Ernst Van Aaken: The Pure Endurance Method
Most people attribute “jogging” or an emphasis on long slow distance running to Arthur Lydiard. While he may have popularized the idea of building a big base of steady running, others around the world were coming up with the same idea at similar times. In 1947, Dr. Ernst Van Aaken first published his ideas on the “pure endurance” method in an article entitled “Running Style and Performance.” His method had been in development since watching the flying Finn Paavo Nurmi run in the 1920’s. Van Aaken was one on a long list of coaches who was ahead of his time in his ideas and thinking. His most known runner was Harold Norpoth, who was a silver medalist in the 5,000 at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He had a 5,000m PR of 13:20 and held the world record at 2,000m.
His method consisted mostly of slow running, with Norpoth’s training consisting of 90% of his runs at between the heart rates of 120 and 150. Even during his harder tempo run, his heart rate only reached around 180, still well below his max. Van Aaken believed that the key to running was to get oxygen into the body and increase the size of the heart. To accomplish this he recommended running long distances at slow paces, thus lower heart rates (about 130bpm) and to only rarely accumulate any oxygen debt. At the time, this was revolutionary thinking because he directly contradicted the prevailing wisdom: the famous German interval method designed by Woldemar Gerschler that said you run repetition raising your heart rate to 180 and then recovering until it reaches 120.
Van Aaken’s model depends, instead, on long runs with a heart rate of 130 and short bouts at race pace over a small portion of the desired racing distance. An example of this might be 3x500m at mile pace with plenty of recovery (~ 5 minutes) after an easy run. If you’re training for the 5k, then an example would be 2-3x1000m at 5k pace with several minutes recovery. One example given for a 15 minute 5k runner to do 12x 400 in 72 seconds with a full recovery of 200 meters of walking or 400 meters of slow jogging.
In addition to his “pure endurance” method, Van Aaken had some unique ideas on what would change in the future in training. In his book, he gives an example for a runner who wants to run 3:20 for 1,500 and 12:45 for 5,000m. Dr. Van Aaken believes that the training might include up to 40 kilometers a day spread out over up to 5 runs per day. In addition, he believed the limiting factor in distance running was getting enough oxygen to your cells, thus aerobic development was key.
Van Aakens views on Speed and Mileage:
In Van Aaken’s book he has a chapter entitled How much? How Fast? to answer these questions. It starts with a generic chart for mileage per day based on event:
• Race—Training done per day
• 400 meters— 6 kilometers
• 800 meters— 10 kilometers
• 1500 meters— 15 kilometers
• 3000 meters— 20 kilometers
• 5000 meters— 25 kilometers
• 10,000 meters— 30 kilometers
• Marathon— 40 kilometers
In addition to the slow mileage and tempo runs, Van Aaken included some pure speed or sprint work. He advised doing sprints of 50 meters. These sprints were to be done as sharpeners only occasionaly. The reason these were done is because they were so short, that no oxygen debt occured. One of Van Aaken’s key principles is to not run in oxygen debt during training as this is not what the body was designed to do.
Differences between Van Aaken and Lydiard’s training:
Van Aaken acknowledged that his method is similar to that of Lydiard, but there are some key differences. First, he doesn’t require the athlete to run 100 mile weeks for middle distance runners. Van Aaken believed that one of the reasons Lydiard’s methods worked for Peter Snell is because the mileage kept his weight down. Van Aaken was somewhat obsessed with being skinny for running fast. If a middle distance runner was already skinny, then he wouldn’t need much mileage. The second difference major difference is that he doesn’t do a specific hill training.
Van Aaken’s key rules for running:
(As found on page 56 of The Van Aaken Method)
• “Run daily, run slowly, with creative walking breaks”
• “Run many miles, many times your racing distance if you are a track runner; up to and often beyond if you are a long distance runner. Do tempo running only at fractions of your racing distance.”
• “Run no faster during tempo runs than you would in a race.”
• “Bring your weight down 10-20% under the so-called norm and live athletically- i.e., don’t smoke, drink little or no alcohol, and eat moderately.”
• “Consider that breathing is more important than eating, and that continuous breathlessness in training exhausts you and destroys your reserves.”
Diet and sleep
A central theme of Van Aaken’s method is that the athlete should have very little fat on his body. The lighter the athlete the better. He took this to the extreme with his athletes stating that the runner should eat very little, about 2,000 calories per day. Which is not very much at all considering the vast amounts of mileage his athletes did. He wasn’t strict on what the athlete ate exactly, as long as he did not eat too much. It was recommended to eat a good amount of high quality protein and to limit your fat intake to less than 40 grams a day. In addition, he believed that a runner should fast for a day occasionally. Van Aaken said that the fasting taught the runner how to run with little fuel supplies and to teach his body how to burn fat.
In addition to his different views on diet, Van Aaken also had controversial views on sleep. He believed that contrary to what most believe, that people sleep too much. He would often limit his own sleep to only a few hours.
Looking at Van Aaken’s training from a modern perspective:
When looking at Van Aaken’s training method the first thing that I noticed was the heavy emphasis on slow relaxed running. It’s amazing to see how some of his athletes ran so fast off of what most would call a fairly easy training schedule. The volume is large but the intensity is very low. You have to remember that when Van Aaken came up with this training the emphasis was on high quality training with very little volume. Thus, Van Aaken’s switching the emphasis from one extreme to the other fits in with a theme you can see throughout the history of training. Very rarely was their any middle ground found between quantity and quality early on. Yes, they were often combined, but there was always a heavy emphasis towards one side or the other, never a true melding of each until later on. The success of Van Aaken’s athletes using this low intensity high quantity approach should help show you that aerobic development is the key to success in distance events. In fact, Van Aaken believed this all the way back in the 1940’s, when he stated that the key in distance running is getting enough oxygen to the cells. This idea on what the limits were to distance running made Van Aaken believe that there was no use in training in oxygen debt for so long, because you wanted the athlete to be able to run with plentiful amounts of oxygen for as long as he could, because it was more efficient.
In addition to the slow running, he had his runners do tempo runs and other faster runs. Even these tempo or faster runs do not seem that intense. The faster runs would be something to the effect of a very short Lactate Threshold run now. An example would be running 2,000m at 1 minute over your fastest 2,000m. So for Norpoth, this was done at around 6 minutes. During a workout he would alternate running easy for a couple miles with a 2,000 run, then another couple of easy miles and then another 2,000 and on and on. Now, Van Aaken recognized the need for some specific work done at race pace. This is why his athletes did tempo runs, or short repetitions at race pace with plenty of recovery. It’s interesting to see that his athletes did almost no workouts with short or incomplete recovery. Another interesting thing is that his best athlete, Norpoth, had an incredible kick. He attributed this to his finely developed aerobic system. This is similar to the belief as to why Peter Snell had a large kick too. These examples lend evidence to the belief that the kick may in fact have to do with developing a huge aerobic system, and not to natural speed as many believe.
Another thing to notice is that Van Aaken’s method never stresses the body too much. It seems as he gradually stresses the body and allows it to recover. This may be why an athlete like Norpth had such a long and distinguished career compared to the short careers of other runners of his day. His emphasis on aerobic development allowed him to keep improving year after year and to stick around for a much longer time when other athletes tended to show up for a couple of years then call it quits. This could be due to the fact that others were on a more interval based program, while the low intensity allowed Norpoth to last for much longer.
Take aways from Van Aaken’s training methods:
• Aerobic Development is the key to success.
• It’s okay to run your easy days really easy.
• Don’t carry around extra weight that serves no purpose. You want to be healthy but skinny.
• Run a good amount of total mileage per day.
• The easy mileage forms the base of your training and should be topped off with race pace “tempo” runs.
• Sharpening (such as short sprints) should be done during the final weeks of training.
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