The 80/20 Rule of Training Intensity

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The 80/20 Rule of Training Intensity

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Training

If you ask any running coach to name the most common mistake that runners make in their training, he or she will probably say, “Running too hard on easy days.”

Science backs up this observation. In a 1993 study, for example, researchers at Arizona State University asked a group of recreationally competitive runners to describe their training. On average, these runners claimed to do three low-intensity runs, one moderate-intensity run, and 1.5 high-intensity runs per week. But when the researchers monitored the runners’ heart rate through a week of training, they found that they actually did only 46 percent of their weekly training at low intensity and another 46 percent at moderate intensity.

In short, most of the training that runners think they are doing at low intensity is in fact done at moderate intensity. I refer to this phenomenon as “intensity blindness.”

Spending nearly half of one’s total training time at moderate intensity wouldn’t be a problem if this were an effective way to train, but it’s not. Research has shown that elite endurance athletes in all disciplines, from running to rowing, do 80 percent of their training at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent at moderate and high intensities. Exercise scientists believe that this universal pattern is the result of generations of trial and error conducted at the highest levels of the various endurance sports. Virtually every way of balancing training intensities has been tried, but only the 80/20 balance has survived, because it works best.

But what about nonelite runners like us? Studies have also demonstrated that runners and other endurance athletes of all experience and ability levels improve most when they follow the “80/20 Rule” of intensity balance. A 2014 study led by Jonathan Esteve-Lanao of the European University of Madrid found that club-level runners who obeyed the 80/20 Rule improved their 10K races times by twice as much as their peers who followed a 50/50 intensity split. What this means is that most runners have to slow down to get faster!

Breaking out of the moderate-intensity rut and taking advantage of 80/20 training is a three step process:

Step 1. Find your intensity zones.

In order to spend 80 percent of your training time at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate and high intensities, you need to know what low, moderate, and high intensities are for you. I’ve developed a simple calculator that makes it easy to determine your personal training intensity zones. It is a five-zone system in which Zones 1 and 2 correspond to low intensity, Zone 3 is moderate intensity, and Zones 4 and 5 are high intensity.

Step 2. Plan 80/20 training weeks.

This second step is a simple math game. For example, if you train 5 hours per week, that’s 300 minutes. Eighty percent of 300 is 240, or 4 hours. Here’s how a 5-hour training week with 1 hour of moderate- and high-intensity training might look:

LI = Low Intensity, MI = Moderate Intensity, HI = High Intensity

Step 3. Monitor and control intensity in workouts.

It’s one thing to plan the perfect 80/20 week, another to actually do it. If you’re like many runners, you already intend to do most of your running at low intensity, but when you get out on the road, you do something else—without even realizing it. Fixing this problem requires that you actively monitor your intensity throughout every run and staying in the targeted zones.

Being disciplined in this way can be surprisingly difficult at first. But if you take a leap of faith and follow through with your plan to slow down, your intensity discipline will be well rewarded. The first thing you may notice is that you’re less fatigued from day to day. You’ll also find that you are able to train faster and more comfortably in higher-intensity workouts.

Not to mention on race day!



3 Visualization Techniques to Fix Your Form

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3 Visualization Techniques to Fix Your Form

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Running Form

A few years ago, German researchers conducted an interesting study that looked at the effects of people’s thoughts as they ran. Volunteers were asked to run on a treadmill at a constant speed while focusing their attention on either their body movements, their breathing, or the external environment. The test was repeated three times with the focus of attention changing in random order until all of the volunteers had completed the test in all three conditions.

While the subjects ran, they breathed into a mask that measured their oxygen consumption. The researchers found that the subjects consumed more oxygen at the same speed when their attention was focused on their bodies than in either of the other two conditions. They consumed the least oxygen when thinking about the external environment. In other words, they ran most economically when their attention was externally focused and less economically when it was internally focused.

These findings are consistent with a large body of reach in the field of human biomechanics, which has shown that people learn motor skills faster when they think about key parts of their surrounding environment instead of the movements of their bodies. For example, in one study, novice golfers improved their putting accuracy significantly more when they were instructed to focus on the club head than when they were told to focus on their hands.

Many running coaches teach runners to concentrate on and control specific elements of their body’s movement as they run. The research I’ve just discussed suggests that this is a bad idea, and sure enough, studies have shown that when runners consciously modify their stride in any way they become less economical.

Does this mean that you should never think about your form when you run? Not quite. Many running injuries are caused in part by correctable abnormalities in stride mechanics. Addressing these form flaws is proven to reduce injury risk. Using mental images can help you in this process. But some images are better than others.

As a coach, I assist runners in correcting form flaws not by telling them how to run—which would turn their attentional focus inward and make them less efficient—but by giving them specific mental images that keep their attention externally focused and allow them to change their biomechanics in a more natural way. Here are three form-fixing mental images to try:

Knee Axle

Among the most important running muscles are the hip abductors and hip external rotators on the outside of your hip and backside. These muscles keep your pelvis stable when your foot hits the ground. Many runners don’t activate these muscles properly, which causes the pelvis to tilt laterally, putting strain on the hips and knees and leading to injury.

To activate your pelvic stabilizers during running without turning your attentional focus inward, imagine there’s a short axle between your knees pushing them apart just a little. As with all mental images, don’t exaggerate this one. Creating even an extra centimeter of separation between your knees will serve the purpose of engaging the targeted muscles and may keep you healthier.

Running On Rails

Another common form flaw that leads to injury is internal rotation of the thigh (or knock knees), which is caused by weakness in the hip muscles. Bu strengthening these muscles will not correct the problem on its own. You also need to change your gait.

To effect this change without an internal attentional focus, imagine you’re running on a pair of rails like railroad tracks. Try to make your feet line up perfectly with the rails when they land, with your big toe pointing straight ahead. You may need to subtly rotate your thigh externally to achieve this foot alignment.

Running Quietly

The reason that overuse injuries are more common in running than in other endurance sports is that running is a high-impact activity. Some runners land harder than others, and runners who land harder get injured more often.

To reduce your impact forces during running while keeping your attentional focus externalized, listen to the sound your feet make when they land on the ground.  Now try to run more quietly. Don’t think about changing your stride in any particular way to make it quieter. Just focus on the sound itself and let the mechanics of your stride take care of themselves.




Hydration and Fueling Guidelines for Race Day

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Hydration and Fueling Guidelines for Race Day

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Race Day

What you eat and drink on the day of a race—both before and during the event—has a major impact on how you perform, for better or worse. Consuming the wrong things or the right things at the wrong times or too much or too little of anything can cause problems ranging from gastrointestinal distress to bonking. Consuming the right things in the right amounts at the right times will ensure that you perform up to your potential. Here are some science-based guidelines for race-day nutrition.

The Pre-Race Meal

Most races start early in the morning, and most people wake up in the morning not having eaten or drunk anything for twelve hours or so. Therefore it’s important to eat something before racing to top up the body’s energy stores and restore a normal level of hydration.

The optimal time for a pre-race meal is three hours before the race start. If you don’t want to wake up early enough to have your breakfast then, you can wait until two hours out, but you’ll need to eat a lighter meal to ensure that it empties from your stomach by the time the gun goes off.

A traditional pre-race meal consists of easily digested high-carbohydrate foods such as oatmeal and bananas. However, there is some research suggesting that a meal consisting mainly of fat works better before longer races. The reason is twofold. First, eating a high-fat meal before exercise causes the muscles to rely more on fat and less on stored muscle glycogen for fuel during exercise, increasing endurance. Also, the traditional pre-race breakfast contains more carbohydrate than is necessary to top off the body’s energy stores prior to competition.

Based on this research, I have replaced traditional pre-race breakfasts with one that consists of about 800 calories’ worth of sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, which provide the right balance of fat and carbs to stimulate fat burning and top off energy stores. This is a rather heavy meal, so you’ll want to test it in training before you use it on race day. There’s no need to use this strategy before races shorter than a half marathon.

As for hydration, many runners drink too much before races. You are not a camel. The human body cannot store excess water. If you drink more than you need to in order to restore a normal level of hydration, you will succeed only in increasing the number of bathroom trips you need to make before the race and the likelihood of time-wasting pit stops during the race.

The Final Hour

One hour before your race starts, stop drinking. This will ensure that you start the race with an empty bladder. If you get thirsty during this period, take tiny sips from a water bottle—just enough to wet your whistle.

If you are a coffee drinker and/or you wish to take advantage of the performance-enhancing effect of caffeine, take one or two caffeine pills at the same time you stop drinking. You could drink coffee instead, but I find the pills more convenient because the optimal time to take caffeine is one hour before you start racing and by that time you’re already on site. Plus, pills give you what you want (caffeine) and not what you don’t want (fluid) at this time.

The optimal pre-race caffeine dosage is about 4 milligrams per kilogram you weigh (1 kg = 2.2 lbs). The typical caffeine pill contains 200 mg. Experiment with this practice in workouts before you try it on race day.

About five minutes before you start your race, swallow a packet of energy gel or a couple of energy chews. This will kick-start the race fueling process, as the carbohydrate in the gel or chews will begin to enter your bloodstream just as you are beginning to run.

During the Race

It is not necessary or beneficial to consume any nutrition during a race lasting less than about an hour. In races lasting longer than an hour or so, performance is maximized when runners drink according to their thirst and consume 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour.

It is sensible to get as much of the fluid and carbohydrate you need as possible from the same source—ideally from the sports drink offered at on-course aid stations. Most runners do not get 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour by drinking an event’s official sports drink according to their thirst, however. You can make up the balance by consuming energy gels that you carry with you or get from aid stations as well.

Finally, successful race fueling requires that you listen your body. You must first pay attention to your thirst in order to drink frequently enough and in sufficient amounts to keep it at bay. But you must also pay attention to your gut and avoid forcing yourself to take in nutrition when you are experiencing nausea or other symptoms of GI distress. Practicing your race nutrition strategy in race-simulation workouts will minimizes your chances of experiencing such unpleasant surprises on race day.



5 Basic Eating Habits Every Runner Should Follow

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Five Basic Eating Habits Every Runner Should Follow

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Training

The two factors that affect running performance most powerfully are training and diet. The most effective training methods were discovered not by scientists but rather through a generations-long process of trial and error at the elite level. What this means is that, if you want to get the most out of your own training, you should emulate the practices of the world’s best runners.

The same is true of diet. Elite runners all over the world share a core set of five basic eating habits that represent “best practices” for all runners. Adopting these habits will help you perform better in workouts, recovery faster afterward, get fitter faster, attain your optimal racing weight, and avoid injuries.

Habit One: Eat everything

There are six basic categories of natural, whole foods: vegetables (including legumes); fruit; nuts, seeds, and healthy oils; unprocessed meat and seafood; whole grains; and dairy. The overwhelming majority of elite endurance athletes regularly consume all six of these “high-quality” food types. The reason they do so is that a balanced, varied, and inclusive diet is needed to supply the body with everything it needs nutritionally to handle the stress of hard training and to derive the maximum benefit from workouts.

In addition to the six high-quality food types, there are four “low-quality” food types: refined grains, sweets, processed meats, and fried foods. Most elite endurance athletes allow themselves to eat small amounts of each of these food types. Indulging in a treat here and there does no harm and is even beneficial in the sense that it makes the overall diet more enjoyable and sustainable.

Try this: Aim to include at least one serving of each high-quality food type in your diet each day.

Habit Two: Eat quality

While most elite endurance athletes eat everything, they don’t eat equal amounts of everything. Instead they skew their diet heavily toward high-quality foods and eat low-quality foods in moderation. High-quality foods tend to be more nutrient dense (i.e., richer in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) and less energy dense (i.e., lower in calories) than low-quality foods. Basing their diet on high-quality foods enables elite endurance athletes to get more overall nutrition from fewer calories, and this in turn allows them to maximize their fitness while maintaining an optimal racing weight.

Try this: Use my Diet Quality Score (DQS) app to monitor and increase the quality of your diet.

Habit Three: Eat carb-centered

Elite endurance athletes select high-quality carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains and fruit as the centerpiece of most meals and snacks. As the primary fuel for intense exercise, carbs enable these athletes to absorb their workouts with less physiological stress and to extract more benefits from their training.

Try this: Include at least one carbohydrate-rich high-quality food in each meal you eat (e.g., oatmeal for breakfast, whole grain bread with lunch, and quinoa with dinner).

Habit Four: Eat enough

Elite endurance athletes do not consciously restrict the amount of food they eat by enforcing strict calorie counts or portion-size limits or by eating less than is needed to satisfy their hunger, as many recreational athletes and dieters do. Nor do they mindlessly overeat as a majority of people in affluent societies do today. Instead, they pay mindful attention to signals of hunger and satiety and allow these signals to determine when and how much they eat. This is the only reliable way to eat sufficiently but not excessively—that is, enough to meet the energy demands of training but not so much as to gain or hold onto excess body fat.

Try this: Adjust the timing, size, and composition of your meals to ensure that you regularly develop symptoms of physical hunger (empty stomach, a strong desire to eat) shortly before it is time for your next meal.

Habit Five: Eat individually

Elite athletes are mindful of, and responsive to, not only their appetite but also to their dietary needs in general. Each athlete is a unique person in a unique situation. The diet that works best for one athlete is unlikely to work best for another athlete in every detail. For example, while all endurance athletes perform best on a carb-centered diet, some function better when they get most of their carbs from non-grain sources. Elite athletes are good at listening to their body, paying attention to how different foods and eating patterns affect them, and modifying their diet according to what they learn. As a result, each elite runner develops his or her own version of the Endurance Diet.

Try this: If you are experiencing a problem that may be diet related (e.g., sluggishness in workouts, difficulty shedding excess body fat), use a daily food journal to identify and eliminate the cause.

Mental Strategies for Race Day

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Mental Strategies for Race Day

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Race Day

When you wake up on race morning, you’re either physically prepared to achieve your goal or you’re not. There is nothing you can do to change your fitness level in the final hours before the gun goes off.

Your mind is another matter. Recent science has demonstrated that the thoughts and emotions a runner experiences immediately before and during a race strongly affect performance and outcomes—for better or worse. As a runner, you want to control your race-day thoughts and emotions in ways that produce the best possible results.

Here are five specific science-backed mental strategies to use in your next race.

Brace yourself

The direct limiter of performance in distance-running events is not physiology but something called perception of effort, which is a runner’s global sense of how hard running feels at any given moment. Every runner has a maximum tolerable level of perceived effort, just as every person has a maximum pain tolerance. But certain factors can increase this limit and thereby boost performance, while other factors can enhance performance by reducing the level of effort a runner perceives at any given pace.

One of these factors is expectations. Runners tend to be less bothered by a high level of effort and less likely to slow down in response to it when the feeling does not exceed the effort level they expected to experience at that point in the race. So one way to harness the power of your mind to your advantage on race day is to consciously expect the race to be very hard—a strategy I refer to as “bracing yourself”.

Turn anxiety into excitement

Psychological experiments have demonstrated that when people tell themselves they are excited rather than nervous before a challenge such as speaking in public or taking a math test, they perform better. This technique has not yet been tested in an exercise context, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would work just as well before a running race because anxiety is known to increase perceived effort. And even if it doesn’t make you run faster, turning anxiety into excitement will make the pre-race experience less unpleasant for you.

Embrace your effort

Perceived effort is distinct from pain, but similar. Many factors that increase pain tolerance or reduce pain sensitivity have similar effects on perceived effort during exercise. For example, studies have shown that people who adopt an attitude of acceptance before experiencing a pain stimulus (“I know this will hurt, but I can handle it”) are able to tolerate the pain better than people who adopt an attitude of resistance (“I hope this doesn’t hurt”).

Psychologists use a technique known as acceptance and commitment therapy to teach people to embrace the unpleasant aspects of pursuing behavioral change and goals. In a 2014 study, Elena Ivanova of McGill University found that teaching beginning exercisers to accept the discomfort of exercise through this method resulted in a 55 percent increase in time to exhaustion in a high-intensity endurance test. These subjects weren’t any fitter than before; they simply had a higher tolerance for perceived effort because they embraced it. Do the same in your next race!

Stay on task

There are two directions in which you can channel your attention while running: internally and externally. Generally speaking, when your attention is focused internally, you are concentrating on how you’re doing, and when your attention is focused externally, you’re focused on what you’re doing. Studies have shown that runners experience a lower level of perceived effort at any given pace and perform better when they keep their attention externally focused, on the task at hand.

How do you do this? Try concentrating on task-relevant stimuli such as other runners (e.g., put a target on the back of the runner in front of you) and your pace (e.g. check your watch at regular intervals and make adjustments as necessary to stay on track toward your goal). When you find your attention turning inward toward negative feelings (discomfort) and emotions (self-doubt), make a conscious effort to shift it back to the task at hand.

Stay positive

When experiencing discomfort during a race, it is normal to think negative thoughts such as, “I’m going to hit the wall!” But some runners consciously arrest these thoughts and replace them with positive substitutes like, “Just be patient.” A 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent demonstrated that this practice, known as positive self-talk, reduces perceived effort and enhances endurance performance.

The next time you find yourself entertaining negative thoughts during a race, quickly replace them with a more helpful alternative. With a little practice you will find specific phrases that work especially well for you. Among my personal favorites are “Relax, you’ve been here before” and “How bad do you want it?” (which happens to be the title of my new book on mastering the psychology of mind over muscle).