Zatopek, sleet and rainbows

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.

9 Responses to “Zatopek, sleet and rainbows”

  1. rick Says:

    Hi Canute,
    If you research back to Lydiards original base training you will see that it is far from easy running, inc in the program are hilly fartleck runs, 10 mile tempo runs at m.p. pace, leg speed sessions as well as the infamous 22 mile mountain runs!

  2. canute1 Says:

    Rick, I agree. For the long runs Lydiard proposes a fairly good pace, enough to make you comfortbaly tired. Unfortunately his directions for how to determine that pace do not make much sense to me. His intruction to run outwards for about 15 minutes and aim to return in the same time might be taken to imply that the desired pace is maximum for 30 minutes yet that would be above lactate threshold for most people. I presume the desired pace is in the upper aerobic range. That is the pace I used for most of my long runs forty years ago, and it appeared to get me reasonably fit.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Canute, the legendary 50 x 400 (and more) sessions that Zatopek ran may have been more aerobic than people think. An Australian runner, born in Czechoslovakia, has an old Zatopek book that hasn’t been translated into English. It gave the paces of the various sessions. I can’t recall the exact times he quoted, but they looked more aerobic than ‘intense’. Something like 25 x 400s in 75s with 400 ‘jogs’ in 90 – that type of thing. So, the 400s were more like 10k race pace, so lactic acid production would be low. If I can find the quote, I’ll post it.

  4. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, That is very interesting. In the days before internet, rumours about the training routines of the greats tended to become legends and I am sure that like most legends, they got embellished in the process. It is difficult to sort out the fact from the fiction, though the quote “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow.
    I want to learn to run fast.” rings fairly true. However I hope you find the quote from the untranslated book.

  5. Ewen Says:

    Canute, I found the particular post from the CoolRunning message board – from a poster “Rudolf” (his spelling is not great) – the book is still in Czechoslovakia, so he just writes from memory…

    “yes I would be more than happy to translate, if I can get those books back into my hands.

    re Emils continuos runs _ I already explained many times. what the wolrd understood or interpreted as 400m repetitions (and kept suck on the magic number 100×400), was actual continueous run, Emil never run repetitions. It was allways faster lap followed by slower lap so therefore it was always writen as say 20×400/400m faster laps were done at or near the racing speed, if tired from weekly buildup they were slower but run at race effort, which is physiologicaly teh same, although not quite biomechanicaly.

    Emil only counted the laps in the race pace, so therefore he only told teh foreigh journalis of teh number of 400m he runs at race pace, so there where he confused the world. However each lap at race pace was followed by so called recovery lap perhaps about 15 secs slower, so it was not slow jog and no recovery pace, it just allowed the oxygen to catch up a bi and the muscles to recover a bit.

    The closest to this sytem is training session called Monna fartlek mentioned few times already, the only difference is that totakl lenght of Monna fartlek was only 15 minutes distance wise 4800m and the fast slow parts of it were getting progressively shorter down to 30 secs, for some articles Monna also did less complicated 5km fartlek were it was not by time lenght of slower/faster parts, but simply by faster straights and slower bends but differnce was only about 2 secs between faster and slower 100m, so it was not down to jog, it was called float.

    This is how Emil started – fast straights, float bends, till he was tired, so first week it was only to 3×100/100, but 5xweek,

    Monna and his school does that fartlek only 1xweek and possibly not every week, that is the major difference.

    Emil builded up to 10×100/100, when he bocome comfortable with it 5xweek, he switched to 200/200, and again builded up to 10×200/200.

    This was eand of season, so Emil said to his friend – somewhere I read, that end of season – autumn buildup for next season it is advisable to run longer, so he said I am going tomorow to run those 10×200 in 1 go as 2km
    See how he disregarded those slower floats 200m between faster ones, not recognizing that he was actualy runninh 4km each day to him it was only 2 km each day, to him floats were something to a cyclist descending the mountain or ride with a huge backwind so he did not count it.

    His friend said – OK I will bring my stopwatch and time You . So next day after some warm up, Emil run 2km at even pace hard. His friend looked at the stopwatch and said – YOu know I am not sure but this may be a national 2000m record, I will look it up at my dormitory – I have an athletic statistic yearbook there. So they went look it up and yes it was better than than national record.
    Emil said – please do not tel anybody, I wanna keep training quitely and wipe everybody out next season comes.
    However his friend broke the promise called the club president right that night. Next day there were official present at the teraining session, which was very unusual, and they waited for Emil : we heard about Your fantastic record run, so we wanna make it official, so we announced extar out of season track meet for this comming saturday and told the press it is oficail attempt at national record, so You better get ready.

    Emil was not happy with this at all, that was not his plan, he didi not wanna become famous before next season and before winter preparation months.

    The offial added – and to make it more meaningfull – the record attempt race is at 3000m.

    Shit said Zatopek, the 3000m is much better quality since 2000m is very rarely run as a nonstandard, and he said – I do not even run 3000m at my training (again counting only fastyer partys of it, not counting the floats)

    But he did run the 3000m national record that saturday, and next season at the first track meet he run national record at 1500m = 4:01

    So Zatopek did all his running as continuos runs later using 400/400m, but counting only the fast ones.

    Just imagine Monna fartlek run for 2-3 hours instead of 15 minutes, of course the pace a bit slower.”

  6. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Thanks. Both the intensity of Zatopek’s recovery ‘jogs’ and the overall workload are impressive, even if his peak velocity was not all that high. If Lydiard’s views about the damaging effects of going into the anaerobic zone are correct, the crucial issue is how anaerobic he became in the effort epochs. However, the boundary between aerobic and anaerobic is not sharp, so I suspect that if Lydiard is basically correct, the crucial thing is not to get into extremes of acidosis during the conditioning phase.

  7. Jan Says:

    Interesting discussion. I have used Furman plan when I was self coached to run 10k and then build up to half marathon 14 weeks later. What I must say is that the 10k plan worked well, but moving to the half right after the 10k plan was little too much intensity in short period of time. I did run PR in both races, but the rest of the season was not all that great. Mistake on my part to try to peak for 2 races in short period of time.

    Now I’m about 16 months coached by professional and what do you know – in the build up to marathon we have been doing quite a few long track sessions that are very similar to the sessions you describe Zatopek was doing – e.g. 400 repeats on faster than 5k pace on the fast ones and prescribed pace for the recovery ones. Goal in those sessions is not to run the hard ones faster than prescribed pace and recovery ones stay in the prescribed pace. We have built to 17 repeats in my last session and then upgraded to 800 repeats (basically Yasso 800s to validate the marathon planned goal time).

    I find a lot of value in higher intensity long sessions especially in training for half and full marathon. They help build the confidence – you can run hard 13-14 miles on the track in those long sessions. Since running is not my sole focus my sessions are very similar to the Furman plan with more intense cross-training sessions. All my runs are by time and prescribed pace rather than HR and my cross-training sessions are lately more focused on endurance bike rides (not much high intensity) and swims are combination of little bit of intensity and technique.

    We will see in few weeks if this plan works.

  8. canute1 Says:

    Jan, I think that high intensity long sessions are good provided you have adeqaute rest between sessions. Low intensity bike rides and swimming should allow your legs to recover, and aslo should ensure that you do not produce too much cortisol. Good luck in the marathion. Please let me know how it goes.

  9. What is the best way to increase lactate threshold? | Canute's Efficient Running Site Says:

    […] with the faster epochs appreciably faster than lactate threshold pace, as Ewen pointed out in his comments on my post about Zatopek in 2009. I find that I recover well from cruise intervals with moderately short […]

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