The training of Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster

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.’

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3 Responses to “The training of Haile Gebrselassie and Jack Foster”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute, I enjoyed that. Also enjoyed ‘On the Run’, which I’d seen previously. I like the spontaneity of Jack Foster’s ‘non schedule’. I recall walking and running on sheep tracks through paddocks as a child. Looking forward to future posts, especially the Hosaka/Whitlock one and also interested in the direction you take your build-up to run that good marathon.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen, Thanks for that comment

      It is interesting that Haile describes his training as careful while Jack’s training appears much more carefree, yet when it came to proportions of different type of training, they were remarkably similar.

      However whereas Haile could afford to spend two hours resting daily, Jack held down a regular job, and mainly ran after he got home from work – often in the dark. I understand that not infrequently he had collisions with the fences that he usually hurdled when running in daylight.

  2. Beyond Lydiard: Why I Prefer Non-Traditional Training Models | The Athletic Time Machine Says:

    […] Renato Canova is probably the most successful coach who is associated with a different, newer periodization model.  This model is called “funnel periodization” because it combines volume and intensity that are very non-specific to the athlete’s race needs– and then “funnels” them to become highly specific to race needs..  Regardless of whether most elite running coaches consider themselves part of this camp or not, the fact remains that it is highly-influential.  In fact, one survey of super elite runners showed that the majority of them followed this funnel periodization in one form or another— they start with a “polarized” combination of speed and volume before becoming more specific in their intensity as competition draws near (see The Search for the Perfect Intensity Distribution, Running Research News, December 2004).  As Canute’s Efficient Running site noted, this polarized model also worked well for Haile Gabrselassie and Jack Foster to keep their speed we…. […]

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