The Myth of losing speed

The Myth of losing speed

            The 800m is perhaps the most interesting distance to coach. It’s always intrigued me from a coaching standpoint because, unlike the 10k for example, the ways in which an athlete can train to cover the same distance in about the same time vary tremendously. There are successful 800m runners who may never run over a few miles and perform interval work 3-4 days a week, while there are others who may have 15+ mile long runs, 80+mpw, and they all can accomplish relatively the same thing.

While training for a marathon we argue of nuances in training that is essentially all cut from the same cloth, in the 800 we can argue wholesale philosophical differences. The differences often can be boiled down to their emphasis on this nebulous term “speed.” By invoking the term speed, coaches often mean a lot of different things.

One of my pet peeves when discussing endurance work is the concept of losing speed.

In the middle distance world, this concept of losing speed is widespread. Go to any coaching conference, hang around enough coaches, or just talk to your athletes and you’ll hear this concept over and over. It’s used as an argument against doing any kind of aerobic work, regardless of sport or event. It’s thought that only those “slow” distance kids should do long work because speed doesn’t matter much in their world. So they can afford to be slow.

But here’s the thing, if you are losing speed that much during training, it’s not the long aerobic work that is doing it, it’s that your training sucks.

Balance matters:
I like to break down things into simplistic models that I can then translate over to making practical decisions with. One of the ways I envision training is this balancing act between speed and endurance. These variables interact a bit so that my whole goal as a coach is to keep these at the right balance for the right person for the right event. Each event might require a slightly different balance, and it’s my job to shift that balance around.

And here’s where the misunderstanding comes along. You, as a coach, determine where that balance of speed and endurance goes. While doing lots of aerobic endurance work might shift the emphasis more towards the endurance side and result in a slight loss in speed, the reality is that most of the time, the shift comes in not doing enough speed to maintain that speed.

If you are losing speed, it’s because you aren’t doing enough pure speed work to maintain it.

Even if I ran 100mpw, I can theoretically maintain my pure speed (maybe not enhance it that much, but that’s another argument) if I was doing enough sprint work.

It’s a use it or lose it idea on both sides. If the balance shifts, it’s most likely because I started neglecting one of the sides.

Timing Matters:
Last fall, when talking to my team, Alan Webb, when asked about his crazy range (1:43 800m all the way up to 27:3x 10k on the track) made a fantastic point. I’m paraphrasing now but he said ‘people make the mistake of thinking I was capable of that all at the same time. When I was in 1:43 shape, I couldn’t run 27:30 in the 10k and vice versa. I had that ultimate range, but never at the same time.

And that’s a profound point. Where his speed/endurance balance was depending on what he was trying to accomplish. When he ran that 10k, he was coming off a massive base designed to enhance his aerobic abilities. His speed was undoubtedly pretty good, but not good enough to run 1:43. Likewise, when he ran 1:43, his aerobic abilities were no doubt very good, but not 27 mid 10k shape good. It’s very very hard to be all things at all times as these events require different demands.

The point is, there are times of the year, when it’s okay to lose a little speed or a little endurance. The key is not losing that much where you can’t get it back to where you need it, when you’re emphasizing it.

Short term loss for long term gains.

Everyone freaks out if they start the year slightly slower than they were before. The middle distance athlete, after running a base or XC season, and running perhaps a tenth or two slower in those 100m accelerations yells “I’m losing my speed!” But does this same athlete while he or she is tapering for their final 800m race several months later, freak out and yell “I am losing my ability to run 15 miles slow!”? I’ve never encountered it. It’s because they intuitively accept that they might be able to feel as aerobically strong in a long slow run at the end of the season as when that was the main emphasis in the beginning of the year. It’s not a big deal. It’s not even thought about. Because it’s a harder to manage concept to realize that now that 13mi run that used to take 88 minutes feeling pretty good, now takes about 90 minutes and feels just slightly less comfortable. The shift is subtle.

The point is that, it’s okay to see a subtle shift.

XC to 4x400
Which brings me to the example of one of my college athletes, Drevan Anderson-Kaapa. In the fall, he put in 50-60 mile weeks to work his way up to top 25 at our conference meet in XC. Throughout that we were doing some hill sprints, short accelerations, and so forth throughout the fall to maintain speed. When it came time to shift gears towards track, we tried to maintain our aerobic abilities with a slight reduction in mileage and keeping the longer run there with the occasional high end aerobic workout. The emphasis shifted towards more specific 800m work and just last week he split 47 low on our 4x400, which was a huge “PR” for a 400m.

Even after emphasizing XC (he didn’t run it the year before), we didn’t “lose speed” because we didn’t forget to do it. We maintained it at a high enough level so that when it was time to use it, we’d bring it back into the fold.

Modern Training:
In the original and classic Lydiard training, his schedules often included weeks of very heavy mileage with not much else, even for his middle distance athletes. Then as they progressed towards the season, they would shift towards doing 3-5 days of quicker intervals a week with some pure speed work thrown in with a single long run on the weekend to maintain that aerobic ability they built up. The idea was essentially, get a huge aerobic base, let the speed drop off a bit, then bring the speed roaring back while doing just enough to maintain the aerobic side. In other words, we might have an athlete come off the base period and run 64sec for 400m and then after the 4-6 week interval intensive phase they’d be able to run that 58sec 400m they sought after.

The difference in modern training (and more modern applications of Lydiard) is that the degree is different. Instead of being able to run 64sec for 400m during aa heavy base period and then doing crazy fast work to get that down to 58sec during the pre-competition phase, now we start at 60. In essense, we’re always much closer to being where we need to be, because modern training is a mixture of all kinds of training stimuli.

It's the reason why working on pure speed during the base period is now seen as a normal thing to do in modern training circles. (You can see a simple sprint progression we've used before here)

An example:
In the graphs below, I’ve provided an example. You can see the lactate curve and then for this discussion, the 400m time of the athlete during each time frame. This was for a world class distance runner, and you can see that while her aerobic abilities improve during different phases, you can also see how her 400m time subtly shifts. Coming off break and some easy mileage, she runs, 61sec for 400m. Following some mixed training during the fall and early part of the year, the aerobic abilities improve and the 400m is 59.8. Following some more specific work, the aerobic work is slightly improved, while the 400m comes down even more.

This is a simple demonstration of how speed may change and interact throughout. If we were to look at pure sprint speed in terms of 100m times for example, the shift would be even more subtle. And we’d see that most of the improvement in 400m time, comes from a speed endurance component.

SO what?
The point is, and this is an incredibly simple point, you control the balance of speed and endurance. It’s shaped by the training you do. Endurance work doesn’t cause you to lose speed unless you do a ton of it. What causes you to lose speed is the lack of stimuli in that direction. During heavy endurance work, it might take a corresponding higher amount of sprint work to maintain that pure speed.

As a coach, you need to determine how that balance works, how much you need, and when you are ‘okay’ with losing just a bit of either.

In essence, you lose what you don’t train.  If you are a middle distance athlete, and you lost speed, it’s probably because you didn’t do enough to maintain it.

I can’t harp on this enough, but it’s why you need a blend of aerobic and pure speed work throughout the year.

So the final point is this, stop screaming that you’re going to lose speed because of doing endurance work. If you lose it, it’s because you neglected it. You lose what you don't train.

*(Please note: I’m talking in a mixed demands environment, if we are talking about a 60m dash for example, then obviously we are trying to maximize one thing, and while that balance of speed and endurance shifts, it shifts a lot so keep that in mind.)

Episode 10- Knowing your athlete- Understanding what behavioral patterns tell us

In this episode of the Magness & Marcus podcast we explore one of the most basic but important concepts in coaching: understanding your athlete. Not in the traditional terms of where their strengths lie or their physiological make up, but instead by their mannerisms, behaviors, motivations and a slew of 'soft' characteristics that help define them as a person.

It's within these subtle cues that we can pick up patterns of behavior that defines the art of coaching. By paying attention to your athletes behaviors, observing them with attention as they go through practice and interact with teammates, we can start to develop a behavioral norm for each athlete. Then, we can use deviations from these norms to understand how an athlete is feeling prior to workouts and what adjustments might need to be made.

In this podcast, we delve into how to identify patterns in athletes, the importance of interacting with athletes during both workout and casual situations, and how treating athletes like adults and giving them responsibility and empowerment can create a team culture and dynamic.

Once again, we hope that you find this podcast informative and thought provoking. A special thanks to all of those who have come up to me and Jon at meets across the country and talked to us about the podcast. If you have any topics you'd like covered, no matter how distant they seem, contact us via twitter:

Thanks a lot,
Steve and Jon

Resources mentioned in this podcast:
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

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Episode 9-Interview with Vern Gambetta- Magness & Marcus Show

In our longest episode yet and our first with a guest, Jon and I have an hour long conversation with renowned coach Vern Gambetta. Vern has a unique background as his coaching career spanned from coaching High School all the way to coaching some of the world's best athletes. Similarly, his background is in Track and Field but he ventured out to coaching for MLB teams, Soccer, Swimming, and just about every sport imaginable.

In this in depth conversation, we stay away from the stereotypical topics of training regime's and start with the question of "What makes a great coach?." Keeping the conversation casual and flowing, we traverse through coaching as craftsmanship, why being naive can be beneficial, and how teaching athletes how to compete is an understated component to coaching. From there, we discuss the art of learning how to be uncomfortable, why creating a culture is the most important thing a coach can, and how to transition from the college to professional ranks. We end this section with a discussion on why having an overarching purpose might be the missing ingredient for success.

Forty minutes into it, we finally get to some training and discuss the merits of a Polarized training model, why the 800m, 1500m, and middle distances are some of the most difficult yet interesting to coach. To end with, we discuss the best books for any track and field coach to have.

If you coach anything, or are interested in performance development at any level, you must listen to this podcast. It's one of the favorite ones we've done because it's just three track coaches talking coaching.

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did! And if so, spread the word so that we can have more great guests and cool talks to share with you all!


Steve and Jon

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Resources mentioned in this episode:

AntiFragile  by Nassim Taleb

The Track and Field Omnibook  by Ken Doherty (1980's or earlier edition)

The Sub 2hr marathon- Why Coaches and Scientists don’t understand each other.


This past week at UH I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk by Dr. Ed Coyle on ‘how fast could we run a marathon.’ Coyle is a well-established researcher, but he’s most well known for his infamous research on Lance Armstrong that showed improved efficiency over his career. Coyle still maintains the validity for this research for some reason, which to many dampens his work, but that’s for another topic.

The reason I’m writing this is because the talk and the discussion after demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the world of sports performance and exercise science.

I sit in this weird in-between zone of scientist and coach. I consider myself more on the coach side, since that’s my primary job, first love, and how I got into this sport, but still I live full time in both worlds. There are a lot of really good scientist and coaches who dip their fingers in both sides and they’re to be commended, but I think my situation is slightly unique in that I’m truly fully engaged in both sides at the same time. I have to be. So it’s these two interacting worlds that I battle.

I’d like to use this post as a learning tool. An almost “A scientists guide to how to interact with coaches.” Then in the next month or so, put up the counter point and produce a guide for how coaches should interact with scientist.

Before we get there, let’s use Coyle’s talk as a framework to understand the disconnect.

Podcast- Drills, Skills, and Sprinting- The role of the neural component in running


In this episode of Magness & Marcus on Coaching, we take on one of the oft-forgotten and misunderstood items in the world of running: the Neural component. Starting off with defining the CNS and motor programming in coaches speak, we take a look at how to integrate this type of work in the realm of distance running. Investigating sprinting, drills, lifting, and ploy's we try and give the listener an understanding of when we implement these items (hint: not thrown in after a workout), how much we need, and what type we need.

Before ending, we get into two of my favorite topics when discussing neural work: Fatigue and priming. CNS or neural fatigue is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the endurance world. As it's a fatigue that we runners don't quite understand. We're used to feeling drained or tired after really long runs or hard workouts which give us this sensation of fatigue. With neural fatigue, our trained senses often betray us. Understanding what neural fatigue feels like and how long it takes to bounce back from is key to understanding how to program this work. Lastly, with priming, we can use neural work like sprinting, hops, or ploys to get the body primed to perform at peak physical performance the next day. After this podcast, you should have a better understanding of how to implement these concepts in your training.

As always, let us know if you have any topics you want to hear covered or comments on any of our shows,

Steve & Jon

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Resources you might want to check out:

The Neuromechanics of Human Movement by Roger Enoka

A brief rant against VO2max and vVo2max

Excuse me while I go on a brief seemingly anti-science rant. Which might be a bit surprising given the name of this blog and my background, but since the topic is VO2max, it might be expected.

You see, I have a long history with VO2max, as evidenced by this article here. It’s not that I think the parameter is useless, it’s just that it’s overemphasized. We can measure it and have been able to measure it for almost a century. Therefore, it must be important.

Even now, it’s the cornerstone of what people perceive to be endurance in the exercise science world. It’s reach extends far outside of that though, as you’ll hear soccer players, weekend warriors, crossfit gurus, and so forth all talking about and asking about how to increase Vo2max. It’s not how to increase endurance. It’s how to improve their VO2max.

As if it matters.

Podcast- The Evolution of a Coach- How to figure out what actually matters


After a one week hiatus, Jon and I are back for our longest episode of the Magness & Marcus podcast yet. In this one, we meander through a wide range of topics with the central theme of looking at how we have evolved as coaches and to try to take away lessons from what that evolution means.

Perhaps most interesting to me was tracking what we focused on in educating ourselves. What we found is that we have followed similar paths of first diving head first into the fundamentals of coaching with classic training texts like Lydiard, Daniels, and Cerutty before adding in a touch of science to understand why those methods worked. Then once the foundation was there, we've both branched out to focusing on concepts that on the surface are only vaguely related to coaching. In the podcast we try to go through why this progression tends to occur and what it means.

After laying out our progression as coaches from a learning standpoint, we discuss how our coaching practices have changed over the years. Jon tells a great story of one of his coaching mentors, Rob Conner of Portland, and how he came to see that having less control is often the way to go. Instead of trying to micromanage every single factor of training, giving the athletes autonomy to make some of those decisions can lead to better engagement and in the end better performance.

While there are a number of other topics covered, I'd highly recommend this episode for any young coach. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes along the way!

Thanks for listening,

Steve & Jon

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Books mentioned in the podcast:
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Daniels Running Formula by Jack Daniels

Better Training For Distance Runners by Peter Coe

Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt

The Mechanics of Athletics by Geoff Dyson

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