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How to Lose Weight and Get Fast by Running Slow




After nearly 1200 metabolic tests, the evidence is clear; the most effective way to get faster and burn more fat…is to run slow!

At the outset, you may think I’m crazy. Getting faster and losing weight by running slow, what? Doesn’t even make sense. If you’ve studied running much, then you’ve probably heard rumors about this sort of thing. And you probably thought the people doing it were crazy. If you’ve actually ventured out and tried it, it may have driven you crazy.

Stay tuned and you will learn that running slow, the right way, actually is a very effective way to help you run faster and burn off the fat. What I’m talking about is 80/20 running.

Disclaimer:

With all things fitness and weight loss there are thousands of theories, protocols and programs. Running is no different. There are many people out there who claim they’ve found the “best” training program out there. I’m not going to make any claims that 80/20 is the absolute best way to train. But from a Doctor of Physical Therapy’s perspective, it is the best I’ve found.

What makes it the best?

Well, in my opinion, your health is more important than anything else. Even performance. I know that is sometimes tough for our inner competitor to accept in the moment. But I’m all about living to play another day. If my run today ruins my run tomorrow, well then I failed on my run today. So, I sought to find a training regimen which is above all safe. It then must also be scientifically proven to be effective and be something which can actually be incorporated into a real person’s life and lifestyle.

I believe that 80/20 running fits all of those parameters.

So what is 80/20 running? How was it developed? And maybe most importantly, how does someone do it?

Put as simply as I can muster, 80/20 running is a training style based on intensity zones. Usually, and most accurately, this is heart rate zones. The 80 refers to spending 80 percent of your time spent training in a lower intensity training zone. Essentially putting in the time building up your aerobic base. This means training your body to become metabolically efficient at training for longer periods of time and utilizing a higher ratio of fat.

The 20 part then obviously refers to a higher intensity zone. This is time spent improving heart and lung function and providing the necessary stimulus to the body to tell it to make improvements in speed and conditioning.

Why Run Slow?

Now with that basic explanation, the first question I always get is, “Why in the world would you want to spend that much time running slowly?”

Well, the answer is that there are advantages to working out in each zone. Low intensity training at a slow steady speed is going to make different physiological adaptations than fast running. Slow running helps build up your aerobic metabolism. It utilizes your ability to burn fat and improves your ability to run further with less fatigue and without creating as much need for recovery. Instead of depleting our body of carbs or protein as with high intensity exercise, we tap into our storable form of energy, fat.

Longer duration slow running has additional benefits. The increased time spent running slow actually has been shown to be more effective at creating the release of a metabolite called interleukin-6. This compound stimulates several other physiological changes in blood vessels and muscles which help us become more efficient and more fatigue-resistant over time. Faster running doesn’t produce the same results.

So what is fast running good for, especially if I wanna get faster?!?

Faster tempo running is great for improving heart and lung function, increasing cellular power production (increasing mitochondrial density), and for simply improving mechanical efficiency while running more quickly.

Both slow and fast running have critically important roles in helping runners improve. So the question should become less about fast vs. slow and more about ‘how much time should I spend in each training zone?’

Explaining how researchers finally got to the 80/20 number is essentially through reverse engineering. Instead of testing out each new fad rolling through the running world, several different researchers decided to simply find out what the winners were doing. They took an in depth look at the training regimen of those winning endurance competitions such as running, cycling, triathlons, rowing, and cross country skiing.

As they analyzed the training regimen of the best of the best they found some interesting things. Those who tended to win, and win year after year, all seemed to have something in common. They trained less intensively than their competitors for the majority of their training. Don’t get me wrong. They were putting in the time. And when it was time to work hard, they gave it their all. They just didn’t go all out all the time.

As researchers gathered data they realized that most successful endurance athletes tended to spend about 80% of their time just building up their base. The other 20% is where they practiced the high end, all-out effort for their sport.

The researchers then put this to the test. They tried putting every other ratio to the test and 80/20 seemed to always come out on top. What they found was that how you did 80/20 also mattered. For the 80%, you really had to stay slow. At levels where you don’t get depleted or fatigued. Where you feel you can go forever. For the 20% you have to go full effort. The polarization of the training was key in success.

Another positive aspect of the 80/20 training was fewer episodes of sidelining injuries. Because athletes were allowing their bodies to adapt to their training and fully recover, 80/20 athletes tended to have fewer problems. As a physical therapist, this is critical to me. I find that many runners are always nursing along some injury. By running slower they have a lower risk of developing these overuse injuries caused by too frequent high intensity work without sufficient recovery.

Okay, well, if 80/20 is supposed to be the way the winners train, how do we do it?

The answer to improving is to find out where your zones are. There are several different ways of determining this. The most accurate, and my personal favorite (mostly because that is what I do all day), is to have your zones tested. Having your heart rate zones tested is accomplished with a metabolic VO2 test.

Many have heard of a VO2Max test and it is essentially the same type of testing. There is one major difference between a Max test and a Zone test though. In a VO2Max test, the goal is to find out your all-out maximal capacity to use oxygen in burning calories to establish your level of fitness. This is mainly done just for the raw number at the end of the test.

A metabolic VO2 Zone test is much less concerned with your overall fitness level and much more concerned about HOW you utilize oxygen AND carbon dioxide during exercise. By looking at the ratio of how we use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide we can tell exactly how many calories you are burning, and what type of calories you are burning. We can see precisely at what heart rate ranges you are most effective at burning fats and carbohydrates.

Knowing this information gives us the most accurate way of knowing exactly where your zones should be for your body. We can simply look at your results and establish your custom zones. It takes a lot of the guess work and fine tuning out of the process. It is a simple procedure and takes about 15-20 minutes of actual testing to complete depending on your level of fitness.

So what are my zones?

Establishing accurate zones ensures that every workout you do will be targeted for your body and your metabolism. This type of targeting will allow you to burn exactly what you intend to burn during each precious workout. No one wants to put in time that isn’t effective. Knowing how you can best utilize your metabolism is the key to avoiding fatigue, losing weight and improving your race times.

There are a few other ways of determining your zones as well. Many simply use the calculation:

220-age= predicted Max Heart Rate

Using this calculation you can then multiply this by a percentage to get your intensity zones. This chart below is how Polar, the heart rate monitor manufacturer, breaks down their zones based on averages and rounded even numbers. It’s a good ball park measure and is similar to what many other programs use. The 80/20 protocol would have you spend the majority of your time in the light 60-70% category.

Calculating your heart rate zones isn’t very accurate for the individual though. Because of this, there are several different running protocols which help you to determine your max heart rate, resting heart rate and then calculate out more accurate zones. Although this is a better way, the American College of Sports Medicine reports that they are, on average, 7% to as much as 33% off. This can mean between 10 and 30 beats per minute. That is a huge variation.

Another way of determining the cutoffs for zones is by using perceived exertion. Essentially, you are self-rating how hard you feel you are working. There are many perceived exertion scales, the most simple is this one: Imagine a scale where 1-2 is minimal effort, barely moving. 3-4 on this scale would be a pace where you are running slowly but feel you could literally run forever. 5-6 is an easy pace where you’re pushing a bit but you could maintain for up to an hour. 7-8 you could maintain for a few minutes but would be exhausting. 9-10 would then be all out maximal effort like a sprint.

With perceived exertion, 80/20 training would imply that you are spending 80% of your time in the 3-4 range. Running along without really pushing yourself. This is where you are burning fat at your most effective rate, usually 50-60%.

Zones 5-6 are considered moderate and also the “junk miles.” They help heart and lungs a little, but not much. They do nothing to really build the aerobic base and help you become more efficient long term. They do however deplete you of carbohydrate stores, breakdown muscle tissue, and require significant recovery afterward. You also only burn 5-30% fat.

Unfortunately, zones 5, 6 and 7 are the zones where most runners do the majority of their training. Many see initial improvements as they start out and things seem great. They are encouraged and increase their training. The increased training also provides some positive benefits and they again improve. This is usually the time in which injuries begin to set in. People have nagging problems which linger for the whole season. They also begin to notice that their pace begins to plateau or even decline.

Most runners attribute declining pace or plateaus to aging and just wishing there were more time to train. The truth of the matter is that, for most runners, they just need to slow down for a greater portion of their training. Slowing down would allow for greater physiological adaptation toward burning fat and improved endurance. It allows you to tap into your fat stores and utilize a limitless supply of energy. This helps you lose weight and slim down as well.

Slowing down also helps avoid fatigue and injury. By spending less time in higher intensity zones, recovery is able to take place before the next run. Overuse injuries, as well as metabolic fatigue are less likely to set in. Metabolic fatigue is often the factor which causes us to feel tired, run down and less motivated to get out and run. It is a common plague which affects runners in those critical weeks leading up to an event.

The Value of Your PR

I know you are probably still skeptical about the concept of 80/20 running. It seems too good to be true that slowing down can help me have less fatigue, lose weight, avoid injury, and get faster! The good news is, that it works. The bad news is, you still have to do the training and put in the time. There is no magic cure for that. It still takes your investment in you!

The big key to making 80/20 running truly help you improve your race times while slimming down and staying healthy is to make sure your zones are spot on. There are several ways to determine ball park numbers. The important part is that you find a system which will give you the best chance to hit your PR.

I’m obviously biased towards directly measuring your zones with metabolic VO2 testing to ensure accuracy. The information you learn from knowing your precise numbers is simply invaluable. It’s a quick and effective way to make sure all of the time, money, effort, and hours you spend training aren’t wasted by injury or poor race day performance.

Get started!

Right now is the perfect time to get started trying out 80/20 running. The off season gives you a perfect window to build your base through running slow. Take the next 6 weeks. Give it a try. Find out your zones by whatever method works best for you. See how you feel and how you perform after putting in the time and effort running slow on your slow days and fast during your interval work.

You will likely have questions as you get started. I’m happy to answer them. Feel free to reach out to me at BodySmartUtah@gmail.com or call/text me at 801-479-4471. If you need 80/20 training protocols to follow, I have some for every distance. I’m happy to share!

Now, get out there and start running…just a tad slower;)

Dr. Cameron Garber, DPT

  • Owner, Body Smart P.C.
  • PT, a passion that began with a ski accident
  • Doctorate of Physical Therapy, University of Utah
  • Team lead of the outpatient stroke team at the University of Utah for 4 years
  • Opened a clinic at The GYMand founded his own metabolic testing company, Metabolic Curve in 2013, focused on prevention therapy and sports performance
  • In June of 2016, took over as owner of Body Smart, formerly Julie Knighton, PT
  • Armed with knowledge on metabolic training, gait mechanics, running recovery, IASTM scar tissue treatment, sports performance, spine care, and neurology

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 7th, 2017 at 5:07 pm and is filed under Fall/Winter 2017, Training. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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