How to Adjust Your 80/20 Training Plan for a Specific Course or Conditions

by Matt Fitzgerald

One of the most important principles in endurance training is the principle of specificity. It states that training should be specific to the race you’re preparing for. If you’re training for a marathon, for example, you’ll be better off running than chopping wood, and still better off if you regularly run longer than 10 miles than if your longest run is less than 10 miles.

The principle of specificity goes beyond fitness, though. According to the same principle, you are likely to perform better on a hilly course if you’ve done some hilly workouts, better in a trail race if you’ve trained on trails, better in a hot environment if you’ve trained in the heat, and better at high altitude if you’ve done some training at similar elevations.

Among the questions we get most often from athletes are ones concerning how to adapt our 80/20 training plans to specific course conditions. Our plans are industry leaders at defining the appropriate intensity balance, duration, frequency and specificity of training for a specific distance. But, given that every race has unique course-specific challenges, we leave it to the athlete to incorporate the specificity of the course into their training. Here are some tips that you should find useful in this regard.

Hills

It’s important not to take the principle of specificity too far as it applies to preparing for course conditions. Swimming is swimming, cycling is cycling, and running is running, regardless of where it is done. If you’re training for a hilly triathlon, for example, some of your cycling and running certainly should be done on hilly routes, but not all or even most of it, as this would interfere with some of the other important purposes your training plan is intended to serve.

Intensity is harder to regulate on hilly routes. Most of your low-intensity (Zone 1-2) workouts should be done on flatter terrain because it’s hard for most athletes to stay at low intensity when climbing steeper hills. For that matter, most tempo/ threshold workouts featuring extended efforts in Zone 3 should also be done on flat to rolling routes that facilitate locking into a narrow intensity groove, as well as most Zone 5 runs, which are intended to get the legs turning over quickly, an effect that inclines work against.

So when should you hit the hills if you’re training for a hilly race? We recommend doing most of the long endurance runs/rides in the second half of your training plan on hilly routes. Additionally, it’s a good idea to convert a handful of your Zone 4 and Zone 5 interval sessions into hill repetitions workouts. To do this, simply replicated the exact prescribed structure on a hill. Be sure to do some of your high-intensity run intervals downhill, as this will inure your legs to the stress of descending at high speed.

If you’re highly fit, it’s okay to do some of your easy (foundation) runs and rides on hillier routes—just keep an eye on your intensity. If you live in an area where it’s difficult to avoid hills, work with what you have, but understand that you may need to go really slow (even walk) on some hills to ensure you are adhering to the 80/20 Rule.

Trails

Coach Matt happens to live in an area with extremely poor trail access. As much as he enjoys running on trails, he generally considers it not worth the bother to get in his car and drive to the nearest trailhead. This isn’t a problem when he’s training for road events, but when he trained for my first 50-mile ultramarathon, it became a problem. He told myself that if he just got fit enough, lack of specific preparation for the technical terrain he would compete on would be a nonissue, an attitude that set him up for a rude awakening on race day. He fell six times during those 50 miles!

So, yeah, it’s really important to do some training on trails if you’re going to race on trails. How much is enough? We consider one workout per week a minimum. If you love trails and have ready access to them, it’s okay to do almost all of your training on trails provided you stick to flatter, less technical ones on easy days. Other than that, the only sessions you really should do on other surfaces are high-intensity intervals (other than hill repetitions), which are best done on a track, grass, pavement or another surface conducive to speed.

Heat

Racing in hot weather is always a challenge, but it’s all the more challenging when you’re not prepared for it. The obvious way to get prepared is to expose yourself to heat in training. This is easy to do if your race buildup occurs during the summer or if you live in a hot climate. Indeed, if that is the case, avoiding too much heat exposure is a bigger concern. Because athletes perform better in cooler temperatures, you’ll want to take practical measures such as working out early in the morning or indoors on most hot days and only train in the heat occasionally.

Studies indicate that it takes about 10 days to fully acclimatize to exercising in high temperatures. However, we think it’s best not to save your heat exposure to the last 10 days before an important race. That’s a lot of discomfort and physical stress to subject yourself to at a sensitive time. Instead, we recommend training in the heat a couple of times per week for the last several weeks before a hot race. Although this approach has not been formally studied, we’re confident from our own experience that it is effective. As for which specific sessions you designate as heat-training opportunities, we suggest starting with easy ones and then moving toward more race-specific ones (high-intensity workouts if you’re training for a shorter event, long endurance sessions if you’re training for a longer event).

If you don’t have temperatures matching the expected race temperatures available to you right outside your door during your race buildup, your best bet is to train indoors in a warm room a couple of times per week. Wearing extra layers outside is another option.

Altitude

Preparing for a race at high altitude (5,000 feet or above) does not necessarily require that you modify your 80/20 training plan. What it does require is that you spend at least 10 days at that higher elevation to acclimate to it. Ideally, this 10-plus-day period will come immediately before your event. This will not only ensure that the physiological adaptations you undergo won’t have time to reverse themselves, but it will also align the acclimatization process with your pre-race taper, making the process easier than it would be if you attempted it during peak training.

Regardless of when you do your altitude training “camp,” be sure to lighten up your training load for the first three days in the mountains. We recommend starting with a rest day and following that up with a relatively short workout at low intensity on day two and a somewhat longer session at low intensity on the third day.

The other adjustment that is needed is altitude-specific zones. Regardless of which metrics you use to monitor and control intensity, they will be affected by high elevation. You can make these adjustments either by undergoing threshold testing at altitude or by using an altitude adjustment calculator such as the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project’s VDOT Calculator.

Odd Distances

Not every running race is a 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, 50-miler, 100K, or 100-miler, nor is every triathlon a standard sprint, Olympic-distance event, Ironman 70.3, or Ironman. Can you use an 80/20 training plan that is specific to one of these common formats for a race of a different distance? And, if so, what kids of adjustments should be made?

We recommend that you start by choosing a plan that’s designed for the race distance that is closest to the distance of the race you’re preparing for, whether it’s longer or shorter. For example, suppose you sign up for a 30K (18.6-mile) running event. That’s between a half-marathon and a marathon in distance, but closer to a half-marathon, so in this case you’ll want to pick a half-marathon plan.

The next step is to make an adjustment that ensures you have the fitness to race 5.5 miles farther than the 13.1-mile half-marathon distance. There are two ways to do this. One is to “level up,” which means choosing a half-marathon plan that’s one level higher than the one would pick if you were actually racing a half (e.g., Level 2 instead of Level 1). The second option is to choose the level that best fits your body’s training tolerance and/or your life schedule and lengthen the long runs. If you choose this option, we recommend that you go about the process gradually, increasing the first long run by about 5 minutes, the next by about 10 minutes, and so on, until you get to the longest scheduled run, which should come out to be 5-6 miles longer than prescribed.

Each situation is different, though. If you’re unsure which plan to pick and how to modify it for an odd-distance race, contact us and we’ll help you out.