Book review: The training method that pro runners use

“80/20 Running: Run stronger and race faster by training slower” by Matt Fitzgerald

Over the years, running has become my obsession and I’ve managed to read several books on the subject including Build Your Running Body, few books by RunnersWorld, and a brilliant one by the legendary Hal Higdon. But nothing so far have come close to be as practical as this book.

The first few chapters of the book trace back the various training methods throughout history by enigmatic characters, from Emil Zátopek and Paavo Nurmi, to Arthur Lydiard whom first developed the 80/20 philosophy through 9 years of trial and errors since the late 1940s (and proceeded to became a legendary coach with marathon and Olympic winner disciples), to Stephen Seiler whom codified and scientifically verified the 80/20 method, with several brilliant sports scientists and accomplished athletes in between, including the Kenyans in the early 1960s.

It is fascinating to read about the battle between 2 school of thoughts throughout this timespan: the low-intensity high-volume training vs the speed-based training, in which low-intensity high-volume – which became the basis of 80/20 method – evolved over time to be the method of choice by professional athletes in all endurance sports.

So what is the 80/20 method? The logic is pretty simple: the most crucial key factor to long run (and any endurance sport) is stamina, and we build our stamina through as much training as possible (thus, high volume training). However, higher training volume can expose us to higher risk of injury, and that’s where low intensity training comes into play, to minimise or avoid injuries while we clock in longer training hours. Hence, the 80% effort at low intensity and 20% effort at moderate intensity.

The book then proceeded to make the case for the 80/20 method, presenting the scientific backgrounds for every function and the athletic results that show how the method improves our fitness and skill. It then gets very technical in around halfway through, which, for a running geek such as myself whom loves to dwell into the science, brings out the inner Japanese-schoolgirl in me.

Chapter 7 is the absolute gem of the book, with all the training techniques get to be well-defined and then given the proper example that we can implement instantly, complete with all the heart rate zone analyses. For example, the book lay out the no brainer facts that recovery run is done at zone 1, tempo run is at zone 3, while hill repetition run at zone 5. Although they are seemingly basic, nobody ever mentioned this in the pile of books and hundreds of running articles that I’ve read so far, and it gives me some kind of proper measure to can finally do them right.

The definitions also serve as an explanation of several mix matches that often occur between the techniques, such as what’s the difference between an interval run (zone 3 runs separated by zone 1 recoveries) and speed play (zone 2 runs separated by short bursts of zone 4-5). Moreover, the book does a good job on taking anyone step by step from virtually zero to a progressive journey into a 5K runner (chapter 8), 10K runner (chapter 9), half marathon runner (chapter 10), and full marathon runner (chapter 11), while also discussing at length on the importance of cross training (chapter 12).

All in all, the 80/20 method to the Maffetone method is like Stoicism to philosophy, it is the practical version of slow running method that provides us with the specific tools to properly implement and quantify it. And thus, after finishing the book I can’t help but imagining myself as Margaret Thatcher in that famous cabinet meeting, where she slams down the book Road to Serfdom onto the table and declare “this is what we believe now!”