After I read Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running book, I decided to try it out by using a 5K training plan in the book. Overall, I loved the training but found it challenging in ways I hadn’t considered. Following is my review, and in case you missed them, my earlier posts on the method.
What I Liked
All the Easy Runs
I know some runners struggle with slowing down their paces. In the book, Fitzgerald acknowledges it’s hard for most runners. One of the reasons is that most runners want to just get their miles in and get on with their lives so try to do their runs as fast as they can. Another reason is that most runners believe their moderate pace is their easy pace. While having enough time is an issue for me, I have no problem with slowing down. My early-morning easy runs provide me-time to be alone with my thoughts and appreciate the sights and sounds of the city before it roars to life. These easy runs are usually meditative and relaxing and help me stay sane during very busy workdays.
I’m firmly convinced one of the reasons I struggled with the Hansons’ advanced half marathon plan last winter was because I immediately jumped into hard workouts without much of a base buildup and only a month after my first marathon. And when I started my new job that added more working hours, 3.1 extra daily miles for an active commute walking or biking, and all the stress of a new job, I crumbled. I just couldn’t handle the training and quit. With 80/20 training, the hard workouts didn’t tax me like the Hansons’ workouts because they were cushioned with so much easy running to recover. I’m not sure if it’s the new job or the fact that I’m getting older or both, but my body greatly appreciated all the recovery that’s part of 80/20 running.
I liked running by time instead of by miles because it was easy to plan the runs into my work schedule. I knew I’d be able to fit in my run and still be at work on time, and I didn’t feel pressured to hit a specific number of miles. It also eliminated the “If only I were faster, I’d be able to get through these runs so much quicker” mentality, a negative mindset that I want to avoid.
There are a lot of different types of runs, and I enjoyed trying them all. The runs are presented as a menu, and then you can pick and choose which you want to do based on some guidelines. Instead of creating my own plan, I used one in the book as my foundation and enjoyed the different types of runs.
I started this training when I was looking for something that fit the one-hour window I have for running before work. The majority of runs (except for the long runs) were under one hour.
Because so much of my running was easy, I really liked the speed workouts. It was something different and broke up all the easy running. All the workouts were short (under one hour), so I also felt like I could easily handle them. And all the recovery probably helped with handling them as well. The biggest thing I struggled with on Hansons was the workouts, which typically left me totally wiped out for the whole day. With the 80/20 workouts, I rarely got super tired; I think that happened only a few times.
Also, I hit faster paces than ever before in any other training cycle, a sign that all the easy running really did boost my paces when it came time to run fast.
In his book, Fitzgerald compiled a ton of research that proves the 80/20 method really does help runners improve in several areas, including becoming faster. I did my own little experiment to test it out, and, sure enough, I was able to measure some improvement after 9 weeks of using 80/20 training. I think I could have improved even more if I would have more strictly followed the training (see the What I Didn’t Like section).
Here are the results based on two tests I did at the beginning of training and then after it was over. I used the same test, where I spent a few minutes in each heart rate zone to get the corresponding pace. Note that while my lactate threshold heart rate increased (and thus my heart rate in the different zones), I used the same heart rate zones for an equal comparison. It’s interesting that the improvements show up in the hard-intensity zones and not the easy zones. I did the second test on a warm, humid morning, whereas the first was in late March and pretty cool; that may have contributed to the lack of improvement in the easy zones.
Zone 1 (low aerobic)
Heart rate: 116-124
Pre-Training Pace: 12:55-15:39
Post-Training Pace: 13:01-14:08
Zone 2 (moderate aerobic)
Heart rate: 125-138
Pre-Training Pace: 12:00-13:43
Post-Training Pace: 12:17-13:28
Zone 3 (threshold)
Heart rate: 149-155
Pre-Training Pace: 11:12-11:25
Post-Training Pace: 10:56-11:26
Zone 4 (V02 max)
Heart rate: 158-163
Pre-Training Pace: 10:41-10:45
Post-Training Pace: 10:05-10:29
Zone 5 (speed)
Heart rate: 164+
Pre-Training Pace: 10:40+
Post-Training Pace: 10:04+
In addition to this test, I also did the lactate threshold heart rate test at the beginning and in the middle of training, and my lactate threshold heart rate increased from 155 to 160.
What I Didn’t Like
Hard to Hit the 80/20 Ratio
This was my biggest challenge. Fitzgerald presents research that shows you really have to be close to the exact 80/20 ratio to get the benefits; a general “mostly easy running” doesn’t cut it. Even a 75/35 ratio doesn’t yield the same benefits. When I created my plan, it took me a long time to hit the 80/20 ratio. On the weeks I veered from my plan—say, for example, when I skipped a workout—the ratio got messed up and I ended up not hitting the 80/20 ratio. Achieving this ratio was the hardest thing about the training. It also requires planning; I couldn’t randomly decide to run a speed workout if I hadn’t planned for it.
No Running with Friends
Running at your own heart rate is very difficult to do with friends since heart rates can vary so much between people. The pace I usually ran with friends is more moderate, and my easy zone pace was just too slow to run with others. I really missed running with friends.
The Bottom Line and What’s Next
Despite it being very challenging to hit the 80/20 ratio exactly, I really liked this training method. The running itself was low-key and not at all stressful, which was just what I was looking for. The short, time-based runs fit my work schedule. My body appreciated all the easy running and recovery between workouts. And I started looking forward to my speed workouts, which rarely happens. And the measurable progress was nice!
The nice thing about the 80/20 method is that you can apply it to whatever training you’re doing, in whatever sport. You don’t have to use an 80/20 training plan from Fitzgerald. So, going forward, I’m going to create my own training schedule following the general 80/20 guidelines.
I also want to continue using the Hansons’ method so am going to try to apply the 80/20 method to the Hansons’ training plans. I’ve done a little research to see if that’s possible, and I think it is except for the peak weeks. I can make it work by replacing some of the hard effort with easy effort but keeping the mileage the same. I think I’ll still be able to achieve the cumulative fatigue that’s the cornerstone of the Hansons’ method and get used to running on tired legs if I run the same mileage. But, I admit that this will be an experiment—will I ruin the Hanson’s method by doing this? I’m willing to take the risk since I know that the 80/20 method works well for me.
So the bottom line after doing an 80/20 training cycle is that I’m a believer and plan to continue it!