TRAINING METHODS OF THE ELITE
The overriding conclusion I have drawn from this survey of the training methods of some of the elite runners of the past 100 years is that available records are
Very inadequate. Thus, I suspect that at least some of what is written in this post may yet prove to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, the six points I have learned from these runners are as follows:
1. Many of the athletes achieved remarkable performances on little training. Examples of this are Walter George, who ran 16 km in under 50 minutes after training 2 miles/day; Deerfoot, who ran only marginally faster than George without ever training outside of actual racing; Alf Shrubb, who ran similar times on 67 km/week training; Paavo Nurmi, who trained only 6 months of the year and then only about 16 km/day, and Jim Peters, who in his marathon debut came within 4 minutes of the world marathon record despite training only 77 km/week. Similarly, Ron Hill ran some phenomenal marathons on relatively little training. Attention has also been drawn to the low training mileages but high training intensities of African runners like Kip Keino, Matthews Temane, and Xolile Yawa. It would be of great interest to know whether the same applies to the East African runners who now dominate world distance running.
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This emphasizes the importance of genetic abilitynot everyone can achieve such performances on so little trainingand the law of diminishing returns. To improve their performances further, these athletes had to increase their training quite markedly. For example, Jim Peters had to double his training distance and maintain the same intensity in order to lower his marathon time by a further 12 minutes.
2. The majority of these outstanding athletes were not outstanding athletes as children. Neither Arthur Newton, Emil Zatopek, Jim Peters, Gordon Pirie, Kip Keino, Ron Hill, Frank Shorter, Steve Jones, Carlos Lopes, Matthews Temane, Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler, Don Ritchie, Bruce Fordyce, Frith van der Merwe, or Charles Rowell gave notice of their subsequent talent while schoolchildren. On the other hand, Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke, Buddy Edelen, “Deek” de Castella, Yiannis Kouros, Grete Waitz, and Eleanor Adams all performed exceptionally while still young. This point is discussed further in post 17.
3. Most of these athletes trained quite similarly. Jim Peters ran 160 km/ week at high intensity, averaging approximately 3:20/km. Grete Waitz also trains about 160 km/week. Edelen, Clarke, Hill, Shorter, de Castella, and Jones all ran up to 180 to 200 km/week, probably at similar intensities to that of Jim Peters but without apparent detriment to their performances. But Clayton, Pirie, and Bedford, who tried on occasion to run up to 256 km/week, probably proved that such weekly training distances are too great.
On the other hand, Herb Elliott, Kip Keino, and Matthews Temane all trained considerably less (up to 110 km/week), yet all set world records at distances from 1.5 to 21.1 km.
The best modem short- and long-ultramarathon runners, including Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler, Don Ritchie, Bruce Fordyce, Yiannis Kouros, Frith van der Merwe, and Eleanor Adams, seldom ran much more than 160 to 180 km/week,
Considerably less than the training distances of Arthur Newton and the pedestrians like Charles Rowell, who ran up to 300 km/week!
Thus it seems that elite runners perform best when they train between 120 and 200 km/week, with an increasing likelihood that they will perform less well when they train more than 200 km/week, as vividly shown by the experiences of Ron Hill (see Exercises 8.11). This is confirmed by the more recent experiences of Alberto Salazar, who set the since-disallowed world marathon record in 1981. Following his early marathon successes, which directly followed impressive performances, particulary at 10,000 m on the track, Salazar increased his weekly training distance from 176 to 208 km. He reasoned that more distance would allow him to run faster marathons. The result was that his training intensity fell, he was running “tired” most of the time, and his performances in both the
10,000 m and the marathon fell off alarmingly, culminating in a disappointing run in the 1984 Olympic Marathon. Salazar subsequently stated he would return to those training methods that originally worked for him (lower mileage, more speed work), he would again train as a 10,000-m runner, and he would only run another marathon when he was again able to run 10,000 m in a world-class time (Higdon, 1985). His retirement, announced in 1988, indicated that he had been unable to recapture the physical condition that had made him the world’s most exciting marathoner of the early 1980s.
4. Virtually all great runners achieved success at shorter distance races before gravitating to marathon and ultramarathon races. Kolehmainen, Nurmi, Zatopek, Peters, Edelen, Clayton, Hill, Shorter, de Castella, Salazar, Jones, Lopes, Temane, and Waitz were all excellent track or cross-country exponents before they achieved success at longer distances on the road, especially in the marathon.
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