Coach's Column - May 1998

from Max Jones

(photo by Steve Fritz)

The UK Marathon Season, 37 races long, is about to begin and will continue, with only a few lost weekends, until Manchester in October and Harrow in November. May I commend the following observations distilled from reading seven different weekly or monthly publications regularly - 3 UK, 4 USA based - and having completed, in the past 17 years, 93 separate marathon or longer races.

  1. Read them if you wish, but do not take as gospel the training recommendations you get in Runner's World, etc. They're written, exclusively by men, by those whose recent marathon racing experience is limited to one a year at the most. There is little research work done on marathon running which would withstand rigorous scientific analysis - like none at all; there is no money to finance it when, in the professional athletics era, no top coach is going to share secrets with the rest of the world when his/her income depends entirely on the success, or otherwise, of their own athletes - so what is published is, as the ancient Italians would have said, "post hoc sed non propter hoc". That's one of the few bits of Latin I learnt at school worth remembering and it means "after, but not because of it".
  2. So, question every training recommendation you read, including mine (!), and ask how it is / why it is likely to improve your energy production system. For example, what do long runs do for you after 2, 10 or 20 years of training. To think about : how come I picked up 8 M70 ultra WRs last year off 35 miles/week total and no training runs over 16 miles. More impressively, John Keston ran his 3:00:58, 95% age graded, marathon M70 WR off 31 miles/week, with one 22 mile run in the previous three months, but lots of fast interval work on the track and tempo runs and races on the roads : instead of long training runs, he went on long walks, averaging 12 miles/week of walking in the run-up to his world record.
  3. You'll not read anything in the magazines about yourself : the only way to find out what you can run for a marathon - or a 10k or a 100k or whatever - is to use every race as your own research project to discover something about your potential you never knew before. Don't get to the point where you've run, say, 30 marathons or 30 10ks and all the experience you've gained is of running one, repeated another 29 times.
  4. The guts of any research is careful measurement and recording. So record:
    • The race distance, the place, the date, your finishing time and however many intermediate times you took
    • The time of day it started and the temperature then and when you finished, as near as you can estimate.
    • Whether it was sunny / cloudy / raining and how strong, approximately, was the wind, and if it was a tailwind or a headwind.
    • Your weight on Race Day and what it was the day you began carbounloading (if you did).
    • Your lowest resting pulse rate in the week before the race.
    • Your average pulse rate during the race (if you have a heart rate monitor).
    • The total number of races and "flat out" tempo runs at shorter distances than the race in question you ran in the 13 weeks before the race.
    • Any injuries you carried into the race or sustained during it.
  5. Because you find out more about yourself in a race than in a month of training sessions, the more you race the quicker you'll be able, from analysing your recordings as in (4) above, to discover what works for you in your pursuit of excellence.
  6. As you build up your understanding of yourself, you can then progress to running (minor) races in a manner specifically to fill in a perceived gap in that understanding. You may decide, for instance, to race quite differently from usual, such as surging and coasting rather than your normal even pace routine : in such an experiment, learning something new from a did-not-finish could be far more valuable a lesson for a future (major) race rather than merely shaving a couple of seconds of your PB.

Up at the elite end of athletic endeavour, the world's marathon runners and their coaches seem to have persuaded themselves that the athletes can only run two marathons each year. Thus it's 5 years before they have enough evidence, i.e 10 races, to begin to understand what works for them and what doesn't. Contrast this attitude with the 5000m and 10000m track athletes who get that amount of experience in six months. This has resulted, in my (not very humble) opinion, in the (men's) world records for those distances having fallen in the last 10 years by 2.5% and 2.9% respectively - and by 5.6% and 4.3% over the last 30 years - whereas the marathon WR has fallen by only 2.1% since 1968, and by, er, 0% since April 17, 1988. There is a lot of talk, currently, from Olympic Champion Josia Thugwane - p.b. 2:07:28 - downwards, of Densimo's 2:06:50 being broken this year. If the top marathon coaches had kept pace with their track cousins in the long distance events, the marathon world record should be between 2:02:20 and 2:03:10 now!

Perhaps we shall see a new marathon world record before the end of the century : it's certainly long overdue. Will there then be a change in the philosophy and practices of the top marathon coaches : I doubt it. My guess is that nothing much will alter until suddenly, probably in Japan or China, the WR is lowered by some unknown (in the West) by minutes, not merely seconds. If from China, of course, there will be howls of protest and totally unwarranted accusations of illicit drug taking, enabling Western coaches to ignore the fact of a 2:03 or 2:04 marathon. They'll then continue with their failed and flawed recommendations which, engraved on tablets of stone, amount to "post hoc ergo propter hoc" - "After, therefore because of".

Stop Press!

P.S.! She did it! Tegla Loroupe, all 60 inches and 84 pounds of her, ran 2:20:47 in Rotterdam yesterday to break Ingrid Kristiansen's WR set in London in 1985. Three cheers for a delightful, shy, young lady! She beat Kristiansen's time by 19 seconds, 0.22%, to win an extra $150,000. It may be of interest to note that the WAVA Age Graded Tables have 2:18:51 for the Open Class "standard" for women, which is a commentary on how far the compilers believed, in 1992 when the tables were published, that women's marathon running is behind men's : in the men's table, the 100% is indeed Densimo's 2:06:50 WR.

So if young Tegla plays her cards well, she could, by reducing the WR by 20 seconds at a time, take home $900,000 in proving that the Age-Graded tables are the best guide around to racing performance!

In the men's race, Spaniard Fabian Roncero, my morning paper says, was "Poised to obliterate Densimo's record, but he hit The Wall at 24 miles. He was briefly reduced to a walk. He recovered to win in a new Spanish record of 2:07:26". I shall look forward to reading of Roncero's training programme, should his coach be foolish enough to divulge it, for the previous 13 weeks. Why? Because 27 year old Roncero, winner of the Carpi marathon in Italy, 18 months ago, to claim 7th best on the Spanish all-time list with 2:09:43, has on no other occasion run a marathon quicker than 2:13. What has he been doing, or, rather, not doing in his training recently? 50 miles per week instead of 150, maybe?! Just as well he's Spanish, not Chinese!


Catherina McKiernan     An interesting prospect. She must have the strength for the job, after all those World XC silvers, but does she have the stamina and the speed? The media made a great fuss of her - delightful Oirish accent, etc etc - but sport journalists haven't heard of the WAVA Age Graded Tables which have the women's Open Class "Standard" i.e. should be the world record, for the marathon at 2:18:51. That makes her only other marathon, the 2:23:44 fastest ever by a woman on her debut in Berlin last year, as quite ordinary - it ranks 5th in the World - and her 2:26:26 set in London as positively pedestrian. She has the high heel-lift of a fast track racer when she's trying, as in the last quarter of the race, together with the lacklustre amble of the tired out 110 miles a week trainer when she's not, as in the first half. So she needs to halve her training mileage, increase the frequency of her 8k tempo runs and 10k races, thereby solving her other problem encountered in London. She politely didn't specify whether her "stomach pains" were actually loss of bowel or bladder control, but she'll suffer from vascular shunt like the rest of us and its inevitable consequences if there's insufficient reserves of blood to control all the functions which matter in a race. In other words, she must get her resting heart rate down another 5 beats per minute if she's ever going to get below 2:20 while showing a clean pair of pants as well as a clean pair of heels.

Liz McColgan     She had the right perspective back in 1991 when she said she would run a 2:18:00 marathon - the very figure in the 1989 WAVA AG Tables - but, alas, her 31:06 in Tokyo that year would have been worth only 2:23. So I believe she lacks speed, too. Her big fault, in this coach's view, is that she runs head down, thereby restricting, if only slightly, her breathing. Perhaps this is a legacy of her young days in Dundee where, in the long tradition of Scottish urban decay, roads are so badly maintained that any runner training on the streets there has to scan the road surface where the next footfall will be in order to survive with ankles unsprained. Not only does this posture cause McColgan to lose half an inch per stride, it also ensures that she doesn't cover the breaks because she doesn't see them. Hence in the last three Londons she has let the leaders get away by well over a minute before halfway before reacting, probably from a voice from the crowd. In 1996, it was her coach, Grete Waitz, who yelled at her! She may still lower her PB of 2:26:52 set in London last year - she ran 2:26:54 this year - but it won't be below Veronique's 2:25:56 unless she cuts her training mileage in half and learns to look ahead, not down.

Abel Anton     One of the fastest 1500m track men on the marathon stage today with a 3:37.5 PB - compared with Carlos Lopez' 3:41.4 and Steve Jones' 3:42.3 for their (faster) marathons of 2:07:12 and 2:07:13 - so he should be capable of going much faster than the 2:07:57 with which he won London this year. By simple arithmetic - would that it were so simple! - 3:37.5 should yield 2:04:58 for the marathon. But that won't happen for two reasons. One, with everyone training similarly and all emphasising quantity (of miles/wk) rather than quality of work-out, lack of progress relative to Densimo's 2.06:50 WR, set in 1988, is universal; two, records will only fall by a few seconds a time as essentially clone-trained athletes run in packs for 20 to 24 miles and then sprint to the line. Both the two fastest marathon times ever were achieved when two runners matched each other stride for stride for 26 miles : only Carlos Lopez' 2:07:12 WR in Rotterdam in 1985 was a solo effort (with Birchfield Harrier John Graham over 1/2 mile behind in second place!).

True to tradition, the writer in the Times London Marathon Supplement gave Anton little chance of winning - "take odds of 7-4 against Pinto if you can get them" - because "he lacks the fast time that will be needed" with his PB of 2:09:15 set 18 months ago, his only sub 2:10 clocking. I wonder if he knew about that 3:37.5 "1500"!.

Abdelkader El Mouaziz     No mention of this 28 year old in any publication prior to the race; his 2:09:50 didn't entitle him to a top 20 fastest elite race number. The problem for innumerate journalists and commentators is that they have no ability to understand the scale of athletic achievement. Michael Johnson took 0.4 seconds off Pietro Mennea's old 200m WR in Atlanta '96 when he ran it in 19.32 secs : that's 2.03%. Had El Mouaziz taken 2.03% off his old PB, he would have equalled Carlos Lopez' old WR of 2:07:12 and beaten Anton by 250 metres. As it was, he took only 1.32% off it, just enough to hold off hot favourite Pinto by 30 metres.

Jon Brown     Another sad tale of ignorance here. His previous and only marathon was 2:10:13 in Chicago last year - "had a hip problem" - and no races at any distance this year, having missed the Cherry Blossom 10 "with a bad cold". He seems to have based his hopes in London, where he ran 8th in 2:11:11, on a 47:30 10 miles time trial, on his own, in Boulder last month (as in "at altitude, that's worth sub-46 at sea level"). Sorry, Jon, but 45:57 for 10 is only worth 2:08:58 - and 47:30 only 2:13:36 - in the AG Tables, so you'll need to go sub-45:20 for 10 miles to beat Steve Jones' 2:07:13 British Best (which "he will surely in the future ..." - my underlining - as AW put it before London.)

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Created on 22 June 1998