June 2002

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

In the last VS newsletter, Max reflected on a number of recent articles in Athletics Weekly debating the apparent demise of endurance running in the UK. Ironically, I had started an article on exactly the same subject but never had time to finish it. As the slant of my article is a bit different, I felt it was still worth completing.

The most obvious sign of the decline in distance running to most of us is the reduced standard of local races. I was amazed, at Stuartís "do", to see the results from the Bradford to Leeds 10 mile race in the 80ís (Iím not sure what year) where nearly 200 competitors ran under 1 hour - these days even the Yorkshire 10 mile Championship struggles to attract more than a couple of dozen runners capable of such a time! There certainly was a time, in the 70ís and 80ís, when Britain really did feature in the world of mensí endurance running with the likes of Coe, Cram, Ovett, Bedford, Foster et al. Of course, since then, the rest of the world, especially the Africans, have caught up and passed us. We seem to have plenty of good sprinters, but in the middle distance events, nearly 20 years on, there still isnít anyone who can achieve the times of Coe & co.. and in long distance running only Paula Radcliffe is truly world class. As Max pointed out, weíre only talking a few percentage points off being the best, but itís finding those extra few percent which makes a great champion. So what has gone wrong?

Quite a number of people attribute Britainís decline to the fact that there isnít any talent out there any more. That surely cannot be the case when the "gene pool" of the population has remained the same - the truth is that there must be just as many people out there with the potential to be world champions. The problem is that they either arenít coming into the sport, or, if they are, for some reason they are not reaching their full potential - probably both. Like most other traits, running ability is largely genetic, so people with the correct "genotype" would be expected to perform well. However, environmental factors during formative years often have a substantial effect on the "phenotype" - how the individual actually ends up. Thus, changes in diet and the more sedentary habits of todayís children may well be adversely affecting their long term ability as endurance athletes.

One opinion which has recurred in several of the recent articles in Athletics Weekly has been that our athletes no longer train as hard as they used to. There is no doubt that the running magazines now promote running for enjoyment and good health rather than for performance and this shift in emphasis may be one of the reasons for the decline in performances at a local level. There has also been a tendency for coaches not to push younger athletes as hard, but it is unclear whether this is a blessing or a curse. We are generally far more protective of our youngsters than we used to be - you only need to go along to any cross-country fixture to hear parents and coaches complaining when a juniorís course has any sort of hill or deep mud to contend with! I have to go on by saying thatÖ.. when I were a lad we Ďad to run through tíworst oí tímuck and lump it! So perhaps we shouldnít be afraid of making our younger runners learn to cope with a little more adversity! But what of our senior athletes? Iíve previously noted that former UK womenís marathon record holder Veronique Marot believes that todayís British marathon runners donít train hard enough and donít do enough long sustained runs. Paula Radcliffeís recent London Marathon triumph off 130-140 miles/week seems to bear this out. Perhaps the problem is that there is now too much of a preoccupation with speed at the expense of endurance. Steve Cram certainly thinks so! Steve and his peers Coe and Ovett used to run the cross-country events over the winter and used these, together with longer steady runs, to build up an endurance base. AW also published extracts from a talk given by the late Harry Wilson, coach to middle distance stars including Ovett. Mr. Wilson also seemed to believe that some coaches did not place enough emphasis on endurance - he had his athletes start their season with an endurance phase of 80-100 miles/week, timed to coincide with the cross-country season. Even later in the cycle, his athletes still did a fair bit of aerobic running. Far fewer middle distance athletes now take advantage of the undoubted benefits of cross-country and road races, instead sticking to the short fast stuff. Steve Cram reckons this leaves them all with a fearsome kick off the final bend but without sufficient speed endurance to be up with the pace when that final bend arrives! This may all come down to coaches becoming too preoccupied with VO2max - VO2max is indeed a key factor in determining performance, but it alone cannot make someone a world class athlete - speed endurance (% of VO2max that can be sustained over distance) and running efficiency are also very important. Speed endurance is apparently best developed by doing long sustained runs at below lactate threshold (sound familiar?) whilst you are very unlikely to develop an efficient marathon running style by doing lots of fast work but no long runs! Ingrid Christiansen apparently did very little running above lactate threshold, yet she produced marathon performances years ahead of her time.

One article in AW that caused a particular stir was one from Denis Quinlan, who, despite no formal coaching qualification, has been coach to the British Fell squad and has successfully coached international athletes such as Steve Binns, Richard Nerurkar and many of the other top Bingley athletes, including Ian Holmes (currently Britainís most consistent fell runner). Denis has studied sports science in some depth off his own bat, but he still believes that coaching is more of an art than a science, suggesting that it is perhaps possible to become too reliant on modern advances in science when designing training programmes. Iíve spoken to Denis fairly recently about this and I can see where heís coming from. The problem is that different athletes respond in totally different ways to a particular training programme - so whilst some can cope with (or even need) lots of speed work, others (eg Richard Nerurkar) can maintain a higher mileage but have to hold the pace back a bit in order to perform at their best. There are certainly some athletes that perform better off lower mileage - but this is all relative, as I know that Denis has all of his endurance athletes running 80+ miles/week (and often biking as well). It all comes back to the article I wrote a little while ago about "rules of thumb" - most such rules apply well to the average for the population as a whole but do not necessarily apply to each individual! Every runner needs a decent background in speed, strength and endurance to perform at their best, but there is no definite formula for how much of each is required - itís a case of suck it and see!

Max has already passed some comments on the contribution from Julian Goater. However, Mr. Goaterís article was very wide ranging and did touch on a lot of important points, most of which I agree with. How many schools actively promote athletics or cross-country as sports these days - and how many have suitable facilities? How many British children will aspire to be the next world marathon champion when all of the media are totally fixated with football - and David Beckham in particular!? Everything relies so heavily on media coverage for popularity these days, and with so many sports competing for limited funding and limited time in the school curriculum, what chance does athletics realistically stand? So perhaps running will increasingly become dominated by the poorer, less-developed countries of the worldÖÖ and by veterans!