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January 2001

Coach's Column - Miles or Quality? (from Max)

George and Paul have made valuable contributions in recent editions of the VSNews to the "Miles Or Quality?" question which surfaces from time to time in the national Athletics press also.

THE DEBATE. Let me remind you of the issue. They both found that their best performances in Big City marathons were achieved off 70 to 80 miles per week, whereas until this last year I've been racing nearly as well, time for age, as I did 10 to 15 years ago but on less than half the mileage I ran then.

When I first set out my so-called Top Ten Tips for estimating a finishing time in a forthcoming marathon - VSNews, October 1995 - I had suggested "2 hours plus your age in minutes, plus 10% if female"; a target mileage of 55 per week; "add a minute for every mile per week the average for the previous 13 weeks was under that 55"; "add a minute for every pound of excess weight over 2 lbs per inch of height, less 5 lbs if male, 15 lbs if female"; reduce that total by 12% to 15% for an average of 2 quality sessions per week.

Those parameters had been based on my experience of the 74 marathons I had run since 1981 and on training which was primarily steady running at 30 seconds or so slower than I raced. I did very little quality work, the only regular running I had done which merited the term being interval sessions spread over 90 minutes, 34 Sundays every year, and more usually described as soccer refereeing. I also had to account somehow for New Zealanders John Campbell's 2:11:04 aged 41 and Derek Turnbull's 2:41:57, aged 65.

THE NEED TO RECONSIDER. The calculation was blown apart when John Keston ran his 3:00:58 M70 WR, 8 weeks before he reached the age of 72, off just 31 miles per week. According to my formula, he should not have been able to get below 3:16 at the very least. The final straw which broke the back of my certainty was that when I had to reduce the hours I spent training - so that I had time for carrying and fetching the grandchildren, walking the dog and writing all those long essays on drugs-in-Sport - I left the quality in, but cut out all the "steady" stuff. I still ran over 80% Age-Graded off only 19 miles per week, my 3:33 at the age of 72 being worth 2:26 for a 32 year old.

Something Was Wrong. Like the alleged calculations "from experts" that "we would die if made to travel [in a railway train] at more than 30 miles per hour" and "it is scientifically impossible for a bumble bee to fly". The item which had to be changed to make sense of these exploits - some mine, but most John's - was the weekly mileage.

And, if 31 mpw was good enough for the equivalent of an Open Class marathon in 2:13:11 - the winner of the American Olympics Trial race this year ran 2:14:30 only! - it made it all the more difficult to explain why all the top marathoning men run in excess of 100 miles per week. I believe the reason lies in the arithmetic of body weight, the energy cost of running and the need to ingest all the vitamins and nutrients which we are told are essential for us.

THE PROBLEM OF WEIGHT REDUCTION. When I realised that "overweight", howsoever defined, added 2 seconds per mile for every excess pound, I decided that carrying 150 lbs at 5 foot 7 was not being clever. I eventually got down to 130 lbs and I was indeed that weight when I ran my marathon PB of 2:57:06 at the age of 59. It was hard work over many months. I finally did it, not by running further or quicker, but by arranging to train at times of the day - like midday at the weekend or 6pm when I got home from work on a weekday - so that I could miss a whole meal without really noticing it. The most weight reduction I was ever able to sustain over several weeks was 2 lbs per week. And when my mileage dropped below 20 per week last year, I put on 12 lbs in six months which I couldn't remove, not wishing to give up TWO meals a day !

The sums are as follows. All water, i.e. sweat, and carbohydrate losses in training have to be replaced : the only excess we have available for reduction is in fat. There are 9 kilocalories worth of energy in a gram of fat, 454 grams in a pound, that's 4086 call it 4100 kcals locked up in a pound of fat. Running requires the generation of c. 100 kcals per mile for a 140 lb person - 90 for 125 lb, 110 for 155 lb guys, i.e.10 kcals for every 15 lbs plus or minus - so that's 41 miles a 140 lb person has to run EXTRA to lose a pound of fat.

TRAIN FAST? OR SLOW? The Bad News is that if we train at a moderate pace, we use a 50% fat/50% carbohydrate mixture, all of the latter having to be replaced soon afterwards if for no other reasons than that our CHO stores are very limited, we'll want to train tomorrow and our brains cannot process any other fuel. Without carbohydrate replenishment we would die. So, in effect, half those 41 miles don't use up any fat at all so, yes, we have to run EIGHTY TWO MILES TO LOSE ONE MISERABLE POUND OF FAT!!! Worse, the faster we train, the less fat we use up PER MILE, so we have to run even further to lose that pound of lard, maybe an extra 100 miles/week.

The "typical training weeks" of professional marathoners one reads about in the running mags never contain more than three quality sessions and that in a total which does not exceed 20 miles. I now believe that the reason why they all do the additional 100 "steady" and "easy" miles each week is a) they have nothing else to do with their time, b) that's how Alberto Salazar and Steve Jones trained 15 to 20 years ago and Derek Clayton, Jim Peters and Emil Zatopek 15 to 30 years before that and c) to keep their weight down while still being able to eat three good meals a day, including the obligatory 5 to 9 servings of fruit and veg. And, to reduce the risk of overstrain injuries, they run them between two and four minutes a mile slower than race pace.

THE GOOD NEWS? There is none. It's so easy to put on a couple of pounds in a single sitting at meal times and so hard to take it off again. The notion of having to go, not the Extra Mile, but the extra 160 miles boggles the mind. I'm sure the Exercise Industry - Aerobics, Jane Fonda, Nike and all - would come crashing down if that fact were widely known! And we'd all lose out big time, too, because there would not be the marketing money to support either the Big City marathons or the Abbey Dash. So don't tell anyone, O.K.?