Lessons from Ed Whitlock, Fauja Singh and Renato Canova

In a comment on my post two weeks ago about my first interval session since recommencing regular running after  series of disruptive misadventures, Thomas suggested that I would be better off forgetting about speed workouts and doing as much easy paced, aerobic running as my legs would let me, instead.   The debate about when to introduce speed sessions has been one of the most long-standing debates about training for distance running, and Thomas’ comment once again set me to weighing up the wisdom of my plan.

There is little doubt that before building up intensity, it is crucial to do enough low intensity running to condition sinews and muscles to protect them against injury.  At the end of the summer, I had gradually built-up volume with low intensity running – enough, I think, to prepare my sinews and muscles for moderately intense interval sessions provided I keep the number of reps low enough to avoid serious fatigue.   So the debate hinges mainly on the question of whether a high volume of low intensity running is essential to build a sound aerobic base, and the related question of whether speed sessions help or hinder base-building.

Lessons from Ed Whitlock

There is no doubt that at least for some athletes, a large volume of low intensity running works well.  In the Toronto Waterfront Marathon earlier this month, Ed Whitlock set a new M80-84 world record of 3:15:54.  Whitlock is famous for training slowly – typically he runs 15-20 miles daily, in monotonous 500m circuits of Evergreen Cemetery near his home in a Toronto suburb, at 9 min mile pace.  While this pace is not all that slow for an 80 year old, compared with his marathon racing pace of 7:30 min/mile, 9 minute mile pace is fairly relaxed.   He only occasionally does intervals.

However I think that there are some additional aspects of Whitlock’s running history that need to be taken into account.  As a young man Whitlock was a fairly fast runner – competing with and occasionally beating some of the legendary figures of British distance running in the 1950’s.  When he took up running again in his early 40’s, while living in Montreal, he concentrated on middle distances.  In a Runners Web interview in 2003, he reported that this best times during those years in Montreal were 1:59.9 and 4:02. He described his training as ‘a fair amount of road work but the serious stuff was track interval work outs under coaching supervision’.  I suspect that he built up some fairly powerful type 2a (aerobic fast twitch) muscle fibres in those sessions.   In more recent years, he has balanced his long slow training sessions with frequent races, and his racing paces are fast – typically under 6 minutes for a mile and around 6:50 /mile in 10K.   Frequent racing at these speeds no doubt keeps those type 2a fibres in good condition.

and from Faija Singh

The other amazing veteran performance in this year’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon was 100 year old Fauja Singh’s 8:11:06, also a world record.  The most impressive feature is not the time itself but simply that he is the first 100 year old to complete a marathon.  Fauja also trains fairly slowly – typical he run/walks 10-15Km a day, though he does do some track training and he holds the world M100 records for virtually all distances from 100 metres (23.14 sec) to the marathon.

Despite their predominantly high volume/low intensity training, both Ed Whitlock and Fauja Singh illustrate that if you want to sustain a reasonable pace over the longer distances as the years go by, it is important to maintain some speed in your legs.  I think the greatest enemy of speed in the veteran years is the loss of type 2a fibres.   For a runner whose goal is to run a reasonably fast race over any distance shorter than an ultra-marathon, building up  the type 2a fibres is almost as important as building up the type 1  (slow twitch) fibres.  The specialist ability of the elite marathon runner is the ability to maintain a pace at the upper boundary of the aerobic zone for several hours. This demands not only endurance but enduring muscle power.

Renato Canova

Perhaps the most successful marathon and half-marathon coach of all time is Renato Canova.  His protégés include Moses Mosop, Florence Kiplagat, Abel Kirui and Wilson Kiprop.  Not only has he coached some of the world’s finest half marathon and marathon runners, but he has also been more prepared than any other leading endurance coach to discuss his ideas with the running community, most notably though his frequent and comprehensive contributions to Let’s Run forums.  He claims that his principles are based on observation of many leading athletes of the past two decades; extensive discussion with other coaches and a good grounding on science, particularly detailed evidence about energy metabolism derived from lactate testing in many athletes.

A key feature of Canova’s approach is periodization that leads to a final period of training that is specific for the target event.  In the case of marathon training, the goal of the specific period is to develop the capacity to maintain marathon pace for increasingly long distances.  However long runs at MP are potentially stressful and therefore, must follow earlier phases that are designed to build an adequate foundation for this demanding final phase.  Of course most coaches advocate some form of periodization which starts with base building and leads to more specialized training.  However, there is a crucial conceptual difference between Canova’s periodization and the periodization recommended by a coaches such as Maffetone and Hadd,.  Whereas Maffetone and Hadd argue that exceeding anaerobic threshold can interfere with the building of an aerobic base, Canova does not and therefore he is more inclined to recommend a greater mixture of different types of session within each phase of the periodization.  As I have discussed in previous posts, there is only a little evidence that speed sessions might damage aerobic fitness, but substantial evidence that training at the upper end of the aerobic zone is an efficient way to produce increases in aerobic capacity.

The four phases of marathon preparation identified by Canova are a general phase in which the emphasis is on developing an all-round base; a foundation phase designed to build endurance via fairly high volume of low intensity running.; special preparation which increasing the capability to maintain marathon pace and a little faster; specific training in which the goal is to accustom the body  to running at marathon pace or even a little faster for distances in the range 25-35 Km.

Looking backward to move forward

For present purposes, I am interested in the general phase, whose goal is the development of an all round base.  I think this is the phase in which each individual has to weigh up his or her own current strengths and weaknesses, based on a life-time history of running.  My own personal experience suggests that for me, a crucial component of building an all round base includes building up muscle coordination and strength.   This is the foundation for ensuring that even in the subsequent higher volume, relatively low intensity phase I can maintain a reasonable pace, bearing in mind that beyond that phase comes a specific training phase in which the body must become accustomed to sustaining marathon pace for 25-35 KM.

Over forty years ago I became a marathon runner almost by accident.  At that time, I was involved in a fairly wide range of interests and activities, one of which was club level track athletics.  My main event was the 5000m but I wasn’t especially gifted.  My principal objective at interclub meetings was gaining points for my club.  As a result I ran in events as diverse as 400m hurdles, 3000m steeplechase and 5000m.   The majority of my training consisted of tempo runs and fartlek around the local suburban streets.  During the winter I ran cross county races on weekends when I was not involved in other activities, such as mountaineering.  One year in the late 1960’s I entered a marathon, with very little specific marathon preparation.  In those days there were few marathons and this one happened to be the South Australian state championship.  Rather to my surprise, I won it.  In retrospect, I think the conclusion is that while I have very limited natural speed, I have a modicum of natural endurance.  Whether this is a product of my genes or the fact that I used to run to and from school as a youngster, I do not know.  Whatever, the origin of my endurance, it appeared that the main requirement to allow me to put this endurance to use in a marathon was enough tempo running and fartlek to compensate for my lack of natural speed.  I only ever ran about four marathons in those days.  I do not have a record of my best time but it was around 2:25.

Almost forty years later, in my late fifties, I decided that it was time to get fit again.  Without fully appreciating the effort it would require, I decided to prepare for a marathon at age 60.  However I was dismayed to find that whereas four decades previously my tempo pace was around 5:30 to 5:45 minutes per mile, and I had rarely trained at paces slower than 6 minutes per mile, now it was a struggle to run faster than 6 min per Km.  So I decided my first task was to get my tempo pace up to something between 4 and 4:15 minutes per Km.  After about six months of tempo sessions, fartlek and a few interval sessions, I did a time trial over a 10 K cross country route in 41 minutes.  I was a bit disappointed to fail to break 40 minutes but nonetheless turned my attention to re-establishing my endurance.    For 5 months, I averaged only about 30 miles per week, but did include three long runs of 20 miles or more.  At that stage, I entered a marathon to assess my progress and allow me to set a reasonable goal for my intended M60 marathon attempt the following year.

In my previous experience, at the start of a marathon the entire field formed no more than two or three rows across the roadway.  In the intervening decades the character of marathon races had been transformed almost beyond belief.  I now found myself engulfed in a vast throng of runners in diverse outfits progressing at diverse speeds.  After feeling trapped at a snail’s pace for the first mile I broke clear of the melee with a crazy burst of speed and did not settle to a sensible pace until after three miles.  I reached the halfway mark in 93 minutes, feeling fairly comfortable.  However by 20 miles I was paying the price for my crazy escape from the melee at the beginning, and in the final few miles I struggled even to achieve 10 minute mile pace.  My finishing time was 3:27:35.  I was disappointed by my poor pace judgement but considered that the following year, after my 60th birthday, it would be feasible to aim for a time around 3:15.  Unfortunately, my long standing asthma came back with a vengeance the following year and I gave up training.

A couple of years later I made another attempt to get back into training but was once again diverted by several misadventures, including a rather nasty fall earlier this year.  Now, I am starting again.   But now, in my mid sixties, I am acutely aware of how much muscle strength I have lost in the past few years.  Once again it is an effort to run much faster than 6 min/Km.  My past experiences suggests to me that the highest priority in my  general conditioning phase is to get some speed back into my legs.  Then I can embark on some high volume, lower intensity workouts, with the   expectation that even when running at lower intensity, I will be able to maintain at least a moderate pace, in preparation for the phase in which I will try once again to accustom myself to  sustaining marathon pace for long distances.

My current program includes a weekly interval session or hill session, a progressive run or tempo run, and one longish run (typically 15 Km), together with some easier sessions to make a total of around 50Km per week.  I am also doing some trampolining – which I hope will prove to be a satisfactory substitute for plyometrics, but more gentle on aging legs.  I will persist with this program for at least 3 months.  My first target is a 25 Min 5K, and after that I will see how much further I can increase my pace.  I hope that this will allow me not only to get some speed back into my legs, but also give me some idea of what pace to aim for in a half-marathon in spring of 2012.

Last week I did a 4×1 Km session and was reasonably pleased to maintain a pace in the range 4:33 – 4:38 min/Km for each repetition, without pushing myself too hard.    So a 25 min 5 K appears within reach, but I will have to wait patiently to see what further gains might be possible.

5 Responses to “Lessons from Ed Whitlock, Fauja Singh and Renato Canova”

  1. Ewen Says:

    That’s an interesting point about Whitlock’s history, and also the fact that he races regularly on top of the diet of a large volume of ‘easy paced’ running.

    I like Canova’s ideas too. After reading about it from Rick, I’ve purchased Keith Livingstone’s book Healthy Intelligent Training. One thing he recommends which is interesting is regular alactic sprinting (short sprints) which I think would be good to keep type 2a fibres well conditioned during any type of ‘aerobic’ training phase.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but “John Hadd” has passed away. See this thread on Letsrun – http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=4242207

  2. canute1 Says:

    Thanks. Yes I had read the sad news of the untimely death of John ‘Hadd’ Walsh. When I contrasted Renato Canova’s views with Hadd’s in my post, I wondered whether or not that was the place to add a footnote pointing out that as a man and as a coach Hadd was a far greater figure than is encapsulated in my simplified presentation of his opinion about base-building.
    Indeed, as you know, his teachings even with regard to base-building are more complex than I presented in that brief mention. Nonetheless, I suspect that despite the richness of his ideas, he will be best remembered in the running community as an advocate of building on a foundation of long aerobic workouts, so I hope I did not do him an injustice. He regarded that the major goal in base building is creating a network of capillaries around muscle fibres so that they can used without lactic acid accumulation. He advocated that long aerobic running is the best way to do this. In contrast Canova places less emphasis on the importance of developing capillaries, at least in the case of runners who have a substantial training history behind them.
    However, the wonderful feature that Hadd and Renato Canova shared was a willingness to share their ideas. It is a great shame that Hadd will no longer be a contributor to Lets Run threads.

    I agree that alactic sprints make a valuable contribution to putting speed in ones legs, though I suspect that they help develop the type 2B fibres more than the type 2A fibres. I think that intervals (or hills) are probably the best way to build the 2A’s. However, the great thing about alactic sprints is that they probably encourage a spurt of growth hormone, and for a middle aged runner, promoting release of growth hormone is a crucial.

    • canute1 Says:

      The evidence supports your suggestion that alactic sprints might increase type 2a fibres. This study by Jansson and colleagues from Stockholm reports that a training session repeated 30-s ‘all-out’ sprints on a Wingate bicycle ergometer, with rest periods of 15–20 min between consecutive sprints, produced a decrease in the proportion of type I fibres 57 to 48% (P < 0.05) while type IIA fibres increased from 32 to 38% (P < 0.05).

      E. JANSSON, M. ESBJÖRNSSON, I. HOLM, I. JACOBS (2009) Increase in the proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres by sprint training in males Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. 140 Issue 3, Pages 359 – 363

  3. mike Says:

    I ran best at about 9 miles of intervals a week and noting else.

  4. The big debates of the past decade: 3) High intensity v high volume training | Canute's Efficient Running Site Says:

    […] Canova, coach to many of the leading African half-marathoners and marathoners. I have described Canova’s training previously. In his lectures and writing, Canova places little emphasis on low intensity running, […]

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