Using the 80/20 Rule to Balance Triathlon Training Intensity

The 80/20 training method for triathlons, where you train for 80% of the time at a lower intensity and 20% at a higher intensity, is becoming more popular because it leaves athletes less fatigued and improves performance. The author outlines a way to improve one’s performance by slowly training and then racing quickly.

If you’re not sure what 80/20 training is or how it can help you, this article will explain it. In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about this training methodology.

The Discovery of the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 Rule was discovered by American exercise scientist Stephen Seiler, who is based in Norway. In the early 2000s, Seiler embarked on a study to understand how professional endurance athletes train. He found a remarkably consistent pattern. The vast majority of training for world-class athletes is done at a low intensity.

In 2011 and 2012, one of Seiler’s collaborators, Iñigo Mujika of the University of Basque Country, closely monitored the training of Spain’s top female triathlete, Ainhoa Murua, for 50 weeks in the lead-up to the London Olympics. He discovered that she spent the majority of her time swimming, cycling, and running below her lactate threshold – the point at which her body starts to produce lactic acid rapidly.

The lactate threshold is the point at which moderate-intensity exercise becomes difficult. Ainhoa did about 80 per cent of her training at a low intensity, which is slightly less than the percentages mentioned above. Ainhoa placed seventh in the 2012 Olympic Women’s Triathlon.

You can’t make broad assumptions based on a single instance. Although the intensity distribution of Ainhoa Murua’s training in 2011 and 2012 may not seem remarkable, it is actually quite similar to that of other elite triathletes and endurance athletes in general.

What accounts for this consistency? Seiler argues that human beings developed language through a process of trial and error, similar to the way that animals evolve through natural selection. Since endurance sports began in Europe 150 years ago, people have been trying to figure out the best way to balance training intensities. This has led to many competitions where different methods are pitted against each other. In the last 150 years, all of the lower-quality methods have disappeared at the top level. Only the best, the 80/20 model, has survived.

The Moderate Intensity Rut

Recreational triathletes allocate a significantly smaller amount of training time to low-intensity exercise and significantly more time to moderate-intensity exercise, in comparison to professional triathletes. In 2014, Stephen Seiler and colleagues monitored the training of nine recreational triathletes as they prepared for an IRONMAN event. There was a strong relationship between the amount of time spent training at a low intensity and how well they performed in the race. The athletes who stuck closest to the 80/20 Rule (spending 80% of their time training at low intensity), achieved better finishing times.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Salzburg involved 48 endurance athletes representing various types of sports, including triathlon. There were four groups of athletes in the study, each following a training program with a different intensity distribution for nine weeks.

The performance tests were given to all four groups before and after the nine weeks. The group that followed the 80/20 rule most closely saw the biggest improvements in their VO2 max, time to exhaustion, peak cycling power, and peak running velocity.

The Volume Question

The commonly held belief is that volume is the most important element in the formula for optimal training, with intensity coming in second. The latest science indicates that the opposite of what was previously believed is true.

In a 2014 study, it was found that club runners who ran just 35 miles per week on average, improved their 10K race times by twice as much, as runners who did half of their training at moderate intensity, which is typical of recreational runners.

It seems that a balance of 80% low intensity and 20% high intensity is best for all endurance athletes. The best results are achieved when athletes train at a volume that is 80 per cent of their maximum capacity. Since low-intensity training is not very strenuous, most people will be able to do a lot of it. However, some people will be able to do more than others, and as someone gets better at this type of training, they will be able to do more of it.

Training the 80/20 Way

You should start obeying the 80/20 Rule in your training. This is a two-step process. Step one is planning; step two is execution.


The 80/20 Rule is great because it’s easy to plan with its mathematical approach. To create a successful training schedule, approximately 80 per cent of your total weekly training time should be spent at a low intensity.

The first ventilatory threshold falls around 77 per cent of the maximum heart rate in the typically trained triathlete and marks the beginning of moderate intensity.

Around 92 per cent of the typical trained triathlete’s maximum heart rate is the second ventilatory threshold or the respiratory compensation point.

You do not need to follow the 80/20 Rule all the time. You should only do this when you are trying to be in peak condition for a race.

It is best to do 80 per cent of your training at a moderate to high intensity during the off-season and early base training.

How to Plan Your 80/20 Workouts

Avoid scheduling workouts of the same type close together. For example, it is okay to cycle and run on the same day, but avoid doing both at a high intensity.

If you can’t train four times a week, that’s OK. The most important thing is to make sure that the combination of foods you eat in a given week adheres to the 80/20 rule. Remember that moderate- and high-intensity efforts aren’t always at this level. You can add lower-intensity recovery work to the 80-part.

Within each discipline, there are four basic categories of workouts:

Used as active recovery or in the build phase Relatively short sessions of easy swimming, riding, or running in zone 1 and/or 2 can be used for active recovery or during the build phase.

b) Long endurance-boosting workouts (zone 1 and 2);

c) Moderate-intensity sessions (zone 3 or X);

d) High-intensity workouts (zones 4 and 5).

80/20 training example

The sweet spot for many triathletes is six times a week. The new schedule allows for a day off and just one session a day for the remainder of the week. An ideal schedule would look like this:

  • A complete day off on Monday.
  • A run that includes high-intensity intervals on Tuesday.
  • Swimming long on Wednesday or a short swim that includes high-intensity intervals.
  • Cycling on Thursday with high-intensity intervals.
  • Swimming again on Friday with high-intensity intervals.
  • A long endurance run on Saturday that could optionally include some high-intensity efforts.
  • A long endurance cycling session on Sunday could include some high-intensity efforts.

How to Measure Intensity

Seiler suggests using a combination of heart rate, perceived exertion and pacing to get the most accurate results. RPE is the feeling you get when you judge how hard you are working on a scale ranging from easy to max effort. The feeling you get when you perceive how hard you are working on a scale from easy to the max effort is called perceived exertion. Six This task is moderately difficult. It requires some effort to complete but is not overly challenging. The downside is that it is hard to monitor this rating when you are really tired.

GPS pacing can be helpful for moderate to high-intensity runs but can make low-intensity runs feel more restrictive. They are also useful for calibrating your speed/cadence sensor Power meters are devices that measure the power output of cyclists. They are accurate and can be used to calibrate speed and cadence sensors.

High-Intensity Intervals

Remember that in high-intensity interval workouts, the entire interval including active recoveries should be considered as time spent at a high intensity. This is because more accurately reflects where your heart rate actually is throughout the session. A possible variation of this would be to do 8 x 1 minute at high intensity with 1-minute low-intensity recoveries between intervals. For example, you could do a cycling interval set consisting of 8 x 1 minute at high intensity with 1-minute low-intensity recoveries between intervals. Even though you are only putting out high-intensity power for 8 minutes, your heart rate will stay close to the high-intensity range for 24 minutes.

How to Apply the 80/20 Strategy to All Three Disciplines of Triathlon

There is no evidence to suggest that someone’s strengths or weaknesses will change the intensity balance of their chosen discipline. You should still spend 80% of your time training your strongest discipline, but you should spend more time than before on your weakest discipline. If you want to increase your running time, you should do it gradually to avoid burnout. You should also increase the intensity of your swim and bike workouts to compensate.

Rest and Recovery

As your fitness improves and you become more accustomed to the workout routine, you should gradually increase the amount of training you do. This includes both the volume of workouts and the intensity. So, every third or fourth week, plan for a recovery week in which you reduce your training load. Training hours should be cut by 30-40% compared to the previous week during periods when racing is not the primary focus. This brings us to periodization…


The goal for the first eight weeks is to increase your ability to swim, bike, and run at high speeds. To do this, most of your interval training should be done at a pace that is just below your maximum ability. You should train so that the duration and intensity of your workouts match what you expect on race day, which should be about 8-9 weeks before the race.

Keep the ratios in both periods at 80/20. The author is saying that the general and specific phases from traditional periodisation are the same as the ones being used in the new system. Why? Because 80/20 fits into any training methodology.

Find Your Swim Threshold

It is not possible to set swim zones using heart rate monitoring because the heart rate is too erratic. That’s where swim pacing comes in.

Simply swim 400m as hard as you can. After you take a two-minute break, swim 200 meters quickly.

Drills are an important part of improving your front crawl and form an integral part of your training regime. They should be performed at a low-intensity level. There are two main types of drills: those that reduce drag and those that increase propulsion efficiency. A propulsion drill involves swimming with an elbow that is raised high and bent at a 90-degree angle at the beginning of the pull. The elbow should remain close to the surface as the hand and forearm are swept backwards.

Finding Your Bike Threshold

Your lactate threshold heart rate is similar to your ventilatory threshold. To find yours, do this 30min TT. You should find a relatively flat course and warm up for 10 minutes. You should be perspiring lightly. Next, increase the intensity to a level you believe you can maintain for 30 minutes.

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. of an all-out time trial. Your LTHR is the average heart rate for the final 20 minutes of an all-out time trial.

Improve Efficiency

The difference between hard and easy sessions gives you a good opportunity to focus on cadence. Research shows that the optimum cadence is about 90rpm, striking the perfect point between power output and fatigue resistance, in addition to preserving glycogen stores, which is key the longer you race.

For each bike session, try to keep the RPMs at 90. Depending on how difficult the session is, you will need to select which gear to use.

Finding Your Run Threshold

To find your LTHR for running, you follow the same procedure as you would for biking. Do not cheat by taking shortcuts and believing you can just take your bike’s LTHR and respective zones and use them for running. Your run LTR is usually a few beats higher than your cycling LTR.

You can calculate your threshold pace by gauging your runs by speed and GPS. A ten-minute warm-up before you start running will help to loosen your muscles and get your heart rate going. Try to run for at least 30 minutes to get a good workout in. Your TP is your average pace over the 30mins. If you cover four miles in 30 minutes, your average speed is eight miles per hour.

Boost Run Economy

The running technique can be improved by doing short-run drills during low-intensity sessions.

A possible way to improve your balance is to jog while keeping your hands on top of your head. If you want to move forward, you have to keep moving up and down, but if you do it too much, it will use up a lot of energy. If you keep your hands on your head while running, you will become more aware of the bouncing and can change your run form to stop the bouncing.



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