Coach's Column

April 2001


Coach's Column (from Max) "What the Experts Say"

Paul, George and I have taken up acres of space - or should that be hectares now ? - in the Letters pages of recent VS Newsletters airing our opinions on the merits of the training methods for racing fast marathons. "How should I train for London/Boston/an-upcoming-marathon-where-I-really-must-break-3/4/5-hours" is a question frequently asked of the Experts of the UK and US running mags I take, so I thought it would be a change from me droning on for you to read what they say. From only the last six months' worth, I've chosen:

Hal Higdon, in the UK edition of Runner's World for March, entitled RUN LONG and subtitled "Build your marathon endurance with this key session". I'm starting with this one because it is a rehash of an article he wrote for the US edition a year or so ago. Higdon was a US Olympic 10000m runner some 35 years ago. His name appears in the results of marathons these days, although he's slower than I am (when I don't have to walk the second half, that is).

He has the title of Senior Writer over there. To make his article more legit and to have the American translated back into English, he obtained the co-operation of Bud Baldaro, the Cross-Country coach of UK Athletics (I believe) and Marion Sutton's coach (I know). The article starts with:

"The long run is the staple of every distance runner's diet. If you're training for a marathon, it's de rigeur. Novice runners use them as springboards to the finish line and elite runners do multiple long runs to improve their times. Even if you're only interested in fitness, a longer-than-usual weekend run is the perfect fat burner and is often more a social gathering than a training session."

"Although the application of long-run theory differs between experts, the one thing they all agree on is the critical role such runs play in any schedule. Shun them at your peril."

That is Orthodoxy, as first set out by the High Priest of The Long Run, Arthur Lydiard, nigh on 50 years ago. Well, not exactly. I'm sure he didn't regard the 22 miles in 2:45 on a winter Sunday of the future 800m and 1500m Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell and others as being the occasion for a social gathering!

And for the past 5 years Runner's World itself has been preaching that fast training runs burn off more fat than long slow ones. That is true only because for very many years American training philosophy has been to run for such and such a time - e.g. for 60 minutes - not for a distance, e.g. 5, 8 or 10 miles. In Mechanical Engineering textbooks, however, Work Done equals Force times Distance, i.e. it takes (almost) twice the amount of fat calories to run 10 miles in an hour as it does to run 5 miles in an hour.

Back to Higdon. The article proper starts with the question "What is the main purpose of the long run?" Answers are 1) a long run is a dress rehearsal for your race; 2) to practise skills such as drinking while moving and eating energy foods; 3) long runs build confidence in your ability simply to run for a long time; 4) you learn patience; 5) many runners push too hard on daily runs.

I can see that those might be reasons for first-time marathoners to encourage them to break 5 hours, but for the elite!? Surely none of that lot will help any American to be the first to beat 2:09 on a legit course - only three of the almost 400 sub-2:10 marathons ever run have been achieved by a native-born American - or under 2:08 in Boston, will it? Read on.

"In addition to psychological reasons, there are strong physiological reasons to run long. Exercise physiologist Robert Vaughan offers the scientific rationale". I won't bore you with the whole paragraph - on mitochondria, capillaries, etc - but the nub of his scientific rationale is that the long run recruits muscle fibres which would otherwise go unused.

Helpfully, Higdon also summarises, with "Translation: the most important reason for long runs is to condition the muscles to delay the onset of fatigue".

If an exercise physiologist says so, who am I to question that running a long way and using, say, 55% fat/45% carbohydrate calories confers this benefit? I don't. I never have said that the Long Run doesn't work, all I've suggested that IT ISN'T "CRITICAL" because there are other ways which take up less time, are less hazardous and thus more likely to enable us to run well because we're fitter and not injured. I also ask Vaughan and Higdon what published evidence there is that running a shorter distance, more often, much quicker and using, say, 45% fat/55% CHO does NOT "condition the muscles to delay the onset of fatigue".

Ed Eyestone, former US Number One marathoner with a PR of 2:10:59 and a master's degree in exercise physiology, writes the "Fast Lane" page in the US Runner's World. In last September's edition, he reiterates that "the long run is the backbone of any successful training programme" and "the long run teaches your body to spare glycogen and rely more on fat as a fuel source".

That's just plain nonsense. Our bodies know far more than we can teach them how much fat and how much carbohydrate is needed at any instant to maintain the speed we are running at. The main limiting factor is oxygen supply, not fuel supply and, because fat uses 10% more oxygen per unit of energy output, the more fat is used the slower we go. And vice versa. Our bodies have been practising that since we first learnt to walk. It's quite automatic now. They don't need teaching.

Frank Horwill, in a letter in Athletics Weekly, March 14, entitled "Improving Endurance", makes a more useful contribution to the discussion. Horwill was the founder of the British Milers' Club which, in due time, helped to produce Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott. I followed his training recommendations in the mid-1980s for 10k racing as the base for my speed training for marathons which, in due time, helped me to my PB of 2:57 at the age of 59. Horwill writes :

"1. Holloszy's work in 1970 showed that [his subjects] running for two hours daily for five days for 12 weeks - sic - at 60 to 73% of maximum heart rate would increase mitochondrial numbers by 60% and the aerobic enzyme cytochrome C by 100%. Bengt Saltin states that Kenyan runners had higher concentrations of these two substances in their muscles than any other runners he examined.

"2. Dudley in 1980 found that running at 100% VO2 max for 10 minutes daily, five days a week for eight weeks, increased [his subjects'] mitochondria by 150% and cytochrome C by 300%. Running for 90 minutes daily at [only] 75% VO2 max increased them by 37% and 74% respectively.

"3. The consensus of the world's leading physiologists is that endurance is more efficiently gained by work between 80% and 100% of VO2 max (88% and 100% of maximum heart rate)."

Horwill then concludes with:

"To sum up, 100 miles a week works wonders for many athletes. So does running 52 miles, where half of it is between 80 and 100% VO2 max. The choice is yours. I think running three times the marathon distance in total per week gets good results if you include a 20-mile run and a race rehearsal run from nine to 18 miles at target speed. All five of my athletes in last year's London ran personal bests on this régime".

Thus Horwill first makes out the case for a daily 10 minutes worth of 100% flat out running in training as being much more effective than 2 hours worth daily at less than 75% of maximum heart rate. But then he muddies the waters by proposing three different weekly mileages - 100, 52 and 78 - a very long run and another at race speed! In the BMC heyday, if I recall correctly, he always had his athletes training either faster at less than race distance or slower at more than it, but NEVER at race speed at any distance. All very strange. Perhaps this is yet another example of the old adage "don't confuse me with facts, my mind is made up". Or, as a certain politician has it now, the Common Sense Revolution.

Or, to give Horwill the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the extra 27/53/75/take-your-pick miles per week is for weight control?

John "The Penguin" Bingham, who always signs off his RW page with "Waddle on, friends", was an unlikely source of quantification of the penalty of excess weight. In reply to a questioner who had reduced his weight from 237 to 180 pounds and who asked "is there a formula?", Bingham quotes the 2 seconds per pound per mile which I have always believed I derived from my study of my own racing performances in the 1980s. I've never seen it in print elsewhere before, so I wonder whether someone there has worked it out independently or whether it has taken 15 years for the idea to cross the Atlantic!

John Mayock, quoted in the national broadsheets and in AW, was of more interest. His story began when he met Hicham el Guerrouj in Sydney and the 1500m and Mile world record holder had invited him to spend a month with him at the Moroccan elite athletes' training camp.

Quotes from Mayock included "what amazed me was that [el Guerrouj] does not do much track work, more on the road and a lot of long distance repetitions"; "they train in the forest, on undulating terrain, for about an hour"; "Hicham eats even more chocolate than me. He told me if I ran more miles in training I could eat all the chocolate I want. I've been doing that and feeling the benefits"; "I have lost half a stone in the last couple of months: I am eating the same but I'm running further".

John Bingham's 2seconds/mile/lb is not relevant to the athletes running at the front in a race. He leads the Runner's World 5-hour "pace team" in Big City marathons, so his 2 seconds is better expressed as 0.3 per cent per mile per pound. For a sub-4 minute miler, that's only 0.7 of a second a mile so, on that calculation, 7 pounds reduction in Mayock's
weight should be worth 5 seconds a mile. Or 6.25 seconds in 2000m.

Watching the Indoor athletics from Birmingham, I had been astounded when Mayock came from fifth at the bell in the 2000m, his usual no-hope position in a race, to finish second to Noah Ngeny, the Olympic 1500m champion, and that only by about the thickness of his running vest. There was a repeat performance a week later in France, Mayock then beating his previous PB and British record he set for the distance last year by, er, 5.44 seconds. Not far from 6.25 seconds, is that!

Important, is body weight. And it's nice to know, approximately, how important.

Runner's World, US edition, gave it pride of place last November with the banner headline "45 Ways To Lose 5 Pounds", subtitled "They're quick, They're simple, They're reader-tested ". But we know from the previous edition of VS News, that it's neither quick nor simple to lose one pound, never mind five pounds, don't we!?

There were six orthodox believers who said to lift more weights/run/walk/ cross train more and two who had arranged to run in the evening so as to miss a meal without really noticing the fact. Eating fat, sweets, starch or any food quickly was condemned by eight readers, but drinking tea (3), milk (2) or water (1) was favoured. Only one reader said to drink less alcohol, though that would probably be one more than if the UK edition of Runner's World undertook a similar survey here. 18 of USRW's readers, 40% no less, recommended EATING! They ranged from one for more honey, through ten of them saying more fruit-and-veg of various types, to one who rated eating dill pickles best (for losing weight) and another extolling the virtue of chewing gum. Another recipe for discouraging "snacking" was "immediately after eating dinner I brush my teeth".

Three readers believed in Making a List of No-Nos, two in giving oneself a serious talking-to on the evils of over-eating. One said to get more sleep, another to get a dog. One young lady said to have fun: "I did this by deciding to have my belly button pierced, but I wouldn't have it done until I had the stomach to show it off. A year later, I enjoyed some new jewellery and a love of running".

Strange people, runners. Even a touch weird, one might say.