January 24, 2019
The two most important variables in run training are volume (distance run) and intensity (how hard or fast you run). These two variables have been combined in training programs over many years in the following ways: low volume/low intensity running, high volume/low intensity running, low volume/high intensity running, and high volume/high intensity running.
It is the high volume/low intensity running combination that has the most merit for helping runners to perform to their best potential. It appears that the difference between runners who realise their full running potential and those that don’t is the amount of slow running that each does.
It’s difficult for many runners to make peace with the concept that if they want to run faster they likely need to slow down in some of their training sessions. Wanting to run faster, yet needing to slow down seems contradictory.
In 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower’, Author Matt Fitzgerald outlines that recent studies of the training practices of the world’s leading runners reveal that they spend on average 80% of their total training below the ventilatory threshold. The ventilatory threshold pace is slow enough that a runner can hold a conversation. In well trained runners the ventilator threshold falls between 77 and 79percent of maximum heart rate. In other words, for every one hard run, the elite distance runner will run four easy runs. By contrast the recreational runner tends to run one easy run for every hard run. The other 20% of training time is spent at high intensity, that is above the respiratory compensation threshold (the point where hyperventilation, or rapid, deep breathing occurs)
Fitzgerald cites that new research suggest that recreationally competitive runners improve most rapidly when they run more slowly in training more often than not. The good news is that unless you are an elite runner, it is almost certain that you are doing less than 80percent of your training at low intensity, and that you can improve by just slowing down!
Making slow runs too fast
Most recreational and recreationally competitive runners would acknowledge that they tend to run their recovery or steady runs faster than what they intended. A 50/50 approach is typical of many recreationally competitive runners, that is 50% of training is performed at moderate intensity (of this 10% may be performed at high intensity), and 50% at low intensity.
I for one am guilty of this. For years I have knowingly sped up in training runs that I intended to be slow or recovery runs. On occasions the speeding up was the result of running with friends, or a running group, where the pace often creeps faster and faster as running egos and competitive streaks take-over. On other occasions I have been running solo with the desire to simply get the ‘job done’ and finish the session as soon as possible. On these solo runs my mindset is that I just want to get home, tick the training box, log the kilometres, and get on with whatever other tasks or responsibilities I have for the day.
I have for many years like many runners been of the belief that if I can run somewhere between four and seven times per week than I must run at least half of them with intensity if I wish to improve. There is also a popular belief that if you are completing ‘quality sessions’ with high intensity than there is no need to log lots of slower type ‘junk miles’. The distinction here is that science shows that it is not the slow miles that are junk, but rather the miles run at moderate pace, neither being low or high intensity.
Aside from the potential reduction in my running performance and a hindering of my progress by running 50% of my runs at high intensity, the other problem with a 50/50 approach is that there is no immediate penalty to the greater than 20% of high intensity training that gets completed. That is by running my slower runs at a faster pace, this intensity shift does not specifically ‘harm’ me at the time of the training session. While the run may contribute over time to the onset of a running related injury, there is no immediate negative consequence of the slow run being completed at moderate or a faster intensity.
Over time what happens is that this faster pace ‘slow’ running becomes habitual, and it sticks. For most runners this habitual pace is above an easy pace, but below their race pace. With time a recreational runner’s habitual pace tends to become one of moderate intensity. However, in order to fulfil running potential research validates that the habitual pace needs to be slower with four-fifths of the training volume being best at sub ventilatory threshold levels of intensity.
Fitzgerald asserts that running too hard too often is the single greatest detrimental mistake in the sport of running. This tendency to run what should be an easy pace run at a moderate pace is most likely hindering the progress of many runners. The problem being that running slow doesn’t come naturally to many runners.
Reflecting on my own two decades of running, the training habits of my physiotherapy patients, and the observations of running friends and colleagues, it would appear that few runners today recognise the benefits of slow running and tailoring their training mix to follow an 80/20 slow running/fast running protocol.
Interestingly though the success of slow running has been evident in the historical annals of international competition since New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard revolutionised the world running scene with his ‘mostly slow’ coaching methods in the 1960s.
The history of 80/20 running
In 1945 Lydiard conceived the idea that the key to maximum running fitness was lots of slow running. Lydiard believed that endurance was the true limitation in running. Lydiard therefore believed that training programs should emphasise endurance building. Lydiard’s mantra was that the ‘secret to running faster was to run further’. Through his own trial and error in training Lydiard found that speed work helped the most when it was ‘sprinkled lightly’ on top of a large foundation of slow running. Hence Lydiard essentially invented the 80/20 training approach.
Following the impressive success of Lydiard’s athletes at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Lydiard’s low-intensity, high volume approach began to spread globally.
Fast forward to the modern era and all distance world records have been set by athletes trained with an 80/20 approach. This includes the current distance domination of the East Africans including the Kenyans and Ethiopians.
In recreational running circles there exists a popular belief that East African runners must do much more training at moderate to high intensities than do other more recreational runners. However, this is not the case. In 80/20 Running Fitzgerald assert that research highlights that world class runners such as the best Kenyan runners, perform greater than 80% of their training at intensities below the ventilatory threshold.
Why your habitual pace tends to be at moderate pace
Why would a runner naturally choose to habitually train faster than what is comfortable or required? In 80/20 Running Fitzgerald cites that it is likely due to the task oriented nature of runners. That is when a runner has a ‘job to do’ they wish to get it done. Most runners think in terms of covering a distance as opposed to running for ‘x’ amount of minutes, and hence the fastest way to get a distance based task completed (eg a 5km run) is too push hard and try and run it fast.
Fitzgerald claims that while runners have an inclination to ‘get it done’ they also have an aversion to suffering. So what ends up occurring is the runner compromises between the desire to get the workout over quickly by running at high intensity and their desire to not suffer excessively. The run ends up therefore being done at moderate intensity.
A runner’s habitual pace becomes ingrained. It becomes familiar through repetition. And for this reason a runner’s habitual running pace will be difficult to change.
Runners are generally unaware that they are running too hard when running at their habitual pace. Most runners think that they are running at low intensity (easy) when in fact they are running at moderate intensity (somewhat hard).
The problem is that running at moderate intensity too often does not result in immediate consequences. This error does not cause a runner to go immediately backwards in their performance. Rather Fitzgerald cites that it reduces a runner’s rate of improvement with performance stalling. As a result, most runners are unaware that their easy runs are now moderate intensity, and furthermore that this mistake is limiting their running potential.
Fitzgerald likens this intensity blindness to be like that of chronic sleep deprivation. If an optimal amount of hours of sleep was say 8hours per evening and you slept for 6hours per evening, you may be able to function okay and feel alright during a day. However, it is only when you sleep for the optimal hours per evening that you can appreciate how much better you both feel and function.
In a similar fashion runners need to experience what low intensity slow running feels like before being able to appreciate how their previous moderate intensity running excess was in fact limiting their performance.
The role of high volume training in 80/20 running
One of the chief benefits of adopting an 80/20 approach to training is that the greater time spent training at lower intensity than say a 50/50 approach, allows a runner to log more volume. This is in keeping with Arthur Lydiard’s philosophy that if you want a runner to run faster than they must run further.
Because under an 80/20 running approach so much of the training occurs at low intensity, runners can run higher mileage with less likelihood of succumbing to injury or illness. It is the increased volume that produces much of the gains runners can expect from adopting an 80/20 running approach.
The benefits of greater running volume is the concomitant improvement in aerobic capacity, which in turn results in gains with speed sustainability (maintaining the same speed for longer distances), and running economy.
If you have read this section about 80/20 running with interest and wonder if it is just a fad or one way of training amongst many ways that might yield results, consider a statement Fitzgerald makes in 80/20 Running comparing the training habits of Olympic Champion Sir Mo Farah and former US marathon record holder Bill Rodgers:
‘Training methods continue to evolve in the sport of running, but today’s innovators are working at the margins, tinkering with different methods of incorporating cross-training, altitude training, and other such practices into their regimens…..Mo Farah‘s training in the second decade of the twenty-first century is not much different from Bill Rodgers‘ training in the 1970s. Rodgers ran upward of 120 miles per week, and Farah runs up to that amount. Rodgers did about 80 percent of his running at low intensity, and Farah does the same.’
Putting 80/20 Running into practice
The acceptance of slower running needs to occur on two levels: in a runner’s mind and their body.
Breaking the habit of pushing yourself during training runs will take time-so be patient.
Embrace the 80/20 running mentality by accepting that it yields better results than other training methods.
The next run you do go slow-really slow. The run should feel effortless. Be prepared that your mind will wander and that you will want to speed up. There may exist a ‘tug of war’ between your conscious self-trying to run at a slow pace and your subconscious wanting to have you run at your moderate intensity habitual pace.
The next run go a little further at slow pace, and repeat this with each run.
Repeat the above for an entire training week. This will prepare you for 80/20 training by resetting your habitual pace. Be prepared that you will realise just how your easy paced runs were at a higher intensity than what you perceive.
By the end of the week of slow running you should feel that slow running is more natural than on the first day.
Article by Brad Beer: Physio With a Finish Line™