December 2001

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

Recent VS Newsletter editorial has perhaps portrayed Max and myself as being at loggerheads over training philosophy, but I suspect that we’re closer together than you might think.

Max and myself both believe that regular speed work is an essential part of any training programme intended to prepare you for racing. Where we appear to differ is over how much additional "steady" running is necessary to run at your best. I am convinced that, for the majority of distance runners, it is essential to have a good background of endurance training in order to perform well. Max, on the other hand, is finding that, as he gets older, he is running just as well for his age as he used to but off only a fraction of the mileage. These positions are not mutually exclusive!

I have based my conclusion that mileage is important on the observation that every national and international distance runner I have ever known has found it necessary to run 80 miles/week (or more) in order to reach that standard - and all of the great distance runners of recent times have relied heavily on mileage. So endurance training clearly benefits performance in distance races. There are several probable reasons for this: it increases muscle endurance, thus allowing you to hold a fast pace for longer; it can help to develop good running economy, thus saving energy; there is also evidence that it alters fat metabolism, which may be of importance in longer races; it also helps to regulate weight with the associated benefits to speed. However, this does not mean that speed work is unimportant - far from it - the key to successful running is finding the correct balance between speed, strength and endurance in training.

A recent article by Norman Matthews, the FRA’s chief coach summarises the position admirably. He points out that recent advances in sports science have shown long slow distance to be misguided - regular longer efforts above lactate threshold increase the number of capillaries in each muscle fibre, increase enzyme levels and mitochondria and enlarge the heart far more than could be achieved by running hundreds of miles slowly! Such fast paced training apparently raises the lactate threshold due to enhanced production of a muscle protein (MCT1) which removes lactate from the blood into the muscle for breakdown into energy (i.e. lactate is produced and broken down without the body going into oxygen debt) - the result is an increased VO2 Max and hence better race speed. However, Mr. Matthews also points out that doing this type of training does not mean volume is not required - mileage is still the foundation for an endurance athlete and most international athletes still need to do in excess of 80 miles/week. He also echoed comments made by Frank Horwill regarding the gulf between our athletes and the Kenyans, believing that we can never hope to compete with them until we start our juniors running seven to ten miles per day, something which is part of the culture for many Kenyan schoolchildren. So it would appear that a good endurance base and speed work are both important determinants of race performance.

However, there are problems with running hard too often. In a recent article in Running Fitness, Glen Grant (a former 800m/1500m international) pointed out that, over long periods, lactic acid can degrade cell function. Therefore, doing too much training above lactate threshold can be damaging to performance in the longer term. As a biologist, I can see the sense in this. Some athletes may be better than others at coping with this effect, so the key for us all is to find the maximum amount of speed work we can perform without "burn out". Steady running in the aerobic range does burn off lactate, so this is a good reason for doing some easy running before and after each speed session. The damaging effects of lactate are also a very good reason for taking a rest from intensive training every few months.

One point worthy of further discussion is the meaning of the word "steady" in terms of training pace. To Norman Matthews, it meant around 70% of maximum heart rate (MHR) during recovery runs between hard sessions. However, to many, such a pace would seem pedestrian. Many top runners do the majority of their steady running at a far faster pace than this on the basis that they get more training effect per mile by running faster - i.e. they might get away with running 80 miles/week at around 80% MHR whilst they might need to do 120 miles/week at 70% MHR. I strongly suspect that when we talk about endurance training, the amount required to achieve optimum performance is entirely dependent on training pace. For many of my training runs, I run at around 80% MHR with spells at 85% or more on hills (of which there are many on my routes!). It is quite likely that I start to produce some lactate during the longer climbs, providing me with the benefit of some extra unscheduled "speed work"! I have always considered these runs important in developing the ability to sustain a fast pace over distance but perhaps they are also one way of getting by on a lower mileage.

Over the years, I have spoken to a number of seasoned runners who have successfully moved into the veterans ranks. Most have said the same thing - they find that as they get older, they need to do less mileage than they used to but place a greater emphasis on speed work. Sarah Rowell has a theory that regular training over many years develops an endurance base or "miles in the bank" which means that as you get older you can achieve the same level of endurance off lower mileage - and as you get older and slow down, you achieve the same training effort off less miles anyway! On the other hand, as you lose speed with age, it is doubly important to work at this. Certainly, it is well recognised that we lose speed far faster than endurance - so, as we get older, we should perhaps expect to do a larger proportion of our diminishing amount of training above lactate threshold - still, of course, ensuring that we allow our bodies ample time to recover between each session!

Does the above provide any useful pointers for less serious runners? I think so! However little training you actually do, you will still need to do speed work if you want to race seriously - but you clearly also need to build some type of endurance base, which is difficult off low mileage. As a general rule, the less training you do, the faster you will need to run when you do get out, aiming to run for extended periods close to or above lactate threshold (as a rough guide, try to run just short of all-out race effort for the distance you are covering). One approach would be to combine elements of both speed and endurance training into every run. For interval sessions, try to make the warm up and warm down as long as possible whilst steady runs should become fast sustained runs over distance with a "steady" warm up/warm down. You cannot expect to reach your full potential this way, especially over the marathon, but it should at least allow you to perform as well as possible relative to the training you can manage.

So perhaps it isn’t that surprising that Max, now no longer able to run as often as he used to, should be successful off a strategy of concentrating on speed work!