The Multiple directions approach:

One particular thing I notice from athletes or coaches, and a trap I fell into early in my coaching career, is you start to pigeonhole workouts to develop particular qualities.

For instance, if high-end aerobic endurance (or in science speak lactate threshold) needs to be developed, the answer was always going to be a tempo run.  Yes, mileage and speed were manipulated a bit, but the answer to the question of threshold development was always a tempo run.I always had a few questions about this model, and my first “ah ha” moment came when I learned about the Igloi method from Santa Monica Track Club coach Joe Douglas.

The method, which I’m assuming is still used by Johnny Gray to a modified degree, to coach many of his standout 800m guys and gals, typically use shorter intervals with shorter rests at a variety of speeds to develop endurance qualities.  In the old old days, it was even more interval work. The point is, that they used repeat intervals at moderate paces to develop aerobically. For example, you might do sets of 200’s with 50m jog rest at an “easy” or “good” pace (in other words, not pressing but moving at a decent clip) This is in contrast to a strict Lydiard system who relied on steady longer runs.

That got me thinking.

Two completely different methods to develop the same quality.  Then a couple years later, I was reading about how Canova developed his 800m runners.  In one instance they used a set of 150m repeats with 50m jog, at a decent pace.  His statement on why was that they could run aerobically at a pace that was more specific, yet generate less lactate then if they were to do slower longer repeats.  Once again, using a different method to attack the same adaptation.

The conclusion I came to is that, while we may be taught a kind of if you want to develop X then do Y system, there are many roads to Rome.

In its simplest form creating workouts can be broken down into a two-step process.

  1. Decide what you are trying to improve.
  2. Design a workout to improve that.

It’s a rather simple way of looking at things, and of course, we need to know how workouts progress, and how they fit together, and all that jazz. But for sake of making a point let’s stick to this simple approach.

#1 will be left for another time, but if you are a coach, you know your job is to figure out if they need aerobic endurance, speed, specific work, etc.  What intrigues me is the 2nd part.  I feel like the way we are taught is that if you figure out what area you are going to attack, then the next step is to simply choose from a list of workouts that attack this area.  This goes for sprints or distance.

For example on the sprint side, let’s say we want to develop “aerobic power” according to one model then we just do extensive tempo work which would be intervals of around 200m at around 75% intensity with about 2-3min recovery.

It’s simple plug and play.

But is that the only way to develop “ aerobic power” for a sprinter?  My answer would be no.

Attacking it from multiple directions:

Instead, I think training should be looked at trying to cause adaptation.  In order to adapt, a new stimulus has to be applied.  What that means, is that something has to vary, and sometimes in order to get new adaptation we have to attack the problem from a new outlook.  It’s almost like trying to get rid of a bacterial infection.  For a while, if we give a standard antibiotic, it works.  Over time though, the bacteria might adapt, and that standard antibiotic has to be changed if we want to get rid of that bacteria.  The same simple analogy can be used in comparing people.  For some, a simple dose of amoxicillin will work, while others need a different strand.

There should be multiple ways to develop an attribute.

When you get a HS kid, you get a clean slate.  They haven’t really been challenged in many ways and they will adapt to almost anything.  That’s one of the reasons I think there are a wide range of training methods used with varying degrees of success with HS athletes.  Everything is new.

We’ve all heard stories of the runner who ran somewhat well off of doing repeat 200’s 5 days a week that were assigned by his football coach who was trying to coach track and somehow could run the mile decently well.  It’s always amazed me how some people run quick off what we’d consider sub-optimal training.  I think part of the answer is what I stated above, the athlete has a clean slate, lots of energy to adapt, and will adapt to almost anything.  The problem comes when it is time to improve more, and they’ve got nowhere to go in some directions.

When you get college, and even more so, professional runners, the slate is no longer clean.  Now we have a training history.  We have athletes whose bodies have been forced to adapt to a variety of training methods.  Most of the times, they are heavily adapted to one kind of stimulus.  So the challenge becomes how we keep progress when they are pretty well adapted to one thing.

The answer to me is to think outside the box.  For every type of adaptation we are looking for, I think there should be multiple ways to develop it in your arsenal as a coach.  What way you choose depends on the athlete’s characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, and their past history.

In this way, there’s not one single way of developing a particular component.  There are multiple ways to attack it.  I always like to look at attacking things from multiple angles.  In developing specific endurance, I like to think of it as how do I get to X workout.  For example, if I think they need 5xmile at goal 5k pace with 3min rest to hit their goal. I can either get there from the top down, bottom up, with alternating stuff, with hills in between, with surges within intervals, etc.  There are multiple ways to end up at that
5xmile destination.

Let me give another quick example.

If we look at developing our “threshold” for example.  We could come up with the following ways that would improve your threshold:

  1. Tempo runs right around threshold
  2. Progression runs
  3. Tempo runs at threshold effort with a long sustained uphill component
  4. Alternations at just below/above threshold
  5. Cruise intervals just faster than threshold with really short rest
  6. Shorter intervals at 5k-10k pace with short rests
  7. Tempo run with surges in the middle
  8. Long repeats at just faster than threshold to help break through a “threshold” speed bum
  9. Tempo repeats (400-mile) with general strength work in between reps

The point is all of these things, and more, are ways to develop your threshold.  The key is figuring out when to pull the next trick out of your coaching bag.

Before signing out, I think comparing swimming to running shows the idea I’m getting at. If we look at running, the single best way to develop general aerobic abilities is to go run, for a while.  Well…in swimming, because they don’t like to torture themselves mentally too much, they don’t just do 90minutes straight of easy swimming.  Even on “easy” days, for most programs, it’s broken into sets and reps of intervals.  So, we have two sports where aerobic endurance is essential, and one primarily develops it through longer easy/steady running, and one with aerobic intervals.  These are two different ways to get the same adaptation.  What’s better? Well, each has merits and each fits in some way.

So what?

Unlike a strict training model, the answer should be that there are many roads to Rome.  There are numerous ways to develop a particular quality, and what way we choose to depends on the athlete and what we are trying to do.  For older athletes, this is particularly important.  If we’ve been doing that same repeat mile session for a long time, and the times haven’t changed too much, switch it up.  Develop that quality in a different way.

Have as many weapons in your arsenal.  Some you might not pull out until year 5 of coaching somebody. That’s fine.  The key is, have somewhere to go.  Attack things from multiple directions.  You’ll be more likely to continually adapt.

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    1. Anonymous on March 22, 2013 at 12:52 am

      I am a newbie to the site and I am hooked. I read the"Interval Training-Why it's misunderstood…" and have a question about the part about aeroic development that is more specific. You ouline an 800 specific workout: 3 X 10 X 100,
      3 X 400 alternating 60 meters at 800 pace 40 meters easy
      then 2 X 5 X 150.
      Is that 1 workout or 3 different workouts to be done on different days? The reason I ask is the firstb is 3,000 meters of work compared to the 150's which is 1,500 meters. Would you have a runner do all 3 during the same workout? If so what is the break between sets?

    2. Albert Harrison on March 28, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      It's easy to get into a routine and choose from your list of workouts from high school and college. So it's nice to be reminded every now and then that some variation in training can be a good thing.

      But I often wonder, do people really become "immune" to certain stimuli? If I run 5 x 1600m @ 100-105% of my lactate threshold, let's say 5:15, with ~60s recovery and I repeat it 6x over the course of 8 weeks. Yes, the gains I get from that workout may diminish over that period of time. But what if I have data that indicates my pace at lactate threshold has increased. So after 8 weeks, I begin running 5 x 1600m @ 5:10. Later it becomes 5:05, 5:00, 4:55 and so on. Will the gains I get from the first 3-4 workouts running 4:55 be any different from the gains I got when I starting running the workout at 5:15? Keep in mind, both times I'm running at 100-105% LT. Is there any data to indicate that people become "immune" to a similar repeated stimulus? I think most physiologists would argue as long as adaptations are accounted for and paces adjusted, what is there to prevent further adaptation? (Other than boredom.)

      • Anonymous on September 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm

        The answer to this question would be highly appreciated…
        Good article, though.

    3. Andrew on March 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

      All thinking here, no paint by number coaching. Build complexity on the obvious fundamental of stimulus-adaptation. Nice.

    4. Anonymous on April 7, 2013 at 2:21 am

      Great article. Thanks

    5. on April 9, 2013 at 12:52 am

      very great !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    6. Mark Eichenlaub on April 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Great stuff Steve.

    7. smurfekidsa on July 21, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Very good reading!

    8. Rich on March 18, 2018 at 7:26 am

      Good point about swimming and longer steady state work. I’m sure someone smarter than me can provide sound rationale but I’ll never understand why 800m runners need to run continuously for 50-60’.

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