It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole on any topic related to training physiology and get completely lost in the weeds of minutia. I’ve spent too much time this week, for example, researching VLamax (Anaerobic capacity), it’s relevance to endurance sports and how to train to increase or decrease this metric. It was a good time to come across this article by Richard Englehart again and get a reality check on what’s really most important to consider before all else for success in endurance sports: aerobic volume.
Miles make champions
Today’s “Experts” Can Rationalize Quality Over Quantity All They Want, But a Substantial Base Brings Results.
by Richard Englehart
It is May 1972, and I am 19 years old. I’m sitting in the left-field bleachers at Parc Jarry in Montreal, watching the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos play baseball. I feel a bit stiff and sunburned. The stiffness doesn’t surprise or bother me. Earlier in the day I ran the Champlain Valley Marathon, my first ever, in 4:34:30. The sunburn, however, reminds me that I was on the course longer than I’d hoped to be.
My running career up to that point hadn’t amounted to much. In high school I was never able to hold a six-minute-mile pace for any distance, including the half mile. My first time over our college’s six-mile cross-country course, really more of a road course, was 48 minutes. As a sophomore I’d improved that time by 10 minutes and had become a varsity runner mostly by default, being the seventh man on an eight-man team. Six-minute-miling remained a formidable obstacle, but I had the idea that I did better as distances got longer. So the satisfaction of finishing a marathon was tempered by the disappointment of a poor performance.
Looking to my training diary for answers, I found I had averaged only 38 miles per week, although I had planned to do 50. I resolved to learn whether those extra dozen weekly miles would have made a difference.
As the summer began, I held to 50-mile weeks. It was difficult at first, more mentally than physically. But I adjusted and by midsummer upped my weekly totals to 60 miles. Over the summer’s final two weeks, I got up to 70 miles.
Our cross-country team had 12 members my junior year. Surely one of them would bump me from the last varsity spot. But, in fact, I moved up a notch and became the sixth runner on the team, improving my best over our home course to 34:30, finally breaking the six-minute barrier over an extended distance. At the end of the season I ran the Philadelphia Marathon and took an hour and five minutes off my previous time, qualifying for Boston by 18 seconds.
Mileage seemed to be the answer for me, so after recovering, I decided to work my way toward the Holy Grail of training mileage, the 100-mile week. It was a magical figure. It was, as we understood things at the time, the cornerstone of Arthur Lydiard’s training system.
Anyone who was serious about the sport knew the name and the story. Lydiard was a New Zealander who took up distance running late in life and found that he ran better than expected by doing a volume of training that exceeded what anyone thought was prudent. Eventually, some young runners from Lydiard’s Auckland neighborhood asked to train with him. These unrecruited neighborhood runners became the “Kenyans” of their time, dominating the world distance-running scene.
When our college’s outdoor track season started, the distance runners started interval sessions on the track four or five times a week. We all ran well in our early meets, but by midseason we all had slowed. Only two of us who ran farther than the mile were still healthy.
But I knew what to do. I had read an article by Arthur Lydiard in which he described a miler at a Texas university in a similar situation. The miler had been doing interval work every day, as we were. Arthur had him switch to aerobic runs and light striding. After a couple of weeks, the miler ran a PR. So I talked our coach into letting us do the same. In two weeks, our three-mile times were back to where they were in the early season, and we both PRed at six miles, my teammate taking over two minutes off the previous school record at the distance.
By summer I had succeeded in my quest to cover 100 miles a week. During the next cross-country season, I took my six-mile time to 32:30. After graduating, I pushed my mileage as high as 150 miles a week. Eventually, I managed to hold a slightly faster than six-minute-mile pace for the marathon and a bit better than a 5:30 pace at distances up to 10 miles.
It Wasn’t Just Me
My little story is not atypical for the times. During the 1970s, Americans took to distance running in a way they never had before, doing quantities of running unmatched by any other era. The racing performances from this time were rarely matched, either.
At the top end, Frank Shorter, a 40-mile-a-week runner throughout his career at Yale, increased that volume to 70 or so as he neared graduation. He was rewarded with an NCAA championship at six miles. Subsequent increases took his weekly mileage to 140 and beyond and made him an Olympic Marathon champion in 1972.
Between the end of World War II and 1967, only one American won the Boston Marathon. From 1968 to 1983, the men’s race was won by an American nine times, and U.S. women won it eight times. It was normal to find an American marathoner ranked at the top of the world in Track & Field News’ annual rankings. Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar were all ranked number one in the world more than once from 1971 to 1983. Other U.S. runners found their way into the top 10 list on a regular basis. Joan Benoit, training as voluminously as her male counterparts, won the initial women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984.
Not only U.S. marathoners enjoyed the boom. U.S. teams placed well in the IAAF Cross-Country Championships; our distance runners began winning the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and steeplechase at the annual dual meet against the Soviet Union. Bill Rodgers prefaced his 1975 Boston Marathon win (and U.S. marathon record 2:09:55) with a third place finish at the World Cross-Country Championship in Morocco, a race that Craig Virgin would win twice over the next few years.
Most of these performances were fueled by a high volume of training. In 1986, Mark Nenow ran 10,000 meters in 27:20. Nenow’s training was almost entirely volume based. His time stood as the American record until May 2001.
Huge Amounts of Mileage
Stories abounded in Runner’s World of athletes putting in huge amounts of mileage. Bill Rodgers did a 200-mile week before running the World Cross-Country Championship. Marty Smith, now Martin Smith, head cross-country and track coach at the University of Oregon, immortalized himself in the memories of some teammates in the Washington Running Club by reporting that he was running 7 miles in the morning, then another 12 to 15 at night. It wasn’t the mileage that made us take notice but that Marty described this routine as “tapering.”
Nearly all of this volume work had its roots in Arthur Lydiard’s ideas, though most of us were practicing a diluted version of his system, and some were not familiar with the original ideas. Arthur’s system called for a high base mileage as a starting point for this training system, with hill repetitions and interval work to follow. Overall volume was reduced in the later stages. My own variation of the system called for a period of high miles, with the mileage reduced a bit and more attention paid to intensity as the racing season approached.
Upon meeting Arthur in 1977, I found that he allowed for adaptations of his system as long as the basic principles were followed. A runner, he told me, could “race himself fit” without doing anaerobic sessions. Fartlek work or fast distance runs could take the place of formal interval sessions on the track. But he has a phrase that he has used unwaveringly over the years: “Miles make champions.” This phrase, directly or indirectly, inspired western distance training in the ’70s and early ’80s.
At the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon, Pete Pfitzinger, whose training followed the Lydiard model, finished ahead of Alberto Salazar. He did the same in the Olympic Marathon, and the last American man to be the world’s leading marathoner was toppled from his perch. Joan Benoit’s gold medal in the marathon and Brian Diemer’s steeplechase bronze medal were last hurrahs. The winds of change were sweeping over the distance running world; the sport was soon to be dominated by African-born athletes.
Enter The Experts
Tom Fleming, a 2:12 marathoner with two second-place finishes at Boston in the ’70s and two early New York City Marathon wins, had a sign on his bedroom wall. The sign read, “Somewhere in the world, someone is training when you aren’t. When you race him, he’ll win.”
Fleming’s sign may have captured the spirit and philosophy of U.S. distance running in the ’70s and early ’80s. By the end of the ’80s, a new spirit and philosophy, characterized by writer Tom Derderian’s phrase “a clever cautiousness,” had set in.
Successful training, we learned, involved designing specific sessions that developed each of the physiological systems involved in running. But it was necessary to surround those sessions with plenty of rest, or development would be impaired. “A long run, a tempo run, and a speed session” became the weekly training mantra. On intervening days, some short jogging or cross-training was as good as or better than the pair of daily 10-mile runs people did in the ’70s. There was no need to accumulate miles just to increase your weekly mileage total.
Exercise physiologists had been studying the sport for some time and weighed in on the matter. Increased mileage improves performance, many physiologists claimed, but only until weekly mileage reaches the 50- to 75-mile range. Subsequent improvements would require more runs at race pace or faster. This message was underscored as African runners, especially Kenyans, noted for running lung-searing interval and hill sessions, began to dominate the sport. Endurance-based training, and especially the Lydiard method, was considered outdated and irrelevant.
Frank Horwill, a leading British running coach, published an article in South African Runner magazine purporting to show the “proper” way to train distance runners using the most up-to-date physiological information. The article included a photo of Arthur Lydiard. The caption under the photo read, “outdated methods.”
Owen Anderson, PhD, once the “exercise physiology” columnist for Runner’s World and publisher of Running Research News (“the only newsletter written by exercise physiologists”), published a recent edition listing what’s “in” and what’s “out” for running in the new century. Near the top of the “out” list was “Arthur Lydiard training” because it doesn’t have runners do enough fast running for a long enough time.
Rod Dixon, New Zealand’s bronze medalist at 1,500 meters at the 1972 Olympics and winner of the 1983 New York City Marathon, went to a coaching clinic in New Zealand in early 1999. New Zealand’s distance runners had also fallen on hard times in recent years, and Dixon told the coaches that the only way to reverse that was to get back to doing what worked—that is, using a Lydiard-based system. The coaches told him that Lydiard’s method was out of date.
If We’re So Smart, Why Are We So Slow?
The performances of western distance runners, of American distance runners, compare poorly to those of African runners. Comparisons between Africans and westerners abound as we try to understand what the problem is. Less attention is paid to the fact that the current generation of western runners compare poorly to western runners of 15 or more years ago.
Mark Nenow’s U.S. record at 10,000 meters lasted over 14 years. In Australia, a couple of years ago, Shaun Creighton finally broke Ron Clarke’s national 10,000-meter record of 27:39. Clarke turned in his time in 1965. Every men’s distance record in New Zealand was set prior to 1985 and by athletes trained by either Arthur Lydiard himself or by a coach who trained with Lydiard. Only two male U.S. marathoners were able to run faster than the Olympic “A” standard of 2:14 in the two years preceding the 2000 Olympic race. In the 1978 and 1979 Boston Marathons, four Americans went under that standard. In 1982, nine Americans ran faster than 2:14 at Boston, and in Boston in 1983, perhaps the crowning year of the U.S. marathon boom, 17 Americans ran faster than 2:14. In that same race, 80 U.S. men ran under 2:20! Today we rarely exceed thirty 2:20 marathoners in a year, even though more Americans are running marathons today than ever before.
It’s not just elite runners who have slowed. Today’s average runner is slower than his average predecessor. The qualifying standard at the Boston Marathon for men under age 40 was once 2:50. Today it’s 3:10, raised because fewer and fewer qualifiers met the old standard. Runner’s World used to publish an annual list of Americans who’d run three hours or better for the marathon but stopped because the list was too long. Phil Stewart, publisher of the Road Race Management newsletter, says that Runner’s World could go back to listing our annual sub-three marathoners because there aren’t that many anymore.
In the ’70s, I regularly participated in a one-hour track race held at a track in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. I usually ran a bit more than 10 miles and never cracked the top five. The winners always went beyond 11 miles. Recently I saw results from that race. The winner ran about 8.5 miles. If there’s a road race in your area that has been held for more than 20 years, and if the race hasn’t drawn a field of Kenyans, see when the course record was set. Likely, it was set before 1990.
If we know so much more today about how to prepare fast distance runners than we did 15 or more years ago, why aren’t we running faster than we used to?
Look to Lydiard (Again)
Anaerobic training can make a runner faster. Lydiard’s system has a place for speedwork. Arthur used to bristle when people described his system as “long, slow distance.” But, Arthur will tell you, speedwork can only improve your running for a short time. Continued anaerboic work erodes the aerobic capacity. The athlete will need to work harder and harder to produce the same performance. Once that happens, performance deteriorates and will only improve again when the aerobic capacity is restored. Low-intensity, high-volume work is the way to restore or develop aerobic capacity. This takes time, but unlike anaerobic work, aerobic work allows for indefinite improvement. Athletes using the Lydiard system will spend most, though certainly not all, of their time doing volume work at relatively easy paces.
Talk with Arthur about the decline of western running, and he’ll tell you he’s not surprised. Everyone misunderstands training and is doing it wrong. The only way to reverse the decline is to get back to what worked once. The human body isn’t a car. We haven’t had our basic physiology re-engineered since 1965. What worked then will work now. What failed then will fail now.
But What About the Physiologist’s Advice?
In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office issued a landmark report linking cigarette smoking to an increased likelihood of developing certain cancers. In the intervening 37 years, this causal connection has been strengthened and expanded. Even many smokers admit that their habit carries numerous health risks. There has been one group, however, that has consistently disputed the Surgeon General’s conclusions. Scientists from the Tobacco Institute, a research body funded by the tobacco industry, have argued that no one has ever shown how smoking causes cancer. That is, the specific mechanics of the process are not known in the way we know how the AIDS virus, for example, destroys the immune system.
And they’re right. The case against smoking is based on longitudinal studies. Take a big group of smokers and an equally big group of nonsmokers, isolate for other variables, and compare cancer rates. The smokers do badly in the comparison. Repeat the experiment with other large groups of smokers and nonsmokers, and you get similar results.
Science allows us to infer causality in this way, even if we can’t describe the mechanics. If the Tobacco Institute wants their claims taken seriously, their researchers will need to find out what does cause the increased likelihood of cancer among smokers if it isn’t actually smoking.
The “low-volume” exercise physiologists are in a position similar to the researchers from the Tobacco Institute. Their research is at odds with what is happening in the real world. If 50 to 80 miles a week is enough to maximize a runner’s potential, races should be dominated by runners doing that amount of work simply because there are more runners doing 50 to 80 mile weeks than there are doing over 100. Talent, whatever that may mean, would be spread randomly throughout the field, so the biggest group doing the proper training should yield the most high placers. But the top places in almost any major race go to the high-mileage runners.
In 1974, Philip Ndoo won the 15-mile Charleston Distance Run. At the postrace banquet, he said he’d been doing 8 miles a day when his race invitation came. He upped his miles to 12 a day to run well at Charleston. But, almost immediately, the weather turned rainy, and not liking to run in the rain, Ndoo went back to 8 miles a day.
There were Africans on the roads and tracks in the ’70s and early ’80s. They ran well but didn’t dominate. Many of them ran for college teams and were older than their U.S.-born competitors, who found themselves overmatched. But mature, out-of-school U.S. runners often could beat the Kenyans of that era. The Kenyans then were impressive not for their dominance but because they ran so well on only a fraction of the mileage their U.S. competitors were doing.
Mike Boit managed a 3:53 mile off of about 30 weekly miles. Michael Musyoki won many U.S. road races and took the bronze medal at 10,000 meters in the 1984 Olympics while training only an hour a day. Admittedly, it was a hard hour, but Musyoki was often beaten by non-Africans who trained a lot more than he did.
“If those guys ever really train,” we often said, “they’ll be unbeatable.”
Volume Plus Careful Intensity
Eventually they did, and they have been. But the near-invincibility came when Africans added volume to their training. Owen Anderson attended Kenyan running camps and in Running Research News advised runners to maximize their performances at 5 and 10K by training like Kenyans on low-volume, high-intensity training. It’s hard to know what Kenyans he was writing about, though. The routine at the camp he observed involved an easy six to seven miles at sunrise, another easy six followed by four to six miles with interval or hill repeats at midmorning, and an easy nine miles in late afternoon.
William Sigei was twice World Cross-Country champion and the second man to run under 27 minutes for 10,000 meters. In Train Hard, Win Easy, Toby Tanser describes Sigei’s weekly routine. On Monday, he ran 40 to 90 minutes easily in the early morning, 90 minutes at midmorning (finishing fast), and an easy 40 minutes in the afternoon. The early-morning and late-afternoon runs were always the same. The midmorning session always took at least an hour.
Or consider Tanser’s description of 2:10 marathoner Eric Kimaiyo’s training: “[He] trained primarily on long distance runs, up to 50 kilometers . . . no high tech methods [or] complicated schedules. Each day was like the previous day, endurance running.”
In fact, virtually all elite “quality trainers” were also “volume trainers.” Bob Schul won the 5,000-meter gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, training on a heavy dose of interval work under Mihaly Igloi. But in his autobiography, Schul writes that his morning sessions were 90 minutes long and his afternoon sessions could reach 2.5 hours.
Gordon Pirie, silver medalist at 5,000 meters in the Melbourne Olympics, who firmly believed in intervals and speedwork and who once called Lydiard’s training “rubbish,” ran easily for an hour before his interval sessions, which themselves could last for two hours.
Emil Zatopek trained almost exclusively on 200- and 400-meter repeats but would do 30 to 100 such repeats in a day. While many physiologists attribute Zatopek’s success to his interval training while his competitors trained on steady runs, it’s important to note that Zatopek was running 12 to 25 miles a day, while his competitors did 8 or 9.
Writing in New Zealand Runner, Brian Taylor mentions examples from running and other endurance sports where volume training led to maximum success. “Nothing has changed,” Taylor writes. “It is the kilometers that produce champions, not ‘speed work.’ The things that worked 40 years ago will work today; it’s just that very few are doing it because it takes much longer to get results.”
I don’t believe that the “low-volume” experts are deliberately leading us astray. Their expertise has been gathered mostly in research laboratories, not in the world of running competition. Their findings lead them to notice the “quality work” and overlook the volume work. Owen Anderson observes Kenyans running 25 or more miles a day and sees “low-volume, high-intensity training” because the interval and hill repeats are all that matter to him. “It is the theory,” Einstein wrote, “that determines what can be observed.”
What’s in It for Me?
Few people reading this are likely to consider running 100-mile weeks or more. Most runners can get very close to their maximum running potential on far fewer miles than that.
Even Arthur Lydiard, in his newest book, says that marathoners need 50 to 60 weekly miles to run a good race. Huge mileage figures help to squeeze out the last little bits of potential.
For an elite male marathoner, the difference between an 80-mile week and a 130-mile week might mean the difference between a 2:15 marathon and a 2:11. A 30-mile-a-week, four-hour marathoner may get near three hours by running 90-mile weeks. But this runner may not find the extra effort worthwhile. The rewards for running three hours are not much different from those for running four.
But most of today’s runners have been led down the same, illusory path: the one where they’re told that overall mileage doesn’t matter. Take, for instance, my neighbor. He was frustrated with his running, as he’d tried many times and failed to run under 3:20 to qualify for Boston. He told me that he probably needed more speedwork. But his short-distance times were comparable to my own when I was running marathons in 2:50. There was nothing wrong with his speed. His problem was that he ran only 25 or 30 miles a week. Arthur Lydiard would say that he has the speed to reach his goal. He lacks the endurance to use that speed over the whole race. Indeed, my neighbor always ran into trouble after 15 miles.
If you’re happy with your racing performance, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’ve been stuck at a performance level for a while, and new forms of speedwork aren’t giving you the improvement you want, think about running more miles. Not just on a day or so but on most days. You can do it without getting hurt if you increase the distance gradually and run comfortably.
And while some of the experts will criticize you, not all will. A University of Texas physiologist was quoted recently in a New Zealand newspaper as saying that many running experts are harming runners’ performances by insisting that much of a runner’s training should be done at race pace. “They can’t understand,” the physiologist continued, “that running slower makes you faster.” The physiologist has a doctorate, some practical experience, and three Olympic gold medals to back his claims. His name is Peter Snell.