The 80/20 Rule For Running You’re Not Doing

An endurance sports coach, nutritionist and author, Matt Fitzgerald has been running since before Spicoli was skipping class for a good surf. 

The author of ‘80/20 Running,’ Matt tossed over some good running advice during our recent conversation.

No matter if you’re an expert or novice, there’s some interesting tips Matt brings up.


Josh: Go into more detail on the 80-20 rule. What does it mean?

Matt Fitzgerald: There’s an 80-20 rule that’s familiar with many business people — 80 percent of your productivity comes from 20 percent of your work … The 80-20 rule as it relates to fitness is a little different. And that’s the idea that you will gain the most fitness if you do 80 percent of your overall training at a physiological low intensity, and the other 20 percent at a moderate to high intensity. 

Josh: Is that because the body needs a lot of time to recover?

Matt Fitzgerald: It’s just a fact of the matter in terms of the way human physiology works. There are many types of fitness, but when you are trying to build the endurance type or aerobic or cardiovascular… anyone who is running from a 5k on up is looking for that type of fitness. It is simply what works. 

Every intensity stimulates different adaptations in the body. I think everyone agrees you need to hit a variety of intensities in your training program … This is what elite athletes do, the Olympic marathoners, the Tour de France cyclists; they all spend 80 percent of their training on low intensity workouts… The 80-20 rule seems to be most effective for the average Jane or Joe as well.

Josh: What do you recommend eating before a run, whether going fast or slow?

Matt Fitzgerald: It doesn’t matter so much assuming you have a high quality diet overall. The better your diet, the better you’re going to perform.

The average American diet is crap. Too much sugar. Too much saturated fat. If you’re doing that, then making a change will make you feel better and healthier and will improve your performance as a runner. 

If you have a really heavy training day, some kind of massive workout, what you can do is try going carb heavy on that day, because that’s your high-octane fuel. 

Josh: Do you have a favorite drink or food you intake before a really hard run?

The sports gels and drinks and such … It’s not surprising that engineered nutrition works better within that context [during a workout]. I wouldn’t recommend eating a steak or broccoli during a work out. But as soon as your workout is over and you’re back at rest, the recovery products are fine, but in that situation I think real food… you can and probably should switch back to real food. 

Timing is important. You want to intake something within the first hour. It should include carbs and protein.

Josh: What’s one of the biggest mistakes beginner runners make?

Matt Fitzgerald: There are probably a couple. Running is a high impact activity. The injury rate because of that is much higher than it is for swimming or cycling. So you have to ease into running. And a lot of beginners and people coming back to it after time off, they get injured in the first several weeks or months because they do too much too soon. 

Running on soft surfaces, running only every other day, losing weight before you do a lot of running because the heavier you are the more impact you’re subjected to. Mixing in some cross training, some non-impact activity — run one day, swim the next… 

The other very common mistake is … that intensity mistake. The typical weekend warrior does not know the difference between low intensity and moderate intensity. I call it the ‘moderate intensity rut.’ Most runners spend most of their time at a physiologically moderate intensity, and that’s not optimal. 

You need to spend about 80 percent of that training time at a low intensity. 

Josh: It’s like we’re in this running boom right now in this country where there’s so many different kinds of ‘fun’ runs and ‘mud’ runs, and it just seems everybody is signing up for a 1 mile race or a 5K or something. Are there any races that you have found to be really neat that people may not know about? 

Matt Fitzgerald: I’m old school. I started running when I was 11 years old … Back then 5Ks didn’t even exist … I’m still very much that guy. I like road-racing, track-racing. But I am fully behind anything that gets people excited to go out and run. So I like the Spartan Race, the Ragnar Relay events, I’ve done a few of those, the ultra marathons that are taking off …

When athletes come to me and ask, ‘What should my next goal be?’ I never give them a goal. I tell them, ‘It should come from you. It’s all good. If it’s a goal that gets you excited and motivated to work out. Then it’s a good goal. It absolutely doesn’t matter what it is. 

Josh Helmuth is the editor of CraveOnline Sports.