The 80/20 Theory of Running

by Matt Fitzgerald

Every runner has goals: Some want to lose weight, others want to gain fitness, and still others seek to improve certain health factors. One of the most common running goals is to run faster over a given race distance.

It usually goes like this: You start off with the goal of finishing your first 5K, 10K or whatever. Once you’ve done that, you establish a new goal of running the same distance again and beating your time (i.e. setting a new personal record, or PR).

It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Runners are not crazy: They know that in order to perform better than before in a race, they must prepare better in training. The question is, how?

Racing Faster Doesn’t Just Require Running Faster

In the pursuit of greater fitness and better race results, there are two major training variables that you can manipulate: volume and intensity. Volume is how much you run and intensity is how fast or hard you run. If your goal is to set a new race PR, should you run faster or run more miles in training?

The surprising answer is “neither”… at least not initially. Research indicates that there is a certain balance of training intensities that are optimal for runners at all levels of fitness and experience. Specifically, runners improve the most when they do 80 percent of their training at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. The typical runner does only 50 percent of his or her training at low intensity. This means that, if you are a typical runner, optimizing your training intensity balance will require that you slow down overall.

Increasing the amount of running you do won’t benefit you much until after you have balanced your training intensities according to this “80/20 Rule.” You would actually improve more if you keep your running volume the same and do some of it slower than you would if you run either more or faster.

This may sound too good to be true, but it’s a proven fact. In a 2014 study, for example, researchers divided a group of recreational runners into two subgroups. Some did about 50 percent of their training at low intensity and 50 percent at moderate to high intensity, as the typical runners does. Others did 80 percent of their training at low intensity and the rest at high intensity. The two subgroups did equal amounts of running. After 10 weeks, the runners in the 80/20 group had improved their 10K times by 7%—double the amount of improvement seen in the 50/50 group!

To take advantage of the 80/20 Rule, you need to pay attention to intensity when you run. Low intensity corresponds to subjective effort ratings of 4 and below on a 1-10 scale. You should also be able to talk comfortably at this intensity. Moderate intensity corresponds to ratings of 5-6, and high intensity to ratings of 7 and up. Spend 80% of your total weekly running time at effort levels of 1-4, and the remaining 20% at efforts of 7-10, and get ready to PR!

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