Triathlon Training: The 80/20 Way

The 80/20 Way

How to approach 80/20 Training. Most triathletes of a particular age ought to dial back their intensity, according to Dr Stephen Seiler, who works at the University of Agder in Norway. Many recreational triathletes do not maximize their stamina or speed because they limit themselves to moderate-intensity training.

Seiler penned the preface to 80/20 Triathlon, which was co-authored by Matt Fitzgerald and David Warden – the latter now furnishing you with a comprehensive guide to the 80/20 training procedure.


The 80/20 Rule is a beneficial concept because it is based on mathematical principles, making the process of planning straightforward. Create a weekly plan that consists of 80 per cent of your total training time (not miles) to be completed at a low intensity.

To accomplish this, it is necessary to figure out what you consider to be low, moderate and high-intensity levels.

The separation between light and moderate intensity is the first ventilatory threshold, which can typically be found at a heart rate of 77 per cent of the maximum rate in a well-trained triathlete.

Research done by Stephen Seiler and other experts demonstrates that training slightly over the ventilatory limitation is much more taxing on the nervous system when compared to exercising slightly under it, even when the intensity remains lower than the lactic threshold.

The dividing line between moderate and intense effort is the breathing compensation point, which generally lands at approximately 92 per cent of the maximum heart rate in the normally trained triathlete.

My colleague David Warden has crafted a web-based calculator that simplifies the process of deciding upon individuals’ training zones for activities such as swimming, cycling, and running.

We employ a five-tier plan, where Zones 1 and 2 have low-level intensity, Zone 3 has medium intensity, and Zones 4 and 5 have high-level intensity.

It is not essential to abide by the 80/20 Rule every day of the year; it should only be observed when one is trying to reach the highest level of training and racing fitness.

It is advisable to only dedicate around 20% of your training (during the off-season and initial base training) at moderate to high intensities. This will help you to slowly improve your fitness in a way that means you can change to 80/20 training when the time comes to prepare for a competition.

The moderate intensity rut

Triathletes who do it for fun allot a much smaller amount of their preparation to low-intensity activities and a much higher amount to moderate-intensity exercises.

A study conducted by the University of Stirling in 2011 determined that individuals preparing for an Ironman event only performed 69 per cent of their training at a less rigorous intensity and 25 per cent of their exercises at a moderate intensity level.

At certain times, the research included administering assessments in all three areas that demonstrate a minimal enlargement within six months of exercising.

Was the lack of progress made by these athletes due to a lack of low-intensity training as opposed to too much moderate-intensity exercise? It appears that this might have been accurate, according to another research project.

In 2014, Stephen Seiler and his research team monitored the preparation of nine amateur triathletes for an Ironman race. There was a notable connection observed between the proportion of total training that was done at low intensity and how well someone did in the competition.

The competitors generally devoted only two-thirds of their preparation to low intensity, yet those that followed the 80/20 Rule as much as possible attained superior outcomes.

Analysing this experiment does not demonstrate that a balance of 80/20 in terms of intensity is the most beneficial.

It is only possible to determine which athletic training program is more effective if one can compare athletes of the same capabilities in various training regimens. The research was conducted in this area, and the outcomes give more backing to the 80/20 tactic.

Researchers from the University of Salzburg conducted a survey comprising 48 endurance athletes who play various games like triathlon.

These athletes were split up into four squads and given nine weeks of training with different levels of intensity. The four groups each took a set of evaluation exams before and after the nine weeks being up.

No group strictly adhered to the 80/20 principle, but the one that came the nearest witnessed the greatest enhancements in their VO2 max, highest cycling strength, maximum running velocity, and time endurance in an incremental exercise test.

The volume question

It is generally accepted that why top endurance athletes dedicate so much time to low-intensity workouts because they need to preserve the intensive exercise duration they generally have.

It is thought that the most effective training occurs when focusing on quantity first, with intensity as a secondary factor. Recent scientific research indicates that the opposite is accurate.

If you are a recreational athlete training with low volume, then it would be more beneficial for you to use a combination of moderate and high intensity rather than mostly low intensity.

A lot of people who compete in age-group events think that training less can be compensated for by training more intensely.

Seiler’s 2014 study discovered that runners who partook in 35 miles of running every week saw an increase in their 10K race times twice as much as runners who did half of their training at a moderate level, which is the norm for amateur runners.

It seems that for endurance athletes, getting 80% of their exercise at a low intensity and 20% at a higher intensity is best. The most effective amount of exercise for each athlete is the 80/20 training that produces the best outcomes.

Due to the gentleness of low-intensity training, the amount recommended will vary between athletes, yet they will all have higher amounts than expected. Additionally, as each athlete progresses, the amount recommended will grow.

Measuring intensity

Different techniques exist to evaluate the strength of something, though none of them is flawless. Seiler proposes a fusion of procedures, amalgamating heart rate, felt effort, and pacing, as an advisable approach.

We highly recommend a chest strap heart rate monitor for its superior accuracy.

They are useful for maintaining a steady rate throughout periods of light activity, but the heart’s response, which can take up to 30 seconds to adjust to maximum exertion, can lead to imprecise results when working hard. Also, they’re not appropriate for the swim.

Your brain interprets your feelings as perceived exertion (RPE). Hence, it’s arguably the most accurate indicator. Implement a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is effortless, and 10 is extraordinarily difficult. The difficulty of keeping track of this rating when very tired is a drawback.

Using GPS for pacing is fantastic for overseeing and managing efforts in jogs that are of moderate to high intensity, but it can appear to be overbearing when running at a low intensity. Power meters can be extremely precise when used on a bicycle.

Applying the 80/20 strategy to all three disciplines of triathlon

No facts indicate that the intensity level for a given skill should be adjusted depending on whether someone is strong or weak in that area. Certainly, the combined strength in all three areas should still amount to an 80/20 ratio; however, you should spend more time on whichever topic you are weakest in.

Notwithstanding, if your greatest deficiency is in running, and you want to expand your total running time, you should make sure the running intensity is only 85% to ward off exhaustion and make up for it with somewhat more intensity during swimming and biking.

High-intensity intervals

Be sure to take into account the entirety of high-intensity interval exercises, including the pauses for recovery, when calculating the length of the high-intensity interval. You should do this to get a more accurate representation of how your heart rate is throughout the session.

For instance, let’s say that you do a cycling interval set which consists of 8 repetitions of 1 minute at a strong intensity, with 2 minutes of low-intensity rest in between each interval.

In this instance, even though you are only pushing your body at a high-intensity level for 8 minutes, your heart rate will remain in the maximum intensity range for almost a quarter of an hour.

Rest and recovery 

As you become fitter and the parameters are changed, the quantity and intensity of your workout should gradually become higher. The training schedule in the 16th week should not be identical to the one used in the fifth week.

But do not allow the burden to increase continuously, or along with everything else in your life, you may end up exhausted. Schedule a recovery period approximately every 2-3 weeks where you reduce the amount of training.

Reduce the total number of training hours by around a third to two-fifths, depending on the load. During easier periods, like what we are currently in, a third should suffice, while it should be increased to two-fifths during periods of intensive training leading up to your race. This brings us to periodization.


Creating a training plan based on the 80/20 Rule is an idea that has been proposed. Actually doing it is another. Practically, it’s important to not rush through exercises that are meant to be done with low intensity and to pace yourself.

The majority of amateur triathletes tend to unknowingly pick swim, cycling, and running speeds that are higher than their breathing threshold during their normal aerobic exercises.

Watching important intensity metrics like pulse, speed, and strength is essential for surpassing intensity blindness and having the courage to go slower than your body would prefer.

Many athletes find it tough to make the shift to transitioning, as it involves breaking their old routines and trusting that a slower pace will be helpful.

It takes a lot of self-control and restraint to make this transformation, but those who do so successfully are always abundantly rewarded. At first, you’ll likely notice that you’re more at ease during your exercises that aren’t as strenuous and may even find that you appreciate them more.

Afterwards, you’ll sense that you are more invigorated by your intensified exercises and make stronger showings in them. Next, you will experience accelerated fitness development.

Ultimately, you will excel in your upcoming race. By that point, you will be totally convinced and devoted to 80/20 training for life.

Finding your bike threshold

The heartbeat rate at which your body produces lactic acid (LTHR) is similar to the level of ventilation needed to reach your ventilatory threshold. To find yours, do this 30min TT. Look for an area with minimal elevation changes and do some light exercise for ten minutes before beginning. You should be perspiring lightly. Then increase the intensity to the point that you think you can sustain for a half hour.

Press the lap button on your heart rate monitor. Hit lap again after 10mins. TT for 20mins more and press again. You have 10min and 20min laps. Your average heart rate (measured in beats per minute) over the last twenty minutes is referred to as your LTHR.

Improve efficiency

The clear separation between difficult and simple workouts gives you a perfect environment to concentrate on your stride rate.

Studies have revealed that the best rate at which to pedal reaches 90 beats per minute. This is the perfect balance between power output and fighting fatigue, in addition to conserving glycogen supplies, which is essential when participating in a lengthy event.

Yet, unless one is already accustomed to cycling, most beginning triathletes have to pedal cadences that are between 80 and 85 revolutions per minute, which is an undesirable rate of speed for moderate-intensity exercise.

Your goal for every bike ride should be to maintain a cadence of 90 revolutions per minute, choosing the necessary gear for the intensity of the ride, either light or hard.

Finding your swim threshold

It is not possible to use heart rate monitoring to determine swim zones as it is too unsteady. That’s where swim pacing comes in.

You can identify your lactate threshold swim pace by taking a test and then using it to create your swimming zones. To accomplish this, you should administer a speed assessment that takes into account critical velocity (CV, which is calculated in meters per minute).

Simply swim 400m as hard as you can. Take a two-minute break and then swim for two hundred meters quickly. Using a complicated equation, you can identify zones with the same 100% collateral value of your LTSP.

Swimming technique

Practising swim drills is absolutely necessary to advance your front crawl and is a fundamental portion of the 80 per cent that should be done in a low-intensity manner. Drills can be divided into two main categories: those that reduce air resistance or those that optimize how energy propels them.

The catch-up drill is an example of a way to lower drag, which involves holding your left arm straight ahead till the right-hand breaks through the water. Start to yank while the right arm holds back until the left arm catches up.

A propulsion drill consists of swimming with an elevated elbow, bent at a right angle to the body at the start of the stroke and maintaining the arm close to the surface while your hand and arm move back like a paddle.

Finding your run threshold

Finding out your LTHR while running needs the same procedure as when you’re cycling, but this time, you obviously don’t have a bike. Go back and look at the preceding page, and then carry out the 10-minute and 20-minute time trials.

Do not attempt to simply transfer skills that are specific to biking to running; do not take any shortcuts. Usually, your running LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate) is a couple of heartbeats faster than the one when cycling.

If you would rather measure your runs using speed and your GPS, you can compute your threshold rate. Get your blood pumping for 10mins before you run as far as your body allows in 30 minutes. Your TP is your average pace over the 30mins. If you travelled four miles in a span of 30 minutes, your average speed was 8 miles per hour.

Boosting run economy

Running requires great proficiency, though not as much as swimming, to be effective. By jogging regularly, you can develop an adequate technique, but you can further refine it by doing quick sprints during your slower workouts.

One illustration is to jog with your hands resting on top of your head. You cannot move ahead without bouncing, but excessive vertical fluctuations will use up a lot of energy.

By running with your hands on top of your head, you will be conscious of the bouncing motion and can adjust your running posture to reduce the up and down movements.

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