Triathlete Magazine

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.

First Rule

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.

Second Rule

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!

The August 2009 issue of Triathlete Magazine featured an article titled “The end of Running Injuries.” Written by yours truly, the piece introduced readers to the Alter-G antigravity treadmill, which, I claimed, “has the potential to completely eliminate traditional injury setbacks from the life of any runner (or triathlete) who has access to a machine.”

This hyperbolic-sounding statement was based on my personal experience of testing an Alter-G at a Los Angeles physical therapy clinic. While on the machine, which allows the user to run at anywhere between 20 and 100 percent of his or her full body weight, I could not imagine a single injury I’d ever suffered (and I’d suffered them all) that I couldn’t have trained through uninterruptedly with one of these babies. Of course, injured runners can usually ride a bike and can almost always run in a pool, but unlike these traditional cross-training activities, running on an antigravity treadmill is not an alternative to running—it is running!

The one big drawback to the Alter-G, as I noted in the same article, is accessibility. Although the cost of the cheaper consumer models has come down substantially over the last decade, they’re still far more expensive than a regular treadmill. You can rent time on a machine at some high-end endurance training facilities and physical therapy clinics, but that cost adds up too. Plus it’s a hassle. I’d have to drive 20 minutes each way to access the nearest machine in my area.

Not long after my Alter-G experience, I read a scientific paper that inspired me to try steep uphill treadmill walking as a sort of poor-man’s version of antigravity treadmill running and found that it worked pretty well. It gets your heart rate up, the movement pattern is very similar to running, and it’s a low-impact activity rather than a nonimpact activity, so it helps maintain tissue adaptations to repetitive impact, making for a smoother transition back to normal running than you’d get from cycling or pool running.

While training for a recent Ironman I did a ton of steep uphill treadmill walking because, yet again, I was unable to run due to injury. As race day drew closer and closer and I kept failing the occasional test runs I did, I became increasingly worried that I was running out of time to get my running up to snuff. That’s when I got the idea to try steep uphill running. At a steep enough incline, running generates scarcely more impact force than walking does. My plan was to first see whether my injury could handle a slow jog at a 15 percent incline, and if it could, to then gradually run faster at progressively lower gradients until I was able to run normally again. In this way I wouldn’t have to wait any longer to start building up my running fitness but at the same time I wouldn’t hinder the healing process.

Long story short, it worked. Twelve weeks before my race, I took the final step in the process, from running at a 4 percent incline to running outdoors. Even then, though, I was unable to run faster than about 9:30 per mile without pain. Knowing I wasn’t going to get very fit running 9:30 miles, I continued to perform my higher-intensity runs on the treadmill, which I could do without hindering my recovery if the incline was sufficiently steep. Six weeks before the Ironman, I ran the Modesto Marathon, finishing in 3:30:46 (8:02 per mile) with moderate pain. Two weeks later, I ran the Boston Marathon in 2:54:08 (6:39 per mile) with only mild pain. Two weeks after that, I won a half marathon in 1:17:58 (5:56 per mile) with zero pain. And two weeks after that, I raced Ironman Santa Rosa, completing the marathon leg in 3:17:02, which was about what I would have expected if I had never gotten injured in the first place.

To be clear, a lot of the actual fitness that enabled me to make such rapid progress came from cycling. I was on my bike seven to nine hours per week throughout this period. But I doubt I would have performed as well as I did in the Ironman if not for uphill treadmill running, which functioned as a bridge back to normal run training. Neither walking nor elliptical running nor pool running would have done that for me.

Want to give steep uphill treadmill running a try? Excellent. First, go and get yourself injured. Next, hop on a treadmill and find the shallowest incline that allows you to run without pain. If it’s quite steep (15 percent or close to it) and you’re not a very fast runner, you might not be able to run at any speed without workout really hard. In that case, start with intervals, alternating short running bouts with walking. When you feel ready, lower the belt angle a few degrees and give that a try. If you can run pain-free at this new incline, do so until you ready to lower the belt again, and so on until you’re back to normal running. 


$ubscribe and $ave!

  • Access to over 600 plans
  • Library of 5,000+ workouts
  • TrainingPeaks Premium
  • An 80/20 Endurance Book


30 day money back guarentee

For as little as $2.32 USD per week, 80/20 Endurance Subscribers receive:

  • 30-day Money Back Guarantee