November 2002

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

I'm sure that most of you, like me, were glued to your TV's over the summer watching the Commonwealth Games and European Athletics Championships. There seemed to be far more to cheer than usual for us "Brits", but for most distance runners, I'm sure that it was Paula Radcliffe's outstanding runs which brought the most pleasure. I have always believed that some day she would start running away from world class fields - it was always most likely to happen when she turned to the marathon , but now, suddenly, she has achieved the same at 5K and 10K. Then, of course, she capped it all by running 2-17 in the Chicago marathon - some were maybe surprised, but I would have put money on her running a world best in that race, such had been her form throughout the year.

Of course, Paula's success hasn't been quite as startling a transformation as the media might suggest - she was previously branded a plucky also ran despite winning both the World 1/2 Marathon and Cross-Country champs twice in a row. However, some are inevitably questioning how she could suddenly have started winning on the track as well. Some are even crying foul, but given Paula's stance on the issue, drugs are surely unlikely to be involved here.

So why is Paula running better? Part of the change may simply be that she is finally approaching her peak. However, both Paula herself and some commentators have attributed her success primarily to the extra strength she has gained from her marathon training this year. She has not increased her mileage to run marathons - although at 120-130 miles per week, she was never likely to be short of endurance! She has hardly raced at all, so it would be wrong to suggest that she's raced her way to good form. Nor , from what I can gather, has she done more fast interval work than previously - so her VO2 max is unlikely to be any higher than before. The main difference has been the long sustained runs that are an important part of marathon training. Paula now claims to do one long run of 2 hours or more every week, run "fairly hard" - reading between the lines, that probably equates to well over 20 miles of sustained running for Paula! From what I can gather, she also does a lot of her shorter runs at a fast (but not all out) pace.

Even some coaches who have previously preached the overriding importance of regularly training above lactate threshold are starting to rethink in the light of Paula's recent achievements. That's not to say that speed work at above lactate threshold is unimportant, it's just that Paula's improvements in the shorter races whilst preparing for the marathon have highlighted the importance of long sustained runs and the benefits to speed endurance that these runs bring - benefits which can also be felt when racing over distances far shorter than the marathon. My own experience and that of top marathon runners I know such as Sarah Rowell, Veronique Marot and Angie Hulley would tend to bear this point out. Speed endurance, developed by regularly running fairly long distances at a fast sustained pace (but below race pace), is indeed an important aspect of running performance over all distances between 5K and the marathon. It's just a shame that most of us don't have bodies that can take the amount of punishment that Paula Radcliffe's body obviously can - that is probably what sets her apart from the rest of us!