Regular physical exercise makes your body stronger, especially when challenged with various strength and endurance tasks and, more importantly, when enough time is given to recover before the following workout. This training and recovery cycle is a small building block that forms each athletes’ training program.

In order to gain maximal benefits of regular training, workouts have to be well distributed across weekly and monthly training schedules, with variations of physical exercises and their intensities. There is no doubt that both types – high intensity interval training (for example: most fitness classes) and higher volume low intensity exercise (easy and relaxed running or cycling) – are effective at improving overall health and performance.

We can simply classify training intensities into three main categories of easy, moderate and high-intensity training. Optimal training intensity distribution in this training intensity continuum is important and helps many elite and recreational athletes to maintain good training-recovery balance.

Have you ever asked yourself and noted how many high-intensity training sessions you have in a week, and how many of them are at easy exercise intensity? Can you identify which session in your weekly training schedule are easy, moderate or high intensity? These questions will help you to understand if you polarise your training, having both easy intensity and high intensity training days, or if your training is more monotonous and guided by “train hard every day” approach.

Simple ways to know that exercise intensity is easy:

  • You are able to talk using short sentences when exercising
  • You are able to breath through your nose if necessary
  • By answering a question: “Will I be able to maintain this exercise intensity for hour without being excessively tired at the end?”
  • You feel that your chest is not lifting hard with each breath
  • By using training zones based on heart rate readings determined in the physiology laboratory

You are likely at high intensity zone if:

  • You are not able to talk in sentences (just one or two words between breaths)
  • You suddenly feel that breathing just became faster and you need more air to keep going
  • For most people, sweating becomes profuse after 5-10 minutes
  • Your heart rate is close to maximal
  • You are running or cycling at a pace that you would not normally choose for a casual ride or run

Hard workResearch tells that recreational athletes usually commit themselves to spending too much time in the moderate training zone, which makes all easy and longer duration training sessions too intense, and on the other hand, all high-intensity training workouts suffer from athlete’s inability to reach appropriate intensity. It is important to appreciate that training hard in each training session is associated with accumulation of excessive fatigue and overall stress, and in the long run could lead to overtraining and loss of desire to exercise.

So, how do elite athletes handle high training volumes, overcome training monotony and endure enough time for recovery?

Unsurprisingly, research studies tell us that most elite level endurance athletes naturally adjust to polarising their training with most training performed at easy intensity (~80% of training volume). The rest training volume is performed as high intensity workouts (~20%), and the least time is spent in the moderate intensity training zone. This model has shown superior results to improve endurance exercise performance and potentially leads to lower overall stress and reduced injury and overtraining rates. This is where the 80-20 rule comes from, if you haven’t heard about it already.

How to use 80-20 rule in your training:

  • Spend 80% of your training time exercising at low intensity and 20% of your training time challenging yourself with high intensity workouts
  • Use a heart rate monitor in order to monitor exercise intensity better
  • One or two high intensity workouts per week is sufficient training load to stimulate beneficial adaptations,
  • Dedicate your easy intensity days to build overall endurance, work on agility, improve general strength and flexibility
  • Have a clear plan of what you want to achieve in every session
  • High intensity workouts are: most fitness classes, bike spin workouts, tabata-type workouts, interval running session on the track
  • Low intensity workouts are: most yoga classes, longer distance running or cycling workouts, weight training in the gym