You’ve probably heard of the book 80/20 Running, perhaps even read it. But did you know that the original working title of this book was A High-Mileage Manifesto? I started writing it in 2013, a time when HIIT mania was in full bloom, CrossFit Endurance was making waves, and Run Less, Run Faster was the top-selling training guide for runners. Dismayed by these and other influences, I decided to push back in the best way I knew. It was only when I realized that the average runner can’t benefit from running more until they’ve first balanced their training intensities correctly—shifting from the typical 50 percent moderate-intensity routine to the 80 percent low-intensity approach of the elite—did A High-Mileage Manifesto become 80/20 Running.

Despite this evolution, I remain convinced that exercising a lot is a proven best practice in endurance training that not enough athletes at the nonelite level actually practice. Scientific support for this position keeps coming. The latest evidence arrives in the form of a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Japanese researchers surveyed 587 runners (all male, unfortunately) about their training prior to their participation in the 2017 Hokkaido Marathon. Intensity data were not included in this particular study. The researchers were specifically interested in identifying links between various volume-related parameters and marathon performance—and they found them.

Among runners who trained with equal frequency, there were significant correlations between monthly training volume, average run distance, long run distance, and marathon time. In other words, given two runners who each trained five times per week, the one who packed more miles into these runs tended to perform better on race day. Interestingly, though, when the researchers compared runners at different levels of monthly volume, there were no correlations between training frequency, average run distance, long run distance, and marathon time. This suggests that monthly volume matters a lot, and how one achieves it matters less. But it does matter some, for when the researchers looked at runners who had the same average run distance or long run distance, strong correlations were found between these variables and monthly volume and marathon time.

On the basis of their findings, the researchers concluded, “These results indicate that monthly training volume is the most important factor in predicting marathon time and that the influence of monthly training volume is only significant if the running distance per workout exceeded a certain level.” The lesson I draw from this study as a coach is that, if you want to race a good marathon, you need to run high-mileage consistently. Get your volume up to a high but sustainable level and keep it there.

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Perhaps I’ll get around to completing A High-Mileage Manifesto one day. For now, here’s the overview to a proposal I wrote for the book.

In 1945 Arthur Lydiard set out on a five-mile run that changed his life—and the sport of running—forever. The young track racer struggled to keep up with a much older man on that relatively short jaunt and came home humbled, realizing he was not nearly as fit as he’d thought he was. Sensing that the secret to running faster in races was to run farther in training, Lydiard gradually built his endurance to the point where he was able to easily run well over 100 miles every week, which was unheard of in those days. In 1953, Lydiard, now thirty-six years old, won the New Zealand Marathon Championship. Afterward he was inundated by requests for coaching from other runners.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, three athletes coached by Lydiard won medals (two of them gold). Suddenly the whole world was interested in Lydiard’s high-mileage training approach. Within a decade this approach had been adopted by virtually every elite runner on earth and was responsible for a drastic improvement in world records at all race distances between 800 meters and the marathon. Today the essence of Lydiard’s training system is still practiced almost universally by professional runners and by most collegiate runners and serious high school runners.

Curiously, however, the vast majority of runners who take up the sport as adults do not run high mileage and are not even aware that this training approach is regarded by every true expert as the necessary path to the full realization of any runner’s innate potential. Of course, the average recreational road racer with a full-time job and a family cannot be expected to run more than 100 miles per week as the professionals do. But it is bizarre that such runners are not even encouraged to run as much as they reasonably can. No other sport is bifurcated in this way, where competitive young athletes and recreational adult athletes are not even taught the same methods to improve.

The split occurred when the sport of running exploded in popularity in the 1990s and it has widened steadily since then. The rapid minting of new adult runners has created opportunities for new coaches to guide and train them. Almost without exception, the opportunists who specialize in mentoring adult recreational runners have little or no background in serious competitive running and were never indoctrinated into Lydiard’s high-mileage training approach. Knowing no better, these pseudo-experts base their own training systems not on high mileage but instead on “new” methods such as high-intensity intervals and technique fixing, which are not new at all but in fact were tried by past generations of elite runners and discarded as inferior.

This madness has to stop. Every runner deserves to know the best way to train. While high-mileage running may not be for everyone, the method that Lydiard perfected sixty years ago yields better results than any alternative even when scaled to fit the lifestyle of the average recreationally competitive adult runner. It’s a crime that this truth, known to all of the sport’s true experts, has been hidden from the masses by lesser authorities. A High-Mileage Manifesto is an overdue corrective that rediscovers the lost secret to running better and motivates runners who are not already enjoying its fruits to give it a try in the way that works best for them.

Written by Matt Fitzgerald, whose previous books include the bestselling Racing Weight and the award-winning Iron War, A High-Mileage Manifesto does not badger busy runners to run more than they really want to. Instead it makes Arthur Lydiard and his method the heroes of a story of triumph against long odds and of lasting survival in the face of wrongheaded challenges. In this way the book gently persuades readers to make their own choice to embrace high-mileage running, which truly can be tailored to work for any runner, as the meaning of “high mileage” is relative.

Like Fitzgerald’s past books, A High-Mileage Manifesto is intended above all to provide a captivating and satisfying reading experience for all runners who enjoy running enough to purchase a book on the subject. Readers will enjoy the author’s rich portrayal of Arthur Lydiard, history’s most iconic running coach, about whom far too little is known by most runners today. They will also gain a new perspective on the history of the sport as Fitzgerald traces the evolution of training methods from the nineteenth century to the Lydiard revolution to today. And they will have their minds blown by Fitzgerald’s limpid explanations of fascinating new science proving the superiority of high-mileage running in unexpected ways that almost no one yet knows about.

The book is organized as a linked set of narrative essays arranged in a loosely chronological order. Chapter 1 lays out the problem to be solved. The next several chapters take the reader on a journey of entertaining persuasion that follows the story of Lydiard’s great idea from its unlikely conception, through its astonishing world takeover and subsequent setbacks, to its ultimate vindication. The concluding chapter tells runners of all experience and ability levels everything they need to know to benefit from high-mileage running. By the time they get there readers will be keyed up beyond all expectations to do just that.

Imagine you are completely sedentary and you have been for some time. Then one day you decide to train for a 10K running event. The specific training method you choose is Yoga—30 minutes a day, six days a week. To assess the effectiveness of this program, you actually do a 10K before you start on it and then repeat the race eight weeks later. On this second occasion, you cover the distance more than five minutes faster than you did the first time.

When you tell a runner friend about your success, she says, “Yoga? That’s a terrible way to train for a 10K!”

“Obviously not,” You retort. “Did you miss the part about me lowering my time by more than five minutes?”

The training methods for running a marathon

As absurd as this hypothetical scenario is (absurd but not unrealistic–a previously sedentary person who did a ton of Yoga would substantially lower his or her 10K time), I see athletes commit the same logical error in slightly less absurd ways all the time. It just doesn’t seem to cross the minds of some athletes that there’s a difference between effective and optimal. I’ll give you three concrete examples of methods that typically yield some improvement for the athletes who adopt them but not as much improvement as they would give from adopting proven best practices.

HIIT-Focused Training

In 2013, fitness writer Christopher Solomon wrote a feature article for Outside on his experience of training for a marathon with the CrossFit Endurance method, which relies heavily on high-intensity interval training. Having run a 3:45 marathon five years before, Solomon set a goal of running 3:20 after 13 weeks of CFE training and wound up completing his target event in 3:39.

“Did CFE deliver?” he wrote. “Yes, mostly.” . . . “Would I use CFE to train for my next race? Yes, mostly.”

When I read this article I felt a powerful urge to contact Solomon and offer to train him for his next marathon with the 80/20 method that I favor. It was obvious to me that Solomon had committed the mistake of conflating effective with optimal method and I was quite certain he could get much better results from adopting the endurance training method that has been proven both in the real world and in controlled scientific studies to yield better results than any alternative: 80/20.

The reason athletes often do improve when they switch from their current training approach (which, for the typical recreational endurance athlete, consists of spending 50 to 60 percent of total training time at low intensity, 40 to 50 percent at moderate intensity, and 0 to 5 percent at high intensity) to a HIIT-focused method is twofold. First, this shift often corrects, at least partially, the common and costly problem of getting stuck in the so-called moderate intensity rut. Second, athletes who are stuck in the moderate-intensity rut typically do little to no training at truly high intensities, which are beneficial and which HIIT-focused training methods require.

But again, just because athletes often improve a bit when they try a HIIT-focused training program doesn’t mean they wouldn’t improve more on an 80/20 program. This was demonstrated in a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Salzburg University, who found that athletes who trained in the moderate-intensity rut for nine weeks saw their performance in a time-to-exhaustion test improve by 6.2 percent, whereas athletes who did HIIT-focused training for an equal period improved by 8.8 percent in the same test, and those who did nine weeks of approximately 80/20 training improved by a whopping 17.4 percent—almost double the amount that the HIIT group did.

Low-Carb Diets

It is my belief, based on my observations, that a majority of endurance athletes who adopt very low-carb diets have a bad experience and soon abandon them. But some report getting good results, and many who do wrongly interpret these results as proof that low-carb diets are best for every endurance athlete, or at least for them individually.

In the typical success case, the athlete who goes low-carb loses a substantial amount of weight and achieves a nominal to modest improvement in performance. These anecdotal reports are backed up by some formal studies, including a 2017 study out of Middle Tennessee State University in which eight middle-aged, recreationally competitive male runners lost an average of 5.5 pounds and lowered their 5K times by an average of 2 percent after three weeks on a low-carb diet.

Why isn’t this proof that low-carb diets are best? Leaving aside the fact that this particular study lacked a control group, a runner who loses 5.5 pounds by any reasonable means should lower his 5K time by substantially more than 2 percent. The fact that these runners did not indicates that some negative effect of the low-carb diet partially counteracted the performance benefit of losing weight. Other research indicates this negative effect is impaired exercise economy.

If a low-carb diet was the only way to lose weight, it might still be the best diet for endurance athletes. But it’s not the only way to lose weight. Athletes can enjoy the advantages of both weight loss and adequate carbohydrate intake simply by reducing their intake of low-quality carbohydrate sources (e.g., refined grains) and other low-quality food types (e.g., foods with added fats) and continuing to eat high-quality carb sources (e.g., starchy vegetables). This high-quality, carbohydrate-centered approach to eating for endurance is what the pros do and is, in fact, the best diet for virtually all endurance athletes.

Meathead-Style Strength Training

Recently I created a custom training plan for a client who had a background in personal training but had recently gotten really into running and wanted me to help him achieve a sub-three-hour marathon. Unsurprisingly, his existing strength-training routine relied heavily on exercises such as bench presses and dumbbell shoulder presses that are counterproductive for runners and was utterly lacking in single-leg exercises, balance work, and exercises targeting small but important stabilizing muscles such as the hip external rotators. When I suggested to my client that he modify his strength workouts to make them better resemble those that elite runners do, he pushed back, saying he had good reason to believe he was benefitting from the workouts he was doing.


Now, I will admit that it’s hard to prove that the strength-training methodology practiced almost universally among elite runners today is optimal and that alternatives such as bodybuilding-style strength-training and CrossFit are suboptimal (it’s very tricky to execute a study that would do the job), but I’m confident these things are true. A runner who replaces bench presses and the like with more functional options will lose excess upper-body muscle mass and thereby lower the energy cost of running at any given pace. And a runner who strengthens important but neglected stabilizing muscles will be rewarded with a boost in running economy and reduced injury risk.

No recreational endurance athlete should feel obligated to do things the most effective way. If you want to do HIIT-focused training because it’s fun or adopt a low-carb diet because it’s trendy or lift weights like a bodybuilder because you like how it makes you like with your shirt off, be my guest. But if you want to realize your full potential as an endurance athlete, understand that there’s a difference between effective and optimal and keep this distinction in mind when making decisions about how to train and eat.

It is a proven fact that individual pain tolerance predicts endurance performance. Given two athletes with identical physical traits, the one with a higher pain tolerance will likely outperform the other in competition. It is also a proven fact that pain tolerance is trainable. Exposure to pain tends to increase pain tolerance.

The practical implication of these facts is that, if you want to race to the best of your ability, you need to expose yourself to high levels of suffering in training. There is, in other words, a place for incredibly painful workouts in the endurance training process. But it’s important not to go overboard with this type of training, for three reasons. One is that incredibly painful workouts are very stressful, so if you do them too often you will become overtrained and your fitness will decrease. Also, pain tolerance is only one of many contributors to endurance fitness, and many of the other contributors are best developed through other types of workouts. And finally, it’s hard to get yourself up for intense suffering very often, and dipping into that well too frequently can lead to mental burnout.

This is the problem with programs like CrossFit. The ethos of these programs requires participants to give 100 percent in every single workout. This is impossible, and so what most people end up doing is giving about 93 percent in every single workout and forgetting what it’s really like to give 100 percent. If you truly want the benefit of giving a 100 percent effort, you need to do it sparingly.

Endurance athletes are more likely to completely avoid incredibly painful workouts than to overdo them. The typical recreational runner or triathlete is perfectly willing to do really long workouts that become sort of painful near the end in a slow-burn way, but they fear and dodge esophagus-searing intervals done at or near VO2max intensity, cutdown hill repetitions ending at maximum effort, and the like. And when I talk about incredibly painful workouts, that’sthe sort of workout I’m referring to.

To be clear, even most high-intensity workouts shouldn’t be incredibly painful—just moderately painful to painful. Incredibly painful workouts are a special subcategory within the category of high-intensity workouts. It’s also important to keep in mind that the purpose of these sessions is not to destroy your body but to toughen your mind. There’s an infinite variety of incredibly painful workouts you can do, but to serve their intended purpose they must entail a relatively modest amount of total work so that their intensity is not watered down and they don’t destroy your body.

The shortest incredibly painful workout format I know of is the original Tabata. It consists of 10 times 20 seconds at maximum effort with 10-second passive rests between intervals: 200 seconds of pure misery packed into five total minutes. This session is best done on a stationary bike, but if you’re coordinated and daring you can do it on a treadmill set at a steep incline, moving your feet to the edges of the machine for the rest periods and leaping back onto the belt for the sprints.

The single most excruciating incredibly painful workout I’ve ever heard of people actually doing is a session of descending time trials that was once a favorite of the late English manager/coach Kim McDonald. Here’s how to do it: Visit your local running track and warm up thoroughly with at least a mile of easy jogging, dynamic stretches, and accelerations. Then run four laps around the track (1600 meters) as fast as you can. I don’t mean start at a dead sprint and hang on; I mean treat it as a 1600-meter race, where you aim to achieve the lowest finishing time possible. Rest passively as long as necessary to feel ready for more hard running, but no longer. Then run three laps (1200 meters) all-out, rest, run two laps (800 meters) all out, rest, and finish yourself off with a one-lap (400m) time trial.

You wouldn’t believe how fast some of McDonald’s runners were able to run this workout back in the day. Former 5000m American record holder Bob Kennedy, for example, once completed the four time trials in 3:56, 2:55, 1:55, and 54, and his training partner Daniel Komen, who still holds world records at two miles and 3000 meters indoors and outdoors, ran them even faster.

Obviously, you need to be quite fit to attempt such a session. But again, no matter how fit you are, it’s inadvisable to do more than two or three workouts this agonizing in a single training cycle. In my view, the very best time to do an incredibly painful workout is a couple of weeks before your first race in a while, when you are fit enough to really suffer but may have forgotten what it’s like to really suffer.

These days lots of endurance athletes are supplementing their endurance training with CrossFit workouts, or are interested in doing so. Whenever one of these athletes comes to me for coaching, I try to talk him or her out of it. I do this not because I think CrossFit is intrinsically bad or because I believe that CrossFit negatively affects endurance performance. Rather, these persuasive efforts are based on the fact there are simply more effective ways for endurance athletes to strength train and cross-train.

It is an obvious point, but worth mentioning nevertheless, that CrossFit was not created to serve as supplemental training for endurance athletes. There is no reason, therefore, to expect CrossFit to do the job especially well. As a supplemental training modality for endurance athletes, CrossFit has several drawbacks:

First, CrossFit workouts are very intense. Endurance fitness and performance improve most when high-intensity work accounts for about 20 percent of total training time. Incorporating CrossFit into an endurance training program therefore reduces the amount of high-intensity training an athlete can do in his or her actual sport and increases the risk of overtraining. Traditional strength workouts that avoid sustained elevation of heart  rate do not compete against endurance training in this way.

Second, CrossFit workouts are highly taxing, generating significant levels of fatigue and muscle damage and thereby often compromising performance in subsequent endurance workouts.

Third, many of the strength exercises done in CrossFit workouts are not functionally specific to endurance sports. Handstand push-ups, for example, are a waste of time for cyclists and runners. Look at the physiques of top competitive CrossFitters. Do you want to haul around all that beef in your next race?

Fourth, CrossFit workouts do not include any of the corrective exercises that endurance athletes need to do in order to iron out muscle imbalances and strengthen important stabilizing muscles so they can swim, bike, and run more efficiently and with less risk of injury. Nobody wants to watch athletes do side planks on television, but no strength workout for endurance athletes is complete without such exercises.

Fifth and finally, many CrossFit workouts involve the use of rowing machines. Rowing is great exercise, but it doesn’t do much for most types of endurance athletes. Runners in particular who want to supplement their running with nonimpact endurance training are better off choosing an activity that is much more similar to running itself, such as outdoor elliptical biking.

There, I’ve said my piece.

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