Master the 80/20 technique

Pushing hard all the time is a bad strategy for reaching your fitness goals. That’s why top-tier endurance athletes train using the 80/20 method, which has them work at a low intensity 80 percent of the time and a moderate to high intensity for the remaining 20 percent of their workouts.

This breakdown was first popularized in the early 2000s, when an exercise scientist in Norway found that’s how many world-class cyclists, cross-country skiers, rowers, runners, swimmers, and triathletes structured their routines.

Here’s the rub: People typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their time working at a moderate intensity, says running coach Matt Fitzgerald, author of the new book 80/20 Triathlete. Ultimately, they push themselves too hard to during training to perform their best on race day. It doesn't help that the popular media is enamored with high-intensity intervals rather than slow and steady training, he says.

While the 80/20 rule might sound like a simple, straightforward one to follow, it comes with challenges. Here are four of the most common obstacles people run into when trying to master this technique, and how you can overcome them and optimize your performance.

The problem: Even easy paces can fall into your moderate-intensity range.

“When you don’t have the endurance of an elite athlete, your low-intensity range is much smaller,” Fitzgerald says. A pro runner might consider anything slower than a six-minute mile easy, while a recreational runner may need to go at a 10-minute pace or slower to feel the same level of comfort. “Most people can’t gauge intensity based on feel,” Fitzgerald says. 

The fix: Eighty percent of the time, train below your ventilatory threshold, the intensity at which breathing rate spikes and you’re officially working at a moderate intensity. It occurs around 78 percent of your maximum heart rate, which you can calculate by subtracting your age from 220. Use a heart rate monitor to make sure that during low-intensity workouts, your heart rate goes no higher than your ventilatory threshold and no lower than 60 percent of your maximum heart rate.

The problem: You want to cross your workouts off your to-do list.

“We’re naturally task-focused, so even if you love something, you want to get it over with and move on to the next thing,” Fitzgerald says. As a result, most people rush through their sessions and end up training at a too-fast pace.

The fix: Make your workouts more enjoyable so you’re less inclined to speed through them. Choosing the right setting, perfecting your playlist, and scheduling low-intensity training when you won’t be rushed can help.

The problem: You don’t feel the negative effects of pushing too hard because your training volume is low.

For non-elites, training isn’t typically a full-time job. That means they won’t experience as many obvious setbacks (like burnout or injury) from working harder than recommended, Fitzgerald says. That said, training at a too-high intensity can lead to a plateau, which people often try to surpass by upping the intensity even more.

The fix: Track all of your daily sessions to monitor how your pace progresses through the weeks. Each week, you should be able to exercise at a slightly faster pace while maintaining the same heart rate for each intensity zone (low, moderate, and high). If your paces have peaked, or worsened, calculate how much of your overall training time is really at a low intensity. You likely need to increase that amount, he says.

The problem: Your ego gets in the way.

“When you’re exercising in public, you don't want to be seen going really slow,” Fitzgerald says. He notes that social media sharing has turned even at-home workouts into competitions, with everyone wanting to go faster and faster.

The fix: Recognize when it’s appropriate to be competitive and when you’re better off taking a more laid-back approach, he says. Instead of trying to keep up with the speedy cyclist on your weekly group ride, understand that by going more slowly, you’re doing your body (and your performance) a favor. You can also benefit from positive self-talk and embracing the challenge, even if the challenge is to take it slow.