As I mentioned in my weekly recap, I devoured most of 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald as soon as I got the book and immediately changed my 5K training plan to use 80/20 training. I’m a sucker for a research- and science-backed training method, which is one of the reasons I loved the Hansons’ method at first read. The research cited in 80/20 Running proves what seems not just unlikely but impossible: Training at a slow pace most of the time (specifically, 80% of the time) makes you stronger and faster.
The book is packed with research findings that would take forever to summarize, so if you’re interested on the actual research, get the book. It’s really interesting. Here, I want to talk specifically about training with the 80/20 rule.
You can use the 80/20 rule in any training. All you do is add the minutes (or miles) of runs below lactate threshold heart rate (low intensity) and the total miles at all intensities, and then divide the low intensity into all intensities. I applied this calculation to the Coach Jenny Advanced 5K plan I was doing, and the week I looked at was 69% low intensity. I also looked at a week in the Hansons Marathon Beginner plan with a total of 54 weekly miles. It was 44% low intensity—and that’s with three full days allocated to easy runs. Yikes.
The book includes 12 different types of runs with notes as to how much of the run is low versus high intensity. All runs are based on minutes except for standard long runs, which are based on miles. To create a training plan, you mix and match the 12 runs based on a few guidelines—follow the 80/20 rule, obviously; don’t have back-to-back higher intensity runs; build progressively; and plan in phase—base, peak, and taper. Or instead of creating your own plan, you can follow one in the book, which includes plans for three different levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) for 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon distances.
I decided to use the 5K intermediate plan from the book. But because the plan includes 7 running days and I only wanted to work up to running 6 days, I had to make adjustments. And this was the hard part. Achieving an 80/20 balance is hard! When I took out one easy running day, I had to either add easy running or take out harder running to get the right balance. While Fitzgerald says to keep to the 80/20 rule as close as possible, he acknowledges that achieving a perfect 80/20 ratio can be difficult and says 78 or 79% low intensity is okay but not really below that. Even getting close to that ratio took some doing. It took me over two hours to create my plan! There’s a key for the 12 different runs, so I constantly had to flip back and forth in the book to understand the different runs, enter them all in Final Surge, do the calculation, and then readjust to get to the 80/20 ratio.
Now that I have the plan done, I’m pretty excited! In the base phase, I’ll be running five days a week for three weeks (includes two runs with high intensity). The last week of the base phase is a step-back week, then the peak phase starts where I’ll be running 6 days a week (includes 3 runs with high intensity) for five weeks, with a step back week after two weeks. The last week of the plan is a taper week.
You can run however may days you want using the 80/20 rule, but the tricky thing is that the more hard runs you want to do, you have to add significantly more easy running. So if you only wanted to run three days a week, you’d only be able to do a small part of one of those runs at higher intensity. Fitzgerald does give an option of doing cross training instead of an easy running day, but it has to be non-impact aerobic exercises like cycling and elliptical. Fitzgerald doesn’t include strength training as cross-training, nor does he mention it at all in the book. There is, however, an article on his website that addresses strength training and how it should be fit into an 80/20 plan .
Following the 80/20 rule requires, of course, monitoring your intensity. Fitzgerald recommends a mix of three ways to do that: perceived effort, heart rate monitoring, and pace. He lists pros and cons of each method and admits that none are perfect. But if you use the three in combination, you’ll get the best result. So a run might look like this: When you first start a run and are in a low intensity zone, monitor by heart rate. Perceived effort can be inaccurate because you’re just starting. And Fitzgerald has witnessed that runners do much better with keeping below a certain heart rate rather than they do a certain pace. When you are doing high-intensity intervals, use pace. When you are transitioning from recovery after an interval, use perceived effort. The reason for both is cardiac lag—it takes a bit of time for your heart rate to register the increased or decreased effort and won’t show up right away on your watch.
All of this monitoring requires some homework to figure out your heart rate and pace ranges. The first thing you do is determine your lactate threshold heart rate, which is the border between low and high intensity and is the level at which talking becomes uncomfortable. Fitzgerald gives several ways to do this. I did a combination of the talk test and perceived effort. For the talk test, I cited the Pledge of Allegiance after increasing my pace slightly every few minutes and then checking my heart rate. The heart rate at the pace where speaking was comfortable or sort of comfortable is your lactate threshold heart rate. There’s some subjectivity in this, and I did the test two different times to double-check I had it right. I also used the perceived effort scale to better judge my lactate threshold heart rate. Fitzgerald’s 10-point scale of perceived effort is detailed and one of the best I’ve seen. There are four different levels of “easy!” It really makes you think about exactly how easy you’re going. Once I had my lactate threshold heart rate, I calculated my heart rate zones based on the formula in the book. And lastly I did a run where I ran a few minutes in each heart rate zone to calculate the associated pace. I’m going to post my heart rate and pace data separately because I want to use it as baseline to measure progress. For now I’ll just say that seeing the paces associated with the heart rate was humbling. I knew I’d slowed down, but geez! I’m slooooow. Now I understand why the paces I was trying to hit at the start of my half marathon felt so hard—they were way past my current fitness level.
I’m excited and curious to see what the next nine weeks of training yield. Whether I see improvements or not, I feel like this method totally fits me as a runner. I love my easy runs, and I love that this method proves that doing most of my running at an easy speed is actually beneficial. Even the hard efforts on this plan aren’t as stressful because the paces and heart rates I’ll be targeting are pretty slow/low due to my current fitness level. If I get nothing from this method other than enjoying my runs and having the training balanced with my life, I’ll be happy! But of course I’d be thrilled to see some kind of improvement.
What does this mean for Hansons and marathon training? I’ll see how I like this method. I’m still 100% sure I want to use Hansons for marathon training (I don’t like the 80/20 marathon plans for a few reasons that I’ll talk about later), but if this method works for me, I will probably try to apply it to the Hansons’ plan, which will likely mean less hard runs because the overall mileage is already high enough that I can’t add too much more easy running. I’ll probably also consult a Hansons coach to see if this is a good approach.
I feel like I’ve been floundering in my running life, and 80/20 is finally pointing me in a direction I’m excited and happy about!
Has anyone tried 80/20 training or know anyone who has? I searched for it and can find very few blogs of those who’ve tried it.