Archive for March, 2009

Implementing the Lydiard conditioning phase

March 29, 2009

Long runs in the mid to upper aerobic zone are the core of the Lydiard conditioning phase, but he did not prescribe a rigid schedule. He emphasized that the schedule should be adjusted to fit the available time and ability. However, from his various books and lectures, it is possible to draw some general guidelines:

1) For a serious athlete, the target mileage is around 100 miles a week. It appears Lydiard has in mind a runner for whom 6 min mile pace is in the aerobic zone and hence 100 miles a week might be re-interpreted as around 10 hours per week. Thus for an older or less able runner for whom 8 min/mile is in the upper aerobic zone, 75 miles or even less might be an appropriate target weekly mileage.

2) Several of these runs (perhaps three) should be of 1.5 to 2 hours duration.

3) Distance is more important than speed, and if necessary speed should be sacrificed rather than distance. Nonetheless a substantial proportion of the running should be near the maximum steady-state aerobic pace.

 4) Although Lydiard is vague about how one should build up to the conditioning phase, he does imply that one should steadily increase the time spent running without taking account of distance covered, until one can run for two hours without problems.

Because I work around 50-60 hours most weeks, and frequently arrive home from work quite tired and hungry at about 8 pm, there is little point in me aiming for 10 hours training per week; 6-8 hours per week is probably all that is reasonable. I think that I can best fit my schedule to the spirit of the Lydiard conditioning phase by aiming for 40-50 miles (64-80 Km) per week including two runs of 45 min – 1 hour in the upper aerobic zone, and one run of 1.5 – 2 hours in the mid-aerobic zone, together with several shorter runs and two elliptical sessions per week.

During the winter I have done barely 2 hours running and 2-3 hours of elliptical training each week, so it would be unreasonable to attempt 64-80 Km per week including a substantial amount in the mid and upper aerobic zone, in the immediate future. This weekend, I decided to see how near I was to being fit enough embark on the conditioning phase, taking Lydiard’s guideline of ‘two hours without problems’ as the criterion. Yesterday I ran easily for 2 hours, covering 21 Km, including 5 short sprints. But what did Lydiard actually mean by ‘without problems’? I presume he meant ‘without building up fatigue that seriously impedes the next training session’. Perhaps the most rigorous test of whether or not one is accumulating fatigue is to repeat a recently recorded run the day after the 2 hour run and see if there has been any appreciable deterioration in performance since the previous occasion.

Today dawned bright and sunny – a perfect spring day, and the idea of simply repeating yesterday’s 21 Km run was appealing. I deliberately kept the pace easy and did not look at my watch until the end. It was such a delightful day to be out running. In the woods, the celandines were wide open, catching as much sunlight as possible. In places there were patches of violets among the celandines, and a few more bluebells were in flower than yesterday. However I was aware that I was running a little more slowly, and in the final 6 Km, my legs felt tired. Nonetheless, I was able to enjoy the 5 short sprints. When I looked at my watch, I was a little disappointed to find that my time was 7 minutes longer than yesterday, and my average heart rate was a little higher: up from 120 to 122 bpm. So I had definitely accumulated appreciable fatigue.   It probably would have been more sensible to have attempted to replicate the previous week’s 16Km run today instead of doing another 21 Km run to estimate the amount of fatigue.   Nonetheless, I consider that I coped sufficiently well with two consecutive 2 hour runs that it is now time to start paying attention to pace. So in the coming week I will aim for several runs in the mid to upper aerobic zone.

Zatopek, sleet and rainbows

March 28, 2009

In recent weeks I have been deliberating between the merits of low volume, high intensity training (embodied in the Furman approach) compared with the high volume, lower intensity training typical of the base building phase of the Lydiard approach.  As I described last week, I am inclined towards a Lydiard type approach, at least for the early part of my preparation for a half marathon in the autumn, mainly because I think that the intensity demanded by the Furman approach is likely to be too stressful and thereby create too high a risk of illness or injury.  However, for a person who has limited time for training, might there be advantages in combining Lydiard base-building with some higher intensity work?  This raises the crucial question of whether or not moderate or high intensity training actually hinders the development of a good aerobic base.


Lydiard maintains that peak performance in distance running is determined mainly by the capacity to utilize oxygen and that this can only be acquired by aerobic training.  This capacity can in principle be expanded year by year.  Anaerobic training merely adds a small extra power generating capacity that can be maximized in about 6 weeks of training.  Unfortunately it is not easy to obtain direct evidence for Lydiard’s claims via a systematic study of groups of athletes assigned randomly to different training regimes because a convincing demonstration would require a study performed over several years.  It is virtually impossible to acquire data systematically over such a time period.


High intensity can be more efficient than high volume in the short term

On the other hand, there is good evidence from short term studies, that high intensity training can improve aerobic capacity while providing a more efficient use of time than traditional endurance training.  For example Giballa and colleagues (J Physiol Vol 575, pp 901-911, 2006) compared 6 sessions of high intensity sprint cycling consisting of 4 to 6  30second sprints with 6 session of endurance training consisting of 90-120 minutes of cycling at 65% of VO2max, over a two week period.  The total training time commitment was 2.5 hours for the sprint training compared with 10.5 hours for the endurance training, while total training volume measured in terms of energy consumption was 630 KJ for sprinting and 6500 kJ for endurance training.  However, the improvements in performance; muscle oxidative capacity; muscle buffering capacity; and muscle glycogen content were similar in both groups.  Thus, if you have very limited time available, high intensity training is possibly best in the short term. 


Historical anecdotes

Perhaps the most compelling evidence regarding long term training methods is provided by anecdotes about successful athletes,  There are plenty of instances of successful athletes who followed a Lydiard type approach, ranging from Peter Snell, Murray Halbert, Barry Magee, Ron Clarke,  Lasse Viren and Pekka Vasala in the 1960’s and 70’s, to the dominance of contemporary African runners, many of who m apparently established a sound aerobic base in childhood.  It is less easy to find clear-cut examples of great runners who relied solely on high intensity work.  In the 1950’s, the interval techniques introduced by Woldemar Gerschler led to dramatic improvements in performance, initially over middle distances, but with subsequent development, also over longer distances.  The greats of those days, including Emil Zatopek and Gordon Pirie, did prodigious amounts of interval training.


It would be expected that aerobic capacity might deteriorate during a period of low volume but high intensity anaerobic training simply because maintenance of an aerobic base requires a high volume of training.  Therefore in a high intensity, low volume program, the damage to the aerobic base might be attributed to the lack of volume rather than the presence of high intensity.  What about high intensity work embedded within a high volume program? 


It might be argued that Pirie and Zatopek demonstrate that extraordinary performance can be achieved by including intense workouts within a high volume program.  A session of 50x400m combines both volume and intensity in the same session!  On the other hand, it could be argued that Pirie and Zatopek would both have achieved more if they had not employed such demanding schedules.  Despite recording a greater training volume than any other person in human history, Pirie had only a few really good competitive seasons.  In 1956 he achieved an epic victory over Vladimir Kuts in the 5K, broke the world 3K record twice, and won a 5K sliver medial at the Melbourne Olympics, but he never reached such heights again.  Zatopek had a somewhat longer period at the top.  He won gold in the 10K in London in 1948.  In Helsinki in1952 he won gold in 5K, 10K and marathon.  He was a fading force in the European championships in 1954, and after suffering a hernia during preparation for the Melbourne Games in 1956 he finished 6th in defense of his marathon title.


So historical anecdotes do not answer our question completely.  Another approach is to consider what we know about physiology.  The problem with this approach is that the human body is incredibly complex and any conclusions derived from considering one system (eg basic energy metabolism) might be countermanded by the consequences in a related physiological system (eg the endocrine system).   I am still struggling to find time to review all the relevant physiological evidence, so at this stage I will pose a few of the issues and give some preliminary information that points is towards some conclusions.


Hydrogen ions

First there is the fact that anaerobic metabolism generates lactate and hydrogen ions (acid).  While the lactate is potentially a useful by-product as it can be usefully metabolized in other tissues in the body, the increased acidity due to the increase in hydrogen ion concentration almost certainly has undesirable consequences.  Many physiological processes slow down or stop in an acid environment.  Paradoxically,  acidity can in fact promote stronger contraction of muscle fibres isolated in a Petrie dish in the laboratory, but almost certainly, within the intact human being, acidity diminishes muscle contraction, possibly via effects on the central nervous system. 


Another metabolic process adversely affected by increased acidity is the ability to utilize fat as fuel.  Fat oxidation process stops when acidity is high.  On the other hand, it should be noted that high intensity training can produce an increase in the ability to metabolise fats, possibly via an increase in mucle mass which would lead to an increase in resting state fat metabolism (Talanian and colleagues J Appl Physiol vol 102: pp 1439-1447, 2007).



The build up of extra-cellular potassium has a simlar potnetial for deleterious effects.  In the resting state, potassiun concentration is high inside cells, including both heart and muscle fibres, and low in the extracellular fluid. (i.e the fluid surrounding the cells). This imbalance is maintained by active pumping across the cell membrane.  Intense muscle contraction results in transport of some potassium out of the cells and unless there is an opportunity for pumping the potassium back into cells, the accumulation of extra-cellular potassium would eventually inhibit muscle contraction.  Injection of potassium is sometimes the method of choice by the writers of murder fiction,as it can produce cardiac arrest with relatively little external evidence (apart maybe form an injection site).   


Therefore, there is little doubt  that within a single session, anaerobic activity will impede the development of optimal aerobic metabolism  Attempting to develop aerobic and anaerobic capacity at the same time by a session of 50x400m is almost certainly not a good idea.


Endocrine effects

But what about combining aerobic and anaerobic sessions in the same week?  The relevant system to consider is the endocrine (hormone) system.  The natural response to stress of various kinds, both physical and psychological,  includes  an increased release of cortisol from the adrenal gland.  Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that promotes the break down of proteins to generate energy.  As protein is the main constituent of the contractile machinery in muscle, excessive cortisol production is likely to be counter-productive.  On the other hand, moderate muscle activity promotes release of natural anabolic hormones, especially anabolic steroids and growth hormone, which promote the growth of muscle.  Therefore if we want maximum development of muscle fibres, it is essential to facilitate the release of anabolic steroids and growth hormone, while avoiding excessive release of cortisol.  It is probable that doing many anaerobic training sessions in a week will tip the balance in favour of harmful levels of cortisol while suppressing beneficial anabolic hormones. 


I suspect that the training regimes of Zatopek and Pirie went near to or perhaps even beyond the balance point where catabolic effects were greater than anabolic effects.  It is tempting to speculate that they might have enjoyed more seasons of high performances if they had been a little less Spartan in their training.  So my conclusion so far is that if you plan more than about 10 hours of training per week, the Lydiard approach is the safer approach, though the evidence I have considered does not rule out the possibility that inclusion of at least a moderate amount of higher intensity work in the base-building phase might provide a more time-efficient approach to training. 


Medium term plans

For the next few months I will persist with my current Lydiard type approach.  It is important to note that Lydiard advocated including some speed training even in the base-building phase.  So in order to avoid  loss of neuromuscular coordination and loss of strength of fast twitch fibres, I will continue to include some short sprints (e.g. 10×50 metres) near the end of some of my low intensity runs.


Sleet and rainbows

This morning I ran an easy 21 Km, at about 3/10 effort, in 2 hours.  My mean heart rate was 120.  The weather was an extreme illustration of the fickleness of March and April.. There was a brisk northwesterly breeze which at times drove flurries of sleet against my bare legs. I even wondered at one point if it would turn to snow.  Then within a few minutes the sun was shining brightly and a rainbow banished the gloom. In the woods, the first of the bluebells were in flower.  I had been aware of a mild tightness in my quads when descending hills so I decided to be cautious with the planned sprints.  Nonetheless, in the final 2KM I included 5×50 metre sprints and was pleased to find that there was no increase in tightness in the quads.

Paradoxical sprinting

March 23, 2009

Yesterday I had done a mid-aerobic 16Km run to assess how feasible it might be for me to aim for the long run pace recommended in the Furman half marathon training program.  I achieved my self-selected target of 85 minutes (5:19 min/Km), with a mean heart rate of 126, which for me is in the lower part of the mid-aerobic zone.  However, despite being quite pleased with my run, I was a little dismayed by how far my pace was below the pace recommended for the majority of long runs in the Furman program (HMP+12 sec/Km or 4:53 min/Km for a target HM time of 99 min).  There is no doubt that increasing the pace from 5:19 min/km  to 4:53 min/Km would put me well into the upper aerobic zone.  So if I were to adhere strictly to the recommended paces, all three of the key weekly sessions in the program would involve a substantial amount of running near or above lactate threshold.  Such a program would appear to create a significant risk of injury or illness. 


According to the article by Amby Burfoot in Runners World in Feb 2006 the injury rate among the group of 25 runners in a study of the Furman marathon program in 2004 was not high.  One withdrew from the program on account of injury, and three dropped down from the marathon program to the half marathon program on account of minor injury.  However  it is not clear what the baseline fitness of the group was, nor how strictly they adhered to the recommended paces.  Thus, my interim conclusion is that  I would need to modify the long run (for example by starting at a slower pace and increasing to near race-pace in the later stages as suggested by Rick)  or to abandon the Furman approach altogether and opt for a higher volume, lower intensity program.


Reviewing yesterdays run makes me wonder whether there is in fact any need for me to take risk of embarking on a potentially stressful program with a lot of running near the lactate theshold.  


Evaluating aerobic capacity

The energy cost of running a given distance is almost independent of the speed (see  Cameron et al., “Energy Expenditure of Walking and Running,” Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise,  Dec. 2004).  When running in the aerobic zone, the majority of energy is provided by oxidation of glucose.  The amount of glucose and oxygen delivered to muscle is determined by heart rate, cardiac stroke volume and the efficiency of extraction of oxygen and glucose by the muscles. The efficiency of extraction is largely determined by the density of mitochondria and capillaries.  The main goals of aerobic training are to increase stroke volume and the density of mitochondria and capillaries.  At a given level of fitness, stroke volume and the density of mitochondria and capillaries can be regarded as constant, and the number of metres that can be covered per heart beat is a useful indicator of aerobic capacity. 


In the past I have found the number of metres per heart beat recorded over distances in the range 15-20Km, is fairly constant regardless of the pace provided I remain within the aerobic zone.  Furthermore, this measurement provides a moderately good estimate of potential half marathon pace, provided that the race is run near to lactate threshold.  For example in the latter months of 2007, my average distance per heart beat recorded in 8 training runs at various paces in the low and mid-aerobic zone was 1.44 (range 1.38 to 1.48 metres/beat).  I ran a half marathon race in September in 101 min 24 sec with mean heart rate 142. Thus in the race I achieved 1.46 metres per beat, which was within the range I had achieved during training runs.


In yesterday’s 16K run, I achieved 1.49 metres per beat.  This is exactly the aerobic capacity required to achieve my half-marathon  target time of 99 minutes, provided I can sustain an average heart rate of 142 beats per min for the duration of the race.  Thus my current aerobic capacity is slightly larger than my capacity in 2007, and is already adequate to allow me to achieve my target time provided my endurance is adequate.  At present I do not have the endurance to maintain an average heart rate of 142 for 21 Km, but nonetheless, yesterdays run suggests that I already have the capacity to deliver oxygen and glucose to the muscles at the required rate.  Of course many things can go wrong in a race, but at least I feel confident that my target is achievable.  My major goal for the summer is therefore to increase my endurance while avoiding illness or injury. 


Building endurance

The grueling long runs recommended by the Furman program would almost certainly produce the required increase in endurance, provided I did not suffer illness or injury.  However, I am inclined to think that the safest way to achieve my target is to embark upon a lower intensity, higher volume program that will further increase my basic aerobic capacity.  If I could produce an additional 2% increase in aerobic capacity I would only need to maintain an average heart rate of 139 in the race, which I am quite confident that I could do.  On the other hand, if I could manage to maintain a mean heart rate of 142, with an additional 2% capacity I could expect a time of around 97 minutes.


Thus, at this stage, the best strategy would appear to be to devote most of my efforts in the next six months to improving my basic aerobic capacity.  The safest way to do this is likely to be a Lydiard style program.  However, I also have a secondary objective and that is to increase my stride length and speed.  Forty years ago, my typical stride length when running in the upper aerobic zone was almost 2 metres, now it is only about 1.1 metres.  I think that the biggest factor in this loss of stride length is loss of leg strength. 


Increasing speed

One of my reasons for exploring the feasibility of the Furman approach was the hope that doing a higher proportion of my running in the upper aerobic and anaerobic zones would increase my leg strength and therefore increase my stride length and speed.  However, my exploration of the principles underlying the Lydiard approach has led me to question this. 


Lydiard maintained that anaerobic work is not the best way to increase speed.  Rather, speed is best increased by short sprints that utilize the alactic energy system.  Short sprints of around 10 seconds duration are fuelled mainly by ATP reserves and creatine.  Provide there is adequate recovery between sprints, the stressful acidosis produced during anaerobic workouts can be avoided.  Speed work can be compatible with basic aerobic conditioning provided acidosis is avoided.  Lydiard advocated speed work throughout all phases of the training cycle.


To test the feasibility of incorporating speed work within an aerobic conditioning phase, this morning I did an easy 20Km run, but incorporated 10 short sprints within the final few Km.  Each sprint was at 9/10 effort but lasted less than 10 seconds (typically covering only 50-60 metres).  Between the sprints I jogged at a very easy pace to allow full recovery of the ATP and creatine levels.  I was surprised at how invigorating these sprints were.  Despite the fact that I had run 36 Km within about 24 hours, my legs actually felt quite fresh.  I had not been entirely sure about the wisdom of incorporating these sprints during a weekend in which I had also increased distance substantially, but I decided that this was the best way to get a convincing answer to the question.  I did of course monitor carefully for any signs of local tightness in my muscles during the sprints, but in fact with each successive sprint, my legs actually felt more relaxed.  On today’s evidence, it appears to be feasible to include sprinting within a recovery run.


Maybe I should wait to see how my legs feel tomorrow before jumping to conclusions, but at this stage I am hopeful that it might be possible to achieve the goal of increasing aerobic capacity without sacrificing speed simply by incorporating short sprints within the recovery runs.


This of course raises the question of hills, but that is a topic for another day.

Are Furman long run paces sensible?

March 21, 2009

A week ago I embarked on the quest to establish if the Furman program is likely to be a suitable preparation for my target half marathon in September, or alternatively, that I should adopt a program based on the Lydiard approach.  I have discovered a lot of interesting things about the Lydiard approach – both practical observations and also relevant evidence about physiology – and I will return to discuss Lydiard in future blog postings, but today I want to explore the feasibility of the Furman approach for me.



The Furman program is a high intensity, low volume program based on an interval session, a tempo session and a long run each week.  The thought of a weekly interval session and a weekly tempo session is not too worrying.  Two such sessions are typical of many moderate or high intensity programs.  However, the Furman session that most concerns me is the long run.  The Furman program emphasizes the importance of achieving the designed paces for all sessions.  In the 18 week half marathon program, the pace for the majority of the long runs is HMP + 12 seconds per Km or faster.   My target pace is 4:41 per Km, so HMP+12 sec/Km is 4:53 per Km.  I would regard that as a rather fast pace for a long run, especially if I am planning to do a high quality interval session or tempo session two days later. 


I would need to start the Furman in about two months time, so I decided that today I would try to establish just how much I would need to increase my aerobic capacity in order to be fit enough to do long runs at 4:53 per Km without undue stress.  In the past I would have regarded HMP+38 sec/Km (equivalent to HMP+ 1min per mile) as a suitable pace for a long run, so I set out to do a 16Km run at 5:19 per Km this morning.  Forty years ago that pace would have been an easy jog, but there is no point wasting emotional energy lamenting the ravages of the aging process.  For today’s purpose it would appear to be a reasonable pace for a long run.


Before setting out, I did my usual test of aerobic fitness on the elliptical cross trainer to establish whether or not my aerobic fitness has changed over the winter.  This test consists of consecutive 2 minute epochs with 7 step-wise increases in resistance at cadence 80 (i.e equivalent to 80 left steps and 80 right steps per minute) designed to span the aerobic range.  My heart rate at each resistance level was about 10 beats per minute lower than when I first did this test in November 2008.  The chart presented below shows the average of three tests performed in November and the average of three tests performed in February and March 2009.  It is clear that my aerobic fitness on the elliptical has improved.


In the 6 months since the Hardrock Challenge in  September, I have typically done 4 elliptical sessions and two running sessions per week.  The majority of the elliptical sessions have included at least 15-20 minutes in the upper aerobic zone, with occasional more energetic bursts taking me into the anaerobic zone (indicated by a marked increase in respiration to a rate greater than 60 breaths per minute).  The running sessions have been mainly runs of 8-15 Km in the lower or mid-aerobic zones.  Asthma prevented me from doing more than two or three of the interval sessions I had planned.  I also spent a half an hour each week doing body-weight resistance exercises focusing on core strength,  In the past week, I added in some trampoline sessions to prepare my leg muscles for a larger amount of eccentric work.  Thus, I set off on my 16 Km run today with the expectation that my aerobic fitness would be adequate to allow me sustain my intended pace for at least 10Km but unsure about how easily I could maintain that pace for 16 Km. I intended start at a pace around 5:30 per Km; gradually increase to the target pace; and then if I felt strong in the final few Km to increase to a somewhat faster pace.

Elliptical test of aerobic fitness: 3 test averages, Nov2008 & Mar 2009

Elliptical test of aerobic fitness: 3 test averages, Nov2008 & Mar 2009





As anticipated, the first few Km were easy.  The sun was shining, the hawthorn blossom was spectacular, and the emerging catkins on the riverside willows created an atmosphere of freshness.  My heart rate of around 118 BPM indicated that I was in the comfortable lower aerobic zone.  After a few Km I increased the pace to around 5:20 per Km and heart rate went up to around 122 BPM.  I was still feeling quite comfortable, though whenever I ascended a hill my heart rate ascended to the mid- aerobic zone and then returned to a slightly higher baseline, so over the middle stages of the run, my average heart rate crept slowly upwards.  When I increased pace a little more for the final 4 Km, my perceived effort level increased to about 5/10, where 10 would represent peak effort, and heart rate rose to around 128.  I finished with an average pace exactly on the target of 5:19 per Km, and a mean heart rate of 126.  In a HM race, I would expect to maintain a heart rate around 138-140, so clearly I can expect to maintain a much faster pace in a race.  However, there is little doubt that at my present level of fitness, the pace of 4:53 per Km recommended by Furman for the majority of the long runs would be far too stressful in a weekly program that also includes an interval session and a tempo run. 


It is too early to draw any definite conclusions.  However, it appears that the target long run paces specified by the Furman program are quite grueling, and unless I can enhance my aerobic base substantially in the next two months, I suspect that I will find the Furman program too stressful.  Nonetheless, I feel satisfied with the outcome of my elliptical sessions in the winter and am quite pleased with my run today.  I am confident that my target for the half marathon in September is achievable, though I might have to incorporate a greater amount of aerobic base building than the Furman program would recommend.



Lydiard or Furman?

March 15, 2009

In yesterday’s blog, I set my major goal for the next six months: a half-marathon in 99 minutes in September.  As I mentioned yesterday, the passing years predict that unless I develop a training strategy better than the moderate volume, mainly low intensity sessions that I did last year, I can only expect to achieve a  time of around 102 minutes a half marathon this year.  So what should my strategy be?


Despite much practical observation and theoretical argument, the debate between the merits of high volume compared with high intensity training remains unresolved.  The opposing approaches are perhaps best illustrated the contrast between the well known Lydiard approach and the Furman Institute approach, described by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss in their book ‘Run Less, Run Faster’.



Lydiard’s method was developed from shrewd practical observation and was only retrospectively justified in light of physiological science.  It is undeniable that, at least for some individuals, the Lydiard method works brilliantly.  The Olympic gold medals of Peter Snell (800m, Rome 1960; 800m and 1500m, Tokyo 1964); Murray Halberg (5000m, Tokyo 1964), Lasse Viren (5000m. and 10000m, Munich 1972); Pekka Vasala (1500m, Munich 1972) and the marathon bronze medal won by Barry Magee in Tokyo 1964, together with an impressive role call including winners of events such as the Boston marathon, provide compelling evidence that Lydiard’s approach can achieve great performances in races over distances from 800m to the marathon. 


In the pre-internet era of the early 1960’s, the latest gossip about training methods spread uncertainly via rumors among athletes and the occasional, possibly untrustworthy, interview with a newspaper reporter.  The most prominent feature of Lydiard’s approach that filtered through to the middle and long distance running community in those days was the target of 100 miles per week, even for middle distance runners, together with hill running for the development of strength and power.  In contrast to the 1950’s when interval training was in its heyday and distance running was dominated by individuals such as Emil Zatopek, who was rumored to do sessions such as 100x400m in army boots, the Lydiard approach seemed like a breath of fresh air, though not a soft option.


Lydiard subsequently became known as the father of jogging, but at least as far as the achievements of the thoroughbreds in his stable is concerned, I suspect that jogging played little part in their success.  There are ambiguities in the details of his program due to some inconsistencies in his books, but the general principles are fairly easily discerned.  The most important phase is the peak mileage base phase, characterized by a large volume (around 100 miles per week) mostly run in the upper part of the aerobic zone.  However, his program entails several other phases, including an anaerobic phase and a subsequent sharpening phase to maximize speed and readiness for racing.  Thus, the crucial feature of the Lydiard method is not merely the concept of high volume training, but also a strict application of the principle of periodization: a training program sub-divided into phases with quite different immediate goals and different training schedules.



In contrast, the Furman Institute advocates preparation for distances ranging from 5000m to the marathon employing a relatively low volume, high intensity  program including three key sessions per week: an interval workout, a tempo session; and a long run.  For all three types of session, the required pace is specified, and even the long run is done at a pace likely to be in the mid-to upper aerobic zone.  Although the Furman Institute advocates cross training in addition to the three key sessions, the characteristic feature of the Furman approach is the emphasis on high quality, relatively low volume training. 


The Furman Institute also acknowledges the concept of periodization, but the contrast between the higher volume less intense phase, and the lower volume more intense phase is much less marked than in the Lydiard approach.  The Furman Institute cannot claim a stable of Olympic gold medal winners, but their program is based on careful scientific evaluation, and there is good evidence, documented in an article in Runner’s World in February 2006 by Amby Burfoot, that for ordinary mortals with commitments to family and/or jobs, the Furman approach can produce substantial improvement in marathon performance.  In a study conducted in 2004, 25 runners trained according to the Furman schedule of 3 key running session per week, plus cross-training. One dropped out due to injury and one for domestic reasons, 3 moved down to the half-marathon on account minor injury and 21 started the Kiawah Island Marathon in December.  Of these, 15 set personal best times.


What should I do?

As an ordinary mortal with limited time for training and limited capacity to absorb the stresses of high volume training, I am quite tempted by the Furman approach.  However, despite the potential advantages, I also have misgivings.  Fortunately the Furman half marathon program is a 14 week program and it is still about 26 weeks to my intended half-marathon race in September, so I have 12 weeks in which to decide whether to follow the Furman program, or adapt it, perhaps incorporating some of the features of Lydiard’s approach.  For the next few weeks I will review the advantages and disadvantages of both the Furman and Lydiard approaches, and then make my decision.


In the mean while, in view of the fact that both Lydiard and the Furman Institute would advocate a preliminary period of base-building, that is what I will do in the next few weeks.  At the beginning of the year I had provisionally planned running some shorter races in the spring, but my breathing problems have got in the way and there is little point in pursuing any ambitious targets for shorter races in the near future.  If my asthma continues to improve, I might attempt a 10K race in a few weeks time, but not with any hope of a fast time.  My two immediate goals will be developing adequate strength of muscles and other connective tissue necessary to withstand the rigors of a focused 14 week training program in the summer, and also to consolidate my basic aerobic fitness for running distances up to 18 Km in the mid-aerobic zone.  As a start to my base-building, this morning I made the most of some glorious spring weather to do a mildly effortful 15 Km, unencumbered by either watch or heart rate monitor.

Snakes and Ladders again, and a long term goal

March 15, 2009

After a promising return to interval training last weekend, I am afraid that this week the throw of the dice landed me on a square with a slippery snake’s tail and I went slithering downwards again. A week ago, I was celebrating the fact that the arrival of spring and the increase in air temperature had almost banished the asthmatic problems that had nagged me all winter. However, this morning I woke with marked constriction of the airways. My peak expiratory flow was only about half of its usual value even after a puff of salbutamol. Nonetheless because the outside air was quite warm, I decided that I would attempt a 4x1Km interval session again. In last week’s session, I had averaged 4:18 per Km while running at the upper border of the aerobic zone (mean heart rate 143). In view of my constricted bronchi, I decided to aim for 4:25 per Km this morning.

Although I was slightly hampered by the tightness in my chest and throat, the warm moist air was soothing rather than irritating, and the constriction did not get any worse. However, to add to my problems, we have had a rainy week and the woodland path was quite muddy. I found it difficult to get into a good rhythm, and I did not quite achieve my target time. My average pace was 4:28 per Km and mean heart rate was 140. So the treacherous snake was a short fat one, and I did not slither all the way back to square one.

Despite today’s minor set back, I am hopeful that I will be able to do some solid training in the near future. It is therefore time to set some goals. I will not commit myself to races in the near future, but will set a moderate paced half-marathon at the end of summer as the major target. Since I returned to training 2 years ago, I have run two half-marathons, both in 101 minutes. In both instances preparation had consisted of about 4 months of running about 30-35 miles per week, mainly at low intensity. At my age, I would expect that if I maintain a similar level of training, my pace would deteriorate by about 1% per year. However, it would be interesting to see if this year I can arrest the inexorable rising tide of decrepitude. If my airways allow me, I will increase the intensity and aim for a 99 minute half marathon in September.

Spring and springs

March 7, 2009

It is less than three weeks to the spring equinox, and the duration of daylight now almost matches the duration of darkness.  Although snowdrops are still the predominant woodland flower, along the river bank the early buttercups are already in bloom.  But most importantly for me, the air temperature is rising.  After a frustrating few months in which the cold dry air has wreaked havoc with my attempts to do interval training, this morning I had only a slight feeling of constriction in the throat.  A few puffs into the peak flow meter revealed that my peak expiratory flow was 555 litres per minute, which is fairly good for a slightly built 63 year old standing 170 cm tall.  So I decided that it was high time for another attempt at 4x1Km intervals in the upper aerobic zone, though in light of recent my experiences I did take a precautionary puff of salbutamol before setting out.


After an easy few Km to warm up, I set out cautiously on the first loop around the 1Km circuit in Clifton Wood, aiming for a pace around 4:30 min/Km.  I had little recent experience to draw on to guide my pace setting, and was pleased to find that I had covered the distance in 4:24 with a mean heart rate of 138.  I was feeling quite comfortable so I increased the pace slightly in each successive interval.  My times for the four intervals were 4:24; 4:19; 4:14: 4:09 and mean heart rate recording were 138; 142; 144; 148.  In the final few hundred metres of the fourth interval I was probably in the anaerobic zone, but nonetheless still fairly comfortable.  My average pace was 4 sec/Km faster than in the only interval session I have managed to do since October, yet the mean heart rate was virtually identical.  It is re-assuring to find that my sessions on the elliptical cross-trainer in the winter months have maintained and perhaps even slightly enhanced my fitness for aerobic running.


After the cool down jog, my peak flow had decreased from 555 litres/min to 430 litres/min, so I had suffered a mild degree of broncho-constriction despite the salbutamol, but I am now reasonably optimistic that the worst of my winter respiratory problems is behind me for another year.


The only untoward event was a fall during the second Km.  I misjudged the height of a tree root protruding about 10 cm above the ground and caught it with my right big toe.  By the time I managed to plant my left foot, my centre of gravity was already too far forward  and I went sprawling face down.  My right knee absorbed most of the impact. I was on my feet and running again within a second or two, with a slight ache in my right knee, and a quite sharp pain radiating from the base of my right big toe.  Yesterdays news headlines regarding Paula Radcliffe’s recent broken toe flashed into my mind, but I decided it was probably only a strain of the metatarsophalangeal joint (at the base of the toe) and kept on running.  I took special care to keep my toes relaxed, in the manner recently recommended by Rick in his comment on my blog, to minimise stress on the toes.  The pain persisted for about 20 minutes but by the end of the cool-down jog, it had subsided to a very mild ache, so it appears that in fact the injury is only a mild strain.


Afterwards, I inspected the site of the fall.  The imprint of my right knee was clearly visible in the moist yet firm earth, but the most dramatic marker was the deep indentation created by my left foot.  It must have slammed into the ground with great force as I attempted to arrest the fall, but because my COG was already too far forward, the ground reaction force only served to create a destabilizing torque.  It was salutary to realize that my right foot must have still been traveling at an appreciable speed relative to the ground at the instant it snagged on the root.  At the stage in the gait cycle when the descending foot is only 10 cm from ground, it should be traveling backwards relative to the torso and at almost zero velocity relative to the ground.  So I probably need to improve the efficiency with which my hamstrings arrest the swinging leg.  On the other hand, the fact that I have only a mild strain of my toe joint rather than a more serious injury does suggest that my hamstrings had not failed too badly in their job.


Spira shoes

The springs that are the other theme this week are the ‘wavesprings’ embedded in the heels and under the forefoot of the Spira running shoes.  I think that there is little doubt that these shoes would reduce stress on the feet and also reduce the eccentric load on quads and calf muscles at footfall, thereby reducing the risk of DOMS and also possibly reducing long term damage to muscles.  Thus I am very tempted to try them, at least for training.


However the big issue is whether or not this is ethical.  One of the reasons why I prefer running to formula one car racing is that running requires little apart from one’s one natural speed, endurance, and mental strength.  Formula one racing no doubt requires greater skill and courage, but technology abolishes equality of opportunity in competition.  However, if we were to demand complete purity in running, we would have to return to the Greek ideal of nude, barefoot competition.  Without even considering the issue of whether or not a nude 63 year old would be a tolerable sight for onlookers, I have no doubt that running shoes are essential for me on account of the mild congenital deformity of my feet.  I need to spread the load that would otherwise be concentrated on the head of my downwards protruding second metatarsal.  Fortunately, despite the current enthusiasm on some quarters for barefoot running, no-one seriously challenges the ethics of using running shoes to protect the feet from injury.


In fact, despite the simplicity of running, we readily accept quite a lot of technology: shoes with spikes; support bras, etc.  Some of these technical items probably enhance performance in addition to minimizing risk of injury.  The question is where we draw the line.  In principle the answer is simple.  A sport is governed by arbitrary rules and participation in competition implies abiding by the rules set by the body governing that competition.


However at this point, we face difficulties with the Spira shoe.  The IAAF rules allow that a running shoe might provide protection for the foot and enhance grip on the ground but must not provide unfair mechanical advantage.  The issue of unfair mechanical advantage is difficult to define.  The US athletics federation rules explicitly specify springs as an example of the type of device that might provide an unfair advantage.  Thus in the US, the rules might be interpreted as implicitly banning the Spira shoe, though until the evidence that the springs in the Spira show give an unfair advantage has been tested in court, it is not absolutely clear that Spira shoes are banned even in the US – though they are explicitly banned by the organizers of the Boston marathon.


One might argue that the IAAF should clarify the issue of whether or not the Spira does provide unfair advantage.  However, I suspect that there is a hidden wisdom in the IAAF’s reluctance to rule on the issue.  Even if the evidence clearly shows that the Spira confers an advantage (which I think is very likely) the word ‘unfair’ is less easily interpreted. 


In swimming, one of the technical advances that produced the greatest improvement in performance within recent decades was the introduction of goggles.  It is probable that goggles improve the ability to judge distance from the end of the pool as the swimmer prepares to turn.  On account of widespread availability and use of swim goggles, there is no clamor to outlaw them.  The recently introduces lazer swim suit has been more controversial, but now a large number of new Olympic records have been set by individuals wearing the suits, it would be scarcely practical to ban the lazer retrospectively.  Even if it were banned, no doubt other manufacturers would introduce suits designed to achieve similar benefits, so the controversy would be endless and might defy any resolution other than a return to nude swimming.


I suspect that explicitly banning the Spira would create a very diversive controversy, as it might be argued that other shoes already in use also provide an advantage.  Spira shoes are already widely available and are not terribly expensive.  If they become widely used within in the next few years we will probably accept them just as we currently allow spikes for track and cross-country events.  If the evidence indicates that they protect muscles from long term damage, I think that the small loss to the purity of our sport would be more than justified.

Getting out of a rut

March 1, 2009

This morning, I ran an easy paced 12 Km though the woods and along the river bank.  I had initially intended to do an interval session, but abandoned this plan when I continued to wheeze 15 minutes after using my salbutamol inhaler.  Running in the late winter woodland was a visual delight: the snowdrops, which have been in bloom for many weeks were still near their peak; the bluebell shoots were looking luxuriant though it is too early to expect the flower heads; a few clumps of daffodils that have escaped from the manicured village green into the wilder woodland were in bud.  After warming up, the wheezing diminished but I was still not running fluently.  My pace was only about 6 min/Km, and it felt as if I could not increase it.  Consciously I know that I am currently capable of a pace near to 4 min per Km, at least for a distance of a few Km.  However it appears that my continuing problem with asthma has sapped my confidence.


It is not uncommon for a runner to get into a rut in which performance falls below expectation based on current fitness.  This might be an indication of over-training, but if the usual signs of overtraining – lethargy, low mood, heavy legs, increased resting heart rate, erratic sleeping patterns etc are absent, it is more likely that the problem is psychological.  There is no doubt that I am not at present suffering from over-training.  So the challenge was to deal with the psychological issues. 


It is worthwhile stepping back from the particular circumstances of my run this morning and speculating about the psychological processes that influence running.  I am inclined to think that the mental mechanisms that govern running are no harder to understand the physical mechanics of running.  Of course, even the physical mechanics is complex and at present we understand only the rudiments – hence the debates between the various schools of efficient running.  Similarly, we understand only the rudiments of the mental mechanisms, but it is potentially profitable to examine these rudiments.


Our mind regulates how fast we run, and this regulation is only partially under voluntary control.  Tim Noakes has proposed the concept of the central governor that steps in to stop us over-exerting ourselves.  It is probable that the decisions of the central governor are based on the non-conscious monitoring of physiological variables such as stress hormone levels, proteins released from damaged tissues, hydration status, blood glucose level, core temperature and other indicators of potentially dangerous changes in the state of our internal milieu.  We would be playing with fire to over-ride these indicators.


However, the commonplace observation that a marathon runner can rise to a sprint when the finish is in sight, despite being utterly unable to lift his or her pace after ‘hitting the wall’ around the 20-23 mile mark, suggests that the central governor not only reacts to the indicators of the current internal milieu but also takes account of expectations for the future.  In general it appears that the central governor can be re-set according to our level of confidence.  Once we are fully confident of reaching the finish line, the central governor relaxes its restraining grip. 


If self-confidence can over-ride the restraint imposed  by the governor, it is also plausible that loss of self confidence due to prior bad experiences might have the opposite effect and cause the governor to be unduly restrictive.  Under these circumstances we need to find strategies to rebuild confidence before we can perform at our full potential.


The rise of running as a sport in which your main opponent is yourself and the main goal is to achieve a PB, rather than to beat an opponent has created an somewhat unnatural situation that we are not well adapted to deal with.  If at some point in pre-history the main reason to run fast was either to escape from a predator or to pursue prey , it is likely that the central governor evolved in manner best suited to adjust priorities according the needs of these situations.  When escaping a predator, the need to avoid being eaten assumes a higher priority than the risk of muscle damage, dehydration, heat stroke or exhaustion of glycogen stores at some future time-point.  On the other hand when chasing prey somewhat different priorities apply.  As long as we are gaining on the prey, or at least not losing ground, it is worth running the risks associated with pushing our physiological state at least modest degree beyond the usual limits.  On the other hand, once it is clear that the prey is faster than we are, a well adapted central governor would be expected to halt the chase.


I believe this might account for the well know phenomenon of the snapping of the contact with the front runner in a race.  Whilst our perceptions provide continuous evidence that we are succeeding in maintaining our place on the shoulder of the runner in front, the running feels easy, even though we might be near our physiological limit. However as soon as we drop back more than a few metres, our confidence evaporates, the bond snaps and we lose pace.  Thus, perhaps the experiences of our forebears chasing prey on the African savannah prepared us well for the challenge of racing an opponent. 


But when we are running to achieve a PB, the circumstances are quite different.  At best we get feedback from a stop-watch every few minutes.  Our central governor does not get the benefit of a continuous update on progress, and we must rely on mental mechanisms to sustain our confidence.  If we are going through a phase in which we have been struggling to achieve our self imposed targets in recent races, we are prey to doubt and self-questioning that saps our confidence.  The central governor is more likely to step in and restrain us.


How can we overcome this?  There are two potentially good strategies.  The first is to stop focusing on the target finishing time, and focus instead on our current internal milieu.  If we focus on breathing and/or the rhythms of our muscles, and cease worrying about how much longer we can sustain the current pace, we usually find that we are coping adequately for the time being.  By avoiding worry about the future, we avoid the crisis of confidence.  Strategies such as counting steps or counting breaths can distract us from worrying about our ability to maintain the pace until the finish line.


The other strategy is to recreate a situation similar to that of our forebears in pursuit of prey on the savannah.  Concentrate on racing an opponent.  As long as we are in fact running within our physiological limit, holding pace on the shoulder of our chosen opponent feels relatively easy. On the other hand; if we have been too ambitious in our choice of opponent, the psychological string that binds us to our opponent will stretch until it snaps, but at least we will have run to the best of our current physiological limit.


Returning to the situation I faced this morning, after a few brief bursts in which I increased my pace a little only to drop back to a sluggish 6 min/Km pace as soon as I stopped pushing myself, I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my breathing and running style.  Within a few minutes I was feeling much more fluent.  I did not measure my pace, but know from a rough estimate of the total time that I had picked up pace by about half a minute per Km in the second half of the run.  So I returned home feeling mildly exhilarated, and with renewed confidence. However, I am still a bit oppressed by the fact that I have not been able to do regular interval sessions since last November.