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The 80/20 method is the best way for recreational runners to train

Good news: To run like a pro you only have to up the intensity 20 percent of the time.
Runners who spend most of their time training at a moderate intensity can actually be hindering their progress.
Runners who spend most of their time training at a moderate intensity can actually be hindering their progress.Getty Images

You don’t need to be fast to run like the pros. In fact, top endurance athletes tend to spend most of their time training at an easy pace, according to running coach and best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald. He said it’s a consistent pattern among professional athletes in different endurance sports all over the world.

The top performers seem to do about 80 percent of their training at low intensity, 20 percent at moderate to high intensity,” said Fitzgerald, who introduced this method in his 2014 book “80/20 Running.” 

While controlled studies have found that the 80/20 method also yields the best training results for recreational athletes, and may also reduce injuries, Fitzgerald said runners tend to spend most of their time training at moderate intensities, which can actually hurt progress. It’s what he calls the “moderate intensity rut,” which he compares to being “a little bit chronically sleep deprived.” 

Athletes who habitually train at just above their moderate intensity threshold are “carrying around this chronic burden of unprocessed fatigue,” he said, which can prevent their bodies from adapting.

“So it’s almost like you’re just lighting two minutes out of every five on fire,” he said. “You’re wasting your training time.”

The 80/20 method is far from the only pro running habit that everyday runners can embrace. In his upcoming book “Run Like A Pro (Even If You’re Slow): Elite Tools and Tips for Runners at Every Level,” scheduled for release in March, Fitzgerald and co-author Ben Rosario expand on elite training methods that can help almost anyone become a better runner.

Fitzgerald recommends trying these pro tips from the book to up your running game:

Slow Down

The 80/20 rule is the number-one pro habit most of us can adopt to improve our running, according to Fitzgerald. There are different ways to integrate 80/20 into your routine. If you run 200 minutes per week, you'll want to spend about 160 of those minutes at low intensity and the rest at moderate and high intensity combined, said Fitzgerald. Use this as a loose guideline to inform your runs. Let’s say you do five runs a week. You can do three of those runs at a slow intensity and two runs at moderate to high intensity, or you can divide each run into 80/20 splits. For example, you can split each run into intervals, running at 20 minutes low intensity and then 10 minutes at high intensity. What matters most is that you are intentionally keeping a slow pace during your low intensity runs. “It doesn’t have to be drastic, but if you slow down just a little bit and are disciplined in executing those easier sessions, your body will just be able to absorb the stress and benefit from it more,” Fitzgerald said.

An easy way to know if you are running too fast is to get a smartwatch that monitors heart rate. You can also do what Fitzgerald calls the “talk test.” At a slow pace, you should be able to speak comfortably in full sentences. If you find that difficult, you are running too fast.

Want to be a faster runner Slow down, says running coach and best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald.
Want to be a faster runner Slow down, says running coach and best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald.Courtesy of Napa Valley Marathon

Exercise more, but within your limits

Becoming a better runner doesn’t mean training like an elite marathoner. Rather, you can get better simply by dialing up your training within your own limits, according to Fitzgerald. Once you adopt the 80/20 method, he said, this should be easy. “You’ll probably just have more energy, and you’ll have a desire to maybe do a little bit more,” he said.

Warm up, stretch and strength train

A big mistake many recreational runners make is neglecting to warm up before they run, said Fitzgerald. In comparison, the pros will often do “multi-part warmups” before they even head out the door. “They’ll actually start to get up out of their chair first and do some muscle activation exercises, simple ways of waking up your muscles and getting ready to run,” he said, “then they’ll jog a little bit and then they’ll do some drills.” 

A little strength and mobility training can also go a long way for many runners, he added. He said two 20-minute strength training sessions a week is all it usually takes for beginners to see results. And mobility training and stretching can be done almost anywhere, he said. “People who start doing that just tend to start to feel younger, more athletic,” said Fitzgerald, who often stretches in the evenings while spending time with his wife. Adding cross training to your routine is another pro habit that can boost performance, he said. For example, one cycling session a week can aid training while reducing the impact on your legs.

Skip the fad diets

Unlike many recreational runners, pros typically eschew fad diets. They tend to follow just a high-quality, well-balanced, normal diet for whatever their culture happens to be,” Fitzgerald said. But wherever they live in the world, pro runners tend to eat a wholesome diet. “The grains are whole grains, all the meats are unprocessed,” he said. Recreational runners, however, often embrace fad diets that don’t support their training goals. “They might follow a diet that’s more appropriate for weight loss, when in fact, they should be emulating the pros, and doing something that’s better for fitness and performance,” he said.

Know when to quit

A big difference between the pros and everyone else is their ability to listen to their body. Recreational runners may force themselves to train through an injury or off day in the belief that taking a break is tantamount to failure. But elite runners usually don’t hesitate to quit a workout that feels off, Fitzgerald said, opting instead to “save it for another day.”