In my previous post on this subject I explained that my quest for an enjoyable and effective training approach led me to read “80 / 20 Running” by Matt Fitzgerald; that its main proposition (namely that best improvements in running performance are brought about by a training regime that is made up of 80% low intensity training and 20% medium and high intensity training) resonated with my previous experience and all the information I had received from a number of respected sources; and that I had started following a sample training plan from that book, which I had tweaked slightly to reflect the fact that I had just completed a marathon and didn’t want to sacrifice all the endurance I had built, but which still adhered to the main 80 / 20 principles.
I also promised a follow-up post, to look more closely at the “80 / 20” training approach, and my experience of it thus far. But first of all a few clarifications:
- I am in no way affiliated with the author of the book, its publishers etc., which means that I do not speak on their behalf and that this post merely describes my experience and views.
- This also means that I derive no monetary or other benefit from writing this, and that I bought the book myself and it wasn’t given to me to review.
- While the book (and this review) is written from a runner’s perspective, the same principles hold for all endurance sports.
- Finally, I do not often get enthusiastic about a specific training approach or book: In my quest to improve the way I train I have read a great number of books and articles, consulted specialists and have followed numerous different training programmes for anything from 5k to the marathon. Sifting through all that information I have come across some sound principles, the occasionally unexpected nugget, but also quite a few questionable shortcuts or “silver bullets”. I have seen some themes develop (e.g. examining the most effective online training programme I have come across (https://www.adidas.co.uk/micoach) with the benefit of hindsight, I see how it incorporates what I have found to be the soundest training principles). However this is the first time that I’ve stumbled across something that – when I put it into practice – suits me so much!
80 / 20 The book – an overview:
Ok, with that out of the way, a closer look at the book and what it covers. I will not attempt to summarise it here, nor to try to steal its thunder, but I thought it would be useful to give an idea of the books scope:
It is based on an examination of how the most successful elite athletes train, i.e. how the current training thinking and practice at a professional level has evolved. This is then backed by significant research which is referenced throughout. It covers all areas which you would expect to find when considering a training approach, including:
- The need to slow right down! The low intensity 80% is done at an easy, conversational pace, and not at one’s habitual pace – which in most cases is too fast!
- This is balanced by increased volume – which is feasible, as the lower intensity runs mean you are fresher and can do more in a week.
- A description of the five training zones (Zones 1& 2 for low intensity, Z3 medium and Zones 4 & 5 high) and how to establish what your own zones are. This can be done using perceived effort, heart rate, pace or a combination of the above. Encouragingly, doing this exercise I found the zones I ended up to very closely matched the ones I was given from my recent VO2 max test.
- Training periodicity (down to mesocycles and microcycles).
- A chapter on how and when to substitute runs for cross-training and how to get the most benefit out of it.
- Specific workouts: A comprehensive list of different workouts and how these evolve as training progresses (i.e. greater length, more intervals, etc). Helpfully, the author also includes a breakdown of the time spent in low / high intensity zones for each exercise, which helps when it comes to make sure you do follow the 80 / 20 rule.
- These are then brought together to create specific training plans from 5k to marathon distance, at three difficulty / volume levels. It is important to note however that these are offered as a bit of an extra: There is nothing to stop you adapting your current programme to make it conform with the 80 / 20 principles, or pick and mix from the individual workouts (enough guidance is given on how to put together a training programme). In fact, I would recommend at least adapting one of these programmes to address your specific needs and areas you want to focus on. Just remember to keep track of your ratios to make sure that low intensity training makes up 80% of your total training volume!
Looking at the sample training programmes, I was surprised to see that (with the obvious exception of the LRs) the runs were noticeably shorter (by about a third) than what I’d normally run. On the other hand there were runs every day. In other words it was the complete opposite of my previous training approach, which involved few, hard, long sessions.
As I was ready for a change to my approach after Manchester, I embraced the 80 / 20 approach and made a start with a Level 2 10k plan, which I tweaked slightly: mainly because I didn’t want to let my endurance drop too much after the marathon, but wanted to improve my speed endurance. I therefore substituted the (shorter) Long Runs in the plan with 12 – 14 mile ones, and made sure I used the ones which included speedplay or a fast finish. I then went back and recalculated it all to make sure that I was still at or around the 80 : 20 ratio.
I’m now starting week 9 out of 12 and I think I have found the approach that works for me! I’ve not entered a 10k race for a long while, so I’m not in a position to compare my progress at the moment, but my impressions nonetheless are:
- It is much easier to make time to go for a 40’ comfortable run in the evenings, than it is to go for a hard 60’ – 90’ session. Sound obvious, but this means that while I was afraid that my other commitments would mean that I would not be able to make every planned run, this has – by and large – not been the case.
- It is also much more pleasant! The great proportion of low intensity running means I enjoy running much, much more. I have time to switch off, take in the surroundings, connect with my body and ‘feel’ my running form when I’m not going all out… And all this without feeling I am not trying hard enough, as this is the whole point of the low intensity runs. Exactly what I was after, following a marathon training programme which had ended up being almost a chore…
- There are still high intensity workouts, and they are very important: Usually on a Tuesday (fast finishes / intervals) and a Friday (speedwork / hills), and also incorporated in Sundays’ long runs; but they are shorter than I’d do previously and more focused. There is also a mind play thing going on here: Because I know that the high intensity bit (which could be the last 10’ of a fast finish run, or the main section of a speedwork session) is only 20% of my total training by volume, I make sure I give it my all. And it’s ok, I can push hard, as the run of the day before was comfortable (“foundation” is the term used in the book), and the next day’s is an easy recovery run… these are the 10’ that count now!
- The miles do add up! Even though each session is shorter than I’d normally do, this is offset by the higher training frequency, so the training volume is noticeably greater than my previous training would have me run. As an example, my mileage last week was 4m / 6km short of my peak marathon training mileage, and I hardly even noticed it!
- The only negative to date, is that with a run scheduled every day I’m struggling to do as much strength training as I’d like. For those who can run in the morning before work (or at lunchtimes), this shouldn’t be a problem, as you can easily fit in a 40’ run and have the evening free for a gym session, but for me this isn’t really an option. Still, I’ve not given up yet: for the time being I am using miCoach’s range of body weight workout plans. They last between 15 – 35 minutes, so it’s not inconceivable that I do them before or after a 40’ – 45’ comfortable run. It just takes some planning…
I’m also impressed that by following this approach I can get into a routine where I run every day and then round the week off with a Fast Finish LR, or a LR with speedplay thrown in! I never expected I’d be able to run like this, to physically sustain it and mentally enjoy it so much! Ok, I’ve got a reasonable level of fitness and endurance at the moment (I’ve just set a marathon PB for goodness’ sake!), but I feel that this plan builds on that, keeps challenging (if that’s the right word) my aerobic base and doesn’t let my fitness drop before it picks it up again. And the most important thing: It’s not a chore any more, I’m really enjoying myself again!
So I would certainly recommend the book: Even if you decide to not follow the 80 – 20 approach, it’s certainly a very interesting read and I am sure you’ll be the richer runner for having read it.