Should You Run Slower to Get Faster? Yes. Your Guide to 80/20 Running

It’s not that you mindlessly follow whatever fitness trend pops up on your feed. But when an intriguing idea comes along, you’ve got to take a look, right? So what’s the deal with 80/20 running? Can slowing down really help you speed up? In a word…yes.

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Whether you’re marathon training, doing tempo runs, or you’re focused on heart rate training, 80/20 running is a solid way to boost your running performance. Here’s how to do it, why you should, and tips for the best interval sessions and longer runs out there.

What Is 80/20 Running?

The 80/20 rule is a training method that has you do about 80 percent of your workouts slow and steady (low intensity) and about 20 percent at a moderate intensity or higher. (1

So, let’s say you want to get faster. Your instinct might be to push it on the treadmill—hard. But instead, the 80/20 running rule says that your training load doesn’t have to be all about speed for you to see improvement. A more moderate approach, instead—skewed toward lower-intensity sessions to maximize recovery—can make you a faster, stronger runner..

Instead of pushing your limits with speed work every day, you’ll program those fast runs and lactate training for only about 20 percent of your time. This translates to setting aside one to two days (max!) per week for higher-intensity runs

Where did this formula come from?

Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance training athlete and coach who outlines the 80/20 rule for cardiovascular training in his book 80/20 Running. The 80/20 rule is largely based on the works of exercise physiologist and researcher Stephen Seiler who conducted studies on elite athletes and triathlon runners. 

Seiler determined that endurance athletes tended to gravitate towards about 80 percent of their workouts being at a lower intensity with 20 percent at a moderate intensity or higher. (1)

Why Run Slowly?

If you’re coming at running as a strength athlete, you might be especially frustrated by an entreaty to run…slower. Let’s get more intense, right? Well, no. This actually matches up fairly well with what we do in the weight room.

If you want to deadlift 500 pounds, you’re not going to deadlift 475 pounds on the daily. Instead, you’ll do plenty of different kinds of workouts, perhaps progressively getting heavier over the weeks — but you’ll be building your base the whole time. 

[Read More: Want to Learn How to Run a Mile Without Stopping? Tips From an Elite Coach]

The 80/20 running plan has the same logic. Your ability to recover between workouts largely determines the quality of each subsequent session and the pace of progress you should reasonably expect. So if you’re burning yourself out each session, your progress is likely to grind to a halt.

Although your goal might be to run faster or farther on race day, easy runs may play an important role in your ability to do so. This isn’t to say your workout program should be completely devoid of hard running, but rather that easy runs at a lower VO2 max enhance your ability to perform well on higher-intensity days.

How to Start 80/20 Running

The goal of the 80/20 rule is to model your running training around predominantly lower-intensity work with higher-intensity sessions sprinkled in to drive your adaptations forward. Knowing your pace for 80 percent of your sessions versus the other 20 percent is key.

How to Determine Your Easy Pace

Your easy-pace days will make up about 80 percent of your training sessions. Three methods of determining your running pace are rating of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate zones, and miles per hour. Here are some recommendations for how to determine your easy workout intensity.

RPE: Your lower RPE ranges are your goal for easy days. Aim for an RPE between 3-4 out of 10. Your goal is to be able to breathe deeply and talk in relatively regular sentences.

Heart Rate: Your heart rate should sit around zone 2 during easier days—this is usually about 60-70 percent of your heart rate max.

Pacing: RPE 3-4 or zone 2 running likely looks like an 11-12 minute mile pace or slower for most newer runners.

How to Determine Your Hard Pace

Your hard pace is what you’ll be spending about 20 percent of your training time at. Similar to your easy pace, you can use RPE, target heart rate, or pacing to ballpark your effort.

RPE: Moderate to higher RPE is the aim on hard-pace days. Try aiming for an RPE between 6-8, where you can only talk in short sentences or a few words at a time.

Heart Rate: Your heart rate should sit around zone 3 or higher during hard days—this is usually at least 70-80 percent of your heart rate max.

Pacing: Try to scale your pacing based on your easy days or your known race pace. Hard days should push beyond the challenge of your easy days and mimic race pace, going as quickly as you can sustain for your run.

80/20 Training Tips

The 80/20 training rule for running is a powerful programming technique. To get the most out of this workout plan, try going unstructured for a while, give yourself some wiggle room, and accommodate your life stress.

Let Go of Structure (Mostly)

One of the pitfalls of a program like 80/20 running is getting too caught up in the details. Not every training session feels the same, nor has the same pace or challenge to produce the heart rate results you want. Heart rate zone, RPE…Yes, these things make a big difference! But not every workout has to lock down these numbers precisely.

Try developing a feel for your pace by training without tracking for a few workouts and then check in with yourself.

This helps you internally calibrate how hard to work when more structured metrics might stress you out. Remember, your progress is driven by working at the right pace for your goal of the day. This might be unique session-to-session to produce the desired result!

Still, don’t throw all structure out the window. From triathletes and half-marathon runners to recreational runners, you’ll still want to do a dynamic warm-up and cool down before and after your sessions.

You Don’t Need To Be Bang On

Yes, the benefits of 80/20 rule running abound—but riffing on the lack of structure above, you don’t need to stick to 80 percent and 20 percent like it’s written in stone. Floating within a reasonable distance from a perfect 80/20 split still produces great outcomes for you and your running progress.

[Read More: What Is the Average Running Speed? Plus Tips for Running Faster]

75/25, 85/15, or any number of combinations are still helpful. You’re trying to establish a keen balance between harder and easy-paced days, but if you’re slightly off the prescribed mark, you’ll still reap the benefits.

Listen to Your Body

As with any training adaptation, your progress won’t always meet your expectations. There are often periods of back and forth when it comes to training, and sometimes you’ll have a harder time seeing increases to certain metrics. Your pace for example might take longer than you’d expect to improve.

Don’t fret: The same way you might run into a plateau in the weight room, your pacing across all runs might just be slower some days or weeks than others. Stay with it without arbitrarily forcing yourself to go faster than you can handle at any given moment. As you troubleshoot your training and recovery, your progress will likely come back up. 

Plan for Allostatic Load

Allostatic load refers to the stress you experience from all sources, not just training. Work, relationships, school, or any stressful responsibility adds to your allostatic load. Even more, allostatic load is affected by positive stressors as well!

This is to say—the more you have on your plate, the harder progress may be to come by. Thankfully the 80/20 rule for running accommodates a wide variety of lifestyle and allostatic stressors. With 80 percent of your runs being at an easier pace, you should have a better time navigating your hard runs on days when you’re more prepared for the effort.

Benefits of 80/20 Training for Runners

Why bother with 80/20 running? Why not just go all-out, all the time? Here’s what the methodology can offer you.

It Helps You Recover

It’s simple: If you want to get faster, you have to give your body a chance to adapt to the training you’re putting it through. Going hard too often is a recipe for burnout rather than speed

If you’re constantly smashing your body into the ground with high-intensity training sessions, you’ll start to see a performance decrease—perhaps sooner than later. The 80/20 rule for running helps establish balance, keeping 80 percent of your runs at an easier pace.

[Read More: The Best Leg Exercises and Workouts for Stronger Legs]

With this, you’ll build your aerobic base tremendously, giving yourself plenty of room to grow instead of forcing yourself through too many joint-jostling workouts.

It’s Fun

High-intensity training sessions definitely scratch an itch every once in a while. Really pushing the pace and testing yourself when you’re feeling it is quite an enjoyable feeling, sure—but it isn’t nearly as sustainable as we’d like. There’s more than enough room in 80/20 training for those heart-thumping sprint workouts…And it leaves enough space for recovery, too.

Even if you tend to have more fun with hill runs or sprints, you’ll likely come to look forward to your easy runs, too. They’re less physically demanding in many ways, so you’ll be more able to zone out and listen to your favorite tunes, audio books, or catch up on podcasts. That’s its own kind of fun, for sure.

It Improves Your Cardiovascular Performance

Yes, going easy most of the time can—and does—still dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and performance.. Exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler helped establish this training intensity split by looking at elite athletes and cardiovascular trainers. He noted that these higher-level endurance athletes tended to self-organize around this split, with little benefit to maintaining a higher percentage of tough runs. (1)

[Read More: How Many Miles Should I Run a Day? Insights From a CPT]

Because no, you don’t always want to train like the greats when they’re constantly pushing themselves to the limit. But you may well want to train like them when they’re saying, “Hey, you don’t need to be more intense than this to get great results.”

It Gives You Variety

Consistency is tremendously important across all aspects of training. But variety is the spice of life for a reason—and training is a part of life. The 80/20 method gives you a whole lot of options. 

You can do long runs, recovery runs, and runs for distance at your easy pace. These lower-intensity days with much slower paces give you the option to explore many more routes outdoors or along diverse running paths. Enjoy as much variety as possible to keep your runs engaging.

[Read More: Running on a Treadmill Vs. Running Outside — Which Is Best for Your Goals?]

And then, during your other 20-percent, you can get in sprint workouts, interval training, hill running workouts, and tempo runs. That’s not even an exhaustive list (though I’m exhausted thinking about it).

Frequently Asked Questions

The 80/20 rule for running is a fantastic way to keep your performance moving forward. Here are some frequently asked questions.

What does 80/20 mean in running?

80/20 during running means that you’ll be organizing your programming around 80 percent of your runs being at an easier pace and 20 percent at a harder pace.

How do you implement the 80/20 rule for running?

You implement the 80/20 rule for running by establishing the guidelines for your easier and harder-paced days. Choose lower RPE or heart rate zones for your slower-paced days and moderate to higher RPE or heart rate zones for higher-intensity days. For however many runs you program in a training cycle, remember to spit them roughly 80 percent at an easier pace and 20 percent at a harder pace.

How do I structure an 80/20 running plan for a beginner?

A beginner 80/20 running plan emphasizes establishing your base level of fitness and figuring out your pacing. The 80/20 rule for running was researched based upon elite athletes, so when you’re just starting, you’ll likely have more room for experimentation and figuring out your heart rate, RPE, or pace targets. 

Think of it this way: during the majority of your runs, you want to be able to breathe deeply and even talk during your workout. Go with however fast or slow that pacing is for you. During the other 20-percent of your training, aim to be able to speak only shorter sentences in the midst of your workout. Whatever that pace is for you, that’s what you’ll stick with until you establish an even stronger cardiovascular baseline.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.


Seiler S. (2010). What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 5(3), 276–291.

Featured Image: Iam_Anuphone / Shutterstock

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