I often get asked by athletes if we adhere to the magical 80/20 rule of training distribution, a model of performance coaching that is anchored in the premise that at least 80 percent of an athlete's training week is performed at lower than threshold (maximal steady state) intensity. My answer is typically the rather annoying “it depends”, but let me expand my thinking specific to you. First, the premise of an 80/20 rule was developed out of single discipline sports, such as cross country skiing or cycling, and the premise and theory makes a lot of sense. With athletes loading up many hours of training, it is critical to control the frequency and duration of really hard intervals, to avoid risk of diminishing returns and injury. Let’s consider a case study or a professional cyclist training for bike racing:
- They can draw benefits from hours of lower intensity riding - such as improved endurance at the cellular level, muscular conditioning and improved substrate utilization.
- They are prepared to hit high quality intense intervals that provide the grad physiological adaptations, as they are fresh from the very low intensity training.
In other words, the cyclist is getting to throw miles at the problem, but also improving power and fitness through specifically programmed intervals.
This is super, but not directly related to the challenge you are faced with as a time-starved athlete who might balance three disciplines of training. We cannot simply pump hours and hours of training without compromising health and freshness. In addition, we benefit from having something that three sports don’t have, and that’s three disciplines. Over the years we have evolved and tweaked how to optimize training return for triathletes, and also draw from leveraging some of the differences between swim, bike and run. Here are some example considerations:
- Swimming is non weight bearing and tends to allow a higher proportion of more intense intervals, without negative consequence. If most athletes swim 3 to 4 hours weekly, it would be madness to aim to apply an 80/20 rule to the swim, as we would under-train relative to capacity.
On the flip side
- Running is high injury risk, and tough hill reps of speed sessions tend to create a lag effect of muscle fatigue and soreness for subsequent training sessions. We don’t want to eliminate running intervals, or hard work, but we do benefit from keeping athletes healthy and consistent, while drawing some physiological adaptations from the other disciplines.
Finally, we discuss riding
- Riding. A low impact sport that allows an easier accumulation of training hours, but also a prerequisite of strong intervals to develop cardiovascular conditioning and muscular endurance. This is the Purple Patch special sauce, and we wouldn’t want to miss some harder intervals in the puzzle here.
What this all adds up is a different breakdown of percentage intensity by discipline. Let me show you graphically, and let me keep it really simple.
- Green is low stress and conversational. Zone 1 and Zone 2.
- Yellow is moderate effort at Z3 into Z4
- Red is hard intervals which would include extended intervals at Z4, as well as work at Z5.
Seeing a rough breakdown showcases how we build training for triathletes, and leverage the multi-sport approach. The same can be said for runners who integrate other sports (*cycling, rowing, elliptical etc) into the overall recipe.
THIS is why 80/20 is a good guide, but doesn’t quite fit the overall puzzle, and it should also give you confidence to build running performance from a whole bunch of easier running, while worrying less about building a swimming ‘base’ of easier hours. Here you go: