It's the principle that matters

It is true that there is no System. Every once in awhile there will be a good running coach who will have some success. Runners and then reporters will flock to the coach and adopt or espouse the various workouts that coach uses. This will seem like the way to do things, until the next System is discovered.


This has been going on since the advent of the current era of distance running. Amby Burfoot gives a nice history of the development of distance training methods, which can be read here. Prior to World War II, the predominant view was that runners should train very lightly, under the belief that they had a limited supply of pain to expend and that they were wiser to use that up in races rather than in workouts.

The first big change came with the eastern Europeans and their use of interval training. This involved doing very large numbers of short intervals––100 meters to 400 meters––at low intensity, virtually every day. Mihaly Igloi found great success with this method with his Hungarian athletes, and after he moved to the U.S. (following the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary), with American runners like Jim Grelle and 1964 5000-meter gold-medalist, Bob Schul. Emil Zatopek, the great Czech runner, used similar training to dominate distance running from 1948 through the mid-50s.

We can see now that doing many low-intensity intervals, which add up to high mileage, is very similar to the fartlek running that was developed in Scandanavia back in the early part of the century.

While various coaches began to use scientific methods to refine interval training (including Franz Stampfl who influenced Bannister and others in their pursuit of the 4-minute mile), it was two coaches in Oceania that made the big breakthroughs in the later part of the 1950s and early 1960s. Percy Cerutty of Australia took a "back to nature" approach to training that emphasized fartlek, running up sand dunes, moderate mileage, weight lifting, running form and relaxation. He rejected regimented training for a more "animalistic" method. He had great success because he had great athletes and because there was no better approach to training.

That changed when Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand came upon his method of training through personal trial and error. Lydiard developed the concept of high mileage training, run at a good pace, to build endurance. Then a phase of hill training would occur, followed by a period of intense interval training to develop the ability to handle faster race speeds.


Lydiard discovered the key to improved performance in distance racing (even mid-distance races like the mile) is distance running. Since then, we have discovered that the anaerobic component of the training can be developed in fast-paced mileage, long intervals, short intervals, fartlek, hills, or any combination of these.

What I have observed over the years is that runners who are predominantly slow-twitch in their muscle composition will benefit from a training system that emphasizes fast paced mileage to build anaerobic threshhold. In contrast, those runners that have a higher concentration of fast-twitch muscle fibers will benefit more from a system that includes interval training; the faster the athlete, the more interval sessions and the faster (and shorter) the repeats should be.

When it comes to the amount of mileage that is optimal, the influential factor is the efficiency of the runner at burning fuel. Highly efficient runners benefit from more mileage. Less efficient runners should do less mileage, though still enough to achieve their desired fitness. While slow-twitch runners tend to be more efficient than fast-twitchers, there are plenty of fast-twitch athletes who are efficient and can benefit from high mileage, and there are some slow-twitch runners who are not highly efficient and need to do moderate mileage.

Of course, the other limiting factor is the athlete's ability to stand up to the training without getting injured. However, economical runners tend to be able to handle more mileage without getting injured because of their efficient technique: economy, good footfall, etc. Similarly, most runners will reach their cardiovascular limit before they reach their muscular limit when doing speed work. As a result, the right approach to training, combined with good shoes and reasonable running surfaces should limit the number of injuries.

These principles, of course, mean that there is no System. There is no one right way to train the many different types of bodies that are good at distance running. These principles fly in the face of what many runners have been taught, at least here in the U.S. For example, a runner who was a slow sprinter (say, 30 seconds for 200 meters), was told by most high school coaches (and some college coaches) that it was necessary to improve speed by doing lots of fast, short intervals. But this would be precisely the wrong approach for this type of runner. Under this training, the runner's limited fast-twitch muscles fibers will soon fatigue. While the runner might improve his ability to do intervals, he will find himself suddenly fatiguing in races as the small but crucial number of fast-twitch muscle fibers give out. To compound matters, because the slow-twitch muscles are under-exercised, the runner is actually losing cardio-vascular fitness under this training regime.

Similarly, coaches have often told runners who have a predominance of fast twitch muscle fibers, but are not efficient, that more mileage is needed to build endurance. So this type of athlete is expected to try to keep up with the highly efficient runners on runs of up to 20 miles. While most every distance runner needs to cover significant distances to reach maximum performance, runners with a lot of fast twitch muscle fibers who are not highly efficient will not be able to keep up with those suited to that type of training. The long distance training fatigues this type of runner's limited slow twitch muscles, resulting in reduced performance.

Simply put, the athlete must exercise the muscles he has. This is why the most successful coaches, year after year, are the ones that have training programs that are flexible in terms of mileage and provide various types of quality work to build anaerobic threshhold levels.

So does the uniqueness of each athlete mean that no one can provide a willing runner with useful advice and guidance on specific training? Quite the contrary. With a basic understanding of the principles of training, runners can learn something applicable for themselves from any training program. The next few articles will look at strategies of building endurance and speed from quality mileage, hill running and interval training.