Runners: Stuck In The Moderate-Intensity Rut?

New technologies can help make you faster—and smarter about training

If you’re like most of the runners I’ve encountered in my 12 years of coaching, you run at the same moderate intensity almost every time you run. I call this pattern the moderate-intensity rut, and it’s the most common mistake that runners make. To get the best results from your training runners actually need to slow down and do four out of every five runs at a truly easy intensity and the remainder at moderate and high intensities.   

Traditionally, the few runners who have managed to avoid the moderate-intensity rut have done so in either of two ways: by training with heart rate monitor or by hiring a coach. Each of these solutions has its advantages and disadvantages. The best solution for you might not be the best for someone else.

How Hard Are You Really Working?
If you think that you’re an exception to the moderate-intensity rut, join the crowd. Most runners think they do more easy running than they really do.

A number of years ago researchers at Arizona State University asked a group of 30 female runners to describe their training. According to these self-reports, the women did three easy runs, one moderate-intensity run, and 1.5 high-intensity runs per week. But data collected from heart rate monitors that the researchers gave to the women to wear through one full week of training told a different story. In reality, the women did less than half of their training in the low-intensity range, almost half in the moderate-intensity range and less than 9 percent in the high-intensity range.

The problem wasn't that these runners were doing less easy running than they thought. The real problem was that, if they really had been doing a higher percentage of easy running, they'd be getting better results. In terms of their training intensity, they were their own worst enemies

The 80/10/10 Rule
Exercise scientists have found that runners get the best results from their training when they do roughly 80 percent of their running at lower intensity, 10 percent at moderate intensity and 10 percent at high intensity. For example, in a recent Spanish study, one group of runners followed this 80/10/10 rule for five months while a second group did twice as much moderate-intensity running. Both groups ran races before and after the five-month training period.

Even though members of the two groups did the same total amount of running, those in the 80/10/10 group improved their races times 29 percent more on average than did members of the second group. The reason was that those in the 80/10/10 group got more benefit from the smaller amount of moderate and high-intensity running they did because they were less tired for it.

Convinced? Good. So now, how do you break out of the moderate-intensity rut?

Solution #1: Heart Rate Monitoring
Using a heart rate monitor in workouts allows a runner to see objectively whether his or her intensity level is actually easy, moderate or hard. Once you’ve determined the proper heart rate training zones for your fitness level, it’s no longer possible to fool yourself into thinking you’re taking it easy when you really aren’t.

So why doesn’t every runner train with a heart rate monitor all the time? Surveys suggest that many runners find heart rate monitors difficult to use and find the theory behind heart rate-based training difficult to master. It seems to require the knowledge of a coach to correctly prescribe customized heart rate-training zones, create a sensible heart rate-based training plan, and execute each workout correctly. This point leads us to solution number two.

Solution #2: Hiring a Coach
A good coach can make avoiding the moderate-intensity rut a no-brainer. Your coach determines the proper training zones for you, creates a sensible 80/10/10 training plan for your exclusive use and makes sure that you execute each workout correctly.

Except that most coaches aren’t actually present with their athletes through every workout to ensure proper execution. Also, personal coaching is pricey. Not every runner can afford it. Furthermore, the coach-athlete relationship is like any relationship: it requires good chemistry to work. If you don’t have good chemistry with the coaches in your immediate area, you’re out of luck.

A New Solution
Recent technologies offer the promise of a new solution to the problem of the moderate-intensity rut. Last year I started working with PEAR Sports, a company that makes one such device. It essentially combines coaching with heart rate monitoring to give athletes the best of both worlds. As you do your workouts, you listen through headphones to a coach (such as myself) who guides you through heart rate-based training sessions. Effective training becomes as easy as pressing one button and doing as you’re told—and it’s a lot cheaper than a personal coach.

Like anything, the PEAR device probably isn’t for everyone, but I believe that technologies like it hold tremendous promise for helping greater numbers of runners avoid the moderate-intensity rut. In the meantime, what’s most important is simply to recognize the existence of this mistake and choose the best solution for you.

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