A power meter provides more immediate and accurate feedback to help you maintain Zone 2.

How to Ride Zone 2: The Mindset

Incorporating Zone 2 into a group ride can be tricky. It’s easy to get caught up in the adrenalin of a group ride – blowing your Zone 2 bliss right out the window. Riding with a group during base season means you must be willing to get dropped when others are chasing their Strava PRs and you are climbing in Zone 2.  It can be challenging to be disciplined enough to ride at a Zone 2 pace for hours.

If you want to mix Zone 2 with a group ride, as a courtesy to other riders, set expectations in the ride invitation, so your objective is clear. This will help them understand why you aren’t smashing up climbs, or pulling through during a paceline.

How to Ride Zone 2: How Long?

How long should you spend in the base period? It varies by rider and individual goals, but don’t plan on sprinting or making hard efforts for a month or two. Remember, riding base miles in Zone 2 doesn’t mean noodling or riding junk miles; you can only build base if you’re riding in base Zone 2, and accumulating a high volume of miles each week. Ride a Zone 2 workout three or four times a week at the beginning of your season – presumably November and December. If you must, include one (1) moderately hard ride, like a group ride, but do not exceed low to mid Zone 3.

Benefit: Improved Cardiovascular Fitness

Zone 2 training strengthens your heart and increases cardiovascular efficiency. This zone provides a balance between intensity and duration (time in the saddle), making it ideal for building aerobic foundation. Constructing a wide base will ultimately let you build a higher top end – when it’s time to ride fast.

Benefit: Improved Physical Stamina

One primary benefit of Zone 2 training is the improvement of mitochondrial functions which enhance the muscles’ ability to produce energy aerobically. Training in Zone 2 can also raise your lactate threshold, delaying the onset of muscle fatigue.

Benefit: Fat metabolism

When riding in Zone 2, your body burns fat as its primary energy source which helps with weight management. Additionally, this method helps prevent overtraining, reducing the risk of injury and burnout by allowing for sufficient recovery between more intense workouts.

Will Riding at Zone 2 Make You Lose Fitness?

Yes and No. Remember, Zone 2 is about building a strong base and resetting your body. Building base might diminish your ability to ride at high intensity (just as riding at high intensity erodes base) in the short run, but don’t worry, it’s not gone. Once you start working on your higher zones, your high-end fitness will return.

Many professionals will take off October, and even some of November once their race season is finished. Some pros don’t even touch their bikes, instead preferring to hike, run, mountain bike, or swim. This break provides both a mental break and a physical reset that is needed for your mind and body to avoid burn-out and overtraining. When pro riders return to training, pro athletes rebuild base through copious miles of Zone 2 over the two months leading to race season.

When your base season is over, you can add structured interval training, and a few group rides, to work other zones to build back your upper zones. By adding top zones to a solid base, you’ll perform better than if you only worked on your top zones with no base work at all.

Written & Edited by Aaron Terrazas & Scott McKinney