The 80/20 Running marathon plan: What’s It Good For?

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Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running (2014)

Matt Fitzgerald’s written a lot of books, and a lot of them are good books. He’s one of this generation’s great minds when it comes to endurance training.

He is also one of the champions of 80/20 Endurance Training, the approach found by Dr. Stephen Seiler to be the most efficient mix of easy and hard training. In a nutshell, 80% of your training is done at easy intensity and 20% is done at harder intensity.

Fitzgerald’s aptly titled 2014 book 80/20 Running is an extended research guide on how he and everyone determined that 80/20 training was the optimal blend of easy and tough workouts.

And as you’d expect, the book includes a set of training plans broken out by difficulty for every major racing distance, from the 5K and 10K, to the Half Marathon and the full Marathon. I want take a look at the Marathon training plans.

As usual, I’m not writing this as a review of the book… though I will freely admit that I love the book and, however dated it might be, I highly recommend you read it if you’re a serious distance runner. Triathletes will get just as much from his more recent 80/20 Triathlon, which adapts the principles to training for the three-discipline endurance sport.

And I will offer this important caveat: Fitzgerald makes it clear that he believes you should take the listed workouts in his book combined with 80/20 principles and create your own training plans based on your needs. So to review this training plan is fundamentally undercut by the fact that they are merely written as templates or samples, something to follow if you just for some reason cannot or won’t make a training plan of your own.

However, given the plans do mirror many of Fitzgerald’s general principles regarding scheduling workout and training progression, I’ll go ahead and review the marathon training plan anyway.

Do note that the training plan, not to my knowledge available in the public domain, would either way require that you have the book 80/20 Running. The workouts are listed only by title, and the finer points are outlined elsewhere in the book. So, you need the book to follow the plan.

The Nuts and Bolts:

  • As the title attests, the plan is built around the book’s philosophy of making 80% of weekly training an easy intensity, and the other 20% more intense.
  • Workouts are often delineated by heart rate zones (easy Zone 1 to max intensity Zone 5). In a prior section of the book Fitzgerald gives a breakdown of what heart rates correspond to what zones, as well as methods to determine your zone heart rates based around an estimated lactate threshold. You’re expected to know your heart rates for these zones, and use a fitness watch or other in-run heart rate monitor to track this during workouts.
  • The book offers three separate levels of marathon training plans, which follow a typical breakdown: Level 1 is for newcomers, beginners, and others seeking a lighter training load. Level 2 is for experienced runners looking to improve. Level 3 is for high-level competitors who are prepared to train twice a day at times.
  • Fitzgerald states the expectation that you only begin this program if you already train aerobically in some capacity six days per week, aka you already work out a lot.
  • All three plans are 18 weeks long.
  • Every workout references one of dozens of indexed workouts from earlier in the book, e.g. Fast Finish Run 1, Foundation Run 4, Long Run 10. You will need to reference that section of the book to determine the length and parameters of the workout.
  • Though the general template of each week remains the same, the workouts you do week to week vary widely, e.g. your foundation runs and long run will change in length, your speed workout format will change week to week, some weeks on Friday you do hill repeats and some weeks you do speed play, etc.
  • Long runs are indicated in miles but all other workouts are broken down by time within the heart rate zones… typically starting with an easy warmup in Zone 1 before progressing to the higher zones for the workout.
  • You’re expected to run 6-7 days a week. Only the Level 1 plan gives you a day off, the first day of the week (designated in the book as Monday, though this of course can be shifted according to your schedule). Levels 2 and 3 expect you to run every day.
  • Tuesday and Friday (2nd and 5th days of week) are typically tougher high intensity workouts, with the 7th day Sunday being the long run workout. All other workouts are regular Foundation runs, except for Recovery Runs on Saturday (Day 6) right before the long run.
  • You are given the option to cross train on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and in lieu of any 2nd runs of a day. Fitzgerald’s book follows the training plan chapter with an extended chapter on cross training, types of suitable cross training, and general feedback on how to go about it. Basically you do any cross training at low intensity for a duration equal to the recommended run workout that day.
  • In Level 3 you do double-workout days on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (2nd, 4th and 6th days of week). The harder workout goes first and the 2nd workout is always an easy Recovery Run.
  • Level 3’s long runs follow an interesting progression: The traditional 20 mile long run occurs in Week 8, less than halfway through the program. Every weekly long run thereafter is a shorter long run with a fast finish or what Fitzgerald calls “Speed Play”, aka fast intervals mixed into the long run. Only at peak week do these fast interval runs re-reach 20 miles.
  • The total training load isn’t measured in miles, but in total time, as the distance you cover will vary according to your own pace at the given intensities. Level 1 expects 3.5-6.5 of weekly training, level 2 expects 5-7 hours per week, and level 3 expects 7-11 hours per week. You can get a rough idea of the effort investment required given most regular runs for most people last 45-60 minutes, most speedwork sessions take about 60-80 minutes, and most long runs last 1.5-3.0 hours.

Who Does This Training Plan Not Work For?

Slower runners. The typical Foundation Run on this plan is about 30-50 minutes in designated length, and any runner who runs slower than a 11:00 easy mile simply won’t cover much ground on these runs. Aerobically these workouts will benefit you and you’ll get some neuromuscular benefit, but not enough to effectively develop the needed mitochondria over time.

It can be argued these runs should be short to maintain base fitness while enabling recovery between quality workouts. But then you may as well take Fitzgerald’s recommendation to just do cross training instead most of these days.

Still, Fitzgerald himself is a faster runner, and his recommendations were made with faster runners in mind, presuming they would cover several miles on their midweek runs. Slower runners won’t accomplish this and will likely end up sorely undertrained for the race.

Runners who like track work. The speedwork, like the other runs, is generally measured in minutes rather than distance. Runners often prefer the track and its defined measurements of intervals, running reps of 400 meters, 800 meters and so on. Meanwhile, 4 or 5 minute reps done in Zone 4 are more nebulous and you could run different distances in every single rep.

This has its benefits, namely in ensuring everyone who does this plan gets the same amount of high intensity work. But it renders pointless the measured qualities of a track or other defined course. You may as well do these reps on a trail or unmeasured course.

And people who find motivation in going to the track for the reasons I described probably won’t enjoy this approach as much.

Runners who like longer midweek runs. As mentioned, the midweek Foundation Runs tend to be about 30-50 minutes long, and many runners may feel they’re just getting started once they hit the end of such runs. Such runners may prefer the Hansons or IronFit approach of running about an hour or more during their midweek runs. If you’re such a runner, you’re probably not going to enjoy this plan as much.

Runners who need multiple days off each week. Only the beginner level plan gives you a day off, and it’s just a single day off at the start of the week. All the higher level plans expect you to train every day. Though Fitzgerald in principle floats the option, it’s expected you do all of the workouts.

Some runners prefer or need multiple days off each week, whether to recover and avoid injury, or because their lives require the time and space. While most of the workouts are not terribly long in duration, it is expected you go out of your way to train every day. If that’s too much for you, then you might need another plan.

You don’t want a plan that’s too complicated. Because the workouts are only shown by name, requiring that you flip back to the workout description section of the book to verify the parameters, it can get aggravating for runners to have to go back and forth. It’s also quite possible to mix up the needed workout with an adjacent workout and end up running too short or long.

Most other training plans spell out in a chart what exactly you need to do, and this plan does not. Some can navigate that without a problem, but if you want everything available at a glance, and aren’t willing to pre-write into a grid all your required workouts on a separate page… this might not be the best plan for you.

You want to be told how many miles or XYZ meter reps to run. Along with the track fiends who like the measured aspect of track workouts, some runners prefer to know how many miles they’re expected to run.

And many run routes of a given length and like that they know how far they’ll need to go this workout or that. Having a 30-50 minute workout means your distance travelled will change from workout to workout (hopefully over time getting longer as you improve your aerobic fitness), which can throw runners out of whack if they rely on running along a defined route.

Speed workouts can get especially difficult for such people if they, say, have well defined 300-800 meter stretches that you can run for those reps. It becomes harder to find the needed space or measure your results when speedwork is measured in minutes rather than meters.

If it doesn’t matter to you or you have a solid uninterrupted route that can accommodate any distance, then this isn’t such a big deal. But for many, it’s for some reason important to have measured weekly workouts. This might not be the plan for them. Hanson Marathon Method or the classic Hal Higdon plans are more up your alley.

Who Does This Training Plan Work Well For?

Runners with injury histories. The key separator of this plan from others is, as Fitzgerald spends the entire book hammering home, 80% of training is meant to be done at easy intensity. This could help runners who have had injury problems with other training approaches, as while the volume can still be high the physical demand of most of these workouts is fairly low. You can slow down or cross train as needed to get most of the work done, while just loading up for the three hardest workouts.

Runners who want to run every damn day. Some plans just give you day after day of running, and Fitzgerald’s 80/20 plan is definitely one of those. Even the day off in the Level 1 plan comes across as a token day off, while the other plans make it clear you are to train every single day. If this is how you roll, then Fitzgerald’s 80/20 might be right up your alley.

Faster runners who don’t have a ton of time. The flip side from the slower runners is that if you’re a fast runner, you should get everything you aerobically need out of these midweek training runs, while getting the longest of them done in less than an hour. Even the speedwork sessions typically don’t demand terribly much time, taking around 30-45 minutes. Only the long runs demand sizable chunks of time, and dealing with that once a week on the weekend tends to work just fine for most.

Runners who prefer to run by feel instead of tight parameters. Fitzgerald (and he’ll tell you this himself) is hardly reinventing the wheel by having you train by heart rate zones rather than paces or simple mileage.

But setting time and heart zones as his only parameters makes this the ultimate run-by-feel program. If you’re not feeling it on a given day, your heart rate will usually reflect that, and you can slow down and dial it back accordingly.

As long as you get your, say, 40 minutes in Zone 2, your Foundation Run will go just fine no matter how you feel or how little distance you cover that day.

Runners who need to lose weight. Because this training plan requires substantial time running easy and low intensity, a runner carrying extra weight is more likely to lose extra fat from all the extra low intensity aerobic training, without sacrificing much of any valuable muscle since most of the training is at a manageably low intensity.

At low intensity, you’ll burn more fat than glycogen per mile, plus over time will gradually become more efficient… meaning at a given pace or intensity you’ll burn even more fat and less glycogen per mile. This will not only help you preserve your glycogen stores on race day but will help reduce your racing weight, making it easier for your body to run more quickly with no added effort.

No Verdict

I’m admittedly a big fan of the 80/20 training approach, though I can take or leave the repscribed marathon training plan. Granted, I’m one of those slower runners that I recommended not do this training plan, and that’s part of it.

I think certain people can get a lot more out of it than other plans, while it doesn’t work as well for others. As always, draw your own conclusions and figure out if it can work well for you. Either way, I definitely recommend you find and read the book 80/20 Running.

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