In March 2009, when I was weighing up the possible plans for summer training in preparation for a half-marathon in September of that year, I had explored the Furman program . It is an attractive program for a runner with limited time available for training because it comprises three running sessions per week: an interval session, a tempo run and a long run, together with a flexible amount of cross-training. At that time I wrote: ‘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 Half Marathon Pace + 12 seconds per Km or faster.’
At that time, I decided on a program that was more closely related to a Lydiard approach consisting of a mixture of low, mid and upper aerobic runs, though far less in total volume than the 100 miles per week that is widely regarded as the defining feature of Lydiard’s approach to base building. As things turned out, my training was seriously disrupted by a prolonged and debilitating illness in mid-summer and I ran the half marathon in September one the basis of very limited preparation. This year, a half marathon in September will be my main target race, and I am again faced with planning the details of my program.
Unfortunately I have already had some health problems this year, and am struggling to recover the level of fitness I had achieved in January. Nonetheless, I still have about 16 weeks to prepare for a race in September. My primary goal is to build up my aerobic capacity, though I will also continue to work on rebuilding some of the leg strength that I have lost in the past decade. For achieving aerobic fitness with a limited time budget, tempo runs are probably the most efficient type of session, but to minimize the risk of recurrence of the illness that has hampered me, I can only afford to indulge in tempo runs sparingly. So the weekly long run will be a crucial part of the program. But this brings me back to the question that I faced when had looked at the Furman program last year: how fast should the long runs be?
The answer depends at least partly on what other training one is doing, and on one’s specific goals. In preparing for a half marathon the crucial thing is establishing the ability to sustain a pace near the upper end of the aerobic zone for 21 Km. At first sight, the Furman long run at HMP + 12 seconds or faster seems the obvious answer. Observing the progress of various runners who have recorded their experiences with Furman on their blogs has confirmed the evidence from scientific studies indicating that the program works – a runner who copes with the program has a good chance of achieving the target race time. However, most runners report that it is tough. Despite the fact that there are only three specified runs per week, I suspect that in many instances, the runner is on the dangerous far-side of the sweet spot – and verging towards the territory where the risks of injury and ill health rise disproportionately.
Looking towards Africa
In an era when Africans hold virtually every world record for distances ranging from 1500m to the marathon, the most obvious starting point in addressing the question: ‘how fast should a long run be?’ is to examine the training patterns of Africans. In fact there is no single African training pattern, and in any case several factors other than current training are likely to contribute to the prodigious success of African distance runners. However, whatever the contributions of geography, culture or genes, training almost certainly plays a substantial role, and it is perhaps the one feature that might be adapted by any runner. So it is worthwhile examining the approaches to the long run adopted by contemporary Africans to see if there are any essential features can be identified.
I have chosen fours runners: two youngsters from Kenya who have made spectacular debuts in international marathons within the past few years, but who have quite different approaches to training, and two ‘veterans’ who dominated international 5000m and 10000m track events at the end the final decade of the last century, and have between them, held the world marathon record for much of the first decade of this century.
The two youngsters are Samuel Wanjiru, who won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008 shortly before his 22nd birthday setting a new Olympic record of 2:06:32; and Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, 21 year-old winner of the tough Boston marathon in a record time of 2:05:52 in 2010. The two ‘veterans’ are Paul Tergat from Kenya and Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia, who both reached their peak on the track around the turn of the century, before moving to the marathon. One of the highlights of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 was the titanic battle in the 10,000m in which Gebrselassie narrowly defeated Tergat. Tergat ran his debut marathon in London in 2001 and in 2003 became the first person to run a marathon in under 2:05 when he established a world record of 2:04:55 in Berlin. Gebrselassie made his marathon debut in London in 2002, and in 2007 in Berlin took 29 seconds off Tergat’s world record, before going on to become the first person to break 2:04 with a time of 2:03:59, a year later, again in Berlin
Japanese journalist, Akio Harada of the Asahi Newspaper, obtained a fascinating insight into the training of Samuel Wanjiru during an interview before the Fukuoka marathon in 2008 . Wanjiru had established a new course record of 2:06:39 in his international marathon debut in Fukuoka the year before. Harada’s question to Wanjiru about Catherine Ndereba failing to win gold in Beijing because she had not realized until too late that Constantina Tomescu was ahead of her provided an interesting insight into Wanjiru’s mental approach to racing. Wanjiru had not seen the women’s race but his comment was ‘but I’m not the type of guy who runs behind someone else.’ In contrast, his approach to training was perhaps best encapsulated in the remark; ‘Sundays are off, and if it rains I also take the day off from training. If you train too hard in the summer it’s bad for your body.’
He described his training in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. He did long cross-country runs of 38 Km; somewhat faster runs of 30Km on flat ground; and speed work, such as 10x400m or 3x3000m. In addition, about half of his training days were described as easy days. The 38Km long runs were at a pace of 4:30 per Km (7:12 per mile). This pace is 50% slower than his marathon pace. For a 3 hour marathon runner, the equivalent pace would be 10:17 per mile. It should be noted that these runs were at altitude and also cross-country. As an aside, I was interested in his comment: ‘I never do any strength training. You can get enough strength from running on cross-country-type courses.’ Nonetheless, his long run pace suggests that many of the benefits of the long run can be obtained by running at a very gentle pace; a pace that is ‘not bad for your body’. His 30Km ‘pace runs’ were run at a pace only 5% slower than his marathon pace, and hence might be regarded as tempo runs.
Thus, as in the Furman program, Wanjiru’s training included speed sessions, tempo and long runs, but the really striking differences are that his long runs were much slower than the Furman marathon program would recommend, and his total volume was higher. In particular he added substantial volume on his easy days, some of it apparently in the form of progressive runs. He told Harada: ‘Other than that, I run about 15 km at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning before I have breakfast. I’d say it’s like jogging, or a buildup to something like a pace run. I start around 4 minutes per km, drop it down to 3:30 in the middle, then end up down at about 3 minutes 5 seconds. I always want to finish thinking, “Aaaaah, that felt great. I had a good run.”’
Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot
Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot made his international debut at the Commerzbank Marathon in Frankfurt in 2008, winning in the new course record time of 2:07:21. A year later, Larry Eder published details Cheruiyot’s training leading up to the 2009 Frankfurt marathon on RunBlog . At that time, Cheruiyot was running around 280 Km per week in training, in contrast to Wanjiru’s total volume of around 140 Km per week. Cheruiyot also included a mix of long runs (typically 40Km, midweek); a somewhat faster paced 30Km on the weekend; and a weekly ‘speed’ session. However his typical speed session was 12x1000m at 3:00 min/Km, which is slightly slower than his marathon pace and hence is likely to be comfortably below the anaerobic zone. Eder did not report the pace of the 40Km long runs, but the schedule makes it clear that the majority of Cheriuioyt’s training volume was provided by 15-16Km runs at a pace about 1 ½ minutes per mile slower than his marathon pace. Thus the overall picture is of a program with very high volume but only moderate intensity.
However not all of the Kenyans place quite so much emphasis on avoidance of excessive stress. Among those with a legendary ability to tolerate hard training is Paul Tergat. The biography ‘Paul Tergat: Running to the Limit’ by Jurg Wirz , emphasizes Tergat’s commitment to developing mental toughness. The training programs described in the book appear relentless in their demands. For example during his preparation for the 2002 London marathon, the total volume weekly volume was well over 200Km per week including 7 quite demanding morning sessions and 6 easier afternoon sessions. The 7 morning sessions typically included one or two sessions of speed work, a long run and three or four sessions of 70- 75 min which are described as ‘always medium to fast’. The long run is described as ‘not slow at all’. The easy afternoon sessions were typically 1 hour at a slow to medium pace.
Nonetheless it is noteworthy that unlike many other Kenyan distance runners, Tergat did most of his training at a relatively low altitude of around 1700-1800m, near his home in Ngong on the outskirts of Nairobi. In 2001 he had trained for about two months at an altitude of 2300m in the Kaptagat Forest at Eldoret, but he found this very exhausting. He reports that ‘by evening I was very, very tired’. Thus, despite the apparent Herculean character of his training schedules, even Tergat was aware of the need to avoid getting too tired.
It is also noteworthy that following the exhausting high altitude training in 2001, he was second in the London marathon in a time of 2:08. While this is a very creditable debut marathon, when the Morrocan Abdelkader El Mouaziz had applied the pressure at 35 Km, Tergat could not stay with him. In 2002, Tergat was again second, ten seconds behind Khalid Kannouchi’s new world record time of 2:05:38. In 2003, Tergat reached the high point in his marathon career with his world record of 2:04:55 set in Berlin. Had he perhaps trained just a little too hard in 2001? And, since 2003, he has not achieved the same heights again. His most recent, and perhaps final, marathon victory was in the 2009 Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan, which he won in 2:10:22. It would be churlish to criticize the achievements of Tergat’s remarkable running career, a career than has earned him a place in the Pantheon of running greats, but I can’t help wondering whether or not he might have sustained his marathon performance at the very top level for a few years longer if he had adopted a slightly more relaxed attitude to training.
While Tergat has earned a place in the Pantheon, in my opinion the man who is entitled to be described as the greatest distance runner of all time is Tergat’s friend and rival, Haile Gebrselassie. Not only is he the current world marathon record holder, he has established a total of 27 world records over distances from 2000m to the marathon during his career, and in addition, has run some superb competitive races, of which the 10,000m final in Sydney stands out. However, as an old timer hanging onto a shred of nostalgia for the days of amateurism, it is with wry amusement that I am forced to go to the website of one of Gebrselassie’s commercial sponsors, Powerbar, for details of his training.
The example of Gebrselassie’s training provided on the Powerbar website  demonstrates that his a weekly program includes speed work, a tempo run and a longish run together with a fartlek session and easy runs giving a total weekly training volume of 190 Km (120 miles) . His speed work consist of 6x2km @ 2:50 /Km which is slower than his best 10Km pace, with 3 min recovery; and also 10x100m sprints within two of his easy sessions. In his tempo session he covers 15Km in 48 min. (i.e. 3:12 /Km) which is about 7% slower than his marathon pace. His longish run is 25Km in 90 minutes (i.e. 3:36 /Km or 5:45 /mile; for a three hour marathon runner that would correspond to 5:14 /Km or 8:22 per mile).
The easy sessions include a 20 Km run at 4 min per Km and two 18Km runs at a similar speed, in addition to five easier runs, such as 10Km in 43 minutes (4:18 per Km, which is 46% slower than his marathon pace; for a three hour marathon runner, that would correspond to around 6:15 per Km or 10 min/mile).
In summary, Gebrselassie’s program is fairly high in both volume and intensity, but even the higher intensity runs are not very intense. His 25 Km long runs are shorter than the corresponding 38 Km runs of Samuel Wanjiru but somewhat faster. The pace of Gebrselassie’s 25km runs is about a minute per mile slower than his marathon pace. Some of his easy runs appear very easy – such as 10Km in 43 minutes which is a pace equivalent to 10 min/mile for a 3 hour marathon runner. It should however be noted that much of his training is done at an altitude of around 2700m.
In an article about her experiences arising from Gebrselassie’s invitation to her to visit Ethiopia, Canadian 1500m runner Hilary Stellingwerff reports that Gebrselassie placed great emphasis on mental preparation; on the need to deal first with one’s inner demons. “First you must win yourself. Of course you must train hard, but after that, everything is easy.’  She describes her humbling experiences as she joined in with the local athletes running a 16Km loop in the mountains not far from Addis Ababa and concludes “Athletics comes number one for African athletes; there is nothing else. They train very hard and sleep the rest of the day to recover.’ However she also points out that they respect the body. She writes; ‘Finally, on all my recovery runs, the Ethiopian athletes stressed the importance of running on soft ground in the forest to make sure you go slow enough to really recover. They don’t worry too much about their pace, but instead about “getting good oxygen” from the trees and “soft ground” for the body.’
As might be expected, there is no single answer to the question of how Africans train, but several clear themes emerge. Elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners adopt a program comprising speed work, ‘pace’ or tempo sessions, long runs and easy runs. The speed of the long runs is at least 1 min per mile slower than marathon pace and often slower. The easy runs appear very easy by European standards. Strong determination is balanced by an over-arching spirit of respect for the body.
Overall, the spirit that can be distilled from these accounts of the training of elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners is perhaps a little nearer to the spirit of Ed Whitlock (discussed in my post on 22 April) who trains 3 hours per day, mostly at very low intensity, than it is to the remorseless pressure of the high intensity Furman program, despite its low volume. I still consider the Furman program has much to recommend it, but I am even more certain that my initial concern, expressed last March, that Furman long run paces are too demanding, was well founded. In the months ahead, I will aim for long run paces that are at least a minute per mile slower than a speculative estimate of my marathon pace.
London Marathon 2010
As a footnote to my posting on the Sweet Spot on 22 April, Marie and her husband did cross the line together on Sunday in the 2010 London marathon. The truly inspiring achievement was Marie’s determination to celebrate the experience and to get her medal.
Another inspiring achievement was the 2:47:34 recorded by Rick Bowker, the ‘No limits desperado’ of Rick’s Running. He had prepared tenaciously following Marius Bakken’s 100 day program. Finishing in 376th place overall (and 30th in the 45-49 category) while taking around 4 minutes off his PB was a great achievement. Well done, Rick, and thanks for all your comments on this site over the past year.
 Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss (2007) ‘Runner’s World Run Less, Run Faster: Become a Faster, Stronger Runner with the Revolutionary First Training Program’
 Akio Harada (2008) ‘Samuel Wanjiru shares the secret of training to win.’, published in the program for the 2008 Fukuoka marathon; translated from Japanese by Brett Larner with editorial assistance from Mika Tokairin, and posted on http://japanrunningnews.blogspot.com/2008/12/samuel-wanjiru-shares-secret-of.html
 Larry Eder (2009) ‘Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot: training log, from Victah Sailer, Notes by Larry Eder’. Posted 23 Oct 2009 at http://www.runblogrun.com/2009/10/robert-kiprono-cheruiyot-training-log-from-victah-sailer-notes-by-larry-eder.html
 Jurg Wirz (2005) ‘Paul Tergat: Running to the Limit’
 Hilary Stellingwerff (2009) ‘Living the High Life.’ Canadian Runner, Issue 2.4