Grete Waitz and Paula Radcliffe: do they make the case against polarised training?

September 15, 2014

My interest in polarised training was piqued more than five years ago by the study of the effects of a five month polarised training program in sub-elite cross country runners by Esteve-Lanoa and colleagues from Madrid. They provided a fairly convincing demonstration that a polarized training program in which about 80% of the work is done at low intensity, is more effective that a program including a higher proportion of work in the mid-zone, near to lactate threshold.   A subsequent review article by Stephen Seiler and Espen Tǿnnessen published in Sportscience in November 2009 presented a quite compelling argument in favour of polarised training: a large amount of low intensity training, together with a small amount of high intensity training, and a minimal amount on the intervening grey zone around lactate threshold. That review confirmed the direction of my own thinking about endurance training, so I posted a positive commentary but included a cautionary note.

The scientific method is mankind’s most successful way of making and testing predications about the natural world, but individual scientists are not dispassionate observers. The strength of science comes from the debate between scientists.   In this debate, each individual scientist tends to be biased towards the evidence that supports his/her own hypothesis. In my comment on Seiler and Tǿnnessen’s review, I noted that Seiler was a co-investigator in the study by Esteve-Lanao. Furthermore he and Tǿnnessen had been selective in the evidence presented in their review article. They reported major improvements in both performance and in physiological variables such as VO2max, after a change to a training program including a higher proportion of low intensity training, in the case of two Norwegian athletes: pentathlete and runner, Øystein Sylta, and cyclist Knut Anders Fostervold, but made no mention of Norway’s greatest female marathon runner, Grete Waitz . Waitz won the New York marathon 9 times, was the silver medallist in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and won gold at the 1983 World Championships. She did a large amount of training in the grey sub-lactate threshold zone.

Since 2009, the evidence in favour of polarised training has become even stronger, supported by both experimental studies such as that of Stoggl and Sperlich, and further examination of the training of elite athletes. My own recent examination of the training of seven elite masters marathoners led me to conclude that those who employed markedly polarised training had the greatest longevity at the top of the world rankings. I had selected the seven on the basis of predefined criteria that I knew would be satisfied by both Ed Whitlock, who employs markedly polarised training, and Yoshihisa Hosaka, who does twice daily interval sessions. When I set the criteria I was not sure who else would meet the criteria and therefore had little way of knowing what training patterns would be represented in the sample. However, despite my intention to be as dispassionate as possible, I am aware that my own beliefs about training influenced my presentation of the evidence.

In a comment on the Fetch polarised training thread, I was challenged over my failure to examine the training of any female marathoners in my blog. In fact no female marathoners had met my predetermined selection criteria, though Miyo Ishigami of Japan came nearest to meeting these criteria. She set the W55-60 record with a time of 2:57:55 at age 55 in 1989 and remained near the top of the rankings up to age 75 when she recorded 4:27:42. That is the 7th fastest ever for a lady in the 75-80 age group. Furthermore, there is an additional problem in examining the training of female ‘masters’ marathoners: information about their training is less accessible.

However there is abundant information about two younger female marathoners who played key roles in the transformation of the women’s marathon over period of a quarter century: Grete Waitz who took more than 2 minutes of Christa Vahlensieck’s world record of 2:34:48 in her first marathon in New York in 1978 and subsequently broke her own record on 3 occasions; lowering it to 2:25:29 in London in 1983; and Paula Radcliffe, whose 2:15:25 London in 2003 remains unchallenged as the outstanding women’s marathon performance in history. Both are famous for the demanding nature of their training. An examination of their training offers the prospect of putting polarised training into a more balanced perspective.

How do sex differences in physiology affect marathon performance?

Before examining the training of these two individual athletes it is potentially informative to address the question of whether the optimum training for women should be different from that for men.   It might be predicted that the lesser muscular strength of women would be a lesser handicap in the marathon than in shorter events, but this is not borne out by evidence. The proportional difference of almost 10% between Paula Radcliffe’s record amd Wilson Kipsang’s male marathon record is similar to the proportional difference between female and male world records across track events from 100m upwards. There no longer a strong reason to claim that cultural bias against women running long distances accounts for the handicap. The fact that Paula’s record has stood for over a decade despite prominent recognition and prize money for the women similar to that for the men in many of the major marathons, indicates that the differences are likely to be mainly due to physiological differences. It is not clear which of the physiological differences plays the greatest role. Perhaps the lesser power of both cardiac and skeletal muscles in females does matter in the marathon as it does in shorter events.  Thus there might as much, if not more, reason for females to train in a manner that promotes cardiac and skeletal muscle power.

This is borne out in a study of the training of qualifiers for US Olympic marathon trials by Karp. Across the entire sample, the men ran more miles in training, though interestingly the women who achieved times less than 2:40 had a similar training volume to the men.   But more intriguing was the observation that the women did a higher proportion of their training at marathon pace or faster.  The women did 32% and the men only 25% at marathon pace or faster.   Perhaps a fast marathon does require power and these elite or sub-elite women got to the Olympic trials as a result a large proportion of relatively more intense training. Overall, there is at present little evidence to indicate that women might do better with relatively less demanding training than men. Perhaps they might benefit from an even higher relative intensity of training, and/or increased focus on building strength.

Grete Waitz

Grete’s husband, Jack, persuaded her that a trip to New York for the marathon would be like a second honeymoon for them, despite the fact that she had never run more than 12 miles in training. At the finish she took her shoes off and threw them at him declaring ‘never again’. However she had just taken over two minutes off the world record time, and despite her protestations, the marathon bug had bitten, just as she was contemplating retirement from international competition.  Three years earlier, in 1975, she had broken the world record for the 3000m, but after a disappointing race in the 1978 European Championships in Prague, she was planning to return to her full-time job as a school teacher.   However, earlier that year, in Glasgow in March, she has won the world cross country championship, and I suspect that Jack, who was her mentor and coach at that time, had a premonition that she had the makings of a marathon runner.   If so, he was right. She went on to win the New York Marathon on nine occasions in 11 years, the London marathon twice and the World marathon championship in Helsinki in 1983.

She had made the world record her own in New York in 1978, and by April 1983, when she lowered it for the fourth time in London, it stood at 2:25:29, almost 10 minutes lower than it had been when she stood unassumingly on the starting line in New York 5 years previously. However the day after her record-breaking victory in London, over 3000 miles away in Boston Joan Benoit took two minutes off Grete’s time. The following year, on a hot day softened by Los Angeles’ morning fog, in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon, Joan made a bold early break from the leading group. Grete prudently held back but Joan’s confidence was justified. She took the gold, leaving Grete with the silver.   The women’s marathon was now an established event. Despite being deprived of Olympic gold by a worthy challenger. Grete had perhaps done more than any other person to raise the women’s marathon to Olympic standard.

Grete continued to perform at leading international standard, with another victory in New York later that year, and again in 1985, 86 and 88. She won the London marathon for a second time in 1986, during which she achieved her own personal best time of 2:24:54, but she was never again to hold the world record.

By 1990, at age 36, she was beginning to fade. She was fourth in New York in a time only marginally faster than the world record had been before she ran her first marathon twelve years previously. Nonetheless, she returned to New York two years later to run side by side with Frank Lebow, founder of the New York marathon who was at that time in temporary remission from a lethal brain cancer. When they crossed the line together in a time of 5:32:35 and raised their entwined arms in celebration, she and he cemented their intertwined places in the annals of marathoning. When Grete herself died on cancer at age 57, in 2011, the flood of tributes from marathoners of all levels that accompanied the article in the New York Times reporting her untimely death, confirmed that this tenacious, determined but humble and gracious woman indeed merited one of the highest places in the Pantheon of the marathon.

 

The training of Grete Waitz

Her husband, Jack Waitz was her coach during the year leading up to her first marathon. Here is his account of her training:

I’d never coached Grete for this kind of race. She never did high mileage; 80 miles a week, that was more or less what she did. ….At that time I was working as an accountant for a newspaper, and Grete was a schoolteacher. We lived in the suburbs of Oslo, and her routine was to run in the morning at 5 or 5:30, then she had to take a bus to the subway, and then another bus to get to the junior high where she taught. Then in the afternoon the same thing back. So it was pretty tough. But with any workout she did, she always ran fast. Knut trained with Grete and never wanted to run in the mornings with her, because she took off like that [he snaps his fingers]. She kept a good pace all the time.

In the afternoon, she often ran with one of her two brothers, Arild and Jan. According to Arild:

‘Jan and I had been running on the track, the 800 meters and the 1500 meters, for many years, but because of Grete we started to do races on the road—the 10-K, and half-marathons and marathons. Training with her was very systematic: Jack in the morning and Jan and me in the evening. In the afternoon we were running between 12 and 15 kilometers. But Jan and I took shifts. We couldn’t do what she was doing every day. We had to rest; her training was hard.’  

According to Jan: ‘She was very disciplined. She normally ran every kilometer around 3:50. We call that slow distance running, but it was pretty fast.’

In the forward to her book, Run Your First Marathon, co-authored with Gloria Avebuch, Grete wrote about her own first marathon in New York: ‘Make no mistake, I was able to run and run well because of my strong track background (and my will power) ‘. From her book, and from the comments of her husband and brothers, it emerges that early in her career, when she was focussed on 1500m and 3000m, that her training included a substantial number of high intensity sessions. Subsequently during her marathon career she did a substantial volume at or near lactate threshold, much of it near marathon pace. According to Johan Kaggestad, her coach later in her career, even her long runs (of more than 30Km) were never slower than 4 min/Km.

It is noteworthy that Johan Kaggestad also coached Norway’s other legendary female marathon champion, Ingrid Kristansen. Kristansen’s training was both in higher volume and somewhat more polarised than Grete’s. She ran twice daily, covering 160-200 Km per week. Her longest run during marathon preparation was a two-and-a-half-hour run covering about 36km at a pace of 4.10-4.20 min/Km. Kristiansen set a world record of 2:21:06 in London in 1985, more than 4 minutes faster than Grete’s time in London in 1983.

 

Paula Radcliffe

Like Gete Waitz, Paul Radcliffe came to the marathon during the final stages of a successful career on the track and cross country. She had won the world junior cross country championship in Boston in 1992, and the senior championship in Ostend in 2001. On the track she had won the European cup at 5000m on three occasions; the Commonwealth Games 5000m in 2002 and the 10,000m European Championship that same year. However, unlike Grete who had arrived in New York in 1978 knowing virtually nothing about the marathon, Paula had won half marathon championships in Veracruz in 2000 and in Bristol in 2001, and was better prepared for her first marathon in London in 2002. On that cool but pleasant April day in 2002 when Khalid Khannouchi had forged ahead of Paul Tergat and Haile Gebreselassie along the Embankment with little more than a mile to run, to take 4 seconds off his own world record in the men’s event, the women’s event belonged to Paula alone. She had broken clear of the leading group by 15Km and continued to exert her dominance with a series of sub- 5:10 miles in the second half. She crossed the finish line in 2:18:55, only 8 seconds outside Catherine Ndereba’s world record.

Later that year, in Chicago she ran away from the field to finish powerfully in 2:17:18, taking almost a minute and a half of Ndereba’s record.   Then the following April in London she ran the most phenomenal marathon ever run by a women to establish a world record of 2:15:25 which survives to this day. Despite the best efforts of Kenyans including Mary Keitany, and Ethiopians including Tiki Gelana, the only other woman to record a time within 3 minutes of Radcliffes’s world record is Liliya Shobukhova of Russia,  Shobhukhova has been suspended for two years on account of a blood profile suggesting blood doping. The terms of her suspension include annulment of performances since October 2009.  This would include her time of 2:18:20 recorded in Chicago in 2011.  See the footnote below for furter details .

Since 2003, Radcliffe has won the London marathon for a second time, the New York marathon on 4 occasions, and the world championship in Helsinki in 2005.   However despite these triumphs, her marathon career has been dogged by injury and misadventure. She failed to complete the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens due to stomach upset, possibility caused by medication for a recent leg muscle injury; she finished 23rd in Beijing in 2008 after struggling to regain fitness following a stress fracture of her leg, and she was forced to withdraw from the GB team in advance of the 2012 Olympic marathon due to surgery for a foot injury – an injury that had been mis-diagnosed in 1994,and finally, 18 years later, was repaired .   Her most impressive performance in recent years was third place in the 2011 Berlin marathon in a time of 2:23:46.  She hopes to return to London next year to lay some of the demons to rest.

 

The training of Paula Radcliffe

Paula has always trained with determination, but since the early days of her track and cross country career she has been prone to injury. Following a disappointing 4th place in the 10,000m in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she underwent a through biomechanical assessment by physiotherapist, Gerald Hartmann. Hartmann described this assessment in an interview with sports journalist, Frank Greally, published in Running Times in 2004.   Hartmann not only directed his attention to the prominent bobbing movement of Paula’s head which he attempted to alleviate by exercises to strengthen her shoulders and neck, but he also identified a lack of power in her legs.   He had asked Paula to do 20 hops up and down from a 16 inch high box as fast as she could. Whereas Kelly Holmes, 800m and 1500m gold medallist in Athens, had achieved 20 hops on and off the same box in 12.5 seconds, Paula took 27 seconds on her first attempt. This led Hartmann to devise a program of plyometric exercises and heavy weight sessions.

The fruit of this strengthening program were clearly apparent in the report on Paula’s physiological development reported by Andrew Jones in International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching in 2006. Paula’s vertical jump performance increased from 29cm recorded in in 1996 to 38cm in 2003.   Furthermore, her speed at VO2max increased from 20.5 Km/hour in 1992 to 23.5 Km/hour in 2003. Although the marathon is typically run at VO2/VO2max in the range 83-85%, the increased speed at VO2max would be expected to produce a similar relative increase at marathon pace.  Paula’s speed at lactate threshold increased from 14–15 Km/hour in 1992–1994 to 17.5–18.5 Km/hour in 2000–2003. Similarly, her speed at lactate turn point increased from 16 Km/hr in 1992 to 20 Km/hr in 2003. Paula’s average pace in London in 2003 was 18.6 Km/hr, consistent with the expectation that a well-trained marathoner can maintain a pace very near to lactate threshold.

It is likely that the strengthening and improved biomechanics achieved by Hartman’s program played a substantial part in the increased speed at VO2max and hence in Paula’s phenomenal marathon in London in 2003. However it should also be noted that the proportional increase in speed at lactate threshold from 1992-1994 to 2000-2003 was approximately 24% whereas the increase in speed at VO2max over this period was only around 14%.   This suggests that she had also increased her capacity to metabolise lactate. This possibility is confirmed by the fact that she exhibited a lactate concentration of only 4-6mM at maximum speed during treadmill tests whereas most athletes exhibit maximal concentration around 8-12 mM.

It is also noteworthy that Paula had already had an exceptionally high VO2max of 70 ml/min/Kg at age 19 in 1992, and this did not increase appreciably over the eleven years to 2003. Thus she was endowed with a high VO2max, but this did not increase with her training.

Apart from the strengthening program, what changes in her training occurred during these eleven years? First, she increased her total training volume greatly. At age 18 she did 20-30 miles per week but by 2003 she ran between 120 and 160 miles a week when in full marathon training. According to Andrew Jones, she would never compromise training quality for quantity. If tired she would cancel a session rather than perform at a lower level. She typically did the steady state continuous running that made up a large proportion of her training at 3:20–3:40 per km, only 5-25 seconds slower than her marathon pace.

In summary, Paula was endowed with a very high VO2max, which remained unchanged by training. The gains from the eleven years of training that turned her from a world junior cross country champion into the world’s fastest female marathoner were an increased speed at VO2max, perhaps attributable to the improved strength and biomechanics, and an even greater proportional increase in speed at lactate threshold, implying increased capacity to metabolise lactate in addition to her improved strength and biomechanics.

Synthesis

Both Paula and Grete were endowed with exceptionally high VO2max. At age 19, Paula had a measured VO2max of 70; Grete’s 3000m world record of 8:34 at age 21 also corresponds to a VO2max of 70. Both focussed on track and cross country racing in their early twenties. Once they turned to the marathon, both continued to run fast during training, Both did a substantial proportion of their training at a pace that might be described as sub-lactate threshold – though nearer to the threshold in Paula’a case. Paula also did a much larger volume of training, and achieved a personal best about 9 minutes faster than Grete, consistent with the evolution of women’s marathoning for which Grete had laid the foundations.

It is probable that for both women the substantial amount of sub-lactate threshold running helped develop their ability to metabolise lactate. In Paula’s case, the measurements reported by Andrew Jones provide direct evidence that this was the case. Thus, it might reasonably be argued that a large amount of running in the grey zone around lactate threshold, the zone that is avoided in a polarised program, played a substantial part in their success.   Their success is a challenge to the claims for polarized training.

However, great as these two athletes were, one is left with the feeling that they could have been even greater. In the five years from 1978 to 1983, Grete made the women’s world record her own, lowering it by almost 10 minutes. Yet in the year that the women’s marathon became an Olympic event, she was eclipsed by Joan Benoit.   Grete still remained near the top of the rankings for another five years, but she scarcely improved.   In light of the evidence that polarised training is the most effective way forward for an athlete who has achieved a plateau, I can’t help wondering if she might have gone on to even greater achievements if she had included a larger amount of low intensity running in her training schedule.

In Paula’s case the sense of frustrated hope is even more overt.   Not only did injury rob her of opportunities for Olympic gold, but it robbed her of the chance to demonstrate where that stellar trajectory of improvement that she exhibited in 2002-2003 might have taken her.   Would a more polarised approach to training have taken less toll on her body?   Might it have allowed her to reach an even higher level of performance? In light of the evidence that polarised training is the most effective way of improving VO2max once an athlete has reached a plateau, is it even possible that she might have been able to increase her VO2max beyond the level she achieved in her teens.   However, further increase in VO2max would be of limited value unless she maintained her extraordinary capacity to metabolise lactate, and perhaps that capacity was dependent on maintaining a large amount of sub-lactate threshold running in her schedule. Is it possible to minimise accumulation of acidity by other potentially less damaging means? That will be the topic of my next post.

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Note regarding Liliya Shobukhova

In a comment below, Thomas points out that Liliya Shobukova has been suspended for a doping infringement, and suggests that I should not provide information about her marathon times. I am strongly opposed to drug abuse in sport. Furthermore, when providing information relevant to the training or physiology of runners I try to be as accurate as possible. As far as I can establish, the facts regarding Shobukhova’s suspension are:

1) She has been suspended on account of irregularities of her blood profile that suggest blood doping. Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance. Some methods, such as high altitude training, are legal; other methods such as blood transfusion are illegal. I do not know any details in Shobukhova’s case.

2) The suspension applies from 24th Jan 2013 to 23rd Jan 2015. The terms include the annulment of any performances dating from October 2009.

3) In August 2014 it was reported that she plans to appeal against the suspension.

4) Her profile, including her time of 2:18:20 in the 2011 Chicago marathon is still listed on the IAAF web-site (as of 15 Sept 2014).

If Shobukhova’s performance in the 2011 Chicago marathon was achieved with the aid of illegal blood doping, this would serve to emphasise the outstanding character of Paula Radcliffe’s world record time.

Adapting the training of Ed Whitlock

September 9, 2014

What is the best way to train for a marathon? If you are not looking beyond the present season, you can choose between several good answers, according to personal circumstances and inclination. A number of quite diverse approaches, ranging from a Lydiard-style program starting with high volume base-building followed by race-specific training, to the more intense Furman ‘train less; run faster’ program combined with cross-training, offer a the prospect of a good marathon, provided the training is consistent yet flexible enough to allow a good balance between hard work and recovery.

The question of how best to train in a way that leads to year on year improvement is less easily answered. The recent study in which Stoggl and Sperlich randomly allocated previously well-trained athletes to one of four different training regimes: high volume, high intensity, threshold and polarised found that the polarised schedule (characterised by a large amount of easy running ad a small amount of high intensity) produced the greatest gains, adding to the growing body of evidence that a polarised schedule offers the best prospect of improvement for athletes who have reached a plateau of performance. The presentation by Stephen Seiler delivered in Paris in 2013, summarises the evidence that many elite endurance athletes have achieved their success on the basis of polarised training schedules.

Facing the decline from middle to old age

But for me personally and for other runners on the threshold of the transition from middle-age into old age, there is an even more challenging question: how can one delay the sharp decline that typically begins in the late sixties or early seventies. As discussed in my recent post describing the training of seven elite masters marathoners, for Derek Turnbull that steep decline occurred in his late sixties; Ed Whitlock managed to defer the decline until almost 80.

In my youth I competed in track athletics at club level and discovered almost by accident that I had some talent for marathon running. However, I was more interested in hill walking and mountaineering and usually headed for the hills and mountains in the time left over after career and family activities. I took up running again in middle age. For the past seven years, I have trained regularly averaging around 4 hours per week running and in addition, spent a couple of hours per week on the elliptical cross trainer.   The thought of once again attempting to run a good marathon has been lurking in the recesses of my mind for much of that time.

But on account of a job that often demands long hours at work, I was content to defer my marathon plans for the time being. I ran a half-marathon in September in several of the past 7 years.   My times were very slow compared to the marathon times of my youth, but overall, the situation appeared fairly stable. Two years ago, at age 66 my time of 101: 50 was identical to my time at age 62. There was no sign at that stage of a precipitous drop. Indeed, because these times were so slow relative to my former marathon times, I was optimistic that once I could finds a little more time for training, there was still scope for improvement before the decline into old age.

Last year I did increase the volume of my training, aiming for a half-marathon time of less than 100 minutes, but was a little dismayed to find that as September approached, I was less fit than in previous years, despite the increased training. In the event I struggled to achieve a time of 107:49 minutes. Had the sharp decline into old-age already begun? If I am ever to run a good marathon again, it appears that I cannot afford to wait, irrespective of my continuing fairly demanding working hours.

Figure1: the decline with age.  Whitlock’s marathon time increased sharply as he approached 80; Turnbull suffered a steep decline in his late 60’s.  My half marathon times hint at an increasing rate of decline in my late 60’s.  Can I arrest this?

Figure1: the decline with age. Whitlock’s marathon time increased sharply as he approached 80; Turnbull suffered a steep decline in his late 60’s. My half marathon times hint at an increasing rate of decline in my late 60’s. Can I arrest this?

Identifying the target

What could be described as a good marathon? In my mind, the thing that makes the marathon special is the fact that it is the longest distance that is raced on the brink of lactate threshold. The major challenge is developing the endurance to maintain that pace for 26.2 miles.   Therefore, whatever limitation on speed that age might impose, I would consider I had run a good marathon if I could maintain a pace just below lactate threshold for the full distance. Although time itself is of lesser importance, I would nonetheless hope to achieve a time demonstrating that I have not yet succumbed to the steep descent into old age. My half-marathon time of 101:50 at age 66 corresponds to a WAVA score of 76. If last year’s performance was a mere hiccough rather than the beginning of the steep descent, a WAVA score of 75% might be therefore be a reasonable marathon goal. At age 70, this would correspond to a marathon time of 3:45. Compared with the times of my younger days, it should be an easy target, but at present appears quite daunting. Nonetheless, that is the target I will set.

Beginning the campaign

Six months ago, I started a training program with the intention of racing a marathon this September, aiming for a time under 4 hours. Initially, I followed a fairly typical polarised marathon program, including a small amount of tempo running (typically 5% of the weekly training duration), a weekly high intensity session, a substantial amount of easy running over distances of 8-10Km, and a weekly long run.   Over the first few months I built up the long run distance to 34 Km. This weekly long run was not seriously stressful but nonetheless, left appreciable residual tiredness for a day or two.

I was making steady progress towards my goal of being fit enough to race a marathon this September until June when I was laid low by a severe upper respiratory tract infection that left me suffering from pronounced ‘post-viral fatigue’. Just as I was beginning to recover from the post-viral fatigue, I suffered a freak injury. I was playing rounders with my research team in the evening after a fairly intense day of project planning. At one point, I dived full length to catch the ball and tore my right gluteus maximus quite badly.   That was five weeks ago, and even now as I sit typing I can feel a diffuse ache in my right glute. It is clear that there is no prospect of being fit enough for a September marathon, so as I have started to rebuild in the past few weeks, it was an opportune time to carefully re-evaluate the question of how to go about achieving my goal for age 70.

Re-appraisal

In my recent posts examining the training of seven elite masters athletes, it emerged that two of them, Ed Whitlock and Eric Ӧstbye, maintained their position at the pinnacle of international competition for longer than the others. Both followed a markedly polarized program.

Whitlock in particular currently holds single age records for 11 of the 15 years from age 68 to age 82, and shows little sign of abandoning the quest for yet more records despite his decline in pace since age 80. (Though, unfortunately, in the past two months, his training has been limited by an unexplained ache in his upper thigh.)  As discussed in my recent posts, it is almost certain that a natural predisposition to longevity has played a major role in his performances, but several features suggest that the nature of his training has played a crucial role in his long reign at the top of the world rankings. Most striking, the increase in frequency of 3 hour runs in his early 70’s arrested the ‘stutter’ he had experienced at age 70 and laid the foundation for his phenomenal 2:54:49 marathon at 73. Therefore my goal is to see if I can mimic the key features of his schedule – despite the challenge of fitting lots of long slow running around the edges of my working life.

Closer examination reveals two other key features of Whitlock’s approach: gradual build up of run duration, and minimization of the stress on his legs. On a Lets Run thread he posted:

‘I ran my “2:54″ at age 73 in 2004 off an extended base of daily 3 hour slow runs. … I started extending the duration of my daily runs in my mid 60’s gradually increasing to the occasional 3 hour run by the time I was 70. I always try to increase “mileage” slowly and not make sudden leaps’

I am now 68. At that age Ed’s long runs were mainly of 2 hours duration. Therefore, over the next few months, I will aim to build up gradually to a level where I can do 4 two hour runs per week without evidence of cumulative stress.

With regard to pace and running style, Ed does not measure his pace but runs at a slow shuffle designed to minimise stress on his legs.  Ed’s self-depreciating word ‘shuffle’ implies minimal air-borne time. This photo of him running in the Evergreen Cemetery depicts a step length of about 60cm. The heel of his leading foot about to strike the ground before his trailing foot becomes airborne, in marked contrast to his fluent, powerful stride while racing.

During my long runs, I too will adopt a slow pace with short-stride and fairly high cadence, in order to minimise impact forces, though I will not invoke the mental image of a ‘shuffle’. Instead I will aim for a sensation of relaxed fluency even at slow paces. I do not want to develop a habitual gait too different from marathon racing gait. Above all, I will avoid any sense of strain.

As discussed in my previous posts, I consider that the small proportion of faster running during training and short distance races played an important part in Ed’s success. He, like the other elite masters marathoners discussed in my recent posts, maintained his speed over 1500m.   I plan to do a weekly session of more intense training. However, at present I find that racing even short distances at peak effort produces lingering tiredness and musculo-skeletal aching. Therefore, during the initial stages, I will do high intensity intervals on the elliptical cross trainer, to provide a strong stimulus to both cardiovascular system and leg muscles without the damaging effects of eccentric muscle contraction. I will gradually replace these sessions by short hill sessions, with the aim of developing leg muscle power, and, will eventually include fairly regular short races.

Progress

Where should I start? Before my training in June and July had been limited by post viral fatigue, and subsequently, in the first few weeks of August, by my torn Gluteus maximus, I had established a fairly solid base. In particular during my long runs of up to 34 Km I had run for periods of over three hours, albeit with appreciable accumulating tiredness. Avoiding the accumulation of tiredness is a key feature of my strategy, but I anticipated that running for an hour or so would be comfortable. So three weeks ago, when Gluteus maximus had settled sufficiently to allow me to re-start, I aimed for four runs of 65 minutes each together with one interval session of the elliptical in the first week. In fact I did five runs of 65 minutes quite comfortably, so increased the target time to 75 minutes for the following week. Again I appeared to be coping comfortably, and did six 75 minutes runs together with an elliptical interval session.

I started the third week with a high intensity elliptical session, but found it noticeably harder than in previous weeks and my peak heart rate was higher. The next day was a busy day at work, but I nonetheless set off for a short easy run to enjoy the final glimmer of daylight on a balmy autumn evening. However my heart rate while running was noticeably elevated. The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I did the elliptical sub-maximal test that I have developed to assess my level of stress.   Resting heart rate variability (HRV) was lower than usual, and heart rate at all phases of the test was high, so clearly I had signs of accumulated stress, and could not dismiss the high heart rate when running the previous evening as a transient response to my busy day at work.   A rest day was called for. On the remaining four days of the week I ran very easily for 80 minutes and heart rate remained re-assuringly low.

Next week, I will again increase the duration of the easy runs. Progress is pleasing, but I need to continue to bear in mind that the immediate goal is building up the duration at a rate that allows me to do at least four long duration easy runs each week without evidence of cumulative stress. Ed Whitlock took five years to build up from frequent 2 hour runs to frequent 3 hour runs, so I am prepared to be patient. Nonetheless I hope to be managing at least four 2 hour runs per week without cumulative fatigue before Christmas.

Does training induce long term muscle damage?

August 31, 2014

A glance down the list of single-age world records for the marathon reveals that a few names occur on more than one occasion. In those instances the same name always occurs within a span of a few years, apart from the instance of Ed Whitlock whose name appears 11 times, but even these 11 appearances are clustered within the past 15 years. This pattern demonstrates that it is difficult to remain at the top for more than a few years, and suggests that the stress of training and racing required to get to the top might produce damage that limits the tenure at the top .

This proposal becomes even more plausible in light of the evidence that heavy training can produce a long lasting over-training syndrome, and also the controversial evidence regarding the reversed-J shaped relationship between training load and health outcomes, such that moderate training load enhances health but very heavy training might damage health.

 

The fatigued athlete myopathic syndrome

One variant of the over-training syndrome is the fatigued athlete myopathic syndrome, in which it appears that muscles have a limited capacity to recover from exercise. Although the pathophysiology of this condition remains enigmatic, one thought-provoking feature is the abnormal shortening of DNA telomeres in muscle reported by Collins and colleagues from Capetown. Telomeres are DNA caps at the end of chromosomes. They become shorter following the cell division that occurs across the life-span in order to replace worn-out tissue,  This implies that there is a limit to the number of cell divisions that can occur during a lifetime. The shortening of telomeres is regarded as a marker of the aging process. In muscle, repairing the short term damage induced by training, especially the disruption of muscle fibres produced by the eccentric contraction at foot-strike, is dependent of the division of satellite cells, a type of stem cell unique to muscle. The observation by Collins of shorter satellite cell telomeres in biopsies from the vastus lateralis muscle in athletes suffering from the fatigued athlete myopathic syndrome, compared with healthy asymptomatic age- and mileage-matched control endurance athletes, suggests that the origin of the myopathic symptoms might indeed be attributable to damage produced by training and/or racing.

However, a key issue is the observation that age and mile-matched control athletes without symptoms of fatigue had suffered less shortening of their telomeres. Thus, it does appear that some athletes do suffer damage that limits their running career, but this is not a universal consequence. Kadi and Posnet report that when satellite cells are heavily recruited to regenerate skeletal muscle in athletes, telomere length is either dramatically shortened or maintained, possibly even longer than in non-trained individuals.   What are the factors determining whether or not training results in abnormally shortened telomeres? The answer is unknown.

 

What about the telomeres of elite masters marathoners?

It is unlikely that the seven elite masters marathoners discussed in my two previous blog posts suffered excessive shortening of their telomeres, and even plausible that they maintained longer telomeres that the average non-trained individual. This is mere speculation, but the existence of a mechanism by which some, but not all, athletes suffer sustained muscle damage adds plausibility to the proposal that these seven athletes suffered less sustained training-induced muscle damage than the average athlete, contributing not only to their phenomenal marathon performances but also to their impressive 1500m times.

If so, was their resistance to sustained damage due to their natural predisposition to longevity or might it be attributed to their training schedules? As the seven followed a variety of different training schedules, it is unlikely that the type of training schedule was a major influence. Nonetheless, in my previous post, I discussed the evidence that the two who followed the most markedly polarised programs with a large amount of easy paced running and a small proportion of fast running (Ӧstbye and Whitlock), exhibited greater longevity at the top of the world rankings than the two who appear to have included a greater amount of training at tempo pace or faster (Turnbull and Hosaka).   But it should be noted that Hosaka is still only 65 and might yet upset this observation.

 

Conclusion

Overall, it is plausible that long term muscle damage induced by training does limit the running careers of some but not all athletes. It is likely that a natural predisposition to longevity helps protect against the damage. However, the training of elite masters marathoners provides a thought-provoking hint that a polarised program that minimises the stress associated with a large training volume might be the most effective way to train in order to achieve longevity of one’s maximal level of performance.

Lessons from enduring masters marathoners

August 30, 2014

In my post on August 26th I summarised the running careers and training of the seven elite marathoners who had set world masters marathon records at age 60 or greater and had remained high in the masters marathon rankings for over a decade. These seven enduring elite marathoners, John Gilmour, Eric Ӧstbye, John Keston, Derek Turnbull, Luciano Acquarone, Ed Whitlock and Yoshhisa Hosaka, shared several features. Apart from John Keston who had only began running at age 55, all had shown signs of athletic talent in their youth, but none were of international class at that stage. The primary feature that made them world champions was a reduced rate of decline in early middle age. Furthermore, apart from Erik Ӧstbye who rarely ran on the track, all maintained their speed, recording international level times for 1500m during middle age.  

However, while all seven trained consistently and raced with determination, they employed a range of quite different types of training, suggesting that their enduring success owed more to their natural predisposition to longevity than to the type of training they did. At first sight, it might seem that there is little that a less gifted runner might learn about how to train from these exceptional individuals.  

I do not think that is the case. On closer inspection, examination of the differences in the training of these elite athletes in the light of what fifty years of research has taught us about the physiology of training provides potentially useful pointers towards the most effective training strategies for minimising decline in performance during middle and old age.

The crucial limit imposed by aerobic capacity.

If we are to run our fastest possible marathon we need to train many different physiological capacities. These include the ability to conserve glucose so that our supply of easily accessible fuel does not run our before the end of the race; the ability to metabolise lactate so that we can maintain a metabolic rate at a little above 80% of our aerobic capacity (VO2max) for several hours without continual accumulation of acid in our blood; the ability of leg muscles to stand the pounding produced by more than 30,000 foot-strikes; we need to maximise our VO2max; and several other attributes such as an efficient running style. Maximising VO2max in itself requires maximization of several trainable physiological attributes, including aerobic enzymes in mitochondria; capillary blood supply to muscles; and cardiac stroke volume.   Among all these trainable capacities, VO2max is especially noteworthy because it plays a crucial limiting role.

One of the important contributions of the great coach, Jack Daniels, to running science, is the realization to there is a quality, VDOT, which is a measure of aerobic capacity and corresponds approximately to VO2max, that provides a fairly accurate prediction of a runner’s best performance at any distance in the range 1500m to marathon. The rationale underlying the prediction is based on the assumption that aerobic capacity, quantified by the value of VDOT, is the limiting factor that determines performance across the range of distances.   This assumption is controversial. An alternative view is that performance is limited by a ‘central governor’ in the brain that acts to protect us from harm. In fact the apparently competing claims for the role of aerobic capacity and the central governor as the factor limiting performance can be reconciled, but that is a story for another blog post. In practice, predictions based on VDOT are usually fairly accurate for well-trained runners. If a runner is adequately trained at 1500m, performance at 1500m provides good estimate of aerobic capacity as quantified by VDOT, and in turn this value of VDOT can be used to predict marathon performance, provided the runner is adequately trained for the marathon.

The implication of this is that any consistent training program can maximise all the other factors such as ability to conserve glucose; ability to metabolise lactate; and the ability of leg muscles to stand the repeated pounding, so that the limit is set by aerobic capacity. This does not mean that these other factor do not play an essential role in performance. It simply indicates that these factors can be trained to the level where they are no longer the limiting factor.   Aerobic capacity itself can also be trained but it remains the limiting factor.

Was aerobic capacity the limiting factor for the elite masters marathoners?

What relevance does the limiting role of aerobic capacity have to understanding the phenomenal success of the seven elite masters marathoners? The first question to ask is does Daniel’s VDOT formula work for them? Because it is reasonable to assume that they were adequately trained for the marathon distance, it is appropriate to ask how well their marathon performance predicted their performance at 1500m.

Marathon times and 1500m times recorded on occasions no more than approximately a year apart are available for all of the seven of elite elderly marathoners apart from Erik Ӧstbye, who rarely raced on the track. Table 1 lists age, marathon time, estimated VDOT based on marathon time, 15000m time predicted from VDOT; actual 1500m time recorded on a race; and percentage error of the estimate. It can be seen that the percentage error is typically around 1-2% and never exceeds 2.5%. Granted that race performance on any one occasion might differ from maximal by a few percent, it appears that for these six athletes, their performance across distances from 1500m to marathon was determined largely by their aerobic capacity. The conclusion receives further support for the observation that in the case of Ed Whitlock for whom we have a measured value of VO2max less than a year before the marathon I have used to estimate his VDOT, the estimated VDOT of 52.9 ml/min/Kg is within a tenth of a percentage point the measured VO2max of 52.8 ml/min/Kg.

Comparison of actual 1500m times with predicted times based on VDOT estimated from marathon time

Comparison of actual 1500m times with predicted times based on VDOT estimated from marathon time

The data suggests that other factors might have contributed a percentage point or two to the performances of the six elite athletes. While a percentage point or two might matter in a race, it is merely the icing on the cake when it comes to understanding why these elite athletes stood head and shoulders above average athletes of similar age.  Thus the crucial question in understanding what made these athletes elite is the question of what endowed them with values of VO2max about twice the values expected for the average man of similar age.

What determines aerobic capacity?

Aerobic capacity is trainable, but it is also shaped by genetic factors.   As I previously discussed (2nd August) in the case of Ed Whitlock, I think it is likely that his very high maximum heart rate contributed appreciably to his extraordinary VO2max. Maximum heart rate appears to be largely determined by genetic factors. Those of us with lesser genetic endowment have little hope of matching Ed’s performances. However, if we accept that consistent training can optimise the factors other than VO2max such that these other factors are no longer limiting, if we wish to maximise our distance running performance in middle age and sustain that level of performance (relative to WAVA norms) into old age, the major question is how can we maximise our aerobic capacity and how can we sustain a maximal value over a prolonged period?

To address these questions we can draw on several different strands of evidence. Two of the most important strands of evidence are the body of evidence regarding the nature of overtraining and the evidence regarding polarised training.

Over-training

I have reviewed the evidence regarding over-training including the role of cortisol on several occasions previously (e.g. here and here). In summary, effective training achieves it benefit by stressing the body in a way that elicits an anabolic state that strengthens the body so that it can withstand similar stress more effectively in future.  However if there is inadequate recovery, there is sustained elevation of the stress hormone, cortisol, that obstructs the anabolic phase, while also creating a risk of chronic inflammation which promotes the replacement of healthy tissue by fibrous tissue.

Polarized training

The evidence regarding the relative merits of high volume training compared with high intensity training (reviewed in my post of 31st March) indicates that high volume and high intensity training are each effective in increasing aerobic capacity. However, accumulating evidence indicates that polarised training, consisting of a large volume of easy running and a small amount of high intensity running, produces the greatest increases in aerobic capacity in athletes who have already achieved a plateau of fitness, and offers the best prospect of long term improvement, year upon year.

A closer look at the training of the elite elderly marathoners

Bearing in mind the necessity for avoiding over-training via adequate recovery, and the evidence indicating that polarised training offers the best prospect of year on year improvement, it is worth a closer look at the training of the seven elite ancient marathoners.

It is noteworthy that two, Ed Whitlock and Erik Ӧstbye, adopted a markedly polarised program consisting of a very large amount of easy running together with a quite small amount of intense running, mainly in the form of shorter distance races, over a sustained period of years. It is also important to note that Whitlock emphasizes the importance of building up the volume of his training very gradually, and on minimising impact stress on his legs during his long runs. Ӧstbye set world marathon records in the age bands 40-50; 50-55; 55-60 and 60-65, and remained high in the rankings until age 70. Whitlock has dominated the world masters marathon rankings for the past 15 years, and holds the current single-age world records for 11 of those 15 years.

In contrast, Yoshihisa Hosaka has adopted a program that includes a higher proportion of running at marathon pace or faster. During his twice daily interval sessions he runs approximately 10 Km per day at marathon pace or faster. As might be expected, his quite demanding program has led to very impressive performances up to age 60. As discussed in more detail in my post of 18th August, over the period from age 45 to 60 his performances declined at about half the rate expected during that age period. However, since age 60 his performances have declined at a rate about 70% faster than expected on the basis of WAVA predictions (as illustrated in figure 1). It would be unwise to draw any definite conclusions this stage. It will be very interesting to see how he fares in his ambitious quest to capture Derek Turnbull’s M65-70 record in the Waterfront Marathon in Toronto this November. However, as reported in his interview with Brett Larner at the time of last year’s Waterfront Marathon, he is finding it increasingly hard to manage his demanding training and might even consider changing to switch to a program more like that of Ed Whitlock.

Figure 1: The decline in marathon performance of Whitlock, Turnbull and Hosaka.  Apart from a minor ‘stutter’ at age 70, Whitlock did not exhibit marked decline until age 80; Turnbull exhibited a similarly marked decline in his late 60’s ; Hosaka shows a trend towards an even earlier decline. The data point at age 64 represents his time in the 2013 Gold Coast marathon.

Figure 1: The decline in marathon performance of Whitlock, Turnbull and Hosaka. Apart from a minor ‘stutter’ at age 70, Whitlock did not exhibit marked decline until age near to 80; Turnbull exhibited a marked decline in his late 60’s ; Hosaka shows a trend towards an even earlier decline. The data point at age 64 represents his time in the 2013 Gold Coast marathon.

John Keston trained with fierce determination and great success from his later 50’s until age 70. In 1994, it appeared likely he would become he first 70 year old to run a marathon in less than three hours. However, despite running 20 marathons in the year, he failed to achieve his target. He almost achieved the three hour mark a year later, but then sadly suffered a series of accidents and injuries. After his return he adopted a training program based on about 2 hours of running every third day with a similar period spent walking (often in woodland) on each of the intervening days. Though he never quite recovered his former dominance, he nonetheless continued to perform at very high level for another decade. At age 82 his marathon time was 6th in the all-time rankings for the M80-85 category at that time.    

It is more difficult to draw conclusions concerning Luciano Acquarone, Derek Turnbull and John Glimour due to lack of detailed information about their training. John Gilmour experienced more than a life-time’s worth of stress during his three years as a prisoner of war, and as far as I can gather, did quite a lot of demanding tempo running during his training. His training can scarcely be described as polarised. He remained near the top of the world rankings over a 12 year period from age 59 to 71, and continued to run for a further two decades, even in his 90’s still running 5Km per day. He certainly qualifies as an enduring elite marathoner but his time at the top of the rankings scarcely matches that of Ed Whitlock who shows no sign of relinquishing that position after 15 years.

Derek Turnbull did not follow a planned training program, but his spontaneously selected paces were often quite fast. In his obituary, Roger Robinson described Turnbull’s training as a perfect balance of long runs, tempo, and fast work. Almost certainly this ‘balance’ included substantially more tempo training than a polarised program. Of the seven elite marathoners we have discussed, Turnbull had the shortest time at the top of the rankings, a period extending from his world record for the M60-65 category set at age 60 to his time 3:15 at 70, which at the time was 13th in the rankings. As shown in figure 1, the decline in his performance in his late 60’s was marked.

Conclusions

Thus, despite the fact that all seven of these elite elderly marathoners were superb runners, when one looks in detail at the differences in their training programs, the available evidence indicates that those who adopted a more polarised training regimen, with a large amount of easy running and a small proportion of intense running, achieved greater longevity at the top.  

In a small sample of exceptional individuals it is of course possible that other differences, possibly directly associated with their natural predisposition to longevity, accounted for the observed longer duration at the top of the rankings. However, one fragment of evidence provides intriguing support for the claim that the training regimen made a crucial the difference. Ed Whitlock’s progress did stutter slightly at age 70. His times of 2:51:02 and 2:52: 50 recorded in the Columbus Ohio marathon at age 68 and 69 respectively made it appear highly probable that he would become the first to break 3 hours at age 70. He did not manage it that year. Nonetheless, despite some problems with arthritis, he continued to build up the frequency of daily 3 hour runs in the following two years. At age 73, after doing 67 three hour training runs in the preceding 20 weeks, he ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2:54:49, surely the most impressive marathon time ever recorded by a masters athlete, and one might argue, no less impressive than the 2:03:23 recorded by the current world open record holder, Wilson Kipsang.

There is another point that should be re-emphasized. Although the striking feature of Ed’s training was the daily 3 hour runs, he did also do some fartlek style speed work, and raced frequently over shorter distances. I suspect that this small but significant amount of faster running helped maintain his world class performances over 1500m and in particular ensured that 1500m time in at age 73 showed only a 1 second decrement from performance at age 72, whereas WAVA would have predicted a 5 second decrement over the year. As shown in table 1, for all six of the athletes for whom 1500m times are available, the comparison of actual 1500m time with the prediction based on VDOT calculated from their marathon times demonstrates that all maintained their speed over the shorter distances. All six did at least a small amount of faster running during training. Thus, it is likely that at least a small amount of intense running was an important component of their training.

It should also be emphasized that drawing general conclusions from the experiences of a small number of exceptional individuals is fraught with danger. If Hosaka can arrest his recent decline while continuing the twice daily interval training he did in his early 60’s, it will be necessary to re-appraise my current conclusions. But the evidence so far does confirm what would be expected on the basis of the studies of training physiology performed in samples more representative of typical runners, over the past half century. The key lesson is that a large amount of easy running together with a small amount of faster running is the best strategy for sustained optimal performance. Furthermore, avoidance of cumulative stress is essential. Ed Whitlock’s example suggests that this is best achieved by very gradual build-up of the training volume.

In my post of August 26th I mentioned Tim Noakes’ hypothesis that an athlete can only expect to remain at his/her peak (relative to the WAVA age norms) for a few years on account of the damaging effect of the training and racing required to attain one’s peak . Although the seven individuals we have been considering are clearly exceptions to any such rule, they do offer interesting insights into the limits to the validity of the hypothesis. In my next post I will examine the evidence for and against that hypothesis.

The secrets of the enduring ancient marathoners

August 26, 2014

There are seven elite ancient marathoners who have set a marathon age-group world record at age 60 or greater, and in addition, have recorded times ranked within the top 15 in their current age band on multiple occasions spanning more than a decade. These seven elite marathoners with extraordinary staying power are John Gilmour, Eric Ӧstbye, John Keston, Derek Turnbull, Luciano Acquarone, Ed Whitlock and Yoshihisa Hosaka.

John Gilmour (born 1919)

John Gilmour migrated from Scotland to Australia during childhood. He was a keen athlete in his teens but at the outbreak of the war enlisted in the army and became a prisoner of war when the Japanese over-ran Singapore in 1942. He was imprisoned in the notorious Changi prison and subsequently shipped to Japan where he experienced further extreme privation. He suffered permanent loss of much of the sight of both eyes due to malnutrition. His pièce de résistance as a slave labourer was destroying a major Tokyo Steel furnace by contriving to have a heavy naval shell loaded into it. He sustained his spirits with the hope of future athletic achievement and within a year of his return home represented Western Australia in national championships. However, his most memorable performances were achieved in international masters events ranging from 800m to marathon over a 20 year period from his early 50’s to age 70. At age 59 he ran a marathon in 2:38:19. Three years later he set a world M60-65 record of 2:41:07 and subsequently in Perth in 1989 he set a M70-75 world record of 3:03:04. He continued to race and to coach until in his mid-eighties.

His training and racing were characterised by intense determination grounded on the conviction that if he could survive his experiences as a POW he would not be deterred by the challenges of running. His training and coaching repertoire included demanding tempo sessions, though in all spheres he showed generosity of spirit and humility. In the forward of Gilmour’s biography, Robert de Castella wrote: ‘… this book celebrates his achievements and gives us an opportunity to understand how champions can be ordinary people doing the extraordinary.’

Eric Ӧstbye ( 1921 – 2011)

Ӧstbye was born on Norway but moved to Sweden. He dominated Swedish road racing in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, but rarely ran on the track. He set his first age group world marathon record in the 45-50 category at age 47 and subsequently set records in the 50-55; 55-60 and 60-65 categories. Even at age 70 his time of 3:15:57 placed him 10th on the world ‘all time’ list at that time.

In 1968, he was not included in the Swedish team for the Mexico Olympics because he was considered too old at age 47, despite a best time of 2:20:55 that year. It is interesting to note that Mamo Wolde won the Olympic gold with a time of 2:20:26, though the altitude of Mexico City (2250m) must be borne in mind. Ostbye trained according to the principles of Ernst van Aaken. The key feature was daily long slow runs of 30 Km or more, in the low aerobic range, augmented by only a small amount of fast running.   He was also a dedicated vegetarian.

John Keston (born 1924)

Keston is an English actor and singer who travelled to Washington, and thence to Broadway, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a touring production of the play, Sherlock Holmes, at age 50. He decided to remain in the US.  At age 55 he took up running to overcome high blood pressure. After doing well in some ‘fun runs’ he began to take running more seriously, and at age 64 achieved his fastest marathon time of 2:52:32. He trained with tigerish ferocity, typically doing sessions such as 20x400m. He set his sights on being the first 70 year old to break 3 hours, and with typical determination he raced 20 marathons that year, without achieving his goal. He subsequently accepted ironically that his determination exceeded his sense. He did break Warren Utes’s half-marathon world record with a time of 1:25:36, and the following year he broke Utes’s M70-74 marathon record with a time 3:00:58.  

Then at age 73 he suffered the first of three serious accidents that might have persuaded a less determined man to give up. First, he broke his hip in a bike accident. Then, sixteen months later he broke his left leg when he slipped and fell in icy snow, and a further ten months later, he stubbed his toe on a rock while running seriously injuring his foot and tearing tendons. He resumed running, but perhaps fortunately, guided by his son’s advice he decreased the intensity of training. Similarly to Eric Ӧstbye and Ed Whitlock, he subsequently trained mostly at low intensity for several hours per day, though at an even lower intensity with about half of the distance covered walking in woodland. He loved the outdoors; the sun, the wind and the rain. Typically, he ran for about two hours every third day, and walked for a similar time on each of the intervening two days.   His race times slowed but nonetheless at age 76 he set US national records at 5K and 10K, and he ran a 1500m in 5:47. The following year his marathon time of 3: 19:01 was only about a minute outside Warren Ute’s M75-80 world record, and 5 years later at age 82 his marathon time was 6th in the all-time rankings for the M80-85 category at that time.    

Derek Turnbull (1926-2006)

Derek Turnbull was a New Zealand sheep farmer who dominated the world of veteran distance running from 1977 to 1992. He had been an enthusiastic runner since his teen-age. Despite subsequently down-playing the athletic achievements of his younger days, he had run a half mile in little over 2 minutes, a mile in 4:23, and achieved fourth places in New Zealand three- and six-miles national championships on several occasions. At university, he was awarded an athletics Blue. The tradition of awarding Blues to mark sporting achievement had originated in Oxford and Cambridge, and had been taken up, perhaps with slight tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm, in some antipodean universities. I am wryly amused by the fact that the only surviving tangible memento of my own early athletic achievements is the venerable document recording the Blue awarded to me by Flinders University. My mother had it framed and I have never had the heart to throw it away. But even if in retrospect, a Blue might be seen as a peculiar mark of respect for the venerable universities of the ‘mother country’, it provides me with a tenuous link to Turnbull, while also illustrating that his athletic gifts were recognised when he was a young man.

However, the thing that makes him a world-class athlete was the fact that nearly four decades later at age 60 he broke the M60-65 world marathon record with a time of 2:38:47, in my home town, Adelaide. Five years later, in 1992, he established a M65-70 world marathon record with a time 2:41:57 in London. That record still stands, and is the prize that Yoshihisa Hosaka is aiming to take in Toronto in November this year   In the intervening years,Turnbull ran an 800m in 2:14.53, a 1500m in 4:28.00 at age 62.   He continued to run after suffering a stroke in 2001 but sadly died in 2006 at age 79. Like his countryman, Jack Foster, Turnbull did not follow any specified training plan, but ran across the fields and through the forests on his property, Sherwood farm, as the whim took him. Nonetheless, his whims often dictated a fast pace, and it is probable that his training included a good mixture of easy and fast running. In an obituary published in Running Times in February 2007, Roger Robinson stated that ‘a visit to Sherwood Farm revealed that running how Derek felt in fact produced a perfectly balanced program of long runs, tempo, and fast work’.

Luciano Acquarone (born 1930)

In his youth, Luciano Acquarone focussed on middle distance events, enjoying success at regional level in his native Italy. In his early forties he turned his attention to the marathon, achieving a time of 2:20:21 at age 42, while also continuing to perform well at 5,000m and 10,000m. In his late forties he suffered tendonitis requiring surgery, but then his career blossomed on the world stage in his early 50’s. He set a world 50-55 age group record of 30:05 for the 10000m record in 1981. That year he ran a marathon in 2:28:28, placing him 5th on the world ‘all-time’ list of 50-55 year old marathoners. He continued to flourish, setting a M60-65 world marathon record of 2:38:15 at Turku in 1991, in addition to capturing the M60-65 10,000m world record. Over the subsequent 15 years he continued to post times in the marathon and also at shorter distances that placed him high in the world rankings.  Again at age 75 he achieved another age group world marathon record with a time of 3:10:57.    At 81 he set a European half marathon record and the following years a M80-85 world record at 3000m. Thus Acquarone has performed at elite level as a veteran over a period of 40 years, and has set world records spanning distances from 3000m to marathon, spread over a three decades. It is ironic that, apparently on the basis of a superficial examination of the data, Ross Tucker selected Acquarone to illustrate his proposition that most elite veterans appear at the top of the world ranking for only a brief few years, in support of Tim Noakes’ hypothesis that training and racing at elite level damages the legs. We will return to address that interesting hypothesis subsequently.

Ed Whitlock (born 1931)

I discussed Ed Whitlock and his training in detail my post of August 2nd. Here I will summarise only those features that are especially relevant to the topic of this post and the next.   As a school boy he showed promise of athletic talent, running a mile in 4:31 and notably beating the future world champion distance runner, Gordon Pirie in a cross country race. Unfortunately, an Achilles tendon injury at university contributed to his decision to stop running, and lack of opportunity for racing after he moved to Canada to take up a job as a mining engineer consolidated that decision. He began running again in his forties, focussing mainly track racing with a strong determination to win. His training placed a strong emphasis on demanding interval sessions. At age 48 he ran his best marathon in 2:31:23 after a winter of solid high-volume training and later that year won gold in the 1500m at the M45-49 masters world championships in Hannover with a time of 4:09.

But his greatest achievements as a marathoner came after he shifted to a training program in which the key feature was daily long runs at a very easy pace, spiced up with occasional fartlek-style speed work and frequent races. In the four years from his impressive time of 2:52:02: in the Columbus Ohio marathon, in 1999 at age 68 to his awe-inspiring 2:54:49 at age 73 in the Toronto Waterfront marathon in 2004, he gradually increased the frequency of 3 hour runs.   In the 20 weeks prior to the 2004 Waterfront he did 67 three hour runs, including 18 on consecutive days. Contrary to the almost inevitable year on year decline observed even among elite elderly marathoners, he actually ran faster at 73 than during the Waterfront Marathon the previous year when he became the first man to run a marathon under 3 hours with a time of 2:59:10. It is also noteworthy that his best 1500m time of 5:08,6 at age 73 was less than a second slower than his best at age 72, whereas an increase of about 5 seconds over a year would be expected. Thus, the increased amount of slow running did not harm his speed. He has continued to set world records distances ranging from 3000m to the marathon, including setting the M80-85 marathon world record with a time of 3:15:54 in 2011.

Yoshihisa Hosaka (born 1949)

I discussed the running career of Yoshihisa Hosaka in my post of August 18th and will only give a brief summary here. He was a champion runner at school but during his twenties he focussed on surfing, only returning to running at age 36. Initial success at shorter road races led him eventually to the marathon. He achieved a personal best of 2:25:28 at age 45 and after further refining his training program, set the M60-65 world record with a time of 2:36:30 at the Beppu-Oita Marathon in 2009. As he described in an interview with Brett Larner, his training at that time was based on 5x1Km twice daily at a gradually progressive pace within a total of 32 Km per day.   In the following three years he continued to race well , capturing the M61 and M63 single-age world records, though his marathon time increased at a rate of over 3 minute per year compared with an expected slowing of about 2 minutes per year for an elite runner in his early 60’s. In last year’s Gold Coast marathon he narrowly failed to capture Clive Davies M64 single-age record of 2:42:44 and this year faces the major challenge of capturing Derek Turnbull’s M65-70 record of 2:41:57.  

What do these ancient marathoners share?

First, with the exception of John Keston, all showed evidence of at least a moderate athletic talent in young adult life, but none were of international class at that stage. Gilmour represented his state in national championships in his twenties, within a year of his return for prisoner of war camp; Ӧstbye began to dominate Swedish road racing in his thirties; Turnbull won an athletic Blue at university; Acqualone was a successful middle distance runner at regional level in his twenties; Whitlock famously beat Gordon Pirie in a cross country race as a school boy; and Hosaka was a school-boy champion. Although Keston did not start running until age 55, his immediate success in fun runs made it apparent that he too was gifted.

However the thing that made all seven of these runners great were their performances in their 50’s, 60s, and 70’s and in several instances, in their 80’s.   Their great performances were not confined to the marathon. With the exception of Eric Ӧstbye who rarely ran on the track, all of them have been listed in world masters rankings for 1500m, and several of them set national or world records at 10,000m.  

Thus, even more important than their talent for distance running as young men, was the fact that their performances declined with age at a much slower rate than the average person. This reduced rate of decline applied across the spectrum from 1500m to marathon. Nonetheless, despite a reduced rate of decline from young adult life to middle age, they did all decline. Data from the Master Athletics track and field world rankings indicates that this rate became fairly uniform by the middle years of the seventh decade. At that stage, the rate of their slowing was around 1.5% per year for both marathon and 1500m.

The degree of commonality in these features across all seven athletes suggests at first sight that the type of training did not play a crucial role. All undoubtedly trained consistently and with determination, but the content of their training sessions differed substantially. Ӧstbye, Whitlock and Keston (in his later years) did a high volume of easy running with a small amount of faster training and/or racing over short distances. Turnbull was deliberately more spontaneous in his training but appears to have included a reasonably balanced mixture of training paces. As far as I can gather from the information available to me, Gilmour and Acqualone also included a balanced a mixture of paces. The central feature of Hosaka’s training is 5x1Km intervals twice daily at a gradually progressive pace, within an overall total of 32 Km per day.  

Presented in such broad brush strokes as this it is difficult to reach any conclusion about training other than that a variety of different training programs can lead to success, provided the athlete has a degree of natural talent for running together with a predisposition to age slowly, and the training is consistent. However, I think that a finer grained analysis does allow us to draw some speculative but potentially useful conclusions about how to train, whatever the level of one’s natural talent.

There is a related question that arises from the hypothesis that an athlete can only expect to remain at his/her peak (relative to the WAVA age norms) for a limited number of years on account of the damaging effect of the training and racing required to attain one’s peak. These seven ancient marathoners were selected for this discussion on account of their longevity in the world marathon rankings, and hence do not provide an unbiased sample in which to test that hypothesis. Nonetheless, because they tend to be exceptions to the rule, they do offer interesting insights into the limits to the validity of the hypothesis. Furthermore, a finer grained analysis of features of the training of some of these seven marathoners does provide some clues regarding the way one might train to remain near to one’s peak for longer.

In my next post, I will examine a few of the finer details of the training of these seven athletes that proved pointers toward how to achieve one’s best in middle-age, and how to sustain that peak relative to WAVA age norms into old-age.

The training of Yoshihisa Hosaka

August 18, 2014

At high school Yoshihisa Hosaka was a champion track athlete. After several years devoted to surfing, he began running again in his mid-thirties, focussing on short road races, but did not seriously contemplate the marathon. At age 42 he won a 7 Km race that earned him a trip to compete in the Honolulu marathon.  He completed it in 2:31:19. In an interview with Brett Larner, editor of Japan Running News, in 2009, he described the way in which he developed his training over the next few years, achieving a marathon personal best time of 2:25:28 at age 45, an impressive performance but appreciably slower than the time of 2:20:28 achieved by Jack Foster at age 50, and well outside the world M45+ record of 2:14:16 set by Jackson Kipngok Yegon of Kenya. Hosaka continued to develop his training and settled on a consistent routine of two sessions daily, both including 5x1Km intervals within a daily total of 32Km. In February 2009 at age 60 he took nearly two minutes of the world M60+ record with a time of 2:36:30 at the Beppu-Oita Marathon.

His best performance in the past 15 months was 2:46:14 at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon in July 2013 at age 64, though this was over three minutes outside Clive Davies’ single-age world record for a 64 year old of 2:42:44 set in 1979. At the Toronto Waterfront marathon last November Hosaka started well but his leg muscles tightened-up during the middle stages of the race and he finished in 2:50:44. At the Gold Coast marathon this year, he won the M65-69 age group in a time of 2:52:13. But he still has his eyes on breaking Derek Turnbull’s M65+ world record of 2:41:57 in Toronto in November.

Hosaka’s peak performance deteriorated by 11 minutes in the 15 years from his personal best at age 45 to his world M60+ at age 60, and by almost 10 minutes in the 4 years from age 60 to his 2013 Gold Coast marathon at age 64. According to WAVA, the deterioration expected for a runner at the highest level would be 20 minutes from age 45 to 60, and 6 minutes 15 seconds from age 60 to 64. Thus, Hosaka deteriorated at only half of the rate predicted by WAVA between his PB at age 45 and his world record at 60 but he has deteriorated at almost 70% more than WAVA would predict from age 60 to his best performance within the past 15 months. One should not base too much on his recent races slower than 2:50 in Toronto in November 2013 and the Gold Coast in July 2014, as the marathon is an unpredictable event in which sub- peak performances are not usual, Nonetheless these two races do provide a further hint at the possibility of a more rapid deterioration in his mid-sixties.

To what extent has his training contributed to his outstanding improvement relative to WAVA prediction in the period from 45 to 60, and might this training have actually led to a faster deterioration than that predicted by WAVA in the years since age 60?

Hosaka’s Training

In the interview with Brett Larner, shortly after he had set the M60+ world record in 2009, Hosaka provided a detailed account of his unvarying daily schedule. The morning session begins with a 1.5 mile jog through mountainous country from his home to a tree-lined riverbank path where he does five 1Km repetitions at a gradually increasing pace, starting at a relaxed 6:25 /mile (about 25 sec/mile slower than his marathon pace at that time) and increasing pace to 5:20 /mile, which is the estimated 10K pace for a 2:36:30 marathoner. In isolation, this would be quite an easy session, gently progressing from a relaxed initial pace to the fifth Km repetition at around 10K pace. He jogs home, and works in his own business from 8:30am to 5:00pm. After work, he drives to a park where he does some strength exercises and then a progressive 12Km warm-up starting at 9:30/mile and increasing pace up to 8 minutes mile. He then does another 5x1Km interval session on a long downhill stretch of a nearby road. He does the first 1Km at marathon pace and gradually increases to estimated 10 Km pace for the final repetition. He finishes with 5 x 100m accelerations on soft earth in the park, to help maintain his speed. In isolation, this session would also be fairly easy, though the day’s total of 32 Km is substantial, and the cumulative effect of repeating this day after day would be appreciable. He races quite frequently, and usually races at least two marathons per year

The key features of Hosaka’s programme

  • The unvarying daily schedule of two sessions, each of which would be only moderately demanding in isolation, allows him to monitor how well his body is coping with the training much more effectively than a program that alternates hard and easy days.   In similar manner, Ed Whitlock, whom I discussed in my previous post, follows a consistent program of daily long runs, though Hosaka’s schedule provides greater variety within each day. While the human mind craves variety, the body adapts very well to a routine. I consider that the doctrine that the body needs fresh challenges in order to improve is over-rated. Consistency is of greater importance, though it is probable that the best results are obtained when demands of training increase gradually over a long period. Frequent racing also adds spice.

There are two occasions in my own running career when I did daily doubles with very little variation over a period of many months. The first was as a youngster when I ran to and from school at a comfortable pace each day for several years. I did not find this irksome, and believe that it laid the foundation for what success I later enjoyed as a distance runner. Then in my early twenties, I ran 10 miles twice daily for several months, guided by a fragmentary knowledge of Lydiard’s recommendation of running at least 100 miles per week. I ran at what I assumed Lydiard meant by a ‘good aerobic pace’ though I ran many of those miles not far below the second ventilatory threshold, which was probably somewhat faster than Lydiard would have recommended. Again I did not find the routine irksome, though at the time I was working very long hours and eventually became increasingly tired. Nonetheless, in the following summer season I ran the best 5000m races of my career and also achieved a memorable victory in the only 10,000m I have ever raced.

  • Both of Hosaka’s daily sessions were gently progressive. Although he ran about 10 Km per day at marathon pace or faster, these moderately effortful segments were only 1 Km in length, and in the evening session, they were downhill. He did not do sustained tempo sessions – which evidence indicates are disproportionality stressful. He himself reports that he finds his body copes better with interval sessions in which the demand for effort comes in small chunks, than with sustained running near lactate threshold. In the interview with Brett Larner he stated: “Most people can’t keep race pace up for a long time as they get older. Doing it in intervals lets you keep your speed without getting hurt.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his training is the absence of long runs. However, as indicated by Dudley’s well-known studies of rats, there is little evidence that runs longer than 40-50 minutes are an efficient way to increase aerobic capacity. It is however probable that long runs are effective in developing the ability to withstand the sustained pounding of the legs that is inevitable during a marathon, though it is possible that downhill 1 Km repetitions at marathon pace or faster, are even more effective for developing the required resilience. The other main marathon-specific benefit of long runs is the psychological preparation. But Hosaka considers that his daily routine is well suited to the sustained mental demand of the marathon.   He told Brett Larner: “Early on it’s easy, but after a few days it’s harder and you think, ‘Ah, this is like the 30K point in the marathon,’ then it gets even harder like at 40K. Every day’s training becomes like part of the marathon. Most people run a hard day and then jog an easy day, but the marathon is constant and you have to train yourself to handle that constant.”
  • Although he is not finicky about his life-style, he eats a balanced diet and believes it’s important to let the body use its natural healing processes. He employs strength exercises and weightlifting to prevent and treat injuries. He trains in relaxing surroundings. Although his work as a businessman no doubt creates some pressure, as his own boss he has the opportunity to regulate his own stress level.

I consider that Hosaka’s preparedness to identify a training program that suited him well and enabled him to train consistently were the key features that allowed him to make substantial improvement in marathon performance between age 42 and 45, and then to slow the rate of decline over the following 15 years. In his consistency and his care to avoid undue stress, Hosaka resembles Ed Whitlock. However, while both of them have included a small amount of fast running and frequent racing to maintain their speed, in other respects the content of their programmes is dramatically different. Hosaka focusses on gradually progressive 1 Km repetitions but no long runs, whereas daily 3 hour runs at a slow pace are the key feature of Ed’s programme. Both have been phenomenally successful over a period of a decade or more, confirming that there is no single way to train in order to achieve outstanding marathon performances. Does our understanding of body physiology provide any clues as to which approach is likely to offer the greater prospect of sustained elite performance over several decades? .

Catabolism and anabolism

Training produces benefit by creating a stress that provokes the body to react in a manner that enhances the ability to withstand stress in future. The mechanism of the stress response is only partly understood, but current understanding does provide useful guidance for planning training.

The first general principle is that stress generates a two-phase response. The initial response is the catabolic phase in which the body’s priority is breaking down of tissues to supply fuel for energy production. Glycogen is broken down to release glucose and if the stress is sustained, protein is broken down into amino acids which in turn can be used as fuel. The catabolic hormones adrenaline and cortisol plays a cardinal role in regulating these metabolic processes. In addition, physical trauma, such as the eccentric muscle contraction at foot-strike, produces microscopic tearing of tissues.

After cessation of exercise, the level of adrenaline falls within minutes while the level of cortisol returns to baseline over period of an hour or two. However, a second bout of exercise within 3 hours produces an even greater surge of adrenaline and cortisol, compared with a similar second bout of exercise after 6 hours. This indicates that even after cortisol has returned to baseline, signalling molecules circulating in the bloodstream are a marker of residual stress. This sustained marker of stress diminishes markedly by 6 hours. However other markers of stress such as a fall in blood levels of lymphocytes, which play a role in protecting against infection, can persist for 24 hours.

The second phase is the anabolic phase during which tissues are repaired. Various different processes are involved. Anabolic hormones stimulate the re-synthesis of protein. A complex set of chemical messengers including various cytokines, trigger an inflammatory response. Capillaries become leaky allowing fluid containing scavenging white blood cells and materials required for repair, to reach damaged tissue. The scavenging white cells remove cellular debris, while the deposition of collagen fibres strengthens tissues. Satellite cells, which are a form of stem cell found in muscle, promote regeneration of muscle.

If there is repeated stress before recovery is complete there is a risk of a third phase. Sustained elevation of cortisol can occur, causing continued suppression of the immune system and inhibiting anabolism. Paradoxically, sustained elevation of cortisol can promote chronic inflammation by blunting the body’s response to cortisol. Chronic inflammation leads to disorganized deposition of collagen fibres in body tissues, impeding the function of these tissues. .It is even possible for collagen deposition in the walls of coronary blood vessels to promote atheroma that might eventually increase the risk of heart attack. It is noteworthy that sustained moderate elevation of cortisol is not uncommon in distance runners, and is related to both volume and intensity of training. While there is little compelling evidence that even quite intense training produces harm that outweighs the benefits of vigorous training over a period of several years, I suspect that if one wishes to train at elite level over a period of decades, it is crucial to maintain a healthy balance between catabolism and anabolism, and to avoid the potentially harmful third phase.

It is likely that training programmes that carefully avoid excessive stress, have enabled both Hosaka and Whitlock to remain at elite level for at least a decade, and in Whitlock’s case, for even longer. I see no reason to propose that Hosaka’s carefully calibrated interval sessions are more likely to produce sustained stress than Whitlock’s frequent 3 hour slow runs. However, there is one respect in which I think Whitlock’s approach is safer. Although his programme is not deliberately periodized, by virtue of various circumstances, including arthritis and accidents, he has been forced to cut back his training from time to time, and whenever he does so, he builds up the duration of his long runs very gradually. I suspect that gradual adaptation is a key feature of his success.

Future prospects

Hosaka’s own comments reported in another interview with Brett Larner in Toronto in November 2013 suggest he is considering a change. He acknowledged that he was finding it harder to maintain his daily interval sessions, and perhaps might even change to Ed Whitlock’s high volume, low intensity approach, though maybe this was simply an expression of Japanese politeness while he was a guest in Ed’s home town.

In 2013, Hosaka missed the single-age M64 world record, after capturing M59, 60, 61, 63 world records in the previous five years. It is interesting to speculate that he might be beginning to experience the accelerating deterioration that many runners experience in the mid to late sixties, but only time will tell. Whitlock had also shown slight hints of a stutter in performance for two or three years after his superb 2:52:50 in the 1999 Columbus Ohio marathon at age 69, but he came back with a tremendous improvement to achieve 2:54:48 in Toronto at age 73. Although Ed has slowed appreciably in the subsequent decade, nonetheless in his early eighties, he still breaks world records at distances from 1500m to marathon with remarkable regularity. Undoubtedly his training regimen has combined with his apparently inherited predisposition to longevity to delay the inevitable deterioration of performance with age, whereas the effectiveness of Hosaka’s regimen beyond the mid-sixties remains un-tested . So it will be very interesting to see how well Hosaka can hold his form over the next few years, and in particular, to see whether or not he moves to lower intensity long training runs. But whatever he does, the records that Ed set in his early 70’s are going to be very hard to beat.

The training of Ed Whitlock

August 2, 2014

In a recent post I expressed my hope to run a ‘good’ marathon once again, almost half a century since I last did serious marathon training.   In that intervening half century several outstanding individuals have demonstrated that even in old age it is possible to run a marathon in a manner that would be creditable at any age.   These elite veterans include Ed Whitlock, John Keston, Derek Turnbull and Yoshihisa Hosaka. Nonetheless, despite their incredible feats, even these outstanding veteran marathoners have suffered decline with age. It is clear that outstanding performances depend on both intrinsic talent for distance running and remarkable ability to slow the progress of the inevitable age-related decline, in addition to the determination and ability to train well.

These veteran marathoners have demolished previous concepts of what training the elderly frame can withstand. While it is almost certain that genetic factors set them apart from the average person, it is worth asking if the way which they have trained has played a substantial role in their ability to slow the progress of decline, and in particular, to allow them to continue train at the level required for elite performance in old age.

All four of these elite veterans have trained in different ways, though there are common themes. In this post I will focus on the training of Whitlock, and in my next post on Hosaka, but also draw on some observations of the training of Turnbull and Keston in an attempt to tease out some of the key issues.

Ed Whitlock

Whitlock was the first person over 70 years of age to break 3 hours for the marathon with a time of 2:59:09 in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in September 2003 at age 72.  A year later in the Waterfront Marathon he took more than 4 minutes off that time, achieving the phenomenal time of 2:54:48.   In last year’s Waterfront Marathon, he set a new world record for an 82 year old of 3:41:57.  He remains the only person over 70 to have run a marathon in less than 3 hours, ten years after achieving that feat, and therefore stands as a colossus among ancient marathoners.

To what extent can these colossal performances be attributed to intrinsic talent for distance running; to inherent ability to withstand the ravages of time; or to training?

As a school-boy, Ed ran a mile in 4:31 and on one occasion beat Gordon Pirie in a cross country race.   At that stage he was a gifted distance runner but not extraordinary. He gave up running at University due to recurrent Achilles problems but returned to track running in his early forties. In a discussion on the Let’s Run website, to which he is a frequent and gracious contributor, he reports: ‘My best marathon at age 48 was 2:31:23 at Ottawa in May 1979. This was done off a winter of quite high mileage done in preparation for middle distance track in the summer.’   After some speed work on the track during the summer, he won the M45 world masters 1500m championship in 4:09.   By that stage, it was clear that he was not only a gifted distance runner, but was also showing evidence of the ability to withstand aging.

However, it is noteworthy, that Jack Foster (discussed in my post on July 23rd) who born a year after Whitlock, ran 2:20:28 at age 50 in 1982.   The current world best for a 48 year old is 2:18:57 by Ayele Setegne of Israel, in 2011. Thus, Whitlock’s best marathon time was creditable, but not extraordinary for a 48 year old, despite the evidence that he had done both high volume training and high intensity training sufficient to take him to top place on the podium at the World Maters championship for 1500m that year. Thus, one must look for evidence that a combination of training and extraordinary resistance to aging to explain the extraordinary performances in his seventies and eighties.

In an interview for Runners World in 2005, Amby Burfoot asked Ed what he considered to be the secret of his success. Ed replied: ‘I think it’s the ability to absorb a fair amount of mileage in my training. And that’s probably genetic. I had an uncle who lived to the ripe old age of 107. The mileage I’ve done in the past few years is something I built up to gradually. I was very conscious about not making big leaps in my training. I was also conscious about keeping the speed relatively slow. I shuffle along to reduce the impact, rather than bounding. I don’t know what the relative importance of these things is, but the mileage is what has turned me into a marathoner.’

Ed almost certainly inherited some genes for longevity as not only did his uncle reach 107 but also his father lived into his eighties and his mother into her nineties.   Laboratory tests done at The High Performance Specialists clinic in North Toronto tests shortly before his 70th birthday do provide some hints concerning the inherited features that have contributed to his extraordinary running.   There was nothing remarkable in the various blood tests. The three noteworthy findings were a body fat proportion of 9.5% (about half that expected), a maximum heart rate of 168 (compared with predicted value of 151 based on the best recent estimate of the relationship between age and HRmax) and VO2max of 52.8 ml/min/Kg compared with the average of 35 for a 70 year old.

Ed’s high VO2max was extraordinary for a 70 year old, but was not extraordinary for a three hour marathoner.   The formula derived by Jack Daniels to estimate race performance based on VO2max predicts a marathon time of 3:01:00 for an athlete with VO2max of 52.8. Ed ran 3:00:33 in London, Ontario a month or so later. Thus, the task of identifying the source of Ed’s extraordinary marathon performance becomes the task of identifying the source of his high VO2max.

How much of Ed’s aerobic capacity is attributable to genes?

Can Ed’s high VO2 max can be accounted for by his high HRmax? At first sight there appears to be only a weak relationship between the variation between individuals in HRmax and variation in either VO2max or performance. This is because the delivery of oxygen to muscle cells depends not only on heart rate but also stroke volume and the ability of muscles to extract oxygen from blood, which in turn depend on capillary density, aerobic enzyme capacity and ability to recruit muscle fibres.   Variation between individuals in these various factors obscures the relationship between HRmax and performance. However, if all of these other variables are optimised by optimal training, a 10% increase in HR reserve (HR max- resting HR) would be expected to produce approximately a 10 % increase in VO2max. Since a 10% increase in HR max would usually produce at least a 10% increase in HR reserve, it is reasonable to assume that the Ed’s increase of HRmax above the average accounts for about 10% of his VO2max . Daniels’ formula indicates that a 10% increase in VO2max would account for an improvement of about 17 minutes for a 3 hour marathoner.

The mechanism that regulates decline of HRmax with age is not fully understood though it is at least partly dependent to the number of ion channels that allow the transport of calcium ions across the membranes of cardiac pacemaker cells. Much evidence indicates that HRmax is not related to training.  If anything training actually reduces HRmax a little, though cardiac output increases due to the increase in stroke volume produced by increased blood volume. Twin studies indicate that HRmax is largely determined by genetic factors.

Thus, it is very plausible that Ed’s high HRmax, likely attributable largely to his genes, contributed to a reduction of around 17 minutes in his marathon time at age 70. Without this benefit, his time in the London, Ontario marathon in 2001 might have been nearer to 3:17:23 than 3:00:23. While 3:17:23 would be outstanding for a 70 year old , it is not phenomenal.

Nonetheless to conclude simply that Ed’s phenomenal performances are due to factors such as high HRmax that are more influenced by genes than training, is to miss a crucial point.   The evidence has been discernible since the day he beat Gordon Pirie in a school-boy cross country race that he is an intrinsically gifted distance runner, and the evidence that he is aging well was already apparent when he won the M45-49 1500m at the world masters championship in Hanover in 1979.  For anyone hoping to learn from his example, the crucial issue is that he has been able to cope with the training required to optimise all those other attributes: cardiac stroke volume, and the factors that determine the ability to extract oxygen from blood, in a manner that has allowed him to exploit his gift of high HRmax to an extraordinary degree.  To what extent is the nature of his training responsible for this?

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Ed Whitlock’s training

Ed became a good, but not exceptional, masters marathoner at age 48 by virtue of his intrinsic gifts and a training program comprising high volume in the winter and speed work in the summer. In his sixties he increased the volume of training with a focus on long slow long runs most days of the week, while reducing the speed work, largely relying on occasional fartlek session and frequent races. For example in a Runners web interview in 2003 in the week after he ran 2:59:10 in the Toroto Waterfront Marathon, his first sub 3 hour marathon at age greater than 70, he stated : ‘My training is now without coaching and consists of daily long runs, typically 2 hours I don’t measure the distance and purposely keep the speed down. I don’t have any streak going but try to run every day, no hard easy day routine. I do the odd semi “speed” work out, but not on the track. I race frequently to give me speed and to make me race tough.’  In fact, from his various posts on the Lets Run thread, it was clear than some of the long runs were actually of 3 hours duration.

Was it the introduction of almost daily long slow runs, or was it the inherited predisposition to longevity that contributed most to the transition from a ‘good’ masters marathoner at age 48 to the first (and still the only) man to run a marathon under 3 hours at age greater than 70? I think that the evidence that the long slow runs played a major part came in the Waterfront Marathon the following year (2004) when he achieved the phenomenal time of 2:54:48 at age 73.   In the intervening period, he increased the proportion of long runs of 3 hours duration.

In an interview with Scott Douglas  for Running Times he reported in the six months leading up to the Waterfront Marathon in 2004 he ran 15 races of 5K-15K and built up his long run time to three hours a day.  In a response to a question on the Let’s Run thread, he stated that in the 20 weeks prior to the 2004 Waterfront he did 67 three hour runs, including 18 on consecutive days. He trained for 15.9 hours per week.

While not conclusive proof, I think that the fact that an increase in the number of 3 hours runs was associated with an improvement of over 4 minutes from age 72 to 73 is strongly suggestive that the frequent very long runs played a key role.   There is of course no guarantee that emulating Ed’s training would allow another individual to achieve the same benefits from that training. It is far from certain that the average 70 year old could emulate his training without devastating physical breakdown.   However, few individuals have made a serious attempt to emulate Ed’s training. It would be premature to conclude that his training would not work for others before careful examination of how Ed does it.

It’s not simply a matter of high volume

From his various comments on the Let’s Run thread over the years, and from the interviews with Amby Burfoot and with Scott Douglas, there are three noteworthy features of Ed’s training apart from the mere fact that he does very long runs:

  • He builds up the duration of runs very gradually. The number of three hour runs  increased gradually over a period of 6 years from occasional three hour runs during preparation from his race in Columbic Ohio in 1998 to an average of 3.2 per week prior to the Waterfront Marathon in 2004. Furthermore, when he has to rebuild following injury, he starts with daily runs of less than an hour and increases the daily run duration gradually by 10 minutes per week.
  • He takes great care to minimise wear and tear on his legs. He trains at a slow shuffling pace designed to minimise impact forces. He does virtually all of his training on 500-600 metre loops of the level paths of Milton Evergreen Cemetery, near to his home, so that he can return home immediately if he develops an injury.
  • He sustains his speed via short distance races and occasional fartlek-style speed sessions.  It is noteworthy that during races he does not shuffle, as illustrated by this picture of him during the 2011 Longboat Toronto Island 10Km race at age 80.

In light of the evidence that high volume training is associated with harmful accumulation of cortisol and that large increases in training volume are associated with a greater risk of the over-training syndrome than increases in intensity (discussed in detail in my post on 14th April 2009) I consider that the secret to Ed’s success is the gradual build up and his care to avoid wear and tear. He trains with respect for his body.

In my previous post on July 23rd I examined the training of Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster, both great athletes who succeeded in maintaining world-class performances into middle age. This same theme of respect for the body emerged, though in different ways: in the case of Haile, the carefulness was deliberate; while Jack’s approach was deliberately carefree. To perform maximally over a sustained period, one must train with determination, but merely training hard is not enough.   Hard training must be accompanied by sensitivity to the body’s response.   In my next post I will examine the training of another great veteran marathoner, Yoshihisa Hosaka, whose training is radically different from that of Ed Whitlock, but in its own way, is also sensitive to the way the body is responding to training.

The training of Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster

July 23, 2014

In recent months I have been re-building the base fitness required for another marathon. I would like to run a ‘good’ marathon, though after my somewhat disappointing performance in the Robin Hood half-marathon last September and apparent acceleration of age-related deterioration since then, it is difficult to estimate what would a reasonable target time.   However my definition of a good marathon is based more on how I run it than on the time achieved. I want to be fit enough to maintain a pace near lactate threshold for the entire distance. While I anticipate that the final 10 Km will be demanding, I would nonetheless hope to have enough resilience in my legs to allow me to maintain reasonable fluency over that final 10Km.

Marathoning in the 1960’s

When I last trained seriously for a marathon, well over 40 years ago, the two most influential figures shaping opinions about how to train were Emil Zatopek, the giant who had dominated distance running from 1948 until 1954, and Arthur Lydiard, whose athletes had created a sensation at the Rome Olympics in 1960. In retrospect it is surprising how slowly ideas travelled though the running community. In the pre-internet era, we relied largely on word-of-mouth rumours. Lydiard’s first book, ‘Run to the Top’ had been in print since 1962, but the apparent conflict between Lydiard’s emphasis on running 100 miles per week, mostly at a ‘good aerobic pace’ and the fragmentary information about Zatopek’s punishing training regimen, fuelled continuing debate.   Nonetheless, the 1960’s was a golden age for marathoning in which the world record tumbled from Abebe Bikila’s 2:15:16 in the Rome Olympics of 1960 to Derek Clayton’s 2:08:33 (over a disputed course) in Antwerp in 1969.

My training was mainly shaped by Lydiard’s ideas. I ran a fairly large volume (though rarely 100 miles per week) at a good aerobic pace, including long runs in the hills, together with occasional interval sessions. In those days we were less concerned about actual finishing times because it was recognised that the time in a marathon was dependent on the course. I have no record of my best time. I was by no means elite. The only time I have been able to recover from internet archives was 2:33:07 recorded in the Australian Marathon championship in 1970 though at my best I ran quite a lot faster than that.   But sadly, age has taken a serious toll. My capacity to recover from long runs at a good aerobic pace has deteriorated markedly.   So how should I train now?

Polarized training

In my recent post on the debates of the past decade, I concluded that the evidence is in favour of polarised training: a large volume of easy running spiced with a small volume of higher intensity training.   However there are many variants that might be described as polarised. In this post and the next, I will compare pairs of great marathoners, past and present, who I believe provide some thought provoking illustrations of training principles. I will start with a comparison of Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster, both exponents of polarised training sharing some key features, but also differences. In my next post I will discuss two amazing veterans: Ed Whitlock, who practises an extreme form of polarised training, based on a very large volume of easy running together with a small volume of high intensity running provided by fairy frequent races over distances from 1500m to 10K; and Yoshihisa Hosaka, whose daily interval training is the antithesis of polarised training, apparently owing more to the example of Zatopek than Lydiard.

Haile Gebrselassie

Geb has a strong claim to stand beside Emil Zatopek in the pantheon of distance running legends. In the 16 years from the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, where he won gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5000m to his marathon world record of 2:03:59 in the 2008 Berlin marathon, Geb was as dominant a figure as Zatopek had been over the 7 years from his gold medal in the 10,000m at the 1948 London Olympics to his gold in the 10,000m and silver in 5000m at the 1954 European Championships.

Zatopek had reached his zenith with gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon at Helsinki in 1952, just before his 30th birthday. He struggled into 6th place at the Melbourne Olympics four years later, admittedly shortly after surgery for a hernia. He retired from competition at age 35, having created a legend based on gruelling training that combined high volume with high intensity.   In contrast, although Geb had achieved international prominence at a slightly younger age than Zatopek, he was 35 when he achieved his fastest marathon in Berlin in 2008, and is still competing in 2014. He has struggled to be competitive at the highest level since his failure to finish the New York marathon in 2010, but nonetheless achieved a creditable third behind Kenenesa Bekele and Mo Farah with a half-marathon time of 60:41 in the Great North Run last year, at age 40.

Geb has been generous in providing information about his attitude to training and racing, but is understandably reticent about the details of his training. In a BBC question and answer session in 2002 he stated that his training schedule was secret. Nonetheless a sample week of his base training from 2006 was published on the Powerbar website and is still accessible on the Runzone website.

As is typical of African runners, his training is polarised. Almost 60% (110 km of his 190km a week) was at 6:15 min/mile or slower. About 8 % was at paces near marathon pace, and 6% faster than marathon pace (approximately 4:48 /mile that year)   As noted in the discussion on Runzone, he trained at Addis Ababa at an altitude above 8000 feet. Thus the training performed near to marathon pace would have been more demanding than marathon pace at sea level. The difference in effort between sea level and high altitude depends on how well the individual is acclimatised. The experienced coach, Tinman estimates that the effort at altitude 8000’ would be equivalent to that at a pace around 7% faster at sea level. According to this estimate, Geb’s easy pace of 6:15 per mile would probably be equivalent to around 5:50 per mile at sea level, which is a little over a minute per mile slower than his pace in the Berlin marathon that year. Whatever plausible estimate of the altitude effect one makes, it is clear that Geb was doing a substantial proportion of his training at pace which would have been fairly easy for him.

Elsewhere Geb makes it clear that he was careful to avoid too much stress. In his BBC Q&A session in 2002 he states: ‘I generally have 13 training sessions a week. On Sunday I only run once. Each week, I try to do 3 speed sessions, one long run (1½/2 hours) and one or two Fartlek sessions. The rest of the sessions are endurance runs that I try not to run too fast. They help my muscles to recover from the hard training’. Thus 8 of his 13 sessions are not too fast in order to facilitate recovery. He takes delight in running in the forest. He considers that one of the best pieces of advice about running he ever received was from his agent Jos Hermens. He states: ‘Jos taught me not to run too many races and to train and rest well. When I started to do this, my performances got even better’.

In a response to a question about recovering for the hard sessions he emphasises the importance of adequate sleep and rest: ‘I go to bed early (9.30 pm), but also wake up early (6 am). During the daytime …it is not so important to sleep, as long as I can take a rest. In the afternoon, I try to rest for two hours.’

Though one cannot draw general conclusions from the experiences of two individuals, it is noteworthy that Geb remained at the top of the field for over twice as long as Emil Zatopek. In an interview with Adharanand Finn, of the Guardian newspaper in 2013, Finn asked how he had managed to keep going for so long. Geb replied: ‘You know, there is no secret. I am just always very careful when I’m training. All athletes need three things: commitment, discipline and hard work’. The reference to being very careful suggests that the required discipline is the discipline to balance the hard work with recovery.

At age 41, Geb is still eager to set records the Masters age group. His sub 61 minute half marathon in the GNR in September 2013 suggests that the M40-44 marathon world record of 2:08:46 is still within his reach. But the marathon is a far greater challenge than the half, and Geb has not completed a marathon since February 2012, when he was placed 4th in Tokyo with a time of 2:08:17. He had been aiming for the M40-44world record in the Hamburg marathon in May of this year, but withdrew due to concern about possible breathing difficulties arising from high pollen levels. It remains to be seen whether or not he can achieve the Masters record. Meanwhile it is worth examining the training and achievements of a remarkable athlete who laid down a challenge the limitation of age, 40 years ago.

Jack Foster

As a young man Jack discovered the joys of cycling over the moorland of northern England and the hills of nearby Wales as an escape from the dreariness of his factory job in post-war Liverpool. The opportunity to escape to even wider open spaces came in the form of £10 assisted passage to New Zealand when he was 24. He returned to Britain to marry, and five year later, once again emigrated to New Zealand. At age 32 with a young family to support and faced with the anticipated expenses of competitive cycling, he decided to run. On his first run he was breathless within minutes, but nonetheless took to running with enthusiasm and impish delight. Much of the story of the following decade is told in his short 48 page book, ‘The Tale of the Ancient Marathoner’ (World Publications, 1974).

He claimed not to train, by which he meant that he rejected prescribed training schedules, and ran as he felt inclined. His favourite runs were cross country for an hour or two over the sheep pastures of the Rotorua district of New Zealand’s north island. However he was no stranger to pushing himself hard, and reports that during races he ‘ran his tripes out’. In 1971, at age 39, he established a world record at 20 miles on the track. In his diary he wrote: ‘80 bloody laps, must be stupid! ….world best for 20; not bad for an old bugger’.

He represented New Zealand in the Olympic marathon in Munich in 1972, and again in the Montreal Games four years later. But his most striking performance was his run in the marathon in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games in 1974. Though by this stage a 41 year old, he took the silver medal with a time of 2:11:18.6, a little over two minutes behind the winner, Ian Thompson, whose time of 2:09:12 was the second fastest ever recorded, less than a minute slower than Derek Clayton’s disputed record set in Antwerp in 1969.  Thus, at age 41, Foster was among the world leaders at the end of that golden decade of marathoning that followed Bikila’s barefoot run in Rome in 1960. .

In an appendix of ‘The Tale of the Ancient Marathoner’ Foster gives a verbatim account from his diary of his running in the four weeks prior to his 20 mile world record in August 1971. He did 28 training sessions, though he was reluctant to call them training. Eighteen of the runs were easy, mostly described as jogging across country. He ran three hard hilly runs, and did four interval sessions (4×1 miles on a horse race track). He ran a 2-mile time trial, a cross country County Championship race and a 20 mile road run in 2:03. He ran doubles on three occasions, but did not run on three days: once because he felt too tired, once after being delayed getting home from work due to a car break-down, and once due to a stomach upset. He covered about 70 miles per week. Overall, the balance of hard and easy sessions is similar to the Haile’s training in the period 2003 to 2006, though the total volume was appreciably less, and there is a somewhat greater sense of spontaneity in Jack’s choice of sessions.

A glimpse of his spontaneity is provided in the latter part of the inspiring film ‘On the Run’ released by the New Zealand Film Unit in 1979. As an aside, although that short film was released almost a decade after my own heyday as a runner, and the landscapes of New Zealand are grander than the gum-tree covered slopes and gullies of the Adelaide hills in which I ran, it evokes so vividly the era in which I fell in love with running. On the one hand there was the precise organization but undeniably amateur atmosphere of track events run under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Association; on the other hand, the freedom of running across farmland and hill country.   Perhaps a crucial snippet was Arthur Lydiard’s slightly breathless remark to 3000m runner, Heather Thompson, as they ran together though the scrub: ‘just slow down Heather, the distance is more important than the speed. You have just got to keep it at a pleasant effort’.   Although at the time we had debated the merits of Arthur’s ideas, in retrospect, it is clear that those ideas played a key part in shaping that golden era.

After the Montreal Olympics Jack continued to run and race. His achievements included a M50-54 world marathon record of 2:20:28 in Auckland in 1982. He was disappointed not to be the first 50 year old to break 2:20. The current M50-54 world record is 2:19:29. In later years Jack returned to cycling, though he did a small amount of running. In a letter written to James Doran in January 2004 at age 72, he mentioned that he was no longer running but was cycling, “200-300km most weeks”   Poignantly, he added that cycling was “much more fun than running, and no injuries, unless one crashes!” Sadly he was knocked from his bicycle and killed when out cycling on the roads of Rotorua five months later.

Foster’s M40-44 record set in Christchurch remained unbroken for 16 years and even now, his time of 2:11:18.6 remains the fastest ever marathon by a 41 year old. Whether or not Haile Gebrselassie manages to eclipse this time before his 42nd birthday next April, Foster’s achievement 40 years ago is truly remarkable.

Conclusion

Both Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster balanced a relatively small amount of intense training with a large volume of easy running. Both took delight in soft, natural surfaces: Geb runs in the mountain forests near Addis Ababa; Jack ran over the hilly farmland of Rotorua. There is something special about sheep-clipped pastures. Unlike the hooves of heavier cattle, the smaller cloven hooves of sheep do not break the ground but merely create enticing tracks as they contour around the hills. Perhaps most important of all, both Geb and Jack ran with a sensitivity to their bodies. Jack was willing to ‘run his tripes out’ in a race but also prepared to cancel a training run when he felt tired. Geb considers that one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about running was to train and rest well. In the words of Arthur Lydiard, ‘You have just got to keep it at a pleasant effort.’

Hyper and hypokalaemia in athletes

June 8, 2014

Potassium ions are of key importance for health and for athletic performance. The level of potassium in the blood must be regulated within fairly narrow limits: at concentrations above 12 mM there is a very high risk of sudden cardiac arrest*.  Steady state levels above 6.5 mM are considered dangerous in clinical practice, while levels below 3.5 mM are associated with slow repolarization of heart muscle and risk of various disturbances of cardiac rhythm, and also with risk of additional serious disorders such as high blood pressure and stroke (reviewed by Sica and colleagues). Low blood levels are also associated with fatigue of skeletal muscles, but so too is the loss of the normal gradient of potassium ions across muscle cell membranes that arises when potassium moves out of muscle cells into the extracelular fluid.

*[As summarised in the discussion with Michael below, the highest published potassium level in  a person who subsequently survived is 14 mM (possibly arising from muscle damage sustained during cardiac resuscitation.)  However survival after potassium exceeds 10 mM is very rare. ]

Potassium is lost from the body via the kidneys and in sweat. But more important than the maintenance of total body levels is the distribution between the inside of cells and the extra-cellular fluids (including blood plasma). While typical concentration outside of cells is around 4.5 mM, the concentration inside nerve and muscle cells is in the vicinity of 150 mM. About 98% of the body’s potassium is contained within cells. This gradient in ion concentration across the cell membrane is essential for conduction of neural impulses and for muscular contraction. Normal neural conduction and muscle contraction entail flow of potassium though ion channels in the cell membrane, thereby depleting intracellular levels and causing extracellular concentration to rise appreciably. This reduction in the gradient across the membrane contributes to fatigue. Extracellular levels of potassium are regulated by the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone hormonal system, which promotes potassium loss when levels are high.   Thus, higher extra-cellular levels promote potassium loss for the body. Molecular pumps that move potassium (K+) ions back into calls in exchange for sodium (Na+ ) ions minimise loss of potassium form cells during exercise and reducing fatigue, but continue to pump after exercise stops, resulting in a net fall of potassium below the pre-exercise levels.

The first concern of the athlete the development of effective Na/K pumping, and the second concern is ensuring that dietary intake is adequate so that total body store is not depleted. In long endurance races and even more catastrophic issue arises: damage to muscle cells during prolonged exercise can release potassium together with protein myoglobin, which damages the kidneys, and can result in potassium rising to dangerous levels. This is one of the causes of the rare sudden deaths that occur in the late stages of a marathon.   Thus, it is worthwhile understanding how training can promote effective Na/K pumping and the role of both electrolyte replacement and diet in maintaining the appropriate total body level of potassium.

 

The role of potassium in skeletal muscle contraction

The contraction of skeletal muscles is elicited by a rapid influx of Na+ and an equivalent efflux of K+ ions across cell membranes.  Skeletal muscles contain the largest pool of K+ in the body. During intense exercise, the Na/K-pumps cannot readily return K+ into the muscle cells. Therefore, the working muscles undergo a net loss of K+, while the K+ concentration in the arterial blood plasma can double in less than 1 minute. Even larger increases in K+ in interstitial tissues surrounding the muscle cells. This results in degradation in the electrical potential gradient across membranes, thereby resulting in loss of excitability and force. During continuous stimulation of isolated muscles, there is a strong correlation between the rise in extracellular K+ and the rate of force decline. These events present a major challenge for the Na/K-pumps.   Excitation of the muscle itself, together with the stimulating effects of adrenaline and insulin, increases the Na/K-pumping rate. If all available pumps are engaged, the rate of pumping can increase up to 20-fold above the resting transport rate within 10 seconds. Thus in working muscles, the Na/K-pumps play a dynamic regulatory role in the maintenance of excitability and force. Down-regulation of pump capacity reduces contractile endurance in isolated muscles. The Na/K-pump capacity is a limiting factor for contractile force and endurance, especially when their capacity is reduced as a result of de-training.

The pumping capacity of Na/K-pumps is influenced by hormones, such as thyroid hormone, adrenal steroids including cortisol, insulin, and by fasting and potassium-deficiency (as reviewed by Torben Clausen from University of Aarhus in Denmark). Thus, an adequate intake of dietary potassium is important. Good sources are leafy greens, dried apricots, yoghurt, salmon, mushrooms, and bananas. Perhaps even more importantly, physical inactivity degrades pumping capacity while training enhances it. High intensity interval training is especially effective in enhancing Na/K pump capacity. For example, Bangsbo and colleagues form Copenhagen reported that six to twelve 30-s sprint runs 3-4 times/week for 9 weeks produced a 68% increase in Na/K-pump units (p<0,05) and a significant reduction of blood plasma K+ level, compared with observations in a control group who continued with endurance training (approximately 55 km/Km). The intense sprint training was associated with significant improvement in performance. In those doing the intense sprints, 3-km time was reduced by 18 seconds from 10 min 24 sec to 10 min 6sec while 10-km time improved from 37 min18 sec to 36 min18 sec.

 

The effect of potassium on the heart

Unlike the situation in skeletal muscle, under normal circumstances, in the heart the rise in intracellular Na+ concretion associated with activation of the muscle activate the Na/K pump adequately to completely compensate for the increased K+ release (evidence reviewed by Sejersted).  Thus, whereas the K+ shifts during intense exercise can contribute substantially to fatigue in skeletal muscle in the heart, the K(+) balance is normally controlled much more effectively. This might not be the case during abnormal circumstances such as ischemia.

If there is serious elevation of blood levels of potassium due to muscle damage (see the section on rhabdomyolysis below) or due to dietary excess in the presence of a disorder of the renin-angiotension –aldosterone mechanism that normally regulates potassium, there is a risk of serious reduction of the electrical gradient across the heart muscle membrane essential for conduction of the excitation signal thought the heart muscle. The consequence can be cardiac arrest, which is usually fatal.

Conversely, when blood levels of potassium are low, due to serious loss and failure of dietary replacement, the re-establishment of the electrical gradient is slower. This delayed re-polarization is, manifest as an increase in the interval between the Q wave and the T wave in the electro cardiogram. The delayed re-polarization can lead to rhythm disturbances due to alteration of the conduction pathways. The most serious of these is the rare but potentially fatal rhythm disturbance known as Torsade de Pointes. However, because of the normally tight regulation of sodium and potassium ion level by the renin-angiotensin aldosterone system, this is very unlikely in otherwise healthy individuals.

 

Regulation of potassium levels by the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system

Renin is an enzyme secreted by the kidneys that acts on a substance called angiotensinogen that is produced in the liver. Renin splits angiotensinogen releasing the peptide angiotensin, which has various actions in the body directed towards retaining sodium, conserving blood volume and maintaining blood pressure. One of the important actions of angiotensin is stimulation of release of the steroid hormone, aldosterone, from the adrenal glands. Aldosterone acts on the kidney to promote retention of sodium and excretion of potassium. During exercise, aldosterone production is increased, thereby decreasing urine production and conserving fluid volume, while promoting excretion of potassium. This helps reduce the accumulation of potassium in blood due to efflux from active skeletal muscle, but contributes to the fall in potassium levels after exercise ceases. Maintenance of blood volume by moderate fluid intake is likely to minimise excessive engagement of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.

On one occasion when I made an overly ambitious attempt to find a novel route across a mountain ridge for my return journey during a long run in the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain on a hot dry day with an inadequate supply of water, I became quite dehydrated. I was somewhat alarmed to experience an increase in ectopic heart beats. I suspect that the dehydration had led to excessive activity of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, depletion of potassium and consequent disturbance of heart rhythm. I am now much more careful about hydration during long runs.

For runs greater than 20 Km, I generally prepare a drink containing 4 tablespoons of sugar and one quarter of a teaspoon of salt in four cups of water, together with lemon juice to make it palatable. I do not add any potassium salts to this mixture, as any added potassium might promote excessive activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, thereby defeating the purpose. I adjust rate of intake to keep just ahead of appreciable thirst. Typically I find that consuming a mouthful of this drink per Km keeps me adequately hydrated.

 

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis is a condition produced by the breakdown of muscle, resulting in the release of the protein myoglobin, along with potassium in to the blood stream. The myoglobin damages the kidney with multiple adverse consequences including failure of potassium excretion.   In extreme cases the increase in blood potassium can produce fatal cardiac arrest.   In slightly less extreme cases, the kidney failure is nonetheless a serious medical emergency. Severe rhabdomyolysis arises rarely as a result of the muscle damage sustained during endurance events. However, some evidence indicates that mild degrees are not uncommon in males. For example a study by Maxwell and Bloor that tested for evidence of muscle damage after a 14 mile run at 8 min/mile pace in three groups of well-conditioned male athletes who had undergone training regimes differing in volume of running for a period of one months, found that the 14 mile run produced evidence of substantial muscle damage, including increases in serum myoglobin ranging from of 52-405%. The increases were most marked in those who had trained less for 8 miles/day on alternate days. Rhabdomyolysis is much less in females, possible because oestrogen stabilises muscle membranes.

 It should also be noted that exercise induced rhabdomyolysis does not always lead to increased levels of potassium. In a series cases of exercise indices rhabdomyolysis reported by Sinert and colleagues there were no cases of hyperkalaemia.

 

Conclusion

Efficient regulation of potassium is essential for both good athletic performance and for health. One key issue for endurance athletes is maintaining the capacity of the Na/K-pumps that return potassium excreted by muscle cells as result of muscular activation back into the muscle cells. Inadequate pumping results in fatigue. Training, especially high intensity interval training, enhances the activity of the Na/K pumps. Potassium is lost from the body during exercise and dietary replacement of potassium is necessary though this is not generally an issue provide diet is reasonably well balanced.   However, sustained potassium depletion has adverse effects including heart rhythm disturbances, increased blood pressure and risk of stroke.

The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system acts to maintain fluid volume during exercise, but promotes potassium loss. It is important to avoid serious dehydration to minimise the risk of excessive activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.

In rare instances, muscle damage during endurance events results in life-threatening rhabdomyolysis. This can lead to a dangerous excess of potassium in the blood.  More common is moderate muscle damage that leads to accumulation of myoglobin.  However, training reduces this risk.

Cortisol and the stress response

June 2, 2014

Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, plays a key role in mobilizing the body’s resources to cope with stressful challenges, including the challenge of running. Among its many roles is the regulation of blood glucose. When demands are high, cortisol acts to conserve glucose for the brain by minimizing uptake of glucose into other tissues and by promoting the production of glucose in the liver.   Because healing is not a priority when dealing with an acute challenge, cortisol suppresses inflammation and the immune system. In a healthy person, cortisol levels return to normal over a time scale of 30-60 minutes after the stress resolves. However if the transient surge of cortisol required to deal with acute stress is not switched off, cortisol inhibits healing by suppressing the formation of collagen while promoting breakdown of protein, thereby damaging many tissues of the body.

Recent evidence from a study by Skoluda and colleagues indicates that endurance athletes tend to have persistently high levels of cortisol. This increases in proportion to training volume. Thus the regulation of cortisol is potentially of great importance not only for ensuring that an athlete obtains benefits from training, but also for long term health.

The relationship between cortisol and inflammation is complex. In the short term cortisol suppresses inflammation, but sustained elevation of cortisol can lead to a suppression of the receptors that mediate the effects of cortisol on body tissues, and consequently, sustained elevation of cortisol can actually promote chronic inflammation which in turn damages tissues by laying down non-functional fibrous tissue as described in my recent post.

Although excessive cortisol is harmful, reduced ability to generate cortisol when required can be even more harmful. Addison’s disease, a rare condition in which the adrenal gland is damaged by autoimmune attack, is characterised by non-specific symptoms such as weakness and fatigue, and can be result in fatal inability to respond to stress. There is some evidence that sustained stress can reduce the capacity of the adrenal glands to produce cortisol when required, though the concept of adrenal fatigue, popularized by some alternative-medicine practitioners, remains an ill-defined entity.

Cortisol production is regulated by a feedback mechanism that takes account of information about the overall metabolic state of the body. This feedback system acts via the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The release of cortisol from the adrenal glands is stimulated by a hormone, ACTH, that is produced in the pituitary gland. The release of ACTH is in turn stimulated by a hormone, corticotrophin releasing factor, that is secreted by the hypothalamus. Information about the state of the body is funnelled via the amygdala and hippocampus in the temporal lobe of the brain, to the hypothalamus. This complex feedback system allows a diverse array of neural and hormonal signals to control cortisol release in a way that balances the catabolic effects of cortisol, promoting tissues breakdown, with the anabolic effects of other hormones, such as DHEA (a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands) and growth hormone, produced in the pituitary gland, that play a role in promoting the repair and strengthening of damaged tissues.  Thus many complex, interacting processes are involved in ensuring the optimal balance between mobilising body resources to deal with acute challenge and subsequent healing. Factors such as levels of ongoing stress from life circumstances and age contribute to the balance.

 Strategies for optimising the stress response

In summary, an athlete requires healthy adrenal glands which can generate enough cortisol to meet the challenge of stress but then to switch off cortisol production to promote recovery. The simple principle is that for optimum training benefit and long term health, we need to avoid excessive stress. However, the best way of achieving this is likely to determined by individual’s genes and life circumstances. While each individual has to find what works for him or her, there are several issues likely to be relevant to most athletes.

1)      Avoiding over-training. As demonstrated by Skoluda, the sustained excess of cortisol is greater in those who train more. Both volume and intensity matter though it is noteworthy that prolonged duration of exercise promotes increase in cortisol, whereas high intensity promotes hormones such as growth hormone and anabolic steroid hormones that promote strengthening of tissues. Consistent with this, some evidence indicates that the over-training syndrome is more strongly linked to high volume training than to high intensity training.

2)      Recovery from training and racing is crucial.   Not only does inadequate recovery increase the risk of persisting inflammation (as discussed in my previous post) but it impedes the transition from the cortisol induced catabolic state to the anabolic state required to rebuild and strengthen body tissues. This raises the major question of how best to determine if recovery is adequate. Subjective indices such as the Profile of Mood States, and autonomic measures such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability provide a guide, but no single test provides the full answer.  This is an issue I will return to again in the near future.

3)      Resistance training promotes the release of anabolic hormones and has many other beneficial effects on metabolism including increased sensitively to insulin. The major metabolic benefits of resistance training can be achieved by two 15 minute sessions per week.

4)      Life-stress and relaxation. Many of us have relatively limited control over the pressures of work and other responsibilities. However the way we react to these pressures is largely under our own control. Sleep plays a cardinal role. During sleep, cortisol levels fall while release of growth hormone is promoted. During our waking hours we can do a great deal to minimise stress. In recent years, the practice of Mindfulness has been proven to be effective in treating clinical disorders including anxiety and depression. It is a technique derived from Eastern meditative practices in which the aim is cultivation of a calm, non-judgmental awareness of one’s present physical and mental state.   Accumulating evidence indicates that this mental state is the optimum state for individuals such as US Navy Seals for whom remaining calm and focussed under intense pressure is crucial. Some studies show that Mindfulness lowers cortisol levels, while other studies have found evidence of beneficial reduction in stress and improved sleep but did not observe significant reduction of cortisol levels. Mindfulness is a knack that can be acquired by practice. Although the evidence for its effectiveness is still preliminary, my own experience is that it is effective in lowering mental and physical tension. I practice it at any time when I feel pressure is building, and also experiment with employing it while running to promote a constructive focussed mental state.

5)      Fuelling before and during training is a debateable topic. Some evidence indicates that training in a fasting state leads to improved endurance performance, perhaps mediated by the development of increased capacity to utilise fat as fuel, but overall the studies have yielded mixed results, as I have discussed in a previous post. I suspect this is because training in a fasted state also promotes increased cortisol levels that might be harmful. I have made appreciable gains in fitness in the past following training in a fasted state, but suffered one of the few serious muscle strains I have ever experienced after three weeks of high volume training predominantly in a fasted state.   This is mere anecdote, but when combined with the mixed evidence from scientific studies, leads me to conclude that training in a fasted state should be done cautiously, ensuring that overall stress levels are not excessive.

6)      Long term nutrition.  In light of the mechanism by which the hypothalamo-pituitary axis (HPA) adjusts cortisol levels in order to maintain metabolic homeostasis, it would be expected that a diet that promotes healthy energy metabolism would also be expected to promote healthy regulation of cortisol. As discussed in several of my recent posts, there is growing evidence that a Mediterranean diet promotes healthy metabolism. In accord with this, the available evidence indicates that a Mediterranean diet does promote healthy regulation of cortisol. For example a study of Spanish women found that those who chose a dietary pattern closer to the Mediterranean diet, with high mono-unsaturated fatty acid intake, showed more stable regulation of cortisol by the HPA.

 Conclusions

The evidence obtaind by Skoluda indicating that endurance athletes suffer sustained elevation of cortisol suggests that taking steps to maintain healthy regulation of cortisol is likely to result not only in a better response to endurance training but also in better long term health. This might be achieved by avoidance of over-training, ensuing good recovery, incorporation of some resistance training into the schedule and a number of life-style adaptations including adequate sleep, stress reduction via strategies such as Mindfulness, and a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.


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