The 80:20 Rule – The Secret of Better Training

When I started racing cross-country in Switzerland, I thought that chasing a faster rider would help me catch the pack quickly. My nemeses was a guy called Marcus. My training replicated my racing, it was all top end just like I was chasing an imaginary Marcus. Of course, I couldn’t catch him and as the season went on I began to really dislike poor Marcus, but I quickly realized that I had to train differently, I had to employ a system.

I had heard about the 80:20 rule, the Pareto Principle which states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

This principle was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who published a paper showing that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. Interestingly, Pareto started to develop his theories when he observed that about 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas he harvested!

In fact, the Pareto Principle appears again and again in nature and also in all walks of life from business to crime. For example, 80% of the world’s wealth is controlled by 20% of the population and 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of the criminals. Many natural phenomena have been shown empirically to exhibit the 80/20 rule.

Moving to structured training

I began to think about structured training and one of the things that interested me was the 80:20 rule.

An up and coming rider, by the name of Arnaud Rapillard, was working at the Swiss Olympic testing facility in Sion. After one of my tests he suggested I should spend 80% of my training volume in the aerobic exercise zones and 20% in the anaerobic exercise zones. The Pareto Principle even appears in training systems! Perhaps my training was no exception.

Don’t ignore the basics

We should not ignore some aspects of the training spectrum and concentrate solely on the areas we believe make the biggest gains.

Training is not that simple. It’s a complex relationship that needs to engage all your bodies systems in the correct proportions. Some have suggested that it is possible to short-cut training and concentrate just on the anaerobic 20% that makes the biggest impact. However, without the other aerobic 80% your training will be incomplete and the all-important anaerobic 20% will be less effective and short lived.

The anaerobic 20% without the aerobic 80% steady state base training work and recovery becomes 100% which is unstainable. It’s also true that training just in the aerobic 80% area, although improving endurance and the bodies cardiovascular systems, it will not make the necessary gains in speed and force. In short, we have two sides of a coin that need each other to become whole.

As a general rule

A common error in training or riding is that we don’t train or ride in the correct exercise zones for the correct durations to gain the best benefit from our riding or training.

For example, people who perhaps want to lose weight, perform short intense workouts at the gym or those who want to build in extra power and speed perform steady state workouts over long periods. Both do not achieve their aims and the subject is left wondering why all their hard work has not paid back the expected dividends.

Like me, in cycling a new comer is often chasing faster riders, but rarely catching them.

In adopting 80/20 principle, you will target your training in the correct proportions so that you spend the correct percentage of our total training time in the correct areas to maximize gains without inducing over-reaching that can lead to high levels of fatigue and perhaps over-training.

Aerobic and anaerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise

Spend 80% of your exercise regime in the aerobic exercise zones. This will ready yourself for the anaerobic high intensity part of your training plan. Also, to recover from the anaerobic high intensity intervals. Aerobic exercise builds the foundation on which to support the improvements in fitness being made (the adaptations). If you exclude aerobic exercise you risk your hard anaerobic work being short lived.

In short, by spending the correct proportion of time in the aerobic exercise zones you are building a foundation on which to build the upper levels of your physical fitness, you are training to train harder.

Anaerobic exercise

We know that massive gains can be made by exercising in the anaerobic exercise zones but because these exercise zones are extremely taxing we cannot usefully sustain these intensities for long.

As a result, we train using intervals, exercising at high intensity placing a high load on both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems of the body repeated for a given number of times. Intervals also include time for adequate recovery at a lower aerobic intensity.

The benefit of this method over traditional long, less intense aerobic work base work such as steady state cycling is that it places a higher adaptation inducing stress on the body without the occurrence of physical exhaustion, due to the longer recovery aspects factored into each workout.

Fitness and strength increases will be achieved more quickly using such high intensity, low volume practices than with long drawn out steady state exercise.

Therefore, spend 20% of your training regime in the anaerobic exercise zones to make 80% of the required adaptations.

Introducing exercise zones

Most physical adaptations take place in upper exercise zone 3, 4 and 5.

However, hours of steady state training in zone 2 should not be ignored because it readies your body for intense anaerobic interval training.

If time is short, use exercise zone 3 which is often referred to as “tempo” or “the sweet spot”. Tempo rides of around 90 minutes to 2 hours can be very useful in making the same adaptations more quickly. However, like a house, the deeper the foundations the better and to achieve this nothing beats many hours in exercise zone 2.

Also, do not think that if you truly wish to reach your potential you can avoid working in the anaerobic exercise zones. Every zone enables certain, specific adaptations so each has a purpose and should not be ignored.

Exercise zones and how they help


Exercise zone 2

For most of us it is possible to sustain continuous rides of up to six hours in exercise zone 2, provided that adequate nutrition and hydration are taken.

The purpose of these long, steady rides is to improve endurance and strengthen the cardiovascular transportation system.

Without developing this system your anaerobic efforts will be compromised. Most of your steady state work can be completed in 1 or 2 blocks per week, for these sessions to work they should last for at least 2.5 hours.

Exercise zone 3

Most of us can ride at exercise zone 3 for continuous rides of up to 2 hours. Although rides of up to 4 hours at this level are possible for the well trained, provided that sufficient nutrition and hydration are taken early and then regularly.

For base training, if time is short and long steady state rides in exercise zone 2 are not possible, rides of between 1.5 and 2 hours in exercise zone 3 can be extremely beneficial.

In Exercise zone 3 we move from the aerobic to anaerobic energy systems. It builds to your aerobic threshold and starts to push your anaerobic threshold.

Exercising at this level for a sustained period, just at your critical threshold, places a very high load on the body’s ability to supply oxygen to the working muscles. Equally important, it stresses the mechanisms which control the fatigue-causing processes that occur within the muscles at high work rates.

Training at this intensity ensures a heavy aerobic stress and should improve the power output you can sustain before the onset of fatigue.

Important physiological changes occur in zones 2 and 3

These include:

  • the improvement of the supply of oxygen to the working muscles by an increase in the heart’s capacity to pump blood;

  • a rise in the total volume of blood; the growth of small blood vessels within the muscles;

  • and the fine tuning of controlled blood flow in the body.

The ability of the muscles to use oxygen also improves through changes in the biochemistry of the muscle fibres. This enables you to work more efficiently, and at higher work intensities, without the onset of fatigue.

A further effect is to encourage the body to use fat as a fuel source in preference to the all-important carbohydrate stores.


Exercise zone 4

In exercise zone 4, it is possible to sustain between 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on how well trained you are. It is recommended that at this level training should be done in intervals of between 6 to 20 minutes for no more than 40 minutes in total.

Training at this level can be draining, and it can take a day or two to recover.

Exercise zone 5

Here, you can perhaps only sustain between 15 to 30 minutes at this intensity.

It is recommended that training at this level should be done in intervals of 2 to 6 minutes, but not on consecutive days.

Exercise zone 6

Sustainable duration at level 6 drops again to just 4 to 10 minutes with training carried out in short, sharp, intense intervals of 30 seconds to 3 minutes.

Heart rate is not a reliable measure of exertion at this level because of the lag between response and effort. Again, sessions including level 6 intervals should not be attempted on consecutive days.

Important physiological changes occur in zones 4 to 6

Exercise zone 4 and above are the primary targets of interval training to near-maximally load by repeatedly pushing yourself almost to the point of exhaustion. Training at these levels will raise your anaerobic threshold to new heights increasing higher levels of sustainable power and improving your anaerobic capacity.

Positive adaptations are made throughout the muscular, respiratory, nervous and cardiovascular systems that contribute to the production of maximum power by increasing the rate at which carbohydrate utilized, enhancing specific skills such as sprinting, breaking and power climbing.

What happened to Marcus?

Back to the start and poor Marcus. Well, I trained for hours in exercise zone 2 and 3 making 3 to 4 long rides a week in base and as I got nearer the season, the intensity increased with climbing FTP sessions, hill intervals and race pace tempo rides.

I also raced in the National with Swiss Epic Marathon Series to again build endurance, stamina, skill and yes speed.

The result? I beat Marcus and now when I see someone chasing a stronger rider and working way to hard, it reminds me of this early lesson.

I use the 20/80 rule for the pacing of longer rides, when planning training sessions, schedules and plans from base to race and found it to be a cornerstone of balanced training.

Like Arnaud before me I am also going to suggest to you that 80% of your training volume should be in the aerobic exercise zones and 20% should be in the anaerobic exercise zones.


From the above you can see that it is not practical, sustainable or complete to just train in the anaerobic or aerobic exercise zones. By adopting the 80/20 rule and working in the all the exercise zones in the correct proportions you will train more completely and effectively. The process will improve all the body’s systems.

With online platforms such as Strava, Training Peaks, etc. it’s easy to record your training and see how much time or, more importantly, what percentage of your total volume of training you are spending in each exercise zone.

  • Train purposefully in all the exercise zones for the correct durations;

  • Train in intervals when working at anaerobic threshold and above;

  • Recover adequately between intervals to make the best of them;

  • Make at least one long endurance ride per week;

  • On short rides up the pace by working in anaerobic intervals with recovery periods or work at tempo;

  • Don’t chase, train “smart”.

It worked for me!

More from Nigel at BPM Coaching

Visit https://www.bpmcoaching.co.uk

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