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If you want to acquire a new skill, any skill, the wisest way to proceed is to emulate the practices that are most commonly used by those who have already mastered that skill. This is why apprenticeships work so well in fields ranging from cooking to medicine.
Running is often treated as an exception to this principle of best practices. Many coaches and exercise scientists contend that everyday runners like you and me cannot and should not copy the training methods of the best runners in the world. After all, they run more than 100 miles every week, and it’s obvious that few non-elite runners can handle that kind of volume.
OK, fair enough. But some coaches and scientists go even further. They say that non-elite runners can “make up for” running significantly less than elite runners by doing a greater percentage of their running at higher intensities. They reason that every fast mile is worth two or three slow miles in terms of the resulting fitness.
For a long time there was no way to refute this logic. But within the past few years, rigorous experimentation has shown that the most effective way for recreational runners like us to train is exactly the same way that elite runners do.
Does this mean that Joe and Jane four-hour-marathoners should run more than 100 miles per week? No, it doesn’t, because everyday runners can train exactly the same way elite runners do without running as much as they do. Keep reading and I’ll explain.
The first step toward determining whether recreational runners should train like elite runners is to establish how the latter really train. Believe it or not, only recently have scientists accurately quantified how elite runners distribute their training time in the various intensity ranges. What they have found is that virtually all elite runners in every country spend about 80 percent of their total training time at low intensity (that is, below the ventilatory threshold, which corresponds roughly to 77 percent of maximum heart rate in fit individuals).
In a 2001 study, researchers found that elite French and Portuguese runners did 78 percent of their training below the ventilatory threshold. Two years later, the same researchers found that elite Kenyan runners did 85 percent of their training below the lactate threshold, which is slightly higher than the ventilatory threshold. A year after that, a survey of male participants in the U.S. Olympic trials marathon found that, on average, they did close to 75 percent of their training slower than marathon race pace, which is a smidgeon faster than the pace associated with the ventilatory threshold. And in 2012, a long-term analysis of the training of three elite Canadian marathon runners found that they did 74 percent of their training at low intensity.
This “80/20” pattern is consistent not only across the world but across time, having become a universal best practice among elite runners in the 1960s. I’ve analyzed the training journals kept by Bill Rodgers before he won the Boston Marathon in 1975 and I discovered that he, too, did about 80 percent of his training at low intensity.
What’s more, the 80/20 pattern is not limited to running. Stephen Seiler, an American exercise scientist based in Norway, has found that elite cyclists, Nordic skiers, rowers, swimmers, and triathletes do roughly 80 percent of their training at low intensity as well. The pervasiveness of this pattern is not the result of copycatting, because training methods in the various endurance sports evolved independently and the majority of elite athletes in all endurance sports aren’t even aware that they are obeying the “80/20 Rule.” Clearly, this method emerged as a best practice across all endurance disciplines simply because it builds fitness more effectively than any alternative.
But here’s the critical question: Is the 80/20 method also more effective than higher-intensity training systems for nonelite runners who don’t run as much as the elites do? New research answers this question with an emphatic “yes.” In a 2007 study, Stephen Seiler and Jonathan Esteve-Lanao found that, compared to a 65/35 intensity split, the 80/20 method improved race performance by 30 percent more in club-level runners who ran 50 to 60 miles per week. And in a follow-up study published seven years later, Seiler and Esteve-Lanao found that recreational runners who ran only 35 miles per week improved their 10K race time by double the amount when they did 80 percent of their training at low intensity versus 50 percent. (And by the way, the average recreational runner does slightly less than 50 percent of his or her training at low intensity, so this study essentially compared the 80/20 method to the way you probably train currently.)
Such evidence proves that regardless of natural ability level or training volume, all runners should do 80 percent of their training at low intensity. The argument that recreational runners should train differently than elite runners is based on the belief that the amount of running a runner does should determine how he or she distributes intensity in his or her training. In fact, it is the other way around: The 80/20 intensity distribution should determine how much running you do, with the objective being to do the amount of 80/20 running that is maximally beneficial.
For you, the maximally beneficial amount of 80/20 running might be 35 miles per week, whereas for the guy or gal who wins the next marathon you run, the maximally beneficial amount of 80/20 running might be 110 miles per week. But don’t be fooled by the mileage numbers. If you do the amount of 80/20 running that is maximally beneficial for you, then you are training exactly the same way that elite runners do, no matter how big the discrepancy in weekly mileage is. And you will get better results than you would get if you trained in any other way.