Pros and Cons of an 80/20 Marathon Training Plan by Matt Fitzgerald

So you’re looking to take your training to the next level and hit a new PR in the marathon distance? That means it’s time to find a proper marathon training plan.

There are tons of options out there, and it can be confusing to figure out which one to use. Based on your circumstances, you should be able to narrow it down to 2-3 plans that could be good for you.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced runner, you should consider giving Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 marathon training plans a look. They’re not well suited for the true beginner looking to get off the couch, and they’re probably not great for the super committed runner putting in 80+ mpw, but he’s got options for everyone in between.

Keep reading, and I’ll lead you through the underlying training philosophy, how the plans are designed, and what the pros and cons are. Then you can make a choice.

Where Can I Learn About the 80/20 Marathon Training Plans?

The cover of 80/20 running by Matt Fitzgerald.

Any time you use a marathon training plan, you should make sure to read the source material it comes from. In the case of the 80/20 marathon plans – this is even more important than usual.

Matt Fitzgerald is a coach, author, and athlete who has written a number of books related to running and exercise science. He wasn’t an elite runner himself, but he has notched some fast times for an amateur – with a marathon PR of 2:39.

In 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Faster by Training Slower, Matt Fitzgerald lays out his philosophy of training. He relies heavily on research into exercise science, and he cites studies throughout the book to support his approach

The core principal he builds on throughout the book – and the source of the title – is an idea from Stephen Seiler’s research – that professional runners spend about 20% of their time running at high or moderate intensities and 80% of their time running at lower intensities.

After taking you through a review of the literature and explaining how this works in practice, Matt includes three marathon training plans. The reason you need to read the book is that they are more complicated than most training plans. If you read the plan itself, you won’t actually understand what he’s telling you to do unless you look up each workout in a specific chapter of the book.

So again – if you plan on using this training plan … BUY THE BOOK. You will refer to it often.

What Makes the 80/20 Marathon Training Plans So Special?

The core idea that Matt builds his training philosophy on is that proper endurance training should focus 20% (or less) on hard or moderate intensities and 80% (or more) on easy intensities.

Although I’m not sure this is an earth shattering idea, he hammers this idea home throughout the book. At times, he seems to build a straw man argument around it as if people don’t typically agree.

I suppose that may be true of amateur runners who don’t have any background in training philosophies or exercise science. But most modern running plans – and even older training philosophies, like Lydiard – are built on this principal.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the Jack Daniels 2Q and Pfitz 18 week 70 mile per week plans (which I compared here) to see how much time they prescribed at high and low intensities. JD’s plan prescribed around 20% of the miles at moderate to hard intensities, with the majority being moderate. Pfitz had a 10%/90% breakdown. Both authors roughly followed the 80/20 breakdown.

That being said, what makes Matt’s training plans special is that they really dial in to this idea. He focuses on it so much that the plans don’t actually tell you how many miles you’re running. Most plans have a summary at the end that you run X miles in a given week. Instead, Matt’s plans summarize each week as X% hard and Y% easy.

He also prescribes most workouts, with the exception of long runs, in time. The advantage of this is that it helps things scale well based on your current fitness and ability. The disadvantage is that if you’re used to thinking about things in miles, it can take some mental gymnastics to really understand what’s being asked of you.

Finally, he’s big on recovery weeks. They happen every three weeks, and they’re serious. Other plans give a nod to recovery here and there, but I haven’t seen a plan with this clear of a cutback every three weeks.

A man training for a marathon using the 80-20 marathon training plan.

Overview of the 80/20 Marathon Plans

In the book, Matt lays out three marathon training plans – a beginner plan (level 1), an intermediate plan (level 2), and an advanced plan (level 3).

They differ in the amount of time you spend running, but they share a similar structure.

Each plan is 18 weeks long. The first half of each plan builds up slowly to a peak, and the second half of each plan bears down with more intensity as you get closer to race day. The long runs also build up throughout the first part, and then they continue at higher mileage in the second half.

The plans are built with specific building block workouts, which are detailed in Chapter 7. Examples of these workouts are foundation runs (easy runs), fast finish runs (easy progressions with a light tempo at the end), speed play (fartleks), hill reps, and different kinds of intervals. Each workout specifies how much time you spend in various intensity zones.

Mondays are often rest days, and other days are listed as optional cross training. There are also recovery weeks every third week, with reduced mileage.

At the end of each week, there is a summary of what percentage of time is spent at low intensity and what percent of time is spent at medium or hard intensities. Although there is often a large increase in time between the first half and the second half, there is limited intensity in the beginning which should limit your potential for injuries.

Level 1 – The Beginner Plan

The beginner plan is pretty approachable for a beginner. Throughout the plan, you will run six days a week, but a typical daily run is only 30 minutes give or take. Monday is consistently a rest day, and other days can be swapped for cross training.

Matt suggests that, before you start the plan, you’re consistently running at least three days a week and exercising at least six. If you meet that criteria – which probably means you’ve been running for at least a few months – you should be in a great place to start.

Long runs build slowly throughout the plan, and there aren’t many true “long” runs. But there is one 16 miler, one 18 miler, and one 20 miler. Just enough to get you some confidence, but not enough to break you down.

The first half of the plan typically includes one light workout per week (speed play or hill reps), while the second half of the plan shifts to two workouts per week (mix of cruise intervals, tempo runs, other intervals).

Overall, it looks like a good “advanced” beginner plan. It’s approachable for a beginner (more so than something like Hanson’s beginner plan, or a low mileage Jack Daniels 2Q), but it won’t leave you undertrained (like many “true” beginner plans do).

Level 2 – The Intermediate Plan

The intermediate plan takes a step up in volume. It follows the pattern of the beginner plan, but it just increases everything a little bit.

Most weeks, you run seven days a week. On recovery weeks, Monday reverts to a rest day. Mileage starts around 30 to 40 mpw and it peaks around 50.

The mileage is spread out among the daily runs, so they still aren’t that long. The big difference is in the long runs. In the second half, there are now many 16-20 mile long runs – with 2x 20, 2x 18, and 3×16.

The relative number and frequency of workouts is the same – but they’re now a little bit longer.

This is a good program for someone who’s outgrown a beginner plan, has a solid base of running, but isn’t quite ready for something like Pfitz 18/55 or JD 2Q at 55mpw. It’s similar to something like Hanson’s beginner plan, but unlike Hanson’s it offers a much more gentle first half of the plan.

Level 3 – The Advanced Plan

The advanced plan is a full on, advanced plan. This is for a serious runner with a serious base. Matt says that it’s a “good fit for experienced competitive runners who are prepared to train twice a day some days in pursuit of improved marathon performance.”

Whereas the previous plan peaks at around 7 hours of training per week, this one starts around 7 hours and peaks just under 11 hours. It’s similar in volume and intensity to something like Pfitz 18/70.

The relative structure is the same. Most weeks you run seven days a week, but on recovery weeks you take Monday off. Individual daily runs are typically less than hour.

In this plan, several days have easy doubles in them. He really spreads out the mileage – often having three short doubles in a week that’s not much over 70 miles. It’s a good way to dip your toes into high mileage.

The long runs ramp up more quickly here, and you get to 20 miles before the halfway point. There are also three weeks at the end with successive 20 milers. That would be the only point where I’d be worried about recovery – the rest of this looks thoughtfully periodized and spread out.

Sample Week from an 80/20 Training Plan

To give you an idea of what this looks like in practice, here’s a sample week from one of the training plans. This is Week 11 from the Level 2 (Intermediate) Plan:

  • Monday – Recovery Run 6 (Or Cross Training)
  • Tuesday – Tempo Run 4
  • Wednesday – Recovery Run 6 (Or Cross Training)
  • Thursday – Foundation Run 6 (Or Cross Training)
  • Friday – Short Interval Run 5
  • Saturday – Recovery Run 6 (Or Cross Training)
  • Sunday – Long Run 15

Note: Those numbers are not mileage. They identify a specific workout, each of which is detailed in Chapter 7 of 80/20 Running. But you’re looking at around 5-6 miles each day, with a 20 mile long run on Sunday, totaling around 50 miles for the week.

Pros of an 80/20 Marathon Training Plan

The 80/20 marathon training plans have some great things going for them. Here are a few pros to consider.

Gentle ramp up of volume. There is a pretty slow build up of volume in the first half of the plan, which should help people ease into it. This is common in true beginner plans, but it’s not common in more advanced plans.

Regular recovery weeks. There are regular recovery weeks built into this plan, which should help you adapt to the training stress. This is even more important for less experienced runners or older runners, who both require more recovery time.

Time scales well. Miles are easy to plan on a map, but time scales really well. Whether you’re fast, slow, a man, or a woman, you can follow the same plans and the same workouts based on minutes. For slower runners, it’s common for other plans to pile on too much mileage or intensity.

Clear limits on intensity. If you follow the plans are written, there are clear limits on intensity that will help you stay healthy. Again, there’s a good balancing of intensity where there’s less in the beginning and a good amount later on.

No long runs during the week. In these plans, there aren’t any weekdays with large time commitments. Most weekday runs are an hour or less, although in the advanced plans some of the Tuesday workouts go longer.

Consistent running, 6-7 days per week. This might be my own personal bias, but I always thought it was weird that some marathon plans try to cram their mileage into 4-5 days. If you’re running a marathon, run every day. Take one day off if you want, but there’s no reason to take 2-3 days off. It always struck me as silly, and I like that the intent here is clear that you will run 6-7 days per week.

Cons of an 80/20 Marathon Training Plan

That being said, these plans are not perfect. And there are some cons to be aware of.

It’s confusing. It doesn’t need to be confusing, but the way it’s written it is. You can’t just look at the plan and know what you’re doing. Just to understand what was being asked in any given week, I had to make a spreadsheet and spend a lot of time flipping back and forth. His naming scheme is good for making the purpose of workouts obvious, but it’s not good for communicating what an actual workout is. If you think Jack Daniels is confusing, he’s got nothing on Matt Fitzgerald.

No midweek long runs. This is good for scheduling, but it’s bad for endurance. Especially in the level 2 and level 3 plans, this seems like it’s a flaw. Spreading out the mileage so much means that there are no long efforts other than the Sunday long run.

Long build, short peak. While I like the slow build in the beginning, I worry that there is a relatively short peak phase with high mileage and intensity. I wish there was an option for a 12 week plan without the build up in the beginning that assumes that you already have the necessary base – and you just want to put in the intensity.

Lots of doubles in the advanced plan. While I like this from the standpoint of balancing the training load, it does create potential time constraints. Sometimes it’s easier to get your full run in during the morning, and it can be hard to commit to an evening run. Having three doubles per week may be tough for people with busy schedules.

Little flexibility and no guidance for changes. This plan is very structured, and there’s no guidance in here about how to move workouts around if you have to. An experienced runner can probably figure out what choices to make, but for the novice or intermediate runner this can be confusing.

Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Training Plans: The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 marathon training plans are confusing, but good.

If you can get organized enough to understand what to run on each day, these plans will get you to the finish line healthy and prepared. You’ll have adequate time to recover, and the workouts are well balanced.

The main drawback is the complexity of the written plans – but if you can get beyond that, they’re great.

If you’re a true beginner, only running 2-3 days a week, then you’re not ready for any of these plans. But for someone who has been running for six months to a year and can comfortably run 5-6 days per week, level 1 is an excellent beginner plan. It fills a necessary gap that exists between the “couch to marathon” beginner plans and the “not quite serious” beginner plans.

The level 2 plan is good for someone who has finished a marathon (or a couple half marathons) and is looking to get to the next level – but not quite ready for something too serious. I used Jack Daniels 2Q 55mpw for my first marathon, and in retrospect the 80/20 Level 2 probably would have been a better fit. This is a great way to bridge into the real advanced options.

Finally, the level 3 option is good for someone who wants to train hard, can commit to short evening runs, and doesn’t have a lot of time on weekday mornings. For a truly advanced marathon training plan, I still prefer Jack Daniels 2Q. But this may be a better option for many people than Pfitz 18/70.

Of course, what these plans are lacking is high volume training. If you’re looking to go above 75 miles per week, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Have you tried one of Matt’s 80/20 marathon training plans? If so, leave a comment and let me know how it went.

And if you’re thinking of using one of these plans, I’ll say it one more time – read the book, you will refer to it often.

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