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Coach's Column - May 1999


from Max Jones

The great, late, Dr George Sheehan, Jr, who wrote a page on Running, spiced with his views on how that helped him to cope with the World and Life in general, every month for many years in the US edition of Runner's World, recommended that competitive racers should find out what works in training and racing for themselves, never mind what the experts in Runner's World tell its million readers to do. "Regard yourself as an Experiment of One", he said. Now that I'm about to run my 100th marathon - London, April 18 - I've just about settled on a training programme which I believe works for me to produce race times around 85% Age-Graded, i.e, say, 43:55 for 10k and 3:22:45 for me in London, which is equal to 2:29:15 for a 30 year-old. So this is my current (!) Strategic Plan :

  1. Based on the premise that it's the rate of oxygen supply, i.e. blood supply, to the leg muscles which is by a long, long way the most important determinant of long distance racing times, I measure and record my resting heart rate every day before I go training. The lower it is means the greater is the volume of blood my heart is pumping out each beat then and the more it will pump out when I'm training and racing.
  2. I never race without my heart rate monitor on, because that's the time when I get the most useful information about what works for me in races. When I was in Durban, South Africa, for the Comrades Marathon last year, my old Polar Accurex II went on the blink, so I had to buy another Polar HRM so that I could find out what was going on inside me during the race the following day. As readers of my report may recall, it was not a pretty sight, but at least I was able to work out afterwards, from the information in the HRM's memory - not in mine, that was just as in a nightmare! - what had gone wrong. Over the three years I'd had the original one, I'd found that I needed to run only at 130 to 140 beats per minute for 10- and 9-minute miles, but I had to raise my (racing) pulse to 150bpm to perform well - i.e. at 85% age- graded - in a marathon and to over 160bpm for a good 10k. So, there's no point which I can see for training, running or, er, jogging over any distance, be it 2 miles or 22 miles, if my heart doesn't have to work hard enough, at a higher pulse rate, to grow bigger so that it can cope better with the load I'll put on it in the next race. I'm not saying that you shouldn't go for a social, chatting-with-friends, 20-miler on a Sunday, if that's what you enjoy; only that, in my book, it would do absolutely nothing towards reducing my race times by a single second. Indeed, the only time I ever ran more than 20 miles in training was before my first marathon - London 1981 - and that is the slowest one I've ever run!
  3. As the shortest race I run these days is 10k, I never train over distances greater than 6 miles - except for races, of course, which I now believe are the best form of training there is because they get my heart going at 5 or more beats per minute more than it ever does in training - because I find that training by myself (when you lot are all beavering away and being paid for so doing), I cannot get my average heart rate above the required 160bpm if I run for more than 4 miles.
  4. So virtually all my training sessions for the last 9 months have been just the 4 miles which are two laps of my hilly circuit on the minor roads around where I live. And I do two circuits, not just the one, because it's 2 miles before my core body temperature has warmed up sufficiently to cause me to start sweating (which adds another 5 beats a minute to my heart rate as my automatic cooling system clicks in to stop me collapsing from heat stroke). I go as fast as I'm able to over these four miles ; that's 10 or more minutes per mile when I've just started again after prolonged injury or illness, but, wearing trainers, quicker than 7:30s when I'm racing fit.
  5. After attending to my greater priorities in Life - per Dr Sheehan, i.e. the family's needs and walking the dog - I try to run my 4-mile circuit not less than 3 times a week, not more than 5, plus at least 2 races a month.
  6. Unless, after an interruption - I "lose" an average of a beat a minute a day as my heart muscle atrophies when I don't train for several days - I panic and run twice a day for a total of six or eight 4 milers in a week. When I was young, i.e. only 55, my heart used to recover its stroke volume capacity by one beat a minute every 2 days ; now that I'm old, it takes 3 days for a single measly beat.

So that's my 100th marathon training programme for my 100th marathon. No long runs, except in races; no limit of 8% on weekly mileage for hard runs, as laid down as essential by, to quote US Runner's World, "the world's top coach" (my hard runs are 100% of my training because I don't have the time, nor the inclination, to run any "junk miles"); no easy days ( rest is much more conducive to muscle building than running every day at the "steady" or "easy" pace one reads about in the running mags); no hills (I've got more leg muscle than is ideal for marathon running as it is); no intervals (because it takes two miles to get my heart rate up to its maximum for the day and I need to keep it there, not to let it off the hook).

But because I'm in an Experiment of One, it takes a while for any strategy I might adopt to prove itself to count as statistically significant. For instance, I ran the Brass Monkey half marathon at the end of January in 96:45, an age-graded 84.31%, equivalent to an Open Class marathon of 2:30:27, on an average of 4 training sessions a week and (only) 15.44 miles/wk, albeit all quality stuff. At the beginning of March, however, after the further hassle of trying to clear my desk before spending a month in the USA - I trained only once in the 10 days before flying out - my mileage was down to 15.26 miles per week. Only another 10 days after arriving, I was at the start of the Napa Valley Marathon - no, contrary to rumour, although we ran past lots of vineyards there was no wine on offer at the aid stations, only water and Gatorade - which, for only the second occasion, the other being my first marathon 18 years ago, I wasn't going for a time, but only to finish so that London '99 would be my 100th. I'd decided to potter along at 8 minute miles and all went well until I reached 15.25 miles - yes, honest! - when I began to struggle, eventually averaging 9 minute miles over the remaining 11 miles, to finish in 3:41:54. In passing, I was intrigued to note that even that was only 6 minutes slower than the course record - John Keston has never run the Napa Valley marathon - because the competition thins out so markedly at my age. The second M70 took 4:51 and the other three in the race only just got back in time to get under the 5:30 limit : it was the Road Runners Club of America's Championship, too!

The lesson from all that is clear : I must get my average mileage up to 26.25 miles per week if I'm to get into the first three over 70 in London again this year!