Bill Rodgers

How to Train “80/20” without Really Trying

Every once in a while an athlete asks me if the training plans offered in one of my older books such as Braining Training for Runners or Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide are still relevant or have been rendered obsolete by the 80/20 training plans I peddle today. My stock answer to this question is that my overall training philosophy has never changed; it just has a name now. In other words, my older training plans are 80/20 plans in all but name.

Let’s not forget how the whole thing came about. In the early 2000’s, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler set out to quantify the training practices of elite endurance athletes in various disciplines and geographical locations. His main finding was that, across the board, these athletes do about 80 percent of their training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. But it’s not as if they only started training this way the day before Seiler showed up with his calculator. As I point out in 80/20 Running, four-time Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon winner Bill Rodgers did about 80 percent of his training at low intensity in the 1970s, as did 800m and 1500m Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell in the 1960s. As a high school runner in the 1980s, I was trained by coaches influenced by Snell’s coach, the legendary Arthur Lydiard, who pioneered the high-volume, mostly low-intensity approach to endurance training we call 80/20 today. I’ve never known any other way.

So, the only thing that’s really new is the phenomenon of nonelite endurance athletes consciously trying to adhere to an 80/20 intensity balance in training. Predictably, some of these athletes have become somewhat obsessive about the 80/20 Rule, going to great lengths to make sure they don’t deviate from it and fretting about the potential consequences of straying accidentally. Online 80/20 forums are rife with questions from athletes who seem to invest these numbers with an almost totemic authority. “Just tell me what to do, oh mighty 80/20 Rule!”

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but I do see a fair number of athletes overthinking the whole 80/20 thing, and it concerns me. Here’s something I would like these athletes to know: Today’s elite athletes still don’t consciously adhere to an 80/20 intensity balance. Just as Bill Rodgers and company did 40-plus years ago, the champions of our time practice the 80/20 method by default, using other rules of intensity balance that, in practice, result in 80 percent of training being done at low intensity. As a nonelite athlete, you can employ the same rules to make 80/20 training easier, or to rescue yourself from the rabbit hole of overthinking intensity balancing.

The first rule is this: Be sure you’re actually at low intensity when you intend to be. Elite athletes never fail in this regard. Their easy swims, rides, and runs are truly easy, by which I mean that they are performed entirely below the first ventilatory threshold, which falls between 77 and 81 percent of maximum heart rate in most athletes. In contrast to this, most recreational endurance athletes do most of their easy training slightly above the VT1, which is technically moderate intensity, and creates a significantly greater fatigue burden.

Rule number two is this: Devote roughly one out of every three training sessions you do to moderate or high intensity. Again, this is how elite endurance athletes and their coaches balance training intensities. The typical elite runner, for example, runs 13 times per week and three of those runs are set aside for focused work at moderate to high intensity. By planning at the level of session types in this manner, elite endurance athletes end up spending very close to 80 percent of their training time at low intensity without ever actually thinking about time-based intensity distribution. If you train less frequently—say, six or seven times per week, as a plurality of recreational endurance athletes do—applying the same rule yields two moderate/high-intensity sessions per week. Pretty basic.

You can fine-tune intensity balance within this framework by adjusting the duration of individual sessions. Bigger tempo and interval workouts will make a bigger contribution to the moderate/high-intensity side of the ledger, while smaller ones will make a smaller contribution. There’s no need to get overly fussy in adjusting the size of your “quality” sessions for the explicit sake of nailing an 80/20 intensity balance for the week. Instead you can simply plan workouts that make sense in the overall context of your training, trusting that by doing so you’ll end up close to 80/20.

If you are the type of athlete who tends to lose the forest of training principles for the trees of quantitative minutiae, consider zooming out in the manner I’ve just suggested. Forget about 80/20 per se and concentrate instead on planning out your weeks by session type and on ensuring that you remain consistently at low intensity when you intend to be. If this approach seems rather inexact to you, well, this just means that exactitude is overrated!