October 2000

Non-Coach's Column! (from Paul Briscoe)

If you read my article in the last newsletter, you will know I have concluded that the key to my own success in races over the years has been a combination of faster paced running in training, specific speed work and sufficient mileage to get my weight down to its ideal level. I have now decided to explore the various issues - weight, mileage and speed work - in a little more detail.

I make it clear at the outset that I am not a qualified coach. I am merely a moderately successful long distance runner who has trained with quite a number of top local and international runners over the years and who also happens to be a biologist/scientist with a fair grasp of the principles of physiology and sports science. The opinions I express are entirely my own, based on my own experience, but I know they fit in fairly closely with those of more distinguished runners than myself!

One thing is clear - you have to be prepared to train hard to be successful. I have never met a truly successful long distance runner who did not:

  1. Run every day for most of the year (except when ill or injured).
  2. Do a long run of at least 90 minutes most weeks.
  3. Do at least one speed session (or race) each week.

Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to train like this, but whatever your standard, if you want to improve your performance in races (and I shall assume you do), there are some steps that you can take which will certainly help.

In my view, the first thing to look at is your weight. Weight is very important for the obvious reason that if you are over your ideal racing weight, you will be wasting energy just carrying around the excess load. Most successful distance runners are very skinny. However, most of the serious runners I know donít diet. On the contrary, they eat far more than average, but by combining healthy eating with doing lots of exercise, they keep their weight low (far lower than recommended in your GPís height/weight tables!).

From my own experience, I know that I always looked fairly skinny even when I didnít run but I lost a stone within a few weeks of starting running seriously - so I must have been carrying some hidden excess pounds! Nowadays, when I am just "ticking over" in training (maybe about 40 miles per week), my weight is around 136lbs, which is, even by elite runner standards, already very light for someone of nearly 5í11íí. At this weight I am sluggish and do not race well. Adding some speed work always helps a little but I never see a huge improvement until I increase my mileage to 60 or 70 per week. At this level of training, my weight comes down naturally to around 131lbs and I suddenly find myself running at least 20 seconds per mile faster in both training and races (and rather more than this off road). Of course, being pretty emaciated to start with, the loss of 5lbs makes a huge difference to me, but even if you go by Maxís formula of 2-3 secs/mile improvement with each pound lost, you can quickly see that losing some weight, for a lot of runners, is the best single strategy for improving performance.

Most of the 5lbs I lose with increased mileage is undoubtedly fat rather than water because the 131lbs is my weight fully loaded and hydrated on the morning of a big race (and I have a lot less padding when I sit down!). My body fat is around 10% at 136lbs, so at 131lbs, allowing for increased muscle bulk with heavier training, it is probably closer to 5%. This is on a par with many top male international runners, which certainly doesnít surprise Jo or anyone else who sees me when Iím race fit! Of course, women always carry more fat than men and few female international marathon runners operate much below 10% body fat.

I am not trying to suggest that every male and female Strider should try to reach 5% and 10% body fat respectively because so much depends on the other things in your life and it is possible that such a figure would be too low for you. However, it is possible to look slim and still carry a lot more body fat than you need (as I did). Estimating your ideal body weight from your height is not precise enough (the human body is too variable to rely on simple mathematical models). Therefore, it might be worth finding out what your body fat content is (ask Max if you want help with this), because if it is way over the above figure, you could substantially improve your race performances by losing a bit of weight. Losing just 5 pounds could easily save you 15 seconds per mile - 2Ĺ minutes in a 10 mile race or 6Ĺ minutes in a marathon!

So how do you go about losing weight? The first thing to look at is what youíre eating. Most top runners are very aware of health issues generally and eat a healthy diet - many are vegetarians. The key is undoubtedly to eat a low fat diet, preferably high in complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes and with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. As a rough guide, your diet should not contain more than 5% fat. This way, you can eat more food overall but actually reduce your calorific intake. Fluid intake is also important but too much alcohol can be a problem (although as a professional brewer I can assure you that I have no weight problems off a couple of pints per day!). If you eat a lot of fried foods, fatty meats, butter/margarine, pies/sausage rolls, crisps, cheese, cakes, cream etc. then you are certainly eating too much fat and would benefit both your general health and weight by cutting down. I can introduce you to my Hot Cross Bun diet if youíre really stuck for ideas! I personally donít advocate dieting by reducing overall food intake for runners, especially if youíre trying to train hard, but there may be no alternative. If you do choose this option, you need to be very careful and only reduce a little at a time - it is important to note that quite a number of top female athletes have become anorexic by going down this route.

For most serious runners, the best option is to allow your training to regulate your weight - the more you run, the lighter you will become. I actually eat substantially more as my weight falls! One common piece of advice given in articles is that you should run most of your miles slowly to burn off more fat. I believe this advice is misleading because it ignores one important factor - Metabolic Rate. This is the rate at which the body expends energy per unit time. The important consideration here is the metabolic rate when you are sat around doing nothing - Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - this is the energy required to maintain body temperature and functions. It is well recognised that BMR rises considerably in people who take up regular exercise: BMR for a sedentary person uses up around 10 calories per day per pound of body weight whilst the comparable figure for an athlete is at least 17 calories per day per pound (higher still for the very active). For a man of 140lbs this equates to around 1400 calories per day for a non athlete and nearly 2400 calories per day for an athlete, i.e. an extra 1000 calories per day for an athlete just to keep your body ticking over. All of this extra energy is found through fat metabolism, so it is easy to see why running causes you to lose weight.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that metabolic rate doesnít return to normal immediately after you stop running - this is because the body continues to burn off more energy (in the form of fat) whilst it recovers and gets rid of waste products etc.. Also, the harder you run, the longer it will take for your body to recover and the more fat youíll burn off. My resting heart rate is still elevated by around 30% 6 hours after a hard run, indicating that my metabolism is still "racing". After very hard runs and races, the recovery period is even longer (maybe 24 hours or more), whereas it can be as little as an hour after a gentle run.

So what does all of this mean? Firstly, it means that running more often (e.g. running 6 days per week rather than 5, or running twice per day) could be more effective than increasing mileage in burning off fat. Also, as you need to run around 10 miles to burn off 1000 calories, with a good proportion of this coming from glycogen, running slowly is unlikely to burn off more than 100 calories of extra fat - a small quantity compared with the potential for your metabolism to burn off fat during recovery. Therefore, you could easily burn off more fat overall by training faster because of the longer recovery time! This may be controversial, but I suspect that there must be sufficient data somewhere to confirm my view. In any case, unless you have the time to do high mileage, your race performances will probably benefit from doing a good proportion of your training at a faster pace - more of that next time!