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October 2001

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

Here is the last part in my mini-series of non-coach's columns. But, having just been given a wonderful (and scientifically very up-to-date) book on "Marathon Medicine" by Sarah Rowell, I may have further "gems" for future issues of the newsletter!

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After my recent waffling regarding weight, mileage and speed, I now want to pull everything together so that it makes some sort of sense and then make some final recommendations for those of you who are keen to improve your race performances. At the outset, it has to be said that no single formula works for everyone and some experimentation is always necessary to find out what works best for you.

Weight is undoubtedly important - the lighter you can be without sacrificing strength and good health, the faster you will run. In this regard, a healthy low fat diet is essential; eating a high carbohydrate/low fat diet will not only give you a better chance of losing weight, but has also been shown to improve endurance in runners. It isnít just about cutting out cakes, cream, chocolate and fried foods - eating your bread/toast/sandwiches without butter really does make a difference!! Some physiologists believe that the more exercise you do, the better your body becomes at regulating your appetite to control weight. My own appetite always increases with a step up in training and yet I still lose weight - much the same as my other running friends. This weight loss is due simply to the extra energy burned off by the body as a result of the exercise. Some of this is from the running itself and some is from the boost that running gives to the metabolism - even running 50 miles/week, you could easily be burning up an extra 1500-2000kcals/day on top of what you would as a sedentary person. It is therefore almost inevitable that you will lose weight with an increase in training until your appetite increases to compensate. Thus, you should be able to reach a sensible weight without dieting, provided that you eat healthily and do enough training (this can include other forms of exercise besides running). One final point is that if you go on a diet, your body actually responds by lowering your metabolic rate (something not readily reversed), thus making it more difficult to lose weight. Therefore, increasing your training is a far more effective long term means of controlling weight than dieting.

Then thereís the long run. Sports Scientists and senior coaches seem to be in general agreement that doing regular long runs does benefit performance in distance races. They are thought to contribute to muscle adaptation, thus combating fatigue and there is some evidence that they stimulate the bodyís fat metabolism, thus sparing glycogen. There are certainly those who get round marathons without doing long training runs, but I am quite sure that these people would run far better if they could manage maybe two 2 hour plus training runs per month - I would also question whether they should be running a marathon at all if they find 2 hour training runs too stressful!! Even top athletes who specialise in 10K events apparently benefit from doing 90 minutes most Sunday mornings.

Regarding the rest of the training, I think my recent experience gives a few pointers. As I explained last time, my running took a serious nose-dive during 1997. However, my form gradually recovered over the summer of last year and by the cross-country season, my speed had returned. It wasnít as though I trained any harder - my speed returned simply because, unlike the previous few years, I enjoyed a long spell without injury or illness - over the 8 months up to the start of the cross-country season I hardly missed a dayís training. I only averaged maybe 50-55 miles/week, but did 2 speed sessions and a long run of around 2 hours almost every week. This consistent training was clearly sufficient to restore my speed. However, there was still "something" missing - I found that I was unable to sustain all of my speed throughout a 6 mile race and I ended up running in bursts. Looking back over the years, this has always been the case early in the season and my performances have improved significantly after Christmas when I have increased my mileage as part of my build-up for the Peaks. I observed the same pattern this year too - by late January my mileage was up closer to 70miles/week and my strength started to return.

So what does the above tell us? I think it shows above all else that consistent training over months rather than weeks, with regular speed work and long runs, is a key requirement to being successful. Mileage for the sake of it may not be the answer, although if you run 6 or 7 times per week (as I believe you need to), including 2 speed sessions and a long run, you are unlikely to do much less than 50 miles/week. However, to reach your full potential you may have to do more than this. Again, it may not be the mileage per se that makes the difference, but rather the inclusion of fairly hard sustained runs in addition to the long Sunday run and speed sessions - I find that my strength improves substantially once these sustained runs reach an hour or more in length. Running 7 days a week, doing 3 runs of 10-12 miles, 2 speed sessions and 20 miles every Sunday, I canít help but cover 70 miles/week and with even the long run being at a reasonable pace, this constitutes a fairly tough schedule. You could argue that I would run just as well if I skipped Saturday altogether, but when Iím fit I consider an easy 5 or 6 miles to be a rest day anyway! I might also perform as well off just one hard sustained run per week, but I find that doing three gives me formidable strength for the Peaks.

Would I benefit from doing more still? Iím not sure. The Kenyans frequently do up to 140 miles/week, running 2 or 3 (yes, three!) times per day. A fair proportion of their miles are very steady but they also do one harder session most days - nobody can deny that this method works! In a recent Athletics Weekly, Veronique Marot, British womenís record holder at the marathon, was quoted as saying that the present crop of British women marathon runners do not train hard enough - she felt they should be doing 100 miles/week with lots of long, fast-paced runs. The former record-holder Sarah Rowell also used this approach. Paula Radcliffe is currently flying off a diet of 125 miles/week, again with lots of fast running. So, "moderately" high mileage, combined with plenty of fast sustained running is clearly also an effective approach. Even Britainís top 1500m runner John Mayock, after training with el Guerrouj in Morocco, has attributed the enormous improvement in his form to the fact that he has upped his training to 100 miles/week (from "just" 50-70) with lots of long efforts. Of course, such a programme is far easier when youíre a full-time athlete, but if you cut out the extra steady miles, my 70 miles/week bears a lot of similarities to Veroniqueís marathon programme.

There is no doubt that aerobic capacity (VO2 max), best developed by running at around or even above aerobic threshold, is a key factor in running performance over all distances, but it isnít the only factor, especially for distance events. The capacity to sustain a high proportion of VO2 max (i.e. what I call strength) and the physiological adaptations brought about by endurance training are also known to be important. Thus any training programme needs to be structured in such a way as to develop all three. So the training debate certainly isnít over miles versus quality. The key to reaching our true potential is surely combining miles and quality - if 1500m runners can benefit from such training, then distance runners surely must! I invariably run quite hard in training, yet I still perform better in races off 70-80 miles/week than I do off 50 - so the extra miles must benefit me in some way! Conversely, I know that doing 100 miles/week would not guarantee good performances without speed work as well. For most, I suspect that optimum training is the maximum mileage that our body and lifestyle can comfortably cope with, combined with speed work and sustained runs. One thing is for certain, though - only older and injury-prone runners are likely to reach their full potential off less than 50 miles/week - otherwise distance runners would be setting open age group world records off low mileage!

There are, however, a few other points to consider. Firstly, you need to remember that the stars I have mentioned above probably train at 10 mph or better (as I do when Iím running well), so if your training pace is only 7Ĺ mph, you will get the same training effect from doing 75% of the mileage! The problem with this, of course, is that races are generally run over a specific distance, so you will still need to do the occasional training run of a length at least approaching that youíll be running in your chosen event (say 18 miles if youíre training for a marathon). Secondly, if youíre prone to injury, you may need to get by on less - or start doing a high proportion of your training off road. Thirdly, you need to take account of your lifestyle, such as job, other forms of exercise you do and family commitments and devise a training programme which doesnít stress you too much. Finally, as you get older, you will find that you canít do as much as you used to - you simply have to find the right balance for your body between miles, speed and recovery. Having said that, Tiptonís Mick Hamer, currently one of the worldís top M50 vets over 10K, still finds he needs to do 80 miles/week to race at his best; and to set his M75+ world records, John Keston is apparently averaging 37 miles/week of running plus 28 miles/week of walking - I wonít even try to hazard a guess at what mileage that equates to for a younger runner!

So here it isÖÖ my 10 point plan for improving your race performance!! I have deliberately not tried to stipulate a particular target mileage because you should be doing enough if you run 6 or 7 times/week. For best results, maintain this level of training for months rather than weeks! Of course, you will need to "taper" down from this high level of training before your main target race.

  1. Take a close look at your diet. Try to reduce your dietary intake of fat to no more than 5%. Concentrate on complex carbohydrates as part of a healthy balanced diet. Drink plenty of fluids.
  2. Try to build up your training until you are running at least 6 days per week. Each run should be at least 30 minutes.
  3. Do a long run of at least 90 mins (2 hours plus if youíre doing a marathon) most weeks.
  4. Include at least one (and preferably two) speed sessions/week of 15-20 mins efforts. Alternate your speed sessions, doing both long and short efforts and some hill work.
  5. Do at least one training run/week at a faster sustained pace to improve strength. Do both short runs of say 3 miles at 10K pace and up to 10 miles at marathon pace.
  6. The lower your weekly mileage, the more fast-paced running you should do. Racing regularly will also improve strength.
  7. To peak for a big race, increase the length of some of your mid-week runs, concentrating on maintaining a strong pace.
  8. If you are injured or ill back off the training until you recover. Donít try to make up the lost miles.
  9. To reach your full potential, find the highest level of training, combining mileage, speed and strength, that your body and lifestyle can comfortably cope with. It is no coincidence that all of the top distance runners train HARD!
  10. Donít look for excuses, be positive and just do it!!!

That last point takes me back to my recent experiences in the cross-country. My sudden return to form allowed me to rediscover my competitive edge - I had forgotten just how much difference it can make to your performance when youíre hungry for success and feeling confident! The most satisfying moments of the winter for me were in the closing stages of the Northerns and the National, where, through willpower alone, I somehow managed to haul in 50 metre leads by my 2 main rivals of the season, Trevor Wilks (Leeds City) and Andy Robertshaw (Otley), before outkicking them over the final strides!! It was uncanny how I managed to do exactly the same in both racesÖ.. and all the more satisfying somehow for knowing I almost retched on the line!!!