The beginning of a 3 year program

As described in my post on 25th October, the events of the past summer indicate that I need to plan a long term campaign if I am ever to recover a level of fitness equivalent to that of my younger days, after allowing for the anticipated rate of decline with age illustrated by the WAVA charts.   My goal is to run a ‘good’ marathon in 2012, perhaps aiming for a target time in the range 3:15 to 3:30, and to continue to enjoy running for many years after.

What needs to be developed, and how can the required development be achieved? 

1)    Aerobic capacity of leg muscles: the ability to generate energy for muscle contraction by aerobic metabolism is crucial. The aspects of aerobic metabolism that can be improved by training are:

a.  Delivery of oxygen to the muscles – the number and size of capillaries increases when there is demand for increased delivery of oxygen to muscles;  development is likely to continue over many years provided the there is continuing demand for increased oxygen delivery.   Both low intensity and high intensity training are effective.  The study by Ingjer (J. Physiol. Vol  294, pp. 419-432, 1979) reported an increase of 28.8% in the number of capillaries per muscle fibre after 24 weeks of a high intensity program that included two interval sessions per week in addition to 3 sessions of continuous running for 45 minutes at a work rate ranging from 50 to 90% of VO2max.

 b. The number of mitochondria in type 1 (slow twitch) and type 2A (aerobic fast twitch) fibres. The mitochondria are the sub-cellular organelles containing cytochrome oxidase, the key enzyme in aerobic metabolism.  Dudley’s studies of rats (J Appl. Physiology, vol. 53, pp. 844-850, 1982), discussed in my post on 25th October, demonstrate that increase in cytochrome C is achieved most efficiently for both type 1 and type 2A fibres at high intensity running at above lactate threshold.  Similarly, in the case of humans, the study by Gibala and colleagues (J Physiol Vol 575, pp 901-911, 2006) suggests that high intensity training is the most efficient for producing increases in muscle oxidative capacity.

Although the evidence suggests that the most efficient way to increase capillary density and number of mitochondria in skeletal muscle in the short term is via fairly high intensity running (above lactate threshold) there is no clear evidence that the benefit of such high intensity training continue to accumulate over a period of several years.  I am not aware of any systematic scientific studies that have compared groups of athletes undergoing different training regimes extending over several years. 

There are very few elite athletes who are reported to have shown continuous improvement over many years of predominantly high intensity training.  Individuals such as Gordon Pirie, who did a large number of high intensity interval sessions, had a relatively brief period at the top.  In 1956 he broke the world 3000m record twice, and won a silver medal in the 5000m at the Melbourne Olympics, but he never reached such heights again.  Emil Zatopek was a dominant force for somewhat longer winning a gold medal in the 10,000m London in 1948 and three gold medals in Helsinki in 1952, but it is probable that his famous high intensity sessions (e.g. 50x400m) were run at a relatively modest pace – perhaps around 10K pace – as reported in a comment on my blog by Ewen on 31st March 2009 . 

In the absence of observational evidence, it is necessary to rely on our understanding of physiological mechanisms.  Potentially the most important issue is oxidative damage due to free radical production.  Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise result in the production of free radicals that have the potential to damage tissue, but provided the amount of exercise is not excessive, the body’s natural defenses can cope.  However both excessive intensity and excessive volume can result in the natural defenses being overwhelmed (Fisher-Wellman and Bloomer, Dynamic Medicine, vol 8, 2009, doi:10.1186/1476-5918-8-1)  In light of this evidence I think that the best strategy to produce continued improvement in aerobic capacity over a period of several years, is likely to be a compromise.  I plan to do an a moderate amount of interval training near to lactate threshold or a little above, but will balance this with an approximately equal amount of low to mid –aerobic running; and some non-demanding exercise focused on improving flexibility and proprioception.  

2) Increased capacity of the heart to pump blood.  Cardiac output is the product of stroke volume and heart rate. Unfortunately the decrease in maximum heart rate with age is one of the major contributors to deterioration in maximum rate of oxygen utilization with age, and there appears to be little that can be done to prevent this.  Stroke volume is determined by the difference between the volume of the left ventricle at the beginning and end of ventricular contraction (systole).  Similarly to the situation with training to increase aerobic capacity of muscles, the evidence indicates that high intensity interval training is the most efficient way to increase stroke volume.   The study by Helgerud and colleagues from Trondheim in Norway (Med Sci Sports Exerc. 39(4):665-71; 2007), which I described in some detail in my post of 23rd June 2009 demonstrated that 4x 4 min of running at 90-95% HRmax followed by 3 min of active resting at 70%HRmax, 3 times per week for 8 weeks produces a greater increase stroke volume and also increase in VO2 max than the same number of sessions of either long slow distance running at 70%of maximum heart rate, or tempo running at around lactate threshold. 

However, as in the case of aerobic development of skeletal muscle, the goal of producing continuous development over a period of years must take account of the risk of free radical damage, and I think the same compromise program that balances intensity and volume, non-demanding exercise, and rest is likely to be optimal. 

3) Leg muscle strength and power:  Although I have never formally tested my leg muscle strength, I know from my reduced ability to step upwards onto a chair while carrying a heavy object  that my muscle strength has decreased with age.  My reduced stride length when sprinting confirms this loss of strength and power.  My current time for 100m is 18 sec. I never recorded a 100m time as a youngster, but could certainly run a 400m in much less than 60 sec, so I have clearly slowed down when sprinting and this is almost certainly due to loss of muscle power.  Running entails eccentric contraction of quads, hams and calf muscles.  However, developing eccentric muscle strength presents problems, because eccentric forces tear muscle fibres.  The most efficient way to increase strength of eccentric contraction is plyometric exercise, but the sharply applied stretching of muscles during plyometrics causes extensive damage, which is also likely to produce production of free radicals and a risk of long-term damage (Bloomer RJ & Goldfarb AH. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 29(3): 245–263, 2004.)   Therefore, I will engage in weekly strength training, employing exercises that entail moderate eccentric stress, and very sparing amounts of plyometric exercise.

4) Neuromuscular coordination:  In recent years I have worked on developing a style of running that I believe is efficient and fairly safe – described in the pages ‘Running – a dance with the devil’ in the side bar of my blog.  This style is closely related to Pose, but I have tried to avoid what I perceive as the problems with Pose.  I have not yet focussed on applying this style to faster running.  In the near future, I will spend a session per week practicing this style of running at ‘near sprinting’ pace, but over short distances and with adequate recovery to minimize exhaustion. 


Other metabolic and musculo-skeletal developments

There are many other metabolic developments, such as increased ability to store glucose; to burn fats; to metabolize lactate, and musculo-skeletal developments such as resilience of connective tissues that I anticipate are best developed within the context of a comprehensive program focusing on the four key elements described above   


The program

I plan a periodized program comprising periods of several months duration within which I will spend several sessions a week focusing on the development of specific aspect of fitness, while maintaining a continuous background of aerobic development.  In addition I will spend one or two sessions per week on core strength, balance and proprioception.

Taking account the above considerations, here is my proposed program for the next 4 months:


Specific goal: increasing leg muscle strength and neuromuscular coordination.  The program will include the following sessions:

1) body-weight exercises that entail moderate eccentric load on the major leg muscles: hams, quads, gastrocnemius, soleus, peroneals, gluteals and tensor fascia lata (1/2 hour per week);

2) short hills (approx 90 seconds, 4-8 reps at  ¾ pace effort) on alternate weeks.

3) running style sessions:  mainly drills and short stride-outs focusing on a relaxed style.


Aerobic and cardiac development:

1)      Two interval sessions per week on the elliptical cross trainer.

2)      One long(ish) run: approximately 15Km at whatever pace appeals to me on the day.  I anticipate that these runs will mainly be progressive runs starting in the low aerobic zone and increasing to mid aerobic or upper aerobic zone for the final few Km, though on some occasions I will include 5-10 Km of fartlek within the 15 Km run.


Core strength, balance and proprioception

1)      body-weight exercises designed to improve core strength (1/2 hr per week)

2)      exploration of Yoga postures suitable for development of balance, flexibility and mental focus (1/2 hour per week)

This program entails 7 or 8 sessions of quite diverse content, per week, requiring a total duration of 4 ½ to 5 hours.  The amount of running in this 4 month period is intended to be modest, including one weekly 15Km run; a weekly running style session; and a short hill session on alternate weeks, while I focus on leg strength and neuromuscular coordination.  I anticipate that the most demanding sessions will be the elliptical interval sessions.   These will provide a substantial work-out for the cardiovascular system but due to the fact that the elliptical action involves no impact and relatively little eccentric contraction of leg muscles, the stress on the legs is relatively mild.

I will aim to do at least 80% of the scheduled sessions, but will occasionally substitute other activities such as hill walking, swimming, cycling or kayaking, as the opportunities present themselves

My provisional plan beyond this 4 month period is to devote 2 months to specific preparation for a 10K race in spring.  The major change will be the replacement of some of the elliptical sessions and strength sessions by interval and tempo running sessions.  Then during the summer of 2010, I will prepare for a half marathon in autumn.

10 Responses to “The beginning of a 3 year program”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks for another interesting post Canute. That’s certainly a thorough program — working on all the physiological aspects needed to ‘run well’ over the next 3 years.

    Regarding the free radical production in both “excessive” aerobic and anaerobic training, am I correct in presuming the following:
    That younger athletes are more capable of dealing with this problem than older athletes? Also, younger athletes in terms of “running history”, not actual age? So we need to change training to a different pattern from what worked when we were “young”?

  2. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, There is no doubt that ability to deal with free radical damage decreases with age. The question of running history and risk of free radical damage is less easy to answer, and I will review the evidence on that question soon. Up to a certain point training might increase the capacity to deal with free radicals. However, there is a folk-lore belief that it is only possible to run a limited number of top-level marathons in a life-time. Perhaps contrary to this, there are some striking examples of women athletes who have continued to achieve top level performances in long distance races including marathons, over many years – Grete Waitz and Lorraine Moller are good examples. However Grete and Lorraine were in the first generation of women to run marathons and it is possible that despite training which was prodigious for women of their era, they nonetheless did not train or race as hard as the men. It will be interesting to see how things continue to develop for Paula Radcliffe, and in particular today’s NY marathon will be an interesting test. She is reported in recent newspaper interviews to claim that her endurance is still improving. My own impression is that even Paula does not train as hard as the top men (though I do not have access to detailed information of her training). One might argue that the longevity of the careers of women marathon runners is due to more modest training. It is plausible that testosterone fueled training in more likely to produce tissue damage.

  3. RICK Says:

    I think the advise Pete Magill of ‘younger legs’ gave me was very good, I asked Younger Legs masters coach Pete Magill why he thought my race performances were going backwards this summer, his answer not only told me why I was getting slower but how to get faster again!
    Pete says; 3 hard workouts a week is absolutely insane for someone our age (I’m 48 too). I wouldn’t last a month doing that. And I doubt you’d see any improvement, even in the first weeks. One hard workout, one long easy-paced run, and one less-hard workout combined with as much volume as your legs can comfortably handle is the best plan for our age. Also, we don’t respond well to the excessively long tempo or the tempo runs tagged onto the end (or in the middle of) our long runs the way some younger athletes do.

    One of my masters athletes who I’m currently training for the marathon called me before his half-Marathon 2 weeks ago. He was panicked because his friends told him I hadn’t been training him hard enough – not enough distance and not enough long tempo, etc. I calmed him down. And he ended up running his half-marathon PR … by 11 minutes.
    Be smart. Be sensible. And good luck!!! Pete

  4. canute1 Says:

    Rick, I agree with Pete Magill that older runners need to avoid too many hard sessions. At 63, this is an even more serious issue for me, than for you at 48. However I am keen to see whether replacing running session with intervals on the elliptical works. Twice within the past three years I have done a substantial amount of training on the elliptical, including several interval session per week and on each occasion my running improved substantially, though the improvements were from a low baseline. In Feb – March 2007 I improved my time for a 6.2Km upper aerobic run at aHR 140 from 34:56 to 31:49 after 6 weeks of elliptical training including 3 hard sessions (usually intervals) and 3 easy sessions per week with virtually no running. In Dec 2007 of the same year I ran a mile in 6:13 (my M60 PB) following 6 weeks in which I did three hard sessions per week (two on the elliptical and 1 running). None of these achievements are dramatic but they do raise the possibility of old timers benefiting from three hard sessions a week provided two of them are on the elliptical.
    It is also noteworthy that John Keston did both high intensity (eg 20x400m) and high volume training for about 15 years from his late 50’s until his first major accident at age 73, and set some amazing age group world records in that period. Subsequent to a series of accidents between age 73 and 77 he adopted a much less strenuous training program but continued to set world records (eg M80 half marathon world record 1:39:27.)
    Keston himself apparently subscribes to the belief it is the number of years of top level running, as well as age, that sets the limit. In an interview published in New Scientist in March 2005, he is quoted as saying:
    ‘When you take up running you probably have seven or eight years during which you’re building up training and experience. ….. During that time you get faster, even though you’re older. I didn’t become world class until I was in my 60s. Once you reach your peak speed, you can sustain it for maybe three or four years before you start to decline. But the decline doesn’t mean that you’re not still good – it’s just an effect of ageing. I set more world records in my 70s than in my 60s.’

  5. RICK Says:


  6. canute1 Says:

    Rick, The opening and closing scenes of Jack Nirenstein’s video demonstrate that he has a sense of humor and suggest that perhaps he has his tongue in his cheek at other times in the video. In the first few minutes, in which he lampoons other running styles, he makes the fundamental mistake of ignoring the effect of momentum. Once a runner has accelerated to the desired running speed, only a relatively small amount of energy is needed to provide forward propulsion (- a billiard ball on a perfectly smooth flat surface would role forever without any further push). The major energy consuming actions required when running at constant velocity are overcoming gravity to get oneself airborne again after each fall to earth, and getting the swing leg forward relative to the torso so as the support the body as it falls to earth. Therefore when he lampoons the experts who emphasize the need to push against the ground and to need to get the legs forward, he is off the rails. He has a good point when he lampoons the experts who state that one must maintain a lean for the ankles. Leaning from the ankles in the first half of stance is clearly unhelpful as it results in braking; in the second half of stance it is helpful, but it occurs automatically, so the emphasis in Pose on leaning from the ankles is almost pointless – what is imporant is keeping the pelvis aligned in a way that avoids a forward slump from the hips. He (and also Nicholas Romanov, the father of Pose) are on firmer ground in proposing that fast steps and short time on stance are generally efficient – though short time on stance is a trade off between the benefit of reduced braking and the risks associated with high ground reaction forces. As for his views on religion and sex, I guess each individual has to form his/her own opinion – the laws of physics provide limited guidance in these domains

  7. RICK Says:

    THANKS AGAIN FOR YOU COMMENTS, i found a good article on correct positioning uf the pelvis on BENSON running, I found that I’ve been sitting in a bucket as they say and tilting my pelvis up helps a lot to aline my ankles,knees and hips and also shoulders, letting mE run smoother.

  8. RICK Says:

    By the way canute what about when running into a headwind, is leaning the body forward useful then, can your weight can by used to push against the resistance of the air/

  9. canute1 Says:

    Rick, yes, when running into a head wind, leaning into the wind is helpful becase the wind exerts a head-backward torque on the body while on stance, so a head-fuorwards gravitational torque is useful to counteract this. I suppose you might also say that in zero wind, there is a small head-backwards torque to due air ressitance, so a sligth forward inclination is useful even when wind speed is zero.

  10. HIIT Training Says:

    HIIT Training…

    […]The beginning of a 3 year program « Canute’s Efficient Running Site[…]…

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