The great 80/20 experiment

A little background. As you may know, I’ve fried my legs by running too fast too often. My average speeds have decreased, my tempo speeds have decreased and my legs just feel heavy and tired all the time. Clearly my home-made training plan wasn’t as great as I thought it was.

Enter Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 running. Tucked up on the bed nursing my cold over the past fortnight or so, I’ve been working my way through it with a highlighter. I am pretty much brand new to ‘scientific’ books about running and science is not my strong point at the best of times, but basically…the author takes about 4 chapters to say that:

  • Elite sportsmen and women from many disciplines all do 80% of their training at low intensity (he calls it ‘below ventilatory threshold’ which is slightly below the more commonly used lactate threshold) and 20% at high intensity.
  • He quotes many studies from around the world which back up the benefits of doing this. The arguments are pretty strong.
  • He makes the point that most hobby joggers train too much in either high or mid-intensity zones and not only fry their legs but also sabotage their own chances of good racing results. (Ahem). Notably, what we usually think of as ‘easy’ runs are generally more ‘moderate’ – we always underestimate the effort we’re putting in.
  • The main gist is that if we recreational runners followed this 80/20 rule and ran 80% of our runs below ventilatory threshold and the remaining 20% at high intensity then we should see miraculous, exciting PRs and significant differences off our racing times.
Last time I PRd in Golden Gate Park
Last time I PRd in Golden Gate Park

He then goes on to explain how to gauge your own low/moderate/high intensity zones and then there are 12-week training plans – three plans per distance (5k, 10k, half-marathon, marathon).

I was somewhat reluctant to be persuaded. I don’t want to run slowly – I want to effortlessly cover the ground with the grace and speed of a gazelle. I’m also dubious – it makes no logical sense that, by running slowly I can race faster. But his arguments are compelling. So I’ve been focussing on running really slowly for a few weeks now and I’ve been listening to an e-book of ‘Finding Ultra’ by Rich Roll in which the author actually starts using this very method for his training. Listening to him expound the training- method I’ve been considering and  then moan about how slowly he felt he was running as I crawled along was kind of funny!

The crux of it is…I’m in. I’ve decided to give 15 weeks  (see below) of my running life over to one of his plans and see what happens. I’m going to be an 80/20 guinea pig.

If it works, I’ll have a shiny new half-marathon PR in the Spring in time for my 40th birthday.

If it doesn’t work…frankly I haven’t lost much. I’m not an elite runner. My livelihood doesn’t depend on my results. I might feel a bit shame-faced on this blog and I’ll be a bit dejected and miserable heading into my 40s but that’s hardly a big deal.

I was initially planning to follow the plan for a 10k PR and to aim for that. My friend Maggie made the comment that she thought focussing on shorter distances would be good for me, and I actually really agree with her. But I didn’t find a suitable 10k within the correct time period on the race-finders and  then came RnR SJ and my disappointing time, and it lit a fire in my belly to go out, train my socks off and run my heart out. I love the half-marathon distance, I really do, and if I could improve one PR as I turn 40, it would be that one. So half-marathon it will be.

(I am however planning a Spring of 10ks! And I’m already super-excited about that!)

Back to the training plan. I have a few concerns.

  • It involves a LOT of slow running. More miles and slower speeds. This will take extra time and I’m a little nervous of the additional time that I’ll be having to find for running. October and November (oh November) are likely to be extremely busy although it should calm down a little after that. I think some discipline over early nights will be necessary and some discipline over early mornings too. But discipline is good for me.
  • I’m nervous that I won’t accurately gauge my low/moderate/high intensity zones and thus muck up my training. I’m reluctant to wear a heart-rate monitor although I accept I may have to. I’ll just have to work hard on that particular step!
  • I’m signed up for a trail race mid-December. I’m going to run that however I feel on the day!
This looks nice doesn't it! Source
This looks nice doesn’t it!

My chosen goal race is (drum-roll)….the Kaiser Half Marathon on Feb 1st 2015. I chose Kaiser for many reasons.

  • I’ve run it once already and I know the course.
  • The course is supremely PR-able!
  • It’s five days before I turn 40.
  • Lots of local runners run it – and if you’re a local runner, I think you should sign up too and come and run my Birthday Half-Marathon too 🙂
  • I can go to Crepes on Cole for French Toast afterwards and that will make my day.
On my way to a 37th Birthday PR at Kaiser 2012
On my way to a 37th Birthday PR at Kaiser 2012

Kaiser is 15 weeks away – the training plan is for 12 weeks so I need to start training on Nov 10th. This gives me some time to do lots of slow running to build up my aerobic base and to enjoy my parents’ visit over the next few weeks.

I’m actually quite excited about it. I like the idea of following a plan and being told what to do and when. I very much like the idea of a shiny new PR 🙂

Let’s do this!

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Jen says:

    Excited to see how this works for you! No shame in being our 80/20 guinea pig. 😉
    Oh, and I was thinking about doing Kaiser as well. Hopefully the weather will behave this year. Have you already signed up?

    1. Cathryn says:

      I signed up just now – Husband’s running it too. Tonight’s ballsy goal is 1.49 🙂 Let’s see if I’m talking that big in a few months!

  2. This sounds like a great idea. I have a half in February also so maybe I could try this too. I don’t feel like I have gotten any faster and if this works than maybe I can actually improve my full marathon time too. PS – I love the half distance too. I think I will keep that as my major race distance and just sprinkle these fulls in randomly.

    1. Cathryn says:

      See if you can get the book from the library – it’s interesting. I can’t help but have some reservations but I’m going to give it a go. Halves are so much easier to train for than marathons, I definitely think they’re winners! Congrats again on this weekend’s PR, superstar!

  3. Grace says:

    Ooh, good luck! I’d love to hear how this works for you.
    Since we run at roughly the same paces – what’s the easy pace 80/20 recommends for you? I went 11 to 12++ minutes a mile on my marathon-training long runs and easy runs, as prescribed by Hansons, but you’re right – it t a k e s s o l o o o o n g!

    1. Cathryn says:

      It doesn’t tell you what pace to run at – it’s all linked to heart-rate. So I need to hitch myself up to a HRM, work out what my ventilatory threshold is and then find out what pace that corresponds to. I find that slightly daunting. At the moment, I’m running slowly at about 11.20 – 11.30 – that seems to be my ‘easy pace’ but I’ll test it and get a more accurate number nearer the time I start training and I’ll let you know.

      Slow runs take forever!!!

      1. Grace says:

        Good luck! Would love to hear more when you start training. I’ve been loath to get a HRM (what, more gadgets…as if tri gear isn’t bad enough!) but at some point I might try.

      2. Cathryn says:

        I’m toying with the idea of the Mio than Jen and Angela are raving about. It looks much better than the traditional chest strap. We’ll see…

  4. bt says:

    Super excited to hear about your improvements! I, too, and thinking about doing Kaiser.

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yay, do it !! The Husband and I signed up this evening.

  5. Kate says:

    I’m excited to hear how it goes and am considering Kaiser as well. I’ve never run it. And, we could have a huge birthday brunch for you!

    1. Cathryn says:

      It’s a great local race – the course is flat or downhill and it’s pretty scenic although the 6 mile out-and-back along the ocean really bugs some people. I didn’t have any issues with it mentally last time I ran it! Do it. And I ALWAYS love brunch!!!

  6. Amy says:

    Woot woot! Excited to see your progress and whether this approach works for you. I’m not sure if I’m a true 80/20ist, but I do feel like I train so much slower than most people with similar race times AND I think I get injured less often too. Hopefully miraculous things will happen at Kaiser!

    1. Cathryn says:

      I’m always up for miracles 🙂

  7. Leo Sho-Silva says:

    I used to run this way 30 years ago in my early 20s but obviously as I got older instead of keeping aerobic effort the same I increasesd it and started to slow down and because I slowed down I increased effort even more (digging myself a hole)..I spent the last 3 years jogging/walking 100% of the time averaging 14mim/mile @120bpm …a few weeks ago joined my friends(who had constantly been chiding me) for a run and left them behind ..Dont worry Cathryn you will be quicker.What I would say is that if the fast runs are slowing down your slow runs .then I would say you are not ready for speed work and your aerobic base isn’t strong enough yet as you should be getting quicker at the low effort ..if you are getting slower its a sign that you could get injured ..but hey you want to race and the 80/20 should keep you right ..It only works if you have a strong base..looking forward to following your progress ..good luck !

    1. Cathryn says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment and for sharing your experience! Since this post, I’ve done loads of work at slow running and my legs feel a lot fresher and my speed work is getting faster again. I am not convinced yet that it will result in faster racing times but so far so good! Just need to be more patient. Thanks for all the support!

      1. Leo Sho-Silva says:

        That’s great ..your race times initially might not be loads faster but your body will be in a much healthier place .Fitness without health is a bit like a constructing a building without foundations(health). It will go up really quickly but sooner or later it will topple over (get injured flu etc)..The low intense running is health and the fast stuff is fitness ..for every little bit of fast stuff you need loads of slow stuff to get balance ..a bit like acid and alkaline ..It will probably take a series of races to get you to a pb rather than just pinning your hopes on one ie a few 5 and 10 ks b4 your half

      2. Cathryn says:

        You’re saying I need to be patient?? Ugh.

        Seriously though, great points. Thank you.

  8. Hi Cathryn. I to have been reading Matts’ books and will be undertaking his 80/20 training starting January 26. Leading up to this date, I’ve been following his Quick Start guide to try and shed some pounds before starting the program. Going through the Christmas period may not have been a wise choice, but I seem to have done ok. Also, winter here, Northern Alberta can be challenging to run; it’s been close to -40c with windchill the last couple of days.
    Good to see there are other guinea pigs out there. I’ll be watching your progress to see how you think it is working for you.
    Scott D

    1. Cathryn says:

      Lovely to hear from you, thanks for leaving your comment. And oh my word that sounds cold. I feel guilty for moaning about the frost now!!

      I think my training has been far from textbook 80/20 – this post talks about the principles I tried to stick to but also how i’ve changed the programme to suit me so it might prove useful.

      So far, I think it’s worked well. I’m injury free and running more often and more miles, so that’s definitely a bonus. I’m a little unconvinced it’l magically make me faster but it’s not making me any slower as far as I can tell.

      Good luck with losing those pesky last pounds and for starting 80/20 and with the weather. Looking forward to seeing how you do too.

  9. Bill says:

    So how did all of this work out for you? I’ve recently begun 80/20 training after reading the book. So far, so good.

    1. Cathryn says:

      It worked out okay – I ended up about 40 seconds off a PR but I didn’t race sensibly and I also didn’t stick to 80/20 particularly well so I can’t blame Matt Fitzgerald for my lack of PR 🙂 It’s definitely an interesting approach and one that ups mileage very sensibly. Give it a shot.

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