Bertl Sumser: The Scientific Approach
West German coach Bertl Sumser was an early pioneer in taking a scientific approach to training. He carried on in the tradition of Woldemer Gerschler in designing his training with a heavy tip of the hat to the physiology known at their time. In a 1962 article published in the Fred Wilt’s book Run, Run, Run, Sumser states that the basis of his training was to increase the oxygen supply, and to neutralize the effects of the lactic acid. He was an early adopter of what I would call the Physiology based model of training, allowing the science to guide and inform his training.
It’s important to understand the history of this approach, because in many ways coaching hasn’t changed. In a variety of sports, modern training for endurance or conditioning relies on the same model, with a bit of updated science. So let’s dive in.
Sumser outlined six different types of training runs or exercises that should be utilized in training:
1. Endurance Running
This was defined as your typical easy run to be done over a variety of courses. These runs could be up to an hour or more in time. Sumser was careful to note that during the base training phase that this is an excellent means of training that “unfortunately is used by us all too infrequently during this time of year. (Perhaps because it is too simple?).”
2. “Speed Play” (Fartlek)
This is a form of continuous running where the paces vary over the course of the run for either specified or unspecified distances interspersed throughout the run. He suggested that the distances should be long and the paces be fairly easy at first. For example, during November to December he recommended “2000-3000-3000-2000 meters with recovery jogs, time for 1000 meters about 4 minutes.” Then throughout the year, the distances decrease to 1000’s, 1600’s, and 2000’s, with the pace dropping to 3minutes per 1k. He stressed that fartlek’s should never be an exhaustive run and the sprints could be added towards the end with adequate recovery. The purpose of fartlek’s was “adaptation of heart and circulation, regulation of the breathing process, improvement of the capillary transfer process.”
3. Interval Endurance Run
This type of training is done to improve adaptations to the heart and circulation according to Sumser. It consists of a large volume of short repetitions that are no more than 300 meters in length. The intensity is not very high and there is a decent amount of recovery between each repetition. Some examples during the base training for a runner aiming for 3:45 for 1,500 are: 30x 100 meters in 17.5-16.0 seconds with a 50-60 second jog recovery. Progression is key in these workouts as they gradually move to race pace or faster (14.5-15.0 seconds for the 100’s).
4. Repetition Runs (Speed Runs)
For Sumser, like many during this time frame, they differentiate intervals and repeats. While we use both terms interchangeably now, they had distinct differences in the past. For Sumser, the aforementioned intervals were focused on conditioning the athlete from a physiological standpoint. The goal was more moderate paced work designed to trigger an aerobic adaptation.
For repetitions, the focus was more on the intensity and speed. Sumser divided his repetation workouts into two classifications. The first group is workouts that are intense with an incomplete recovery. Some examples he gives of these are 8×200 in 27.0 with a 2minute recovery, gradually progressing to 8×200 in 26.0 with 60 seconds recovery at the end of the year. He states that there is a big need for progression throughout the year so that the recoveries get shorter with a high load. In fact he says that he often starts out with longer repeats of 500-600m in length at slower speeds and works down to the shorter faster repeats.
The second group is repeats of very high intensity with near complete recoveries. Some examples of these include for a 3:45 1,500 runner, 500 in 68-69 with 6-8 minute recovery, 600 in 84-85 with 10-12 minutes of recovery, then 800 in 1:55-1:56. The purpose of these repetition runs is “adaptation of muscle metabolism, entrance of a high oxygen debt, increase the alkali reserve and of energy, adaptation to the products of a high hyperacidity (121).”
5. Sprint Runs
Sprint training is just what it sounds like, sprinting. Sumser divided these into two categories: pure speed and speed endurance. The first group is for the development of pure speed. To do this he suggests performing sprints at max speeds with full recovery. The example given is 10×100 meters with a flying start in 10.8-11.0 seconds with a 3-4 minute recovery walk. The other type of sprint training is done for speed endurance, or the ability to maintain high speeds over a longer distance. This is accomplished by doing repeats at high speeds with shorter recoveries. An example given of this training is 10×50 meters at 7/8 speed with 50-60 meter jogs in between.
6. Special Conditioning
This isn’t well defined but he says that it used for training of the entire muscular system. He later says that it consists of various exercises done such as light weights, medicine ball, and gymnastic exercises.
Sumser was obviously heavily dependent on periodization. You can see the influence of his time period on the way he set up training. It was regimented and mathematical, with progression coming steadily and systematically. It was very much a strict periodization model.
Let’s take you through the season. In November, it’s suggested that you train 4 days per week with alternating days of endurance runs and interval endurance runs. On two of these days the work load should be cut in 1/2 and 1/2 a conditioning workout should be done. The interval endurance runs are 100 or 200m repeats at relatively slow paces. In December, you start to train 3 days per week with an endurance run four days per week, one fartlek, and two sessions of interval endurance work, along with conditioning work. Times are still slow at about 36 sec for 200s and 11 minutes for the 3000m portion of the fartlek. These two months serve as the base work in Sumser’s program.
In January and February there are 5 days of training per week with one fartlek containing slightly shorter distances than the december one, two endurance intervals runs, and two speed runs. The pace on the interval endurance runs drops to 34secs, and the fartlek pace drops to 3:10 to 3:20 pace per 1,000m. Speed runs consist of longer repeats of 400, 500, and 600m for the 800m runner. (For a 1,500m runner, speed runs are longer, up to 1,000m in length) In March, we bump it up to 6 days of training per week, with one endurance run for recovery, 3 speed runs, 1 interval endurance run, and 1 sprint work. The speed run distances vary each day, between short, long, and mixed distances. The paces gradually increase by 1-2 seconds per 400m from what they were being done at in earlier periods. April is similar to march except that the paces get faster. In May, Sumser plans for the start of the racing season. During this time 5 days a week is spent training with sprints one day, interval endurance runs one day, one recovery endurance run, and speed runs twice. After this period, he says a schedule cannot be demonstrated because of the different racing requierments. However, the paces get faster in the speed runs and the number of repetitions decrease. For example you go from running 10×400 in 66 in january to 8-10 in 60 in april to 5 in 56 in july.
The difference between the 800 training and the 1,500 training is that the endurance running and fartleks are longer (up to 1:30). There is more emphasis on the interval enduranc runs. Between january and April for every speed run that you do per week, one endurance interval run should be done. Then starting in May, speed runs take precedence over these interval endurance runs.
Examples of progression of Speed Runs throughout year for 3:45 1,500m runner (taken from Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt, 1964)
|200||15x at 28||15x at 27.5||12x at 27||12x at 26.5|
|300||12-15x at 47||12-15x at 45||12x at 43||12x at 42||10x at 41||10x at 40||10x at 40|
|400||10x at 66||10x at 64||10x at 62||8-10x at 60||6x at 58||6x at 57||5x at 56|
|800||5-6x at 2:25||5x at 2:20||5x at 2:15||5x at 2:10||4x at 2:05||4x at 2:02||4x at 2:00|
Looking at Sumser from a modern perspective:
The first thing that should be noticed is the six different types of training he defines. Put in modern context, some are very similar to types of training we do today. Sumser’s Endurance Running is our normal aerobic training ranging from recovery runs to steady runs ro long runs. It’s interesting to note that he says that it’s used infrequently, meaning that during his period of time people put a heavy emphasis on different types of interval training. The swinging of the pendulum back and forth between endurance and speed is a common theme in training. It just so happens that during the 1950’s, when Sumser was coaching, the pendulum was in the speed direction. With the arrival of Lydiard’s training on the scene, that certainly changed, but if he Sumser saw the training of the day he’d probably say that many people now use intervals too infrequently. This shows our tendency to put too much emphasis on one type of training. Anyways, his fartlek training serves several purposes in today’s view of training. The early fartleks play the role of high-end aerobic running, then gradually work down to what some people call cruise intervals, which would be a variation of Lactate Threshold training and they might even progress to aerobic capacity (or VO2 max training), but I’m not sure how fast they ended up. It’s safe to say though based on some of the times given that they were done at a high end aerobic pace, and sometimes at LT pace most likely. His next training category was Interval Endurance runs. These were used as some people use pace or rhythm work, but serve the purpose of building aerobic capacity really. They were a high number of repetitions with a decent amount of recovery at moderate speeds. We don’t really use this type of training now a days, but it was commonly seen during this period with the likes of Gerschler and Igloi. As I have said, this has been replaced with VO2max or aerobic capacity training really. His 4th type of training was Speed Runs. It’s interesting to note the progression throughout the year on these runs. The ones done early in the year are VO2max or aerobic capacity workouts, while the ones done in the middle of the year look like lactate tolerance work, and then the ending ones anaerobic capacity workouts. He terms them all the same, but since he uses progression throughout the year the real benefits and purpose of the workouts change. These are remarkably similar to modern progression in training from aerobic capacity to lactate tolerance to anaerobic capacity workouts. His next training group was Sprint runs. This is your typical sprint workout, maximum speeds, with full recovery or near it. These workouts are working on your creatine phosphate energy system and pure speed, recruiting your fast twitch muscle fibers.
His fartlek training serves several purposes in today’s view of training. The early fartleks play the role of high-end aerobic running, then gradually work down to what some people call cruise intervals, which would be a variation of Lactate Threshold training and they might even progress to aerobic capacity (or VO2 max training).. It’s safe to say though based on some of the times given that they were done at a high end aerobic pace, or what we’d call threshold training. His next training category was Interval Endurance runs. These were used as some people use pace or rhythm work, but serve the purpose of building aerobic capacity really. They were a high number of repetitions with a decent amount of recovery at moderate speeds. We don’t really use this type of training
His next training category was Interval Endurance runs. These were used as some people use pace or rhythm work, but serve the purpose of building aerobic capacity really. They consisted of a high number of repetitions with a decent amount of recovery at moderate speeds. We don’t really use this type of training as much now, but it was commonly seen during this period with the likes of Gerschler and Igloi. This type of work has fallen out of favor and has has been replaced with VO2max or aerobic capacity training. For fast twitch or middle distance type athletes, this kind of interval training can still be used to great effect in boosting their abilities aerobically.
His 4th type of training was Speed Runs. It’s interesting to note the progression throughout the year on these runs. The ones done early in the year are VO2max or aerobic capacity workouts, while the ones done in the middle of the year look more like what modern coaches might term “anaerobic” or lactate tolerance work. The progression seems to be the key. These are remarkably similar to modern progression in training from aerobic capacity to lactate tolerance to anaerobic capacity workouts. His next training group was Sprint runs. This is your typical sprint workout, maximum speeds, with full recovery or near it. These workouts are working on your creatine phosphate energy system and pure speed, recruiting your fast twitch muscle fibers.
For his sprint training sessions, these are your standard pure speed or speed endurance sessions.This is your typical sprint workout, maximum speeds, with full recovery or near it.
As you can see the program contains a lot of similarities to modern training of today. The main differences being there is a heavier emphasis easy runs and threshold/steady type of work than there was in Sumser’s system. Which makes complete sense. We are products of our time, and even though Sumser was bucking the trend by including a number of easy runs and aerobic fartleks, it still pares in comparison to what we do today.
The key take away from Sumser is that progression matters. He recognized the need to increase the stress on the athlete through changes of speed, rep length and even recovery as the athlete adapts. In addition to this, Sumser relied heavily on mixing the type of workouts. He never does back to back days of the same category of training. Every day he is working a different system. This might seem like a no brainer now, but during that time period when it was common to do interval sets 5 days a week, the alternating of the emphasis of training was novel at the time.
Looking back on Sumser’s systematic approach to training, you can see the innovation for the time. His workouts had a purpose that was rooted in the science of the day. He seemed to understand the importance of progression and alternating the stress applied to the athlete. A lot can be learned from Sumser’s approach and comparing it to where we are now.
Overall, it’s a reminder that we are a product of our time, and the context that surrounds us. I’d be willing to bet that Sumser thought he had a well balance approach, splitting off from the interval dominated approach that was favored for middle distance runners of the time. A few years later, the emphasis would shift in training, thanks to Arthur Lydiard’s success with Peter Snell
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