of the more enduring tenets of training for distance and middle-distance
runners is the hard-easy approach. If there is anything approaching
a given, this principle is it. In fact, it's been extrapolated
to hard-easy weeks and many other ingenious applications. My guess
is that the principle is borrowed from the sport of weight-lifting
where it has a long and storied past, and where it certainly makes
a good deal of sense. In laymen's terms, you tear down a muscle
group with vigorous work and skip a day before you repeat that
kind of intensity. During the rest, or recovery day, the body
compensates by rebuilding the muscles. The theory is that the
body will, in time, over-compensate, making the muscles stronger
and capable of greater work. It seems only logical that the muscle
groups inolved in running can profit from just such an approach.
I spent a good many years working with young runners and assigning
killer work-outs followed by easy recovery runs. For the last
five years I have tried to use a radically different principle
and have been very encouraged by the results. I now question the
wisdom of the hard-easy approach as it applies to distance runner.
number of my runners got fairly fast using the hard-easy approach,
as did the teams they were on. However, we all accept the fact
that just about any training approach that stresses the organism
will produce encouraging results, provided at least three factors
come into play: 1) the coach believes in what he is doing, 2)
the athlete believes in what he is doing, and 3) the athlete actually
does it. What we are all in search of is the optimum way to produce
results. Most coaches believe that there has got to be a better
way to do it and that is a primary motivation for reading research
articles and going to clinics. I took two years off from coaching
in 1989 and 1990. During that period, I re-thought a number of
the approaches I had used over the years. One result had troubled
me. The athletes using the hard-easy approach seemed to run too
hard on the hard day (far in excess of the stress of an actual
meet) and then were relatively "trashed" on recovery
day. Oftentimes I observed an athlete in more discomfort on the
easy day than on the hard day. I began to question the deliberate
disparity in these training sessions. Most of what we are attempting
to accomplish with distance runners is in the area of cardio-pulmonary
development, rather than leg muscle strength. Training sessions
develop an athlete's oxygen uptake and that, more than anything,
is the primary reason for the sometimes dramatic drops in race
performances. Is a hard-easy approach the best way to develop
oxygen uptake? Is it even relevant to the increase that needs
to take place?
in thinking for me occurred one day when running with an adult
friend of mine. We had been talking training when he suddenly
simplified it all for me. He said, "You know it all comes
down to frequency, intensity and duration." I'm sure he'd
read that somewhere, but I had never seen it put that simply.
I subsequently decided to fuse those three components of training
with the idea that everything should be kept in balance. I would
abandon, as much as possible, the hard-easy approach.
for a few months with my own running right before I returned to
coaching in December of 1990. When I took over at the end of the
cross country season and began an off-season program in preparation
for track, I put the following program into place and have used
it ever since.
Balanced Approach to Distance Training
three components of distance training
would, as much as possible, be kept in balance.
Frequency How often an athlete trains
Intensity How hard an athlete trains
Duration How long (time), or how far (distance) an athlete trains
these three factors were set for a given runner, he would keep
them constant for 30 training sessions
(approximately a month). For virtually all runners, the frequency
was set as daily and the intensity level was the comfort zone.
Veteran runners began at either 4 or 5 miles a day. Novice runners
started at 2 or 3 miles a day. Usually the girls ran one mile
less than the boys.
has just as negative an impact on development as over-training;
it violates the principle of balance.
Thus, if an athlete is going to run 42 miles a week, I would rather
he runs 6 miles a day every day than 7 miles a day and take a
day off. Not all my runners are able to do this, so I reward streaks
with certificates, medals and plaques (at 30, 60, 90 days, 6 months
and a year). Most of my runners are not able to put together streaks
that surpass about 60 days, but that is a significant chunk of
consecutive training days for a high school athlete (it can almost
take an athlete through a complete cross country season).
is achieved by selecting different courses which can be run forward
and reverse. Virtually all of our courses have variations in distance
from 2 to 9 miles.
effect of this training is to make every day as close to the same
intensity (effort) level as every other day. There are
no really hard days. But there are also no rest or recovery days.
Over a period of time, a runner should feel very nearly the same
almost all the time.
goal of this training is to lower the comfort
zone, that is the pace at which an athlete can run gradually
longer distances at a steadily decreasing pace. Theoretically,
a runner beginning in June with 4 miles a day running comfortably
at 7:30 pace should, by the end of the summer, be running about
6 miles a day at about 6:30 pace. His intenstiy level should have
varied only marginally, however, his fitness level should have
most important training, even during track season, takes place
on the roads. It is absolutely essential to supervise the road
work, to time various segments and, at least occasionally,
to have the athletes time the entire run to figure training pace.
At the same time, runnrs must be continually reminded to run comfortably.
When you first begin a program like this, and every time you bring
in new and less experienced runners, there is a tendency to race
the training runs and compete against themselves or each other,
on set courses. This will not produce the desired result as, ironically,
it does not seem to lower the comfort zone or produce significantly
do tamper with the principle of balance a couple of times a week
as a concession to older training techniques which worked. We
do a long run on Monday, however, it is only 1
mile beyond the average daily training distance. I experimented
briefly, with one runner, going 2 miles beyond the daily average,
but abandoned it almost immediately. One mile has worked very
well for us and does not seriously jeopardize balance. Also, during
cross country we do course repetitions, with timed rest for our
varsity runners, during mid-week (on Wednesday when our only competition
is Saturday and on Tuesday when we run Thursday and/or Saturday).
The course repetitions are spliced into the daily run. We do distance
runs the way basketball players do lay-ups. There are no days
where we simply run course repetitions, or hill training, or track
work, and then go in. There's a distance run every day. It is
usually abbreviated so that the combination of this run and the
repetition work does not exceed the average daily distance by
more than 1 mile.
is part of training. It is a mistake to think of the races as
something different. In addition to being competition it is also
a regular training day that's speed-oriented. It is the most difficult
day to keep the average daily mileage in effect, especially for
runners entered in the last race. Everyone always wants to pile
on the bus and leave as soon as possible after this race. It takes
some discipline on the part of coach and athletes to tack a small
warm-down run onto that final race.
All distance runners basically run at the same gait regardless
of pace. If you want to check this, count an athlete's strides
as he runs a slow-warm up mile, then recount when he's running
his usual pace on the roads, check again when he's running a repetition
at race pace. You'll find that he's always striding at about 170-190
strides per minute. Exercise Physiologist Jack Daniels showed
us an easy way to do this at a camp I attended a few summers ago.
Count just one arm swing for 15 seconds. You'll find that in most
runners it's about 22-23, regardless of how fast they are running.
The significance of all this is that, as we lower our pace (let's
say from 7 minutes per mile to 6 minutes per mile), we are not
really turning the stride over faster, we are just bounding further
with each stride. Stride length is
the variable here, not stride frequency.
factors which come into play in increasing stride length are leg
strength, flexibility and oxygen uptake. The most important of
these factors is the amount of oxygen the athlete can process.
We've learned that lowering the comfort zone over time, keeping
all other variables in balance, has the greatest impact on oxygen
uptake. As our athletes move from 7-8 minute pace down to 6 minute
pace and below, they are running with gradually longer strides,
but with the same effort. Most of our athletes can race at about
1 minute or more per mile under their comfort zone. A varsity
boys team, for instance, which can train comfortably at 6 minute
pace, would be a formidable one indeed.
High school runners are still novices in the sport. The most we
have asked is 8 miles per day on average. Once a runner reaches
that plateau, he will stay there
for the remainder of the season. Usually we start that runner
back at 5 miles per day in the off-season, go gradually back up
the ladder (30 training days at a time) and attempt to lower the
comfort zone still further. What we have found over the years
with our runners is that the pace in the comfort zone does drop
over the 30 training sessions. When we adjust the duration (add
a mile) there is usually no problem during the first week to week
and a half. It's as if they could have always been running the
longer distance. Sometime during the second week, 2 or 3 uncomfortable,
flat runs will string together. Most of our runners simply tough
it through. By the end of the second week the athletes are running
comfortably again and the pace continues to drop even further.
By the end of the second month, the pace at 6 miles per day is
probably faster than at the end of the previous month at 5 miles
per day. And the athlete is still running comfortably.
No one training session has that much significance; it's the mosaic--how
the training is strung together. It's that one day as related
to all the days that surround it.
like to offer the example of just one athlete as anecdotal evidence.
When I came back to coaching, Erik Spayde
was a senior. He had just finished a cross country season where
he had run 16:07 at Mt. SAC. He had finished 10th in the Ventura
County Championships and 8th in the Marmonte League Finals, leading
his team to a 7th place finish in an 8-team league. I started
Erik at 5 miles per day and he ran comfortably at about 7 minutes
per mile. He increased his mileage to 6 in January and 7 in February.
He remained on 7 miles per day the remainder of the season, running
8 miles each Monday. His pace dropped to 6 minutes per mile about
mid-season and even below near the championship meets. I recorded
some interior miles on some of his runs at 5:30. He would run
a 5 miler before each track session in about 29 minutes during
the CIF meets. Erik lowered his 1600 time from 4:29 to 4:12.91.
He had never broken 10 minutes for 3200, but went on to run 9:14.78.
He had run 2:00 for 800 meters as a junior and lowered that time
to 1:56.6. From 8th in the League in cross country, he became
a double league champion in track in both the 1600 and 3200, a
league which also had Jeff Wilson
of Newbury Park (runner-up in the Foot Locker National Cross Country
Championships the next year), Ryan Wilson
of Agoura (and Arkansas), Fernando Mendoza
of Channel Islands, as well as others. There were obviously a
myriad of factors contributing to Erik's rise to prominence. However,
I was so encouraged by what I saw in his training, and others
I worked with that spring, that I have stayed with the same basic
program I described above.
Oaks had boy's teams which won sectional championships on three
occasions using the hard-easy approach ('80, '84, '86). Our best
team time at Mt. SAC was 79:24, which was about 15th on the all-time
list. The state meet in California did not commence until 1987.
Using the balanced approach since 1991, Thousand Oaks has won
3 more sectional championships ('92, '93, '94) and two state championships
('93, '94). Those three years produced national rankings of 6th,
3rd and 2nd. The 1993 team set a state meet record of 78:58 at
Woodward Park and scored a low 23 points in the state finals.
The 1994 team broke the course record at Mt. SAC for a team time
of 77:56, held by the 1993 squad, by running 77:09 (a 15:26 average).
In the 1995 season, in her fourth year utilizing these training
principles, Kim Mortensen won the
Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship in 17:12. During
the 1996 track season Kim was able to post nation-leading times
of 4:44.9 for 1600, 9:15.89 for 3000, and 9:48.59 for 3200, a
new National Interscholastic Record. Kim spent most of her sophomore
and junior years running comfortably at 7:00 pace. Occasionally
she would drop her pace to around 6:45. By her senior cross country
season, her comfort zone had dropped to 6:20 pace on the roads
and dropped further to 5:55 pace during the latter half of the
not every athlete experienced anything like this success, but
Kim typified the rationale behind the program. She looked about
the same every day in practice. She stayed healthy and raced very
consistently and at the very top of the sport.
are a multiplicity of factors that play a part in the growth of
an elite runner. However, the training sessions were no small
part of the larger picture. At this point in time, I plan to continue
applying these principles in the training of future athletes.