PRAISE FOR MATT FITZGERALD AND HIS FITNESS BOOKS:
“Fitzgerald is going to go down as one of the most competent and prolific authors of books for serious runners covering just about every legitimate aspect of the all-important runner’s lifestyle.”—LetsRun.com
“If you’re looking to get to your peak performance weight or explore the mind-body connection of running, writer Matt Fitzgerald has some advice for you.…Fitzgerald, an expert in endurance training and nutrition, explores a wide range of topics and cutting-edge developments from the world of running and endurance sports.”—ESPN.com
“Sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald lets us in on his no-diet secrets that can help endurance athletes get leaner, stronger, and faster.”—Men’s Fitness
“The elements and philosophy laid out in Run were fundamental and played an essential role in my overall success throughout my career as a self-coached athlete.”—Alan Culpepper, 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympian, sub-four-minute miler, sub-2:10 marathoner
“Extremely well-done…a must for marathoners!”—Library Journal
“In his latest book, Matt Fitzgerald successfully explains the mind-body method of running.…Anyone trying to improve and realize their true running potential should read Run.” —Kara Goucher, 2008 Olympian and world championship medalist
“Amateur to professional athletes can optimize their potential with this book.”—Bike World News
“Racing Weight answers the difficult questions athletes often have about dieting, including how to handle the off-season. The book gives readers a scientifically backed system to discover your optimum race weight, as well as five steps to achieve it.”—Triathlete
“You will gain valuable information and insight about how to fuel your body from this book.”—Portland Book Review
About the Author
Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed endurance sports and nutrition writer and a certified sports nutritionist. He is the bestselling author of more than a dozen books on running and fitness, including 80/20 Running, Brain Training for Runners, Racing Weight, and Iron War, which was long-listed for the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. He is a columnist on Competitor.com and Active.com, and has contributed to Bicycling, Men’s Health, Triathlete, Men’s Journal, Outside, Runner’s World, Shape, and Women’s Health. He lives in San Diego, California.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
ALSO BY MATT FITZGERALD
• Learning to Slow Down
• The Evolution of 80/20 Running
• The 80/20 Breakthrough
• How 80/20 Running Improves Fitness
• How 80/20 Running Improves Skill
• Monitoring and Controlling Intensity
• Getting Started with 80/20 Running
• 80/20 Training Plans: 5K
• 80/20 Training Plans: 10K
• 80/20 Training Plans: Half Marathon
• 80/20 Training Plans: Marathon
• Cross-Training as an Alternative to Running More
• 80/20 for Everyone?
APPENDIX: Detailed Intensity Control Guidelines for 80/20 Workouts
Fifteen years ago, when I was training at a high level with my twin brother, Weldon, a twenty-eight-minute 10K runner, and dreaming of the U.S. Olympic Trials, I had a conversation with my beloved ninety-year-old grandmother, “BB,” that I’ll never forget.
“Boys, I don’t understand this running thing,” she said. “I can imagine nothing worse than waking up and realizing I was going to have to run fifteen miles that day.”
“BB, it’s not like you think,” I replied. “Running is the best part of my day. Most of the time I’m not running hard. Weldon and I just run side by side at a relaxed pace and carry on a conversation for an hour and a half. It’s a ninety-minute social hour.”
“Oh, that doesn’t sound too bad,” BB said. “I always viewed running as a form of grueling punishment.”
My grandmother’s misconception was far from uncommon. A lot of people viewed running as she did—and still do. But Matt Fitzgerald is about to let you in on a secret: Running isn’t always supposed to be hard. In fact, most of the time, it should be easy and enjoyable.
You see, in order to yield steady improvement, a training system must be repeatable—day after day, week after week, month after month. And guess what. Hard running isn’t repeatable, either physically or psychologically. If you do too much of it, your body will burn out if your mind doesn’t first.
The ultimate compliment for me in my peak training years was being passed on my easy runs by a runner who had a marathon time more than an hour slower than mine. I’d say to myself, “He’s wearing himself out today. I’m building myself up.”
All too many runners wear themselves out by running too fast too often—now more than ever. There is an obsession these days with high intensity. Most of the trendy new training systems are focused on speed work. Running magazines, Web sites, and books can’t say enough about the magical power of intervals. Even champion runners are more likely to credit their speed work instead of their easy running when interviewed after winning a race. Yet the typical elite runner does eight miles of easy running for every two miles of faster running.
Speed work may be “sexier” than easy running, but just as a weight lifter doesn’t go hard two days in a row, a runner shouldn’t either. A weight lifter actually gets stronger on days off. Similarly, a runner gets faster by going slow in the majority of his or her runs. Strangely, most weight lifters seem to understand this principle, while most recreationally competitive runners don’t. Too much hard running is the most common mistake in the sport.
Thanks to Matt Fitzgerald’s truly groundbreaking 80/20 running program, that’s about to change. Building on new science that proves that a “mostly-slow” training approach is more effective, 80/20 Running makes the number one training secret of the world’s best runners available to runners of all abilities and all levels of experience. I only wish this book had existed when I was competing. As much as I appreciated the value of slow running, Fitzgerald’s 80/20 running program makes optimal training simpler and more reproducible than it’s ever been by boiling it all down to one basic rule: Do 80 percent of your running at low intensity and the other 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. The rest is details.
I know it might be hard to believe that you can actually race faster by training slower, but after you read the compelling case for Fitzgerald’s new method, you will definitely think it’s worth a try. And once you’ve tried it, I guarantee you will be completely convinced. If 80/20 running doesn’t make your race times faster and your running experience more enjoyable—well, then I guess my grandma BB was right about running after all!
—Robert Johnson, cofounder of LetsRun.com
Do you want to run faster? Then you need to slow down.
As contradictory as it may seem, the secret to becoming a speedier runner is going slow most of the time. The key difference between runners who realize their full potential and those who fall short is the amount of slow running that each group does. Recent analyses of the world’s best runners—the first studies to rigorously assess how these athletes really train—have revealed that they spend about four-fifths of their total training time below the ventilatory threshold (VT), or running slow enough to carry on a conversation. New research also suggests that nonelite runners in the “recreationally competitive” category improve most rapidly when they take it easy in training more often than not.
The vast majority of runners, however, seldom train at a truly comfortable intensity. Instead, they push themselves a little day after day, often without realizing it. If the typical elite runner does four easy runs for every hard run, the average recreationally competitive runner—and odds are, you’re one of them—does just one easy run for every hard run. Simply put: Running too hard too often is the single most common and detrimental mistake in the sport.
As mistakes go, this one is pretty understandable. Going fast in training makes intuitive sense to most runners. After all, the purpose of training is to prepare for races, and the purpose of racing is to see how fast you can reach the finish line. Nobody denies that running fast in training is important, but as I will show you in this book, runners who strictly limit their faster running in workouts derive more benefit from these sessions and perform better in races, whereas those who go overboard end up training in a state of constant fatigue that limits their progress.
I myself learned this lesson the hard way. I started running a few weeks before my twelfth birthday. My first run was a six miler on dirt roads surrounding my family’s home in rural New Hampshire. I wore a stopwatch and pushed to get a good time—ideally, something relatively close to my dad’s usual time for the same route. Two days later, I repeated the workout, aiming to improve my performance, which I was able to do. Two days later, I took another crack at lowering my mark and succeeded again.
Young and naive as I was, I expected this pattern of steady gains to continue indefinitely. After a few weeks, though, I was no longer improving. I was also feeling lousy on all of my runs, and the joy had gone out of them. Eventually I quit training and turned my athletic focus back to soccer.
A couple of years later, I blew out a knee on the soccer field. After recovering from surgery, I decided to start running again. As chance would have it, one of the coaches at my high school was Jeff Johnson, a brilliant mentor of young runners who had the distinction of being Nike’s first employee and the man who named the company. Jeff’s coaching philosophy was heavily influenced by that of Arthur Lydiard, a New Zealander who had revolutionized the sport in 1960 with a method that featured lots of slow, comfortable running and modest amounts of speed work. I thrived on this approach, becoming an All-State performer in cross-country and track and leading my team to a handful of state championship titles.
The secret of slow running is not new. Every winner of a major international competition since the Lydiard revolution of the 1960s owes his or her success to slow running. Despite this fact, only a small fraction of runners today recognizes and exploits the power of slow running. The failure of the “mostly-slow” method to reach all corners of the sport has several causes, one of which is—or was—scientific skepticism. While many scientists still believe that slow running is rather useless, there is a revolution happening in the study of the optimal training intensity distribution in running, and the new advocates of slow running are looking like winners.
Previously, scientists who dismissed slow running as “junk miles” seemed to have the weight of evidence on their side. Then along came Stephen Seiler, an American exercise physiologist based in Norway whose intuition told him that the training methods used by the most successful athletes were probably a better representation of what really works than were the limited lab experiments that appeared to suggest that the world’s greatest long-distance racers had no idea what they were doing. This intuition led Seiler to embark on a research agenda that culminated in the most significant breakthrough in running since Arthur Lydiard’s original discovery of slow running: the 80/20 Rule.
Seiler started by exhaustively analyzing the training methods of world-class rowers and cross-country skiers. He found a remarkable consistency: Athletes in both sports did approximately 80 percent of their training sessions at low intensity and 20 percent at high intensity. In subsequent research, Seiler learned that elite cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, rowers, and—yes—runners did the same thing. Knowing this pattern could not possibly be an arbitrary coincidence, Seiler and other researchers designed studies where athletes were placed on either an 80/20 training regimen or a regimen with more hard training and less easy training. In every case, the results have been the same: 80/20 training yields drastically better results than more intense training.
The 80/20 Rule promises to revolutionize running (and other endurance sports) in a couple of ways. First, it ends the debate over whether a mostly-slow approach or a speed-based approach to training is more effective. No longer will scientists and coaches with a bias for high intensity (or even moderate intensity) be able to steer runners in the wrong direction. Second, by supplying clear numerical targets, Seiler’s discovery makes effective training easier even for runners who are already training more or less the right way. The 80/20 Rule removes the guesswork from the training process. Reaping its benefits is a simple matter of planning your workouts in accordance with the rule and monitoring your running intensity during each workout to ensure you’re where you’re supposed to be.
Seiler’s rule also helps runners by explicitly defining low intensity. The boundary between low intensity and moderate intensity, according to Seiler, falls at the ventilatory threshold, which is the intensity level at which the breathing rate abruptly deepens. This threshold is slightly below the more familiar lactate threshold, which you can think of as the highest running intensity at which you can talk comfortably. In well-trained runners, the ventilatory threshold typically falls between 77 percent and 79 percent of maximum heart rate. In pace terms, if your 10K race time is 50 minutes (8:03 per mile), your ventilatory threshold will likely correspond to a pace of 8:40 per mile. If your 10K time is 40 minutes (6:26 per mile), you will probably hit your VT at approximately 7:02 per mile. In either case, running at or below these threshold speeds will feel quite comfortable.
Scientists have determined that the average recreationally competitive runner spends less than 50 percent of his or her total training time at low intensity. This is a problem, because research has also demonstrated that even a 65/35 intensity breakdown yields worse race results than does full compliance with the 80/20 Rule. The good news is that, unless you are an elite runner, it is almost certain that you are doing less than 80 percent of your training at low intensity and that you can improve significantly by slowing down. The purpose of this book is to help you do just that.
When Jeff Johnson showed me the power of slow running during my high school years, I never would have guessed that I would one day coach runners myself. My role is not to innovate and discover, like Arthur Lydiard and Stephen Seiler, but to serve as a link between the innovators and discoverers and the broader running community. Early in my career, I was struck by some of the new ways that elite runners were using cross-training to elevate their performance and avoid injuries, so I wrote Runner’s World Guide to Cross-Training. Later I developed an interest in how brain science was influencing the sport at the highest level, so I made these new methods available to all in Brain Training for Runners.
When I learned about Stephen Seiler’s work, I was experienced enough to know immediately that the 80/20 Rule was a game changer. Even though I had always taught a mostly-slow training approach, I was aware that many of my runners ran too hard too often anyway. What I’ve realized—and what science proves—is that running slow just doesn’t come naturally to most runners. The same instinct that I had as an eleven-year-old new runner exists also within countless other runners of all experience levels. It’s an impulse to make every run “count” by pushing beyond the level of total comfort. This instinct makes a lot of runners rather hard to coach. It’s one thing to give a runner a training plan that is dominated by low-intensity workouts; it is quite another thing for that same runner to actually stay below the ventilatory threshold in all of those designated “easy” runs. I have discovered that unless a runner is systematically held back, he will more often than not run too hard on easy days and unwittingly sabotage his training plan.
Until I found the work of Stephen Seiler, my efforts to keep runners from making the most common mistake in the sport were ineffective. This quickly changed once I studied Seiler’s published research as well as that of other leading scientists of the 80/20 revolution. I also made direct contact with Seiler and his collaborators to learn more from them. I began to use the quantitative benchmarks of the 80/20 method to ensure that the training plans I created for runners were neither too hard nor too easy and that workouts were executed correctly. I later designed a range of ready-made 80/20 training plans for the PEAR Mobile app, which uses my voice to guide runners through heart rate–based workouts, and developed a separate 80/20 Running app that keeps track of time spent at low and moderate to high intensities.
Not surprisingly, many runners have had to slow down to conform to my 80/20 guidelines. Some have done so reluctantly, finding it difficult to believe that going easier in training could make them go faster in races. But the runners who have taken a leap of faith and seen the process through have been well rewarded. Their runs have become more pleasant and less draining. They now carry less fatigue from one run to the next and they perform (and feel) better in the few runs that are intended to be faster. Suddenly, it no longer seems impossible to run an extra five or ten miles each week. The ones who take advantage of this opportunity improve even more.
A typical case is Joe from San Diego. An experienced runner and triathlete, Joe had been chasing a sub-three-hour marathon for nearly twenty years when I began to work with him. Previously Joe had been self-coached, and like almost all self-coached runners, he did a lot more moderate-intensity training and a lot less low-intensity training than he thought he did. Getting him to slow down was a challenge. While Joe accepted the 80/20 philosophy in principle, out on the road he kept reverting to old habits. At last, with the help of the PEAR Mobile app, I got Joe to slow down. When he did, his energy level skyrocketed, and we were able to put that energy to good use by adding a few extra miles to his training schedule. In May 2012, at the age of forty-seven, Joe completed the Orange County Marathon in 2:59:20.
Now it’s your turn. The purpose of this book is to help you in the same way I have helped runners like Joe since I joined the 80/20 revolution. I will show you how to break the bad habit of running too hard too often and embrace running slow. I will also make the case for 80/20 running by exploring how this method evolved naturally over a period of many decades at the elite level of the sport and analyzing the cutting-edge scientific proof that 80/20 running is more effective than other methods for runners of all experience and ability levels. I will explain how 80/20 running maximizes both fitness and running skill. In chapters 6 through 13, I will tell you everything you need to know to practice 80/20 running most effectively.
I am confident that the educational first part of this book will leave you eager to begin using the practical guidelines of the second half. After all, how often do you get to hear that the easier way is the better way?
LEARNING TO SLOW DOWN
A couple of years ago, I designed a custom training plan for a runner named Juan Carlos. He had been running for three years and was frustrated by a recent lack of progress. His 10K PR of 52:30 was showing troubling signs of permanence, and on his training runs, he was lately feeling lousy more often than not. “I can barely run 8:45 [per mile] pace anymore,” he told me via e-mail.
I explained to Juan Carlos that, at his current level of fitness, he had no business running 8:45 per mile except in designated moderate-intensity runs, which should have a small place in his training. A pace of 9:30 per mile would be more appropriate for easy runs, I told him, and these should account for about four out of every five runs he did.
Juan Carlos is not the first runner I’ve had to put the brakes on. In fact, nearly all of the runners who come to me for help are doing their “easy” runs faster than they should. It is also very common for runners to resist the edict to run slower. Many of them just find it hard to believe that slowing down in training will enable them to run faster in races. Juan Carlos sure did. More than once, after I had gotten him started on 80/20 running, he contacted me with questions like “Is it okay if I run faster on days when I feel really good?” Each time I counseled restraint and patience.
80/20 running is very simple. It has two components: planning and monitoring. The planning component entails creating or choosing a training plan that is based on the 80/20 Rule. In other words, the plan should be set up so that roughly 80 percent of your total training time is spent at low intensity (below the ventilatory threshold) and the other 20 percent is spent at moderate to high intensity. The monitoring component entails measuring intensity during each run to ensure you are executing your 80/20 plan correctly.
If you plan and monitor according to the simple guidelines I will present in later chapters, you will soon run better than you ever have. But there’s an important first step that you must take before you dive into 80/20 running, and that is embracing the “mostly-slow” approach. This acceptance of slower running needs to occur on two levels: in your mind and in your body.
Embracing 80/20 running mentally means that you are convinced intellectually that it works better than other training methods. I will present all the necessary evidence to show the clear and persuasive merits of 80/20 running in chapters 2 through 5. Embracing 80/20 running in your body means learning to slow down, which many runners, including Juan Carlos, find surprisingly challenging at the beginning, like removing a favorite junk food from the diet. Breaking the habit of pushing yourself during training runs takes some time, so I encourage you to get started right away, even as you continue to read about the 80/20 method. In this chapter, I will show you how to take this first step. Let me begin, though, by explaining why it can be so hard (initially) to run easy.
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
Suppose I were to ask you to put down this book right now and run five miles at your choice of pace, but without wearing a watch. Chances are you would settle into a pace very close to the pace at which you did your last “easy” run, and the one before that, and the one before that. Odds are as well that this pace would put you above the ventilatory threshold, in the moderate-intensity zone.
There are really two problems here. The first issue is that your habitual running pace is doing to you what it did to Juan Carlos: hindering your progress. The second issue is that this pace is habitual. It feels natural and has become as familiar as your stride itself through experience. For this reason, your habitual running pace carries inertial force—like all habits, it is hard to break.
Science confirms my observation that most runners push themselves in training most of the time. In 1993, Muriel Gilman of Arizona State University’s Exercise and Sport Science Institute handed out heart rate monitors to a group of recreationally competitive female runners and asked them to wear the devices through one week of training. When the week was up, the researchers collected the monitors and calculated how much time the runners had spent in each of three intensity zones.
Gilman placed the border between low and moderate intensity at the ventilatory threshold, which for the women in this study occurred at 82 percent of maximum heart rate. The border between moderate and high intensity was placed at the lactate threshold, which is the exercise intensity at which lactate—an intermediate product of aerobic metabolism—begins to accumulate in the blood. For Gilman’s subjects, this threshold occurred at 94 percent of maximum heart rate.
It turned out that, on average, the runners spent 45.8 percent of their total training time for the week at low intensity, an almost identical 45.7 percent at moderate intensity, and the remaining 8.9 percent at high intensity. Other research, which I will detail in later chapters, has shown that runners who balance their training in this way experience far less improvement than runners who perform 80 percent of their running at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. So it’s fair to assume that the roughly 50/50 training approach of the women in the ASU study—which is the norm for recreationally competitive runners—was holding them back.
Why do most runners spend so much time running at moderate intensity?
The discoverer of the 80/20 Rule, Stephen Seiler, found the reason may be that, unlike other forms of exercise, running has a minimum threshold of intensity. Very slow running is not running at all but walking. The average person naturally transitions from walking to running at a pace of roughly thirteen minutes per mile. If you start off at a slow walk and gradually increase your speed, you will find yourself feeling an urge to transition to running somewhere near that pace. Likewise, if you start off running and gradually slow down, you’ll find yourself wanting to transition to walking at about thirteen minutes per mile.
The problem is that many runners, especially new and overweight runners, are already near the ventilatory threshold as soon as they transition from walking to running. These runners don’t have much room to work within the low-intensity zone. In contrast, an elite male runner can cruise along at an exhilarating pace of six minutes per mile and still be well below his ventilatory threshold. The elite’s low-intensity running zone is much broader, so he naturally spends less time outside it.
This explanation makes a lot of sense, but it does not completely account for the tendency of recreational runners to spend so much less of their total training time at low intensity than elite runners do. There is no equivalent of the walk-run transition in other aerobic activities, such as cycling. Yet, when Belgian researchers measured self-selected exercise intensity in a group of bicycle commuters, they found that these people chose an intensity that placed them slightly above the ventilatory threshold, just as recreational runners do. The same phenomenon has also been observed in swimming and elliptical training—pretty much any form of aerobic exercise you can name. So the question remains: Why do most runners instinctively train largely at moderate intensity when training mostly at low intensity is known to be more effective—not to mention easier?
A MATTER OF PERCEPTION
Exercise scientists have tended to assume that physiology determines the intensity at which people naturally choose to exercise. Some researchers, for example, have proposed that most runners habitually run at intensities that fall slightly above the ventilatory threshold because they are either metabolically or biomechanically most efficient in that range. In fact, runners often are more efficient at their habitual pace, but this is simply because runners become more efficient at any pace they practice frequently. The evidence suggests that it is not physiology but perception that guides a recreational runner’s initial selection of the pace that becomes habitual and eventually more efficient.
In 2001, researchers at Wayne State University asked a group of college volunteers to exercise for twenty minutes at a self-selected pace on each of three machines: a treadmill, a stationary bike, and a stair climber. Measurements of heart rate, oxygen consumption, and perceived effort were taken throughout all three workouts. The researchers expected to find that the subjects unconsciously targeted the same relative physiological intensity in each activity. Perhaps they would automatically exercise at 65 percent of their maximum heart rate regardless of which machine they were using. Or maybe they would instinctively settle into rhythm at 70 percent of their maximum rate of oxygen consumption in all three workouts. But that’s not what happened. There was, in fact, no consistency in measurements of heart rate and oxygen consumption across the three disciplines. Instead, the subjects were found to have chosen the same level of perceived effort on the treadmill, the bike, and the stair climber.
The standard tool that scientists use to solicit ratings of perceived effort from participants in experiments like this one is the Borg Scale, which goes from 6 to 20 (don’t ask why). On all three machines, the subjects in this study rated their effort at 12.5, which falls smack in the middle of the Borg Scale. An effort level of 13 on this scale is described as “somewhat hard.” Although this level of perceived effort corresponds to disparate heart rates and oxygen-consumption levels in different activities, in all activities it corresponds to intensities that fall between the ventilatory threshold and the lactate threshold, or right where most recreational runners spend all too much of their training time.
One limitation of this study was that the subjects were not athletes. But other studies involving experienced runners have arrived at the same result. For example, in a 2012 study, researchers asked thirty female runners to run for thirty minutes on a treadmill at a self-selected pace. At the end of the run, the women were asked to rate their perceived effort on the Borg Scale. The average rating of perceived exertion (RPE) for the group was 12.79—just a tiny bit higher than it was among the nonathletes in the Wayne State study. What’s more, the standard deviation from this average was a low 1.15, meaning all thirty women gave perceived effort ratings close to 12.79.
It may seem odd that runners do not naturally choose to train at an intensity that feels more comfortable. The reason, I believe, is that humans are naturally task oriented. When we have a job to do, we want to get it done. Of course, a twenty-minute workout is a twenty-minute workout, regardless of how fast you go. But humans evolved long before clocks existed, so we think in terms of covering distance rather than in terms of filling time even when we are on the clock.
Naturally, the fastest way to get a distance-based task such as a five-mile run over with is to treat it as a race and go all out. Maximal efforts come with a good deal of suffering, however, and humans have a natural aversion to suffering that is at least as powerful as our natural inclination to “get ’er done.” So what do we do? We compromise between the desire to get the workout over with quickly and the desire not to suffer inordinately, and we end up doing the run (or the bike ride or the stair climb or whatever) at a moderate intensity.
Although an RPE of 12.5 (or 12.79) falls just below the number on the Borg Scale that corresponds to the description “somewhat hard,” runners typically are not aware they are working somewhat hard when running at their habitual pace until they are asked to rate their effort. As a coach, I know that if I tell a runner to run a certain distance at an “easy” pace, it is very likely the runner will complete the run at her habitual pace, which is likely to fall in the moderate-intensity range. And if I ask the runner afterward if she ran easy as instructed, she will say that she did. In short, most runners think they are running easy (at low intensity) when in fact they are running “somewhat hard” (at moderate intensity).
This issue of intensity blindness, as I call it, was exposed in the ASU study I discussed earlier. What I did not share with you when I first described this study was that, before the researchers handed out heart rate monitors to their subjects, they asked the women to describe their own training in terms of intensity. On average, the runners claimed to do three low-intensity runs, one moderate-intensity run, and 1.5 high-intensity runs per week. This perception was far from reality. Whereas the runners believed they were doing three times more low-intensity running than moderate-intensity running, the heart rate data revealed they were in fact doing equal amounts of each.
If getting stuck in a rut of moderate intensity, as most runners do, resulted in inevitable catastrophe, it would not be so common. But this mistake rarely causes runners to go backward in their performance. More often, it merely reduces their rate of improvement, or, as in the case of Juan Carlos, it causes their progress to stall for a while. Because the progress-hindering effect of running too hard too often is typically less than catastrophic, most runners are not only unaware that their “easy” runs are not easy, but they are also unaware that the mistake is hurting them.
There’s a song that says, “You only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low.” Sometimes you need contrasting experience—something to compare your current situation against—before you realize things aren’t the way they ought to be. In this respect, the problem of intensity blindness and its consequences among runners is not unlike the common issue of chronic low-grade sleep deprivation in the general population. If your optimal amount of sleep is eight hours per night and you routinely sleep seven hours, you may feel okay and be able to function fairly well during the day. It’s only when something in your life changes (perhaps a new job with a shorter commute) that allows you to get an additional hour of sleep that you realize how much better you could have felt and functioned all along. Similarly, runners often need to experience what low-intensity running really feels like before they realize how hard they normally work when they run and how much it’s been hindering their progress.
THE WEEK OF SLOW
As a coach, I keep runners from turning easy runs into “somewhat hard” runs by giving them specific pace, heart rate, and perceived-effort targets for each workout. Heart rate monitoring in particular is an effective tool for getting runners to slow down, while pace targets are better for getting runners to push themselves in the 20 percent of their workouts when they’re supposed to. I will explain how to use heart rate, pace, and perceived effort to monitor and control the intensity of your runs in chapter 6. But before you start to use these guidelines, there is one challenge to take on right away—something I call the week of slow.