A Brief History of Interval Training: The 1800’s to Now
The Beginning Years(1800’s-1920’s Finn’s)
The simple reason to run intervals is that it allows the runner to hit specific paces or training zones (such as LT, VO2max, Lactate tolerance, etc.) for a longer amount of time then would be spent in that zone if you just ran for a continuous run. Now way back in the day athletes didn’t have the physiological knowledge to know what these “zones” were as science wasn’t advanced enough yet, but through trial and error athletes decided that interval training was better than running flat out for a distance. The reason for interval training back then was that it allowed you to run at a certain pace for a longer period of time, then if you just went out and ran at that distance. Also, it wasn’t as taxing to run let’s say 400 meters, rest, then more 400’s at mile pace as it was a whole mile at mile pace. Thus more work could be carried out.
Throughout the history of training it’s interesting to note the complete changes brought about in training ideas. The training seems to switch from complete idea to complete idea with only a select few meeting in the middle. One example of this is that of continuous running and interval training. In the early years continuous running was all that was done, then as interval training was introduced, athletes would run intervals every day. It wasn’t until later when melding the two systems together became popular. However, even with the melding of the two systems, it could still be seen that there is a likelihood to favor one system over the other, and this constantly changes throughout history.
In early days, such as the days of Walter George, interval training wasn’t used in its modern sense. For example, Captain Barclay’s 1813 training program consisted of long walks done with an occasional run of 1/2 mile at top speed before breakfast and 1/2 mile at top speed after dinner. Another athlete in the late 1800’s William Cummings described his training as running a mile a day being mostly at a slow pace except for one or two times per week he’d run it faster. This walking/running mix continued into the early 1900’s.
The first evidence of an athlete using interval training came by Joe Binks, a 4: 16-mile runner in 1902. He trained only one time per week with 30 minutes of exercise. During this 30 minutes, he would run five to six 110-yard intervals at top speed and then finish with a fast 200-300 yards. Although no specifications besides this can be found, it can be seen that he ran several “sprints” at top speed with rest in between. This is the first sign of interval training. However, any type of interval training would not catch on for another couple of years. It’s unclear exactly when interval training caught on but the Finnish runners can be attributed to the real rise of interval training.
In around 1910 the Finns devised a more systematic approach to interval training. The credit for this method could be attributed to the Finnish coach Lauri Pikhala. This training can be seen in the two greatest distance runners of their time, Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen. Kolehmainen was the 1912 Olympic Gold medalist in the 5k, 10k, and 8k Cross-Country race. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave a lot of details about his own training, but it can be seen in letters written to Paavo Nurmi in 1918, that he should include more training that included alternating fast and slow runs, or interval training. One example of the interval training done by Nurmi is that of “4 to 7km with fast speed over the last 1 to 2km, finished off by four to five sprints (Noakes 273).” Most of the training consisted of a set of short sprints of about 150m at 100% and then a run over a considerable distance (600-3,000m) at between 75-90%.
1930’s-The Swedish Fartlek and Gerschler
In the mid 1930’s a Swedish coach named Gosta Holmer invented a different kind of interval training. This would be “fartlek” training. This fartlek training was a very informal type of training where you vary the speed based on the athletes feel. This means you vary the speed throughout the run often times alternating fast/slow, or fast/medium, or medium/slow. It was used by the Swedes successfully and made it way around the world and is still used throughout the world. It’s amazing the longevity of the fartlek training. Two notable athletes who used this system were Gundar Hagg and Arne Anderson who were extremely close to breaking 4 in the pre WWII era. During this same period the famous German coach Woldemar Gerschler came up with an interval training method based on heart rates to monitor effort.
In many ways, Gerschler’s training would change how the world trained and be the basis of various training systems throughout the world. This is where you will first notice the switch from primarily straight distance runs to a heavy emphasis on interval training. Along with Dr. Herbert Reindel, Gerschler came about his method by the use of what was then modern science. He measured heart rate and it’s reaction to a training stimulus in over 3,000 people and decided that what they found represented the average person. The idea of his training was that you stress the heart until 180 beats per minute, after this you allow it 1 minute and 30 seconds to get back down to 120-125 beats per minute. If you take longer than this to recover, that means you went to fast or too long on your repeat. If it takes shorter than 1:30 to recover, then the athlete should begin again once his heart rate hits that point. Gerschler’s training was done of mostly short repetitions of 100, 150, or 200m in length. You conclude the workout once the heart rate is not able to return to the 120 level after 1:30 rest.
Although known mainly for his vast amounts of shorter repeats, Gerschler employed the use of longer repetitions too. It can be seen in some of Rudolf Harbig’s training that he did repetitions that ranged from 100m to 2,000m in length, but this was built up over a long period of time, as he said you need to adapt to the shorter intervals before increasing to the longer intervals. Gerschler believed that the heart was trained and adapted during the rest interval, not during the stressing of the heart part. Therefore he thought the recovery was the main emphasis. The beuty of the Gerschler rule to stop once the heart rate can’t recover enough is that it controls the athlete. IT prevents him from working too hard and overtraining. He also advised a progression as you adapt more. Instead of increasing the pace a great deal, he adviced increasing the amount and decreasing the rest. The rest should decrease naturally as your heart rate should recover faster, the more fit you are. Thus also enabling you to run more repetitions. In later years it can be seent hat Gerschler introduced faster, almost anaerobic capacity work occasionally. This can be seen in the training of Gordon Pirie who was a Gerschler disciple. In addition to the interval training, he said that when racing season was upon him that he would do what he called “hyper-fast running.” This consisted of extremely fast runs from 400 to 2,000m in length at close to race pace for that distance. Then as much as 20 minutes rest was taken and you repeat this 4-8 times. After WWII came the emergence of Emil Zatopek who took interval training to the next level.
The Zatopek Method
The combination of Gerschler’s interval training work and then the emergence of Emil Zatopek really propelled interval training to the forefront as the main method to prepare a distance runner. Zatopek helped bring back the concept of interval training after a brief lull during the WWII era. Zatopek’s training was a rather simple concept, break the runs into shorter bursts so that he could run at an average faster speed. His explanation can be seen when he said:
“When I was young, I was too slow. I thought I must learn to run fast by practicing to run fast, so I ran 100 meters fast 20 times. Then I came back, slow,slow,slow. People said, ‘Emil, you are crazy. You are training like a sprinter” and “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast. Everyone said, ‘Emil, you are a fool!’ But when I first won the European Championship, they said: ‘Emil, you are a genius!’
“If I run one hundred meters twenty times, that is two kilometers and that is no longer a sprint.” Emil Zatopek
Zatopek was one of the best runners ever and more importantly was extremely innovative in his training methods. He won gold medals in the 1948 10k, and the 10k,5k, and marathon in 1952. His training methods consisted of running an enormous amount of repetitions on various terrain and conditions. He would often times run in heavy army boots to build up strength and resistance. He also wore these boots because they were cheap and when training in the woods he didn’t have to worry about rocks or twisting his ankle. He would go to extreme ends to accomplish various training. For example when he heard other athletes were lifting weights for strength, he experimented with running while carrying his wife on his back. Another often told story is that of his wife telling him to do the laundry so he ran in place in the tub with the laundry soaking in it for an hour to get the laundry done. His normal training however was a set of 400m intervals with about a 200m jog sandwiched in between five 150-200m repeats with same jog. The paces are unknown for his intervals but they were said to vary wildly. In a couple of books by Fred Wilt (Run, Run, Run and How they Train) it speculates that the 400’s were between 67 and 77 seconds with the 150-200m repeats a little faster, but no ones exactly sure. The key is that zatopek ran by feel and varied the effort based on what he thought was right. A typical Zatopek workout was 5×200, 20×400, 5×200 with 200m jogs in between. Over the years zatopek increased his training load to include more and more repetitions getting up to 20×200, 40×400, 20×200 with 200 jogs for a workout. The basis of his program was to develop what he called speed and stamina.
Besides the massive amount of intervals, Zatopek understood peaking to a degree. He said in the book Running with the legends that “two weeks very intensive training, and one week easier, easier, easier until I try for the record (pg 12).” This shows that he understands you have to put in the hard training then let your body recover and adapt to the work you just performed. The impact of Zatopek’s training is that it took interval training to the next level. Zatopek combined fast running with an enormous amount of intervals, thus covering a large amount of mileage per day. He made the world realize how hard and far you could push your limits. Fred Wilt summed it up best in the book How They Train when he said “Before Zatopek nobody realized it was humanly possible to train this hard. Emil is truly the originator of modern intensive training.”
What may have been missed by others during Zatopek’s own time is the fact that the main session of endless repetitions was not “speed work,” but rather 5k to around marathon paced efforts. This means he was working on predominately his aerobic system. The repetitions run at the slower end of the 67-77 second range would function as high end aerobic running (AT or LT type training), while the reps are done at the faster end of the range would work on his Aerobic power (VO2max type training).
It is also prudent to realize that his 400 repeats were not an entire workout where he was doing 50×400 hard. Part of the 400s was warmup and part cool down. “The first runs are always taken somewhat easier, then gradually speeded up, and then again tapered off towards the end of the training session.” (Zatopek Zatopek Zatopek).
While most of his training was done in repetition style, Zatopek aslo included other types of training into his regime. In a sample of 26 days of his training that came from an article by J. Armour Milne in “Athletics Weekly”, it can be seen that the majority of his intense training was done with 400 meter repetitions. Occasionally a set of 5×200’s done at either “normal” or “intensive” speed were done. It can be assumed that “intensive” speed meant that Zatopek worked at speeds faster than the normal 67-77 second estimated range. This assumption can be further justified by the fact that Zatopek had said that when he lacked stamina he would do more 400’s and when he lacked speed he would do more 200s. Because of this information, the 200’s were probably used as what many would regard as speed work of mile effort or faster. Besides these repetitions, he would also occasional do long jogging runs of 2 hours plus exercising. It’s not clear what “exercising” means exactly. On a somewhat more rare occasion, short sprints were also listed as being done. These facts should not be neglected. The majority of Zatopek’s training may have centered on the 400 repeats, but there were many other aspects to his training that showed Zatopek knew to work at a variety of paces and efforts.
One more aspect of Zatopek’s training to consider is the amount of miles he ran. Fortunately his 1954 mileage totals were recorded and they are as follows in kilometers (Milne “Athletics Weekly”)
Total for year- 7,888km
Just for an example that 935km in March is averaging 145 MILES per week. Even more astonishing in January of 1955, he ran 1,057 km which is about 143ish Miles per week! For a period in February, for 5 days in a row he ran 40×400 in the morning w/ 200 jog and 40×400 in the afternoon with 200 jog. One of those days he did 50×400 in the morning and then 40 in the afternoon. His mileage was definitely high, even for modern standards.
In one of her papers, physiologist Veronique Billatt suggests that the average effort of Zatopek’s 400s was that of Critical Velocity. Critical Velocity is a pace a tad faster than Lactate Threshold, but slower than 10k pace. So if we assume LT is a pace one could run for 1 hour and 10k pace is pace of about a 30min all out run, Critical Velocity would be about the pace for an all out 45minute run. So by seeing this, Zatopek’s intervals were mostly aerobic in nature with a slight accumulation of lactate build up towards the middle or end most likely. Doesn’t really matter because the intervals at CV pace would be similar to the benefits of an LT run or a “tempo” run, just with rest periods that allowed him to do so much volume of them.
“Visit with Dr. Woldemar Gerschler” by P. Sprecher
“Interval Training” by Professor Claude Smit
“Examination of Interval Training” by Toni Nett
Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt
Running Through the Ages by Ed Sears
Run with the Champions by Marc Bloom
Lore of Running by Time Noakes
Running with the Legnends by Michael Sandrock
“Important moments and concepts in the history and development of Intermittent training” by Antonio Cabral
Who discover fatlek training