In recent weeks, I have been focusing on developing a program which will allow me to run a good marathon in 2012. Although I would not wish to rely too heavily on the training of elite athletes to guide me, I have nonetheless been quite strongly influenced by the training program that turned Paul Radcliffe from a promising junior distance runner who won the World Junior Cross Country championship in 1992 into one of the most amazing marathon runners the world has ever seen.
VO2max or efficiency?
According to Andrew Jones, the physiologist who has supervised the measurement of Paula’s aerobic capacity and running efficiency over a period of more than 15 years, the major factor in her improvement was a 15 percent increase in her running efficiency between 1991, a year before she won the World Junior Cross Country championship, and 2003 when she set a world woman’s marathon record of 2hr 15 min 25 sec in London. (International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Vo1 • pp101-116 • 2006).
If we ignore the minor ups and downs in the measurements, her maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max ) remained approximately constant at 70 ml/min/Kg from age 17 in 1991, to age 29 in 2003. However her oxygen consumption at a pace of 16 Km/hr (6 min/mile) decreased from 205 ml/Kg/Km in 1992 to 175 ml/Kg/Km in 2003, which represents a 15% increase in efficiency (i.e. 15% reduction in the amount of oxygen consumption per Km at a standard pace).
Andrew Jones acknowledges that he does not know which physiological variable has made the greatest contribution to this improvement in efficiency. Among the various measurements he performed were blood lactate at various paces; heart rate at various paces; vertical jump height and the sit-and-reach test of lower body flexibility. All of these measurements changed significantly over the relevant time period.
The lactate turn point
Most striking was the right shift of the turn-point in the graph of blood lactate against pace. In 1992, there was an appreciable upturn of lactate (from 1.2 to 1.45 mM/litre) between 13 and 14 Km/hour. By 2003, her blood lactate level remained almost constant in the range 1.2 – 1.4 mM/litre up to 18.5 Km/hr and then turned upwards sharply.
At first sight, this might indicate a substantial increase in ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues (perhaps via increased diameter or density of capillaries) and/ or increase in number of mitochondria in muscle fibres so that fuel is burned aerobically rather than anaerobically. However, one might expect that if such changes were generalized to all aerobic muscle fibres, these changes would also produce an increase in VO2 max. In view of the fact that VO2 max did not increase substantially, it suggests that the changes are predominantly changes in blood supply and mitochondria in slow twitch fibres.
Andrew Jones reports that during the relevant years she increased her ability to cope with a relatively large training volume, so that by 2003 she was running up to 160 miles per week. Jones reports that a large proportion of Paula’s training was steady paced running typically running at a pace of 3:30 to 3:40 min/Km. For most people, these paces would be well above the lactate turn point, though by 2003, at 3:20 min/km Paula’s blood lactate level was only about 1.4mM/litre. A large volume of training at this pace would be expected to develop the capillaries and mitochondria of slow twitch fibres. It is noteworthy that 3:20 min/Km corresponds to a marathon time of 2 hrs 20 min and thus is not far below her race pace. Thus I am inclined to speculate that it is likely that the most significant development that allowed her to run a marathon in 2:15:25 was the development of capillaries and mitochondria of slow twitch fibres.
However, it should also be noted that even at paces corresponding to VO2max, her blood lactate level was only around 5mM/litre, which is around half the expected value for a typical athlete. This suggests that she also had a highly developed capacity to metabolize lactate. This would have made her use of fuel at marathon pace more efficient.
In addition, other factors almost certainly contributed. As an old timer with noticeably reduced muscle power, my attention was caught by the observation that her vertical jump performance increased from 29cm in 1996 to 38cm in 2003. Perhaps the most important contribution to developing her muscle power arose from the efforts of physiotherapist Gerard Hartmann to identify the problem that had left Paula struggling in the wake of three faster runners in the final lap of the 10,000m in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
In an article published in Running Times in 2004, athletics journalist, Frank Greally, reported an interview with Hartmann, in which Hartmann described how, after the 2000 Olympics, he had asked Paula to do 20 hops up and down from a 16 inch high box as fast as she could. Whereas Kelly Holmes had achieved 20 hops on and off the same box in 12.5 seconds, Paula took 27 seconds on her first attempt. This led Hartmann to devise a program of plyometric exercises and heavy weight sessions. In 2002, Paula won her first senior world title (long cross country in Ostend, Belgum) and also her debut marathon in London, where she achieved the second fastest time ever for woman (eight seconds slower than Catherine Ndereba’s record of 2:18:47).
Another problem that Hartmann had addressed following the disappointing 4th place in the 10000m in the Sydney Olympics was Paula’s characteristic head-nodding style. Hartmann demonstrated that this arose from weak neck and shoulder muscles and devised a program of strengthening exercises which has largely cured her head nodding.
Is flexibility good?
An intriguing but probably a less important factor was the deterioration in Paula’s lower body flexibility over the period from 1991 to 2003. Andrew Jones reports that in 1991, in the sit-and-reach test she reached 8cm beyond her toes in 1996, but only 4cm beyond her toes in 2003. This observation demonstrates that a high degree of flexibility is not essential for world class performance, and raises the possibility that too much flexibility might actually be associated with diminished efficiency.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests two major developments contributed to Paula’s increased efficiency and dramatically improved performances. The first was a strong rightward shift of the lactate turn point, possibly due largely to development of capillaries and mitochondria in slow twitch fibres and to increased ability to metabolize lactate. Secondly, a program of plyometrics and weight training led to a major increase in her leg muscle power, reflected in vertical jump capacity, and in her neck and shoulder muscles, alleviating her previous inefficient head nodding style. It is likely that the increased power of her leg muscles allowed her to spend a shorter time on stance and to lengthen her stride, in the manner described by Weyand in the study which I described in my blog post on 22nd November.
2003 – 2012
Since 2003, Paula has continued to record great achievements in the marathon, with three victories in New York (2004, 2007 and 2008); first place in London in 2005; and a gold medal at the world championships in Helsinki in 2005. Sadly, an Olympic medal still eludes her. She now has her sights on the London Olympics 2012. By then she will be 38. I understand that Catherine Ndereba, who had preceded Paula as the woman’s marathon world record holder in 2002; won gold at the world championships in 2003 and 2007; and silver at the Olympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, is also planning to race in London. Catherine will be 40 in 2012. It would be wonderful if both are in great form for that race. It would be hard for anyone with a sense of sportsmanship to begrudge Paula a medal.
Whether or not Paula is able to produce medal winning form in 2012, her story illustrates that a systematic approach to training, focusing on aerobic development, leg strength and running technique has turned a promising junior into one of the most wonderful athletes ever.