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The Long Run Book Club: A Conversation about Matt Fitzgerald’s book 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower

Overheard in Government Canyon State Natural Area on Sendero Balcones: A conversation about Matt Fitzgerald’s book 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower.

L: So I’ve been reading this book called 80/20 Something Something by Matt Fitzgerald, and it’s pretty great.


B: Is this the same one you were reading the last time we ran together at the beginning of November?


L: Yeah, I kind of stalled midway through. I mean, the first part was just so perfect…so straightforward. It had that total “drink to thirst” feel. Basically, the very best runners do 80% of their training at an easy effort and 20% at a hard effort. And most other runners do more of a 50-50 split. They do their easy runs too hard and their hard runs too easy. But when they employ this 80:20 ratio, they improve a lot – and they improve faster than other runners who do more of that 50-50 split.

One of the first lines in the book is something like: “Do you want to run faster? Then you need to slow down.”

It was simple.

It made sense.

It was “Drink to thirst.” You know, Dr. Tim Noakes mantra about how much water we need to drink while we run.

And, anyway, I was just really excited about using that 80/20 ratio in my training.


B: But?


L: Well, I don’t know, I feel like there was a bait and switch halfway through the book, and it got complicated. There were all these ways to figure out exactly what “easy” was – – and what “hard” should be. And then Fitzgerald actually said that the 80/20 model was really too simplistic to apply directly to a training plan. He actually used the words, “I confess.” And then he laid out the fine print and all these other rules that you needed to use.

I had to put the book down for a while after that. I set it aside for a week — and then another week.  And then I felt badly for a week about how I wasn’t going be able to finish the review on time. And then it was Christmas…

Mostly, I was just mad the book was complicated – and that it wasn’t the “drink-to-thirst” book I’d thought it was. I really wanted it to be as easy as:

Weekly Mileage x 0.8 = Easy Running.

I wanted it to be like some miracle weight loss program: “Lose Weight By Eating Donuts and Drinking Beer.”

You know?


B: Yeah. So what was so complicated?


L: Well, honestly, it wasn’t actually complicated when I finally sat down with it in a quiet room. I mean, I’m pretty embarrassed it was such a stumbling block for almost two months. Basically, I just had to accept that it was more complicated than “Go slow to go fast.” — and then concentrate on understanding the details. Really I just I wasn’t up to concentrating last month – or most of this month.  And I wasn’t excited about understanding the details. Do you ever have to wait until you’re ready to read something?


B: Yeah.


L: That’s how it was with the second half of this book.


B: So what exactly does it the calculation come down to?


L: OK, well, basically, (and, again, I’m completely embarrassed this felt even remotely hard to grasp), you need to use perceived effort, heart rate, and pace to monitor the intensity of your runs – so you can figure out the 80/20 split. All three have drawbacks that necessitate the use of the others. Perceived effort is a great tool, but it takes experience to use well, and it’s also affected by fatigue. Quantifying perceived effort makes it more useful. I’ll show you Fitzgerald’s 10-point scale when we get back to the cars.





Basically you want to keep your perceived effort below a 5 for 80% of the time. At a 5, you feel like you’re pushing yourself “ever so slightly.” Of course, a particular pace might feel like a 2 at the beginning of a run, and a 6 towards the end. So you’d want to note your pace as well and try to maintain that as the run goes on.

Ultimately, Fitzgerald says most people need more precision than the perceived effort scale provides, so he adds a 5-point heart rate scale to it. I’ll show you that one too once we get back to the cars.




And you have to figure out your lactate threshold to figure out your five heart rate zones for the heart rate scale. (This is where I started to get particularly grumpy during my first read through.) Fitzgerald outlines a bunch of different ways to go about figuring out your lactate threshold heart rate. There’s one where you run hard for 30 minutes and then use your average heart rate over the last 10 as your lactate threshold heart rate. He’s also created an app that takes you through a series steps using perceived effort to calculate your heart rate zones. I’m going to give that one a try and see how it goes.

Of course, heart rate is great for keeping slow runs slow, but it doesn’t work well for interval speed sessions or hills because there’s a lag behind your change in speed and your heart rate readout.


B: Oh, that makes sense. Your speed and effort increase before you see it on your watch.


L: Yeah, so you need to use pace and perceived effort for speedwork and hills. So Fitzgerald adds pace to the other scales he created and tells you how to figure those out.




B: So do you think you’re going to try to figure it all out and use the 80/20 model?


L: Yeah, after all that, I do. I’ve wanted to get back to using a heart rate monitor to make sure I’m not doing my easy and recovery runs too hard. And I think it’ll be interesting to figure out my lactate threshold and my different heart rate zones. I do want to see how my training over the past 18 weeks breaks down along 80/20 lines. The end of the book is filled with training plans, and I want to test one out for a marathon. I’ve trained entirely by pace for the last three marathons I’ve run, and I want to see if this makes any difference. Maybe I’ll do the Cowtown ultramarathon in March and see how it goes.


B: Well, let me know. Should I bother reading it in the meantime?


L: I think it’s definitely worth reading – despite the bait and switch. And I’ll let you know what comes of the training. I’m going to walk up this next hill for starters though.

– Liza Howard

About the author

Liza Howard Liza Howard became addicted to ultra running belt buckles back in 2008 and now runs for New Balance and coaches fellow ultra runners. She also teaches for the Wilderness Medicine Institute and is a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. For more information on Liza, check out the About page where you can learn about her coaching, trail running camp, and daily life musings.

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