“You have to be at least as smart as you are tough”
Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed endurance sports coach and journalist. He is the author of more than 20 books, including 80/20 Running, How Bad Do You Want It?, and Brain Training for Runners. The Hybrid Letter sat down with Matt to discuss optimal training strategies, the cognitive challenges of endurance races, and how elite athletes find their limits.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Hybrid Letter: You are best known for your book 80/20 Running, where you make a very convincing case that the most successful runners are doing 80% of their training at lower intensities. Does that concept still apply to hybrid training?
Matt Fitzgerald: To excel in this type of competition, you want to push your aerobic capacity and your endurance to a very high level. So, for that reason, I do think most of the principles that apply to traditional endurance sports would transfer over to fitness racing.
But there are going to be differences as well. The physiques and the people who excel at [hybrid competitions] do not look like the winners of the Boston Marathon. That’s because there is more of an emphasis on the particular skills involved and more of an emphasis on strength training independent of endurance training.
In pure strength training, you are actually bringing your metabolic rate down between sets. So it doesn’t really count toward the 80 [percent low-intensity side] or the 20 [percent high-intensity] side.
To summarize, at the broadest level, I think principles do apply. But optimal training for that type of event is going to look somewhat different than optimal training for 10Ks and marathons.
THL: One thing you talk a lot about in the 80/20 Running book is one advantages of running a lot of miles is that your body gets more efficient at running. You are kind of dismissive of the idea of getting your running fixed through an expert. It’s more just about finding your most efficient running motion through repetition. Do you think that concept would apply to hybrid competitions that require a lot of different skills?
MF: It’s a little bit different because running is pretty much something every human can do by the age of three. It’s innate and relatively simple for a whole-body motor skill. You get a lot of repetition, so it is self-optimizing.
Other skills are not as innate. They are not things that everyone is doing from age 3. There is a place for technique instruction. You can figure out how to do anything optimally through it if you have enough trial and error. But you can greatly accelerate the process if you take advice from people who are aware of the result of the experimentation that’s being done. So, yes, repetition is important, but not the same way it is for running, where repetition is basically the only tool you have to get more efficient. Taking instruction, and emulating best practices for different movements will take you a long way.
THL: You’ve made a strong case that lower-intensity training is really important to develop endurance. A Hyrox race is an endurance event. Even the very best competitors take almost an hour, and the average competitor is out there for 90 minutes or more. But if you follow people who are really good at this on Instagram, it’s not really exciting to watch someone do a light jog for two hours. So what you see are clips of super intense metcon-style workouts. Do you think social media gives a distorted picture of what optimal training looks like for all types of athletes?
MF: Without question, it does. Though I would submit that really has always been the case. It’s just been amplified by social media. You know, I started running in 1983, and it was really no different back then. I remember this running journalist named Michael Sandrock, who published an entire book consisting of the favorite workouts of elite runners. And he had a very diverse group of elite runners who shared their favorite workouts, and there were no Zone 2 jogs in the entire book. Even though that was 80% of what they were doing, it just wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t going to sell books. And it is really to the advantage of athletes who are smart enough athletes to filter through and not fall for it. The sexy, brutal workouts are cool, and they’re important. But be the one who doesn’t get sucked into making that the basis of your training. Do the basic blocking and tackling of the 10-minute-per-mile frolic through the woods.
THL: A related question: There is a new reliance on devices that measure your fitness. These watches are fairly sophisticated with regard to what they are tracking. They are measuring the progress of your fitness. But they reward you if you work out really hard and then rest appropriately. If you do a long Zone 2 workout, these devices will often say that your performance is suboptimal or that you are not progressing. Do you think these watch manufacturers are distorting people’s understanding of an optimal training regime?
MF: This is an ongoing conversation in my world. Obviously, there is nothing nefarious going on with the people developing these devices. Most of them understand sound training principles very well. That doesn’t mean it’s going to translate through the device to the athlete.
There is a phenomenon known as cognitive offloading. Our brains are very lazy. Anytime we have a tool that can do for us what our brains would otherwise have to do themselves, the brain will offload the responsibility. And what it does is retards the development of your brain’s capacity.
There have been studies showing that people who heavily rely on GPS for getting around. The parts of their brain responsible for spatial orientation literally atrophy; they shrink measurably. The device manufacturers, without any sort of nefarious master plan, are creating a dependency.
A lot of people think of technology as infallible. A less experienced athlete, especially, is going to assume the device knows better than they do. Well, that may or may not be the case. It’s not God. All the functionalities in that device are just things created by a person. But any time their intuitions disagree with the device, they trust the device more than their intuitions. And then, they’re dependent. So they never get better at listening to their body, learning to self-regulate, and developing a refined sense of effort.
A distinguishing characteristic of elite endurance athletes is they know where their limits are. The only way to truly find your limit is by feel; no device will ever be able to do that for you. So yeah, it’s a bit of a mess right now.
There is a strong argument to be made for including metrics that show athletes whether or not they are getting fitter. That’s a very useful feature. But you can see how easily that can become abused by an athlete. Where it just becomes the bright, shiny object. I call it the progress trap. Athletes are not quite able to simply trust the process. Trust the process and let the progress come.
THL: In your book about the mental side of racing, How Bad Do You Want It?, you talk about how you never really reach your physical limit. It’s your brain that slows you down or stops you. This is true even for the best athletes in the world. So how do you utilize this insight in the context of a race?
MF: Let’s say you have the toughest runner who ever lived running a half marathon. This is an athlete who has the highest tolerance for that particular sort of discomfort that we experience in endurance races. That person is going to try to finish that half marathon knowing they couldn’t have gone faster. You may think if that’s the toughest runner who has ever lived — so they are least limited by those perceptions — they’re going to finish in the least time possible. But that is far from guaranteed because that is only half of what it takes. The other half is purely cognitive. In any race longer than 30 to 45 seconds, the only way to finish in the least amount of time possible is to intentionally hold back almost the entire way. If you start off a half marathon in a dead sprint, trusting your incredibly high pain tolerance, you are not even going to get past a half a mile.
It’s really a cognitive challenge. You are not necessarily wimping out by holding back. You are being smart. The tricky part about it is there is really no way to know exactly how much you need to hold back. You can’t finish as fast as you can unless you finish. So it really doesn't matter how tough you are. As an endurance athlete, you have to be at least as smart as you are tough.
THL: Half of the Hyrox race is running, and people learn quickly they need to focus on running to compete and succeed. Can you tell us a bit about your Dream Run Camp?
MF: Dream Run Camp is modeled after professional running camps. You have facilities, amenities, and expertise like those running camps. But unlike those professional camps where everyone comes and goes at the same time, individuals at Dream Run Camp can come on their own schedules, stay as long as they want, and leave when they want. I want people to be able to really absorb it because it is not just elite training; it is an elite lifestyle. People get to hear and feel how the pros train, and work with sport psychologists, dieticians, strength coaches, and physical therapists. You are able to indulge your athlete identity all the way for a period of time and really immerse yourself in that lifestyle. It is sort of like taking a timeout from normal life.
Hybrid athlete of the week: Graham Turner
Name: Graham Turner
Hometown: Washington DC
When/Why did you start Hybrid training? In the summer of 2022 a group of friends signed up for Hyrox NYC. I wanted to have something on the calendar to train for and, with that, a goal to give more purpose to each workout.
Favorite race to date and why: Chicago North America Championship. It’s always fun to travel for a big race, and this one guy from DC [Graham’s coach, David Magida] came home with the W.
Favorite Station: I like the Wall Balls the best strictly because it’s the last station. You’re right at the finish line, so you need to give it all that you have left and sell out. Start with a big first set and go until you’re about to pass out. A celebratory beer awaits you in the lobby.
Least Favorite Station The sled pull has always been my nemesis. My first race, I was there for 13 minutes and wanted to quit. It’s so frustrating because this station not only challenges your explosiveness of your leg drive but also your grip strength. If you’re struggling with either, then it’s going to feel like you’re there forever.
Do you have a race goal? I’m shooting for a sub 1:15 in the Pro race in Chicago on November 11.
Things you wish you knew when you started training/racing? No amount of planning and training can substitute for the race day experience. I have learned so much from each race and still have a lot of things I want to get better at.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate someone (or yourself!) to be our next featured hybrid athlete. We are looking to profile athletes of all abilities.
Don’t miss video: Ryan Kent on the sled push
Ryan Kent, the fourth-place finisher at the 2023 Hyrox World Championships and the winner of multiple Hyrox races, shares his tips on mastering the sled push.
Thanks for reading! Coming next week: an interview with Hyrox co-founder Christian Toetzke.