Obviously there’s a whole book you can read to understand 80/20 running and how and why it works. The book is an interesting read and I highly recommend it. But the basic philosophy behind it is that you should run 80% of your miles truly easy and 20% of your miles should be focused, higher intensity work. This is what most of the pros do, apparently, and Fitzgerald provides a lot of evidence that this approach works well for just about everybody.
At the end of the book, Fitzgerald provides Level I, II and III training plans for various distances. As you would expect, these plans generally line up with beginner, intermediate and advanced runners. Because I had run five prior half marathons and was working on getting faster, I decided to try the Level II plan.
The plan included base building, peak and taper phases. The base building phase was a lot of long, slow miles, with some hill repeats and a few short speed intervals thrown in. The peak phase included tempo runs and workouts with short, fast intervals. Taper was taper, although it didn’t scale things back as much as other plans I have seen. For example, the plan called for a 10-mile run the weekend before the race.
One of many new-to-me things about this plan is that it emphasized time running as opposed to miles. The long runs were all written in terms of miles, but all of the other runs just told you the time and intensity at which to run. I’m not sure that made a big difference in the end. When I run with my group, we always decide in advance how many miles we’re running and then do the “route of the day” for that many miles. I just tried to pick the distance that was most likely to line up with my pace and do that. So if I had an easy 45 minutes on the schedule, I would pick a 4 mile route. If I didn’t finish the amount of time I needed by the time I got back, I would run circles around the parking lot until I did.
The interval workouts were my favorite parts of the plan. It included several types. Tuesdays during the peak phase of the plan involved a tempo-paced run, so I would run a warm up, then a certain number of minutes at tempo (mine ranged from 24-32 minutes), then a cool down. Fridays were for more varied speed work, with shorter efforts in Zones 3 (tempo pace), 4 (1-3 mile race pace-ish) and 5 (sprinting). I think those runs were my favorite, because they broke up the workout a lot and I loved uploading my workout and seeing interval paces that I had never seen before. The peak phase also included long runs with short speed intervals worked in. Some of those long runs were “fast finish” runs, where you ran the last 1-1.5 miles at tempo speed. Others were “speed play” runs where you run roughly 0.25 of every mile at tempo, and the rest of the mile at an easy pace.
One of the benefits of the plan is that it gave me a much better sense of pacing. I stopped relying on my watch so much (except for the HR alerts) and relied more on effort and feel. I had to think about what Zones 1-5 really meant for me.
It forced me to sustain harder efforts for specific amounts of time. In prior training cycles, I only ran faster if I was feeling particularly good or if I was trying to keep up with a faster group. There was nothing deliberate about it. This plan gave me specific times to run specific hard efforts that helped build my fitness and helped give me more confidence that I could pick up the pace.
I ran more miles overall. I started the plan in December 2016, and ran 112.5 miles that month. In January I ran 107.4 miles (despite a big snowstorm) and in February I ran 113.1 miles. March was 116.8 miles, even with the taper. The last time I trained for a half, I only had one month of more than 100 miles. I was able to pull off this many miles only because I was running most of my miles easy.
Fitzgerald says that by following this plan, your running form becomes more efficient. I have seen this claim criticized in other reviews of the book. But I think there might be something to it. One thing I noticed is that my cadence has increased, even on my easy runs. I’m now a lot closer to that “ideal” cadence of 180. I wasn’t trying to increase my cadence, I wasn’t even thinking about it. But somehow it happened.
For long runs, the plan included several 10 and 12 milers and one 14 miler, which was a confidence builder for me. When I trained for the marathon last fall, I really worried about how I would get through those last 6.2 miles since I had never run that far. And I really struggled with that last 6.2 miles, as much mentally as physically. I know it’s not practical to train the full distance for a marathon, but I felt much more confident going into my half knowing that I had run more than the complete distance once and almost the complete distance several times.
My biggest criticism of the plan is that it wasn’t very user friendly. For example, when you look at the plan, it might say “Foundation Run 5” on it. I would then have to flip to a different section of the book to figure out what the heck a Foundation Run 5 is. I got to know the types of runs over time, but the numbers that were assigned to each type weren’t intuitive at all. This would have been a bit easier if I had bought the hard copy of the book instead of the kindle version. And I suppose I could have front-loaded the work and typed all the details into my own version of the plan. But I didn’t do that, and looking everything up was often annoying.
The other negative aspect of the plan, at least for me, was that it detracted a little from the social aspect of running. The zones and paces I was supposed to run for any given day were very personal to me and my fitness and how I was feeling on that particular day. Often that did not line up with what my running friends were doing. Sometimes I would get dropped by the group because my HR alert was telling me I had to slow down. Sometimes people didn’t want to run with me because I was doing those weird intervals again. A lot of friends even took to questioning what was on my plan before they would agree to run with me. Although this saddened me at times, I accepted it as a necessary evil. I also learned through this process that it is important to do what my body and my training dictate, and not just follow others’ lead all the time.
I was thrilled with the results of the plan. I PRed my half marathon by almost 8 minutes. But even more important than that, I enjoyed my running a lot more. I don’t think I had ever felt as motivated to work hard and improve. After this great experience, I plan to use one of Fitzgerald’s plans while training for the Marine Corps Marathon this fall.