Low-intensity exercise methods like Zone 2 training and Maffetone (or MAF) are fantastic ways to build your aerobic base, prevent injuries, and become more efficient at burning fat for fuel. They both use your heart rate to determine how hard you should work out. And both improve mitochondrial function. But there are key differences between these two methods, as well as pros and cons of each depending on your goals and current fitness level.
Zone 2 and MAF Training Overview
Have you heard of Zone training? It refers to the process of exercising in different heart rate zones. Zone 1 is the lowest intensity (for instance, a slow walk) and 5 is the highest (think all-out sprint). Zone 2 is the second-to-lowest intensity, where you’ll work out at 60-70% of your max heart rate.
How do you figure out your max heart rate? With Zone training, you subtract your age from 220, then divide that number by 0.6 and 0.7 to find the 60-70% range. Say you’re 38 years old. You’d subtract 38 from 220 to get a max heart rate of 182 and divide it by 0.6 and 0.7 for a result of about 109 to 128 beats per minute. Working out in Zone 2 should feel fairly easy like you could hold a comfortable conversation.
The Maffetone Method uses a different formula: 180 minus your age. Using the same example, a 38-year-old would have a max heart rate of 142. That’s it — no additional percentages, and thankfully, no additional math. Since the MAF method’s formula works out to a higher heart rate (142 vs 128), this pace will feel more challenging because you’re putting in more effort to elevate your heart rate.
Which is Better: Zone 2 or MAF?
In the example above, the top threshold of your heart rate is a sizeable 14 beats-per-minute difference. The reason that’s important to note is that if you only work out at a higher heart rate, you’re missing out on a key part of your training that can improve cardiovascular function and endurance, help you get faster, and avoid plateauing.
Let’s say you go for a brisk walk and get your heart rate to 105 beats-per-minute. It’s elevated, but still nice and easy. Then you pick up the pace and start running. You’ll likely jump over your Zone 2 range and go right to your max according to the Maffetone Method formula.
Essentially, you could be creating a gap in your fitness. And that’s applicable for people who are new to exercise as well as those who have been working out for years.
Pros of Zone 2 Training
In addition to increased fat burning capabilities, improved insulin production, and decreased blood pressure (which are benefits of both Zone 2 and MAF Method training), working out at 60-70% of your max heart rate can:
- Make exercise feel easier and more enjoyable
- Help ease a return to exercise after injury
- Improve endurance for athletes who have plateaued
Cons of Zone 2 Training
Moving your body is never a bad idea. Especially when you consider 80% of Americans don’t get enough exercise. The only real downside to Zone 2 training is that you could miss out on optimizing your aerobic power if you don’t balance it with spurts of higher-intensity work. Potential cons to training exclusive in Zone 2 include:
- Lack of anaerobic tolerance
- Decreased high-speed endurance
- The challenge of keeping your heart rate low enough during exercise
Pros of Maffetone Method
As we mentioned, there are benefits to both training approaches. But there are even more pros by working out at a slightly higher intensity — for most people, that’s about a 10-15 beats-per-minute swing. Some of the benefits of MAF training are:
- Enhanced aerobic power
- Improved blood circulation
- More (good) stress on the neuromuscular system
Cons of Maffetone Method
There aren’t a lot of negatives to training the MAF way, unless you’re an experienced athlete who’s plateaued on endurance or speed, or if you’re new to exercise and are having a hard time staying consistent. Cons of MAF training include:
- Going too fast to build an aerobic base properly
- Can be challenging to stay in that range
- Could make exercise less desirable for those just starting out
Zone 2 Pro
Zone 2 Con
Feels easy and is enjoyable
Enhances aerobic power
Lack of anaerobic tolerance
Heart rate is too high to build an aerobic base
Improves blood circulation
Decreases high-speed endurance
Challenging to stay in MAF heart rate range
Creates more (good) stress on the neuromuscular system
Challenging to maintain a lower heart rate
Higher intensity could make exercise less desirable
The Best Method for Getting Fit
The 80/20 rule, also called polarized training, combines both high- and low-intensity levels. With this method, 80% of your workouts are done at a lower intensity (like Zone 2 or Maffetone Method training), and 20% are done at a high intensity.
Working out above and below your aerobic threshold allows you to benefit from improved endurance, speed, and neuromuscular conditioning — without creeping into overtraining mode or overstressing the body. It also provides a slight variation to keep your workouts fun, engaging, and challenging.
Varying your workouts prepares your body to handle different stressors and reduces your risk of injury.
For instance, you might go for a slow jog, hike, or moderately paced bike ride five days a week, do a HIIT workout one day a week, and take one day off for rest. Or mix it up and do 80% of your workout at a lower intensity and throw in some sprints at the end.
Examples of lower-intensity exercise
- Brisk walking
- Jogging or a slow run
- Cycling at a comfortable pace
- Gentle yoga
Examples of higher-intensity exercise
- Tabata workouts
- Anything labeled “HIIT workout”
- Lifting heavy weights
Zone 2 and Maffetone Method are two forms of lower-intensity training. While these heart rate-based techniques have many similarities, they have a key difference. With Zone 2 training, your heart rate will be 10-15 beats-per-minute slower than it would be with MAF training, allowing you to build a bigger aerobic base without the risk of injury or overtraining. And that can be a game-changer for seasoned athletes who aren’t progressing as well as those just beginning an exercise routine.
When you get to a place where you can keep your heart rate consistently lower, you might consider moving into MAF territory to improve your aerobic conditioning. Just remember to round out your workouts with a few higher-intensity sessions.