Posted by Steve Magness
The training of distance runners has evolved based on a trial and error method that is essentially the ultimate scientific process. For the most part, the successful practices stick around and the unsuccessful practices get left behind. However, this isn’t always the case, because as a runner or coach you know it’s impossible to exactly explain what parts of the training you did led to the racing success.
The first thing I did when I wanted to learn about training runners is learn what was done in the past. Even before figuring out the science and all of that jazz, I spent a long time going back as far as I could in reading what successful coaches in the past had done. What I noticed is that the training occurs in a cyclical nature. There has been a constant “war” between intensity and volume throughout the years. While this is a simplistic way of looking at it, you can clearly see that every 10-20 years the emphasis goes from Intervals to steady runs or vice versa. I the early years, it was a complete 180, either almost all steady running or all interval training, but with each turn in the cycle a little bit of the previous cycle’s work got carried over. Thus it’s been a constant process of refinement that got us to our present day mix of pretty high volume with a good amount of interval/intensity work thrown in.
Why the switch every 10-20 years? My guess is that it’s because of a backlash or desire to innovate. Every cycle, a new group of coaches comes along and tries to take a new approach because let’s face it how does one make a name for themselves doing the same thing as everyone else. Every cycle, the coaches think they found that one piece that’s missing and overestimate its importance, causing an entire change in the training. If only they knew the history of training, they would have known, it’s all been done before. Instead of radical changes, it’s about fine tuning and deciding how to manipulate each workout. Which brings me to the point of this article:
Late 1800’s: Low volume training
In the 1800’s not much training was done. The best runners in their time did a lot of long walking with very small amounts of fast running thrown in. For instance, a top runner’s (Captain Barclay) training consisted of long walks with a single ½ mile run at a fast speed thrown in before breakfast and after dinner.
1910-30’s: More running, a little bit more intensity
The early 1900’s continued the walking idea but built upon it including some slow running. Walking was a big deal in the early days, as it was not unusual to spend several hours a day walking as part of the training. The running volume varied widely with each runner, as some such as Clarence DeMar did up to 100mi weeks (Lore of Running). The key was that the interval training was kept to a minimum. If faster running was included it was mainly short single bouts of “fast” running, or time trials. I general, this period of training could be compared to that done by recreational runners now: Lots of very slow running or walking and not much else.
The training really developed with the progression of Paavo Nurmi and the Finn’s. Nurmi and the Finn’s continued with the long walks (up to 4hrs) idea. You may be wondering why they insisted on using walking so much. The reason is simple: it built a base. That should sound like a familiar line of reasoning for most coaches, and is no doubt the forerunner to the more modern concept of a base that Lydiard envisioned. In fact, the Finn’s and Swede’s insisted on long walks during a 6+ week winter period to prepare one for running (source: Lore of Running).
The key development at this time was the mixing of steady running and faster running. Interval training in it’s modern sense was first introduced. However, the total volume of such training and the interval length was kept very low. A typical training session may have consisted of 6-8x100m with some steady running to follow. The interval length seldom went beyond a few hundred meters, with Nurmi eventually maxing out his intervals at 600m. For any effort beyond that length, occasional single bouts of steady/hard running over 1-2km was done.
1940-50’s: The rise of Intervals
The late 1930’s represented the complete shifting to interval training. Famed physiologists Woldemar Gerschler looked at the Finish and Sweden training systems and decided they lacked speed work. So, he came up with a system based on stressing the heart to 180bpm during an interval then letting it recover to 120bpm during the rest. In this way, Gerschler had his athlete’s run extremely high volumes (80x200m for example) of moderate interval work day after day.
Emil Zatopek continued this tradition in the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s by doing countless 400m repeats as his main way of training. The Hungarian coach, Mihaly Igloi who I’ve written about on this blog took the interval idea to the next level by mixing the intervals to a higher degree then was previously done. He also brought the idea to the United States. One important note is that contrary to the modern version of interval training, the emphasis during this period seemed to be on “aerobic” or submaximal interval training. The runner’s reached volumes of 100mi per week or more in training, so the interval training was not till you puke kind often used today.
An interesting split occurs during this time in the 50’s. You have the groups of athletes who use the high volume interval approach and then you have the athlete’s who take the lower volume interval approach. Coaches such as Franz Stampfl and runner’s such as Roger Bannister used a system based on lower volume higher intensity interval training. What Stampfl brought to the table was his inclusion of longer intervals, and the concept of progression to the intervals. As a demonstration of progression, one of Bannister’s staple workouts was 10x440yards w/ 2min rest. He’d start that session in the off season at 66sec pace and progress downwards until he could average under 60sec.
1960-70’s- The Distance Backlash
With the rise of the New Zealand and Australian runners, a distance backlash developed. It seems like runners got tired of doing endless intervals every day on the track, so long steady running began to become en vogue. Coaches like Percy Cerutty, Arthur Lydiard, and Ernst Van Aaken all contributed to the return to aerobic distance running.
Van Aaken and Lydiard can probably be attributed for the shifting of the “Base” concept to include almost nothing but steady running. Both coaches advocated high mileage for most of their runners. Additionally, Lydiard brought the idea of periodization to the forefront. This would be the first true mixing of the endurance+intensity concept. Lydiard’s periodization included a long period of steady running was needed before the athlete slowly transitioned to a period of interval training. In his early works, the interval period looked very similar to the training done by Stampfl, in that it had 4-5 days a week of interval training, but as Lydiard developed the idea, this slowly shifted to a more modern concept of 3 days of interval training interspersed with easy running.
The popularization of this hard/easy concept is widely attributed to Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. It’s hard to appreciate the idea now as it is practically a law, but if you look at training before the 1950’s and 60’s, it largely consisted of similar training intensities day after day. There were off days here and there, and some days were easier, but for the most part there was no systematic planning of easier days. For the interval trained athlete this meant 4-5 days in a row of similar intensity interval training before a break.
Bowerman and others also improved on the concept of interval training. Stampfl and others such as German coach Bertl Sumner had emphasized the importance of starting intervals slow and progressing them. Bowerman took this idea and popularized the method of date pace and goal pace, or in other words working towards your specific race pace.
All of this led to what I’d say was the first “modern” training programs in the 1970’s. You began to see high mileage running with 2-3 days of intense interval training.
1980-90’s- Intervals Strike Back
In the 1980’s the British invasion began, no not the Beatles or any rock group, but the Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, and Sebastian Coe’s of the world took over the middle distance running scene. Just like it was a battle on the track between Ovett and Coe, it was a battle in training philosophies too.
Coe, coached by his father Peter, essentially became the poster boy for a lower volume high intensity training approach. Ovett and his coach Harry Wilson on the other hand took a more mixed approached that slightly favored aerobic development.
Unlike earlier cycles of training that favored an extreme of interval or endurance work, this cycle showed that we were slowly honing in on the right mix. The battle wasn’t so much if intervals should be done every day or distance running every day, but rather on how much and at what intensity. Coe favored slightly less volume and more intense workouts, while Harry Wilson and others favored slightly more volume and 2-3 intense workouts a week.
Another factor that came into play was the rise of Science. For some reason we thought that science had all the answers. This had profound effects. Instead of basing intensities on date pace, goal pace, or percentages of our best time/effort, intensity became focused on “zones”. VO2max, threshold, etc. all came out of this period. And you know the crazy thing? These zones were basically based on what we could measure at the time. So, we said goodbye to simple progression of our training and instead focused on magical zones. What happened?
Well, once that crop of British runners retired, they sucked. Once Steve Scott who followed a more endurance based (90+mpw, 2-3 intense sessions, long steady runs) method retired, America sucked. The 1990’s with a few exceptions (mainly Bob Kennedy who trained with the Kenyans) was horrible for American pro running and American High School running.
To give you an indication of how bad it was, in the entire 1990’s decade, 17 HS runners went sub 9 for a 2 mile. In the 2000’s there were over 110, with a couple years topping the entire 1990’s total by themselves.
The 2000’s-Endurance is king
The African training and the rise of the internet gave way to a slight shifting towards aerobic or endurance training. While the shift becomes even smaller with each cycle, the difference is still large. For the most part, American coaches dropped the low (40-50mpw) mileage and high intensity programs for one that focused on total development. All of the sudden, you see distance runners including just about every intensity known to man ranging from pure sprinting to slow jogging. Additionally, recently there has been a return to the idea that progression, not magic zones, is key. We recognize that there are a wide range of intensities that benefit a runner, not 3 or 4 special ones. If you read this blog, you know what modern training looks like so no need to go into too much detail.
The key is that this slight shifting towards an emphasis on aerobic development (whether that’s done through lots of mileage or through moderate mileage and lots of moderate running isn’t the point) has brought back American distance running. At the HS level, the performance increases are incredible. As mentioned before, the number of sub 9 2-milers has increased exponentially. And surely enough, the pro level has also seen huge gains with recent American records in the mile, 5k, 10k, and half marathon.
What does this all mean?
Know what has happened before you. It’s obvious that training evolves in a type of cyclical manner, so pay attention.
By knowing what has been done, it puts you in a better spot in evaluating whether a training practice is worthwhile. For example, Scientist would have you believe that only high intensity training such as Tabata sprints are the key to success. Well, if you paid attention during this semi-incoherent post, you’d know that it’s been tried before. Did it work? Well okay, but we’ve evolved and improved upon it since then. So why go back 30+ years?
Lastly, on the volume/intensity debate: It’s obvious that a sweet spot of aerobic+ high intensity training is needed. Use history to guide you where that sweet spot is. We’ve had guys who have done 20mpw and nothing but intervals and crazy endurance junkies who did 200+mpw with little intense training. It’s not surprising that we’ve settled on somewhere in the middle. So don’t fall into the trap of gravitating towards an extreme. Instead, learn from what is currently being done and work to make small tweaks to improve it. Use History as your guide.
My new foe: CrossFit
So after I made some comments on a flotrack video (here) about Crossfit training, I received a bunch of emails from some angry Crossfit (CF) Endurance enthusiasts, a couple told me how distance runners are 20+ years behind CF, and that we need to stop running long slow distance and add in some high intensity work. Well, right then and there I knew that the CF person was clueless as look at any modern runners program and theirs every type of intensity imaginable. No one runs just mileage. But it got me thinking, where was Crossfit Endurance in the training evolution of things?
To help us out, I’ll post the last couple workouts of CF endurance.
CF endurance sample training for running:
Day 1: Rest
Day 2: 24min of: 4min on, 2 off, 5 on, 2 off, 6 on, 2 off, 5 on, 2 of, 4 on- max intensity trying to cover as much distance as possible
Day 3: 5k-10k Time Trial
Day 4: 9a 1min on, 1 min off
Now that we have a sampling of CF training, where does that fit in our continuum? Well looking back at the training logs, I’d likely put it somewhere as a mix between the 1920’s training and the 1940-50’s interval craze. The back to back to back days of intensity followed by a rest day is reminiscent of both period of training. The combination of the intervals intermixed with fast hard/time trial like efforts reminds me of the training of the Germans during that period of time. In fact if we take one program from coach Bertl Sumter (though his training WAS periodized and progressed so it’s unfair on Mr. Sumter to compare it to the random CF) it’s hardly indistinguishable:
Day 1: Endurance Intervals 30x100m w/ 50sec jog
Day 2: Speed runs 8x200 fast w/ 60sec rest
Day 3: Fartlek w/ 1k-2k segments
Day 4: Endurance Intervals 20x200m aerobic intervals
Day 5: Speed runs 6x400m fast
Day 6: rest
Of course Mr. Sumter actually gave goal paces, progressed them, and included easy running, so the comparison is unfair.
Well, I guess, it is you CF endurance man who is 50+ years behind…not us runners…
The point is, don’t be so arrogant to think you have come up with a new magical great way to train. It’s all been tried. There are no magic workouts or secret training regimes. Right now, we are at the point of tweaking it and coming up with the best way to put all the ingredients together. It seems like CFers are stuck in the past on the Long slow distance versus only high intensity training conundrum. I’m sorry, but us runners moved past that debate in about 1930. We know the best method is a combination of both.
More on CF, the myth of Tabata sprints, and the history of training to come in the future.