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Do you ever feel like you’re running as fast as you can just to stay in one place?
I’m pretty sure everyone would answer yes to that question; at least at some point during their
lives. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
You see, when I was training for my first sprint triathlon last year….
A whole bunch of you see the words “training” and “triathlon” and think to yourselves, “this has
nothing to do with me. I’ve never competed for anything in my life.”
But you’re wrong. Everybody finds themselves embroiled in competition at some point – most
frequently with themselves. So, even if you’ve never run unless something was chasing you and
have no plans to do so in the future, there’s something in this post for you. Stick around because
this is important. (You can go look for the Miracle Muffin recipes later. They’re not going
Triathalon 2.0 Training
Now, where was I? Oh, yes…
When I was training for my triathlon last year, I wasn’t sure if my first race would also be my
last. It was just so much work! But the second I crossed the finish line, my mind was made up. I
definitely wanted to do another triathlon – a faster one!
Since my finish time was pretty dismal – two hours and fourteen minutes, a pace basically equal
to what could be accomplished by your average amphibian – improving my time seemed
eminently doable. With steely determination and a cute new workout wardrobe, I spent long
hours in the gym all winter, keeping my eyes on the prize: a sub two-hour finish time.
I put my all into my training over the winter. I trained six days a week, ate right, and pushed
myself as hard as I could. I was sure that all my hard work would pay off when the temperatures
rose enough for me to get out of the gym and back on the road again.
But when spring finally arrived and I got back onto the running track and bike trail, I found that
my times had barely budged. After months of training, it still took me 16 minutes to swim 500
meters, about an hour to ride 12 miles, and 35 minutes to run a 5K. Talk about frustrating!
Well, after I got done feeling sorry for myself (this took a couple of weeks) I decided to figure
out why my body was stuck behind this barrier and if there was anything I could do about it. A
piece of me figured it was just an age thing – that I’d pushed my beyond-50 body as hard as it
could go and that was that.
I was right. Sort of.
When You Push…Over The Edge
I really had pushed my body as hard as I could. This, as it turns out, was exactly the problem.
Until fairly recently, I approached every training session with one goal in mind; to go faster than
I had the day before. In my mind, this made perfect sense. If you want to win races, or at least
improve your time, you should up your training pace. The way to race faster is to train faster,
According the fitness experts who wrote the books I was reading, pushing as hard as you can in
every training session is an excellent formula for making sure you hit a wall. My personal
experience proved that the experts knew what they were talking about. I was running as hard as I
could and getting nowhere. (Runners, Racers, and Wannabees, the books are listed at the end of
the post. Read them. They were eye opening for me.)
Numerous studies involving every type of athlete, from elite to amateur, have shown that the best
training results come from following something called the 80/20 Rule. That means that means
that 80% of your workouts should be slow and steady and only 20% should be faster
There’s more to it than that; read the books if you’d like more details. But it basically boiled
down to this: if you want to race faster, train slower.
I have to be honest, this seemed entirely counterintuitive to me. But what I was doing definitely
was not working, so what did I have to lose?
For the next week, I ran slow. And when I say slow, I mean sloooooow, as in fourteen minutes
per mile. With a bit of effort, you can pretty much walk a mile in fourteen minutes.
Running slow was much harder than I thought it would be. After so many months consistently
running at a steady but demanding 11:30 pace, I just naturally fell back into that rhythm. The
second I let my mind wander, off I’d go, huffing and puffing and pushing myself to the limit.
Running slow required me to focus.
It took me a couple of sessions to get the hang of it. Once I did, I noticed two things. First, I was
actually enjoying my runs. Second, when I got the end of a run, even a long one, I felt like I
could have kept going. That was definitely a new sensation!
Creating Space For Speed
Before, when I was running fast every day, I never did more than 5K in a session. I couldn’t. By
the time I got to 5K, I always felt exhausted, like I had nothing left, which was true. Every day,
I’d given it my all. There was no more fuel left in my tank.
But when I ran slower, I not only felt like I could keep going, I felt like wanted to keep going.
Soon, I was able to run four or even five miles a session, and enjoy the experience.
Not only was running slower more fun, I could quickly tell that it was making me more fit.
Since I started running slow, my V02 Max has increased significantly (V02 Max shows how
much oxygen your body is able to consume during a maximum effort. It’s a good measure of
aerobic fitness). Also, when I am running hard now, my heart rate is about eight beats per minute
slower than before. I’ve still got a lot of training to do before my race in August, but I feel pretty
confident that my second race will be faster and more fun than my first.
The experts were right! If you want to race faster, you’ve got to train slower. Because when it
comes to racing, stamina, the ability to keep a steady pace over the long haul while holding
something in reserve for the finish, is more important than pure speed.
Creating Space In Your Life
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Personal experience has taught me that the 80/20 Rule
isn’t just for runners; it holds true for the long haul of life.
For the fifteen years since my first book was published, I’d been running the whole time. Every day was
a sprint. I regularly worked sixty and seventy hour weeks, and even more if my deadline was
looming. I have to admit; I took pride in that – too much pride. But Americans have always
valued those with a strong work ethic and I’m no exception.
I credit the fact that I truly love what I do for allowing me to keep up the pace for as long as I
did. But eventually, and inevitably, I hit a wall.
The details of what that looked like aren’t really important. Suffice it to say, I knew something
had to change. I either had to quit writing entirely, or figure out how to do it differently. Since I
really do love writing, I chose the latter.
Working Smarter, Not Harder
The transition didn’t happen overnight. There were quite a few steps involved and a little
backsliding here and there, but little by little I’ve changed the way I work. How?
I say no a lot more than I used to. When I do say yes, I think carefully before responding. I
prioritize my projects. I cut back on my travel. I don’t work on weekends anymore. Most
importantly, I’ve cut my workweek back to 50 hours.
And do want to hear something crazy? I am getting more (and better) writing done in a 50-hour
week than I ever did in a 60, 70, or 80 hour week. While I would love to lay claim to a new
discovery of workplace productivity, somebody else beat me to it.
A 2014 study at Stanford University shows that productivity starts to drop off beyond the 50-
hour workweek and takes a total nosedive after 55 hours. In fact, a person who works 70 hours a
week doesn’t produce any more output than a person working 55 hours.
Yup. It’s true. Those extra 15 hours get you absolutely nothing, except a lot of stress and
frustration. Take it from one who knows!
80/20 Is A Rule For Life
Look, I’m under no illusions that I’ll never again burn the midnight oil in pursuit of a deadline.
Deadlines happen. That’s part of the job, for writers and just about everyone else. Sometimes
you just have to lean in and get ‘er done.
But in racing as in life, the 80/20 Rule holds true.
If I spend 80% of my time at a slower, steadier, reliable pace that makes work a pleasure and
leaves me feeling like I could keep going, then I’ll have a reserve for the 20% of the time I need
to kick into a higher gear and run to the finish line, or the deadline.
If you want to race faster, train slower. If you want to live a successful life over the long haul,
It’s a good rule. One that will leave you smiling when you cross the finish line.
80/20 For Running
As promised, for you Runners, Racers, or Wannabees, I highly recommend these books.
They’re all written for people like us (i.e., people whose Olympic dream is far behind
- Your First Triathlon, 2nd Ed.: Race-Ready in 5 Hours a Week
This is an excellent book for the first-time triathlete. It’s written in plain English, tells you all the
basics, and has training plans that are easy to follow.
- Triathlon for the Every Woman: You Can Be a Triathlete. Yes. You. By Meredith Atwood.
I haven’t yet read the newly updated edition of this book but I found Meredith Atwood’s first
book very inspiring and informative. This new edition appears to be even better, with the most
current advice on training plans, nutrition, and updated resources.
- 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower
- Galloway’s 5K and 10K Running
Both of these books do a good job of explaining the principles of effective training for runners
and the research behind it. However, I liked Galloways’ book better because the training plan is
less complicated and easier to implement.)