Emulating Ed Whitlock’s training: a follow-up

Over the past two years I have written on several occasions about the training of Ed Whitlock, without doubt the greatest elderly distance runner the world has ever seen; the first and only 70 year old to run a marathon in less than 3 hours and holder of the age-group world marathon  records for ages M70-74, M75-79 and M80-84, together with the M80-84 world records for  1500m, 3000m, 5Km, 10Km, 15Km and half-marathon,  and numerous other records.  While may factors, including genes for longevity and intense training in early middle age probably contribute to this phenomenal ability, the striking feature that sets him apart from all others is his approach to training: he runs for up to 3 hours per day at a slow pace, many days a week, and in addition, races fairly regularly over distances ranging for 3000m to 10,000m. His overall training program can be regarded as the ultimate in polarised training.

Whitlock himself makes no special claims for his training, other than noting that it works for him.  Apart from having an uncle who lived to age 107, there little that is remarkable about his background or his physiology that might explain his phenomenal distance running ability.  When assessed at age 70 he had a VO2 max that was high for a man of his age, but consistent with his running performance.    A high VO2 max might be a consequence of training and/or genes.

The fact that he won the M45 world masters 1500m championship in 4:09 at age 48 makes it likely that his VO2max was already relatively high very early in middle-age.  At that stage his training included a substantial number of intense track sessions.  It is therefore unlikely that his VO2max at age 70 can be attributed entirely to the nature of the training and racing that he has done since his late 60’s.

He has maintained this polarised pattern for more than 15 years, apart from several instances in which misadventure or injury have demanded quite long periods of recovery, during which he has re-built training volume slowly.   Whatever the contributions of his genes and the training earlier in his career, the long duration of his current pattern of training and racing does indicate that this current pattern has succeeded in maintaining his extremely high level of performance into his mid-eighties.  It is therefore potentially worthwhile for other elderly distance runners to explore the possibility that it might work for them.

About 18 months ago, I set out to emulate the major features of his training program, aiming for at least three long slow runs each week, gradually increasing the duration from 60 minutes to 120 minutes over a period of 3 months.  As I still work and have limited time available, I was obliged to do two of my long runs on the week-end and therefore had little opportunity for the intense racing that was part of Ed’s program.  I was also aware of the need to avoid placing undue stress on my left knee that had bene damaged in an episode of acute arthritis a few years ago.  I therefore replaced Ed’s intense racing with intense sessions of 30-50 minutes duration on the elliptical cross trainer.

Over a three month period I was able to build up the duration of long runs with no difficulty. I enjoyed not only a clear increase in endurance but also developed a substantial capacity to metabolise fat, most noticeable from my ketotic breath at the end of long training runs.  However the improvement of my aerobic capacity, assessed by calculating beats/Km recorded over similar terrain, was only modest.  I was a little disappointed by this modest gain, and also a little disconcerted by early signs of accumulating fatigue in December.  Nonetheless, I considered that progress at that stage was satisfactory, and was looking forward to a spring marathon.

However a problem that I should have foreseen developed over the winter.  I have long standing asthma that is usually relatively mild, though it is exacerbate by cold air.  I also tend to suffer from various side effects of my asthma medication, and have had little success form changing to different medications.  I therefore need to limit the dose.  Inhaling cold winter air for periods of several hours during my long runs triggered marked constriction of my airways.  To add to this, beginning in mid-December, I suffered a series of quite severe upper respiratory tract infections that exacerbated my breathing difficulties.  I was forced to defer my Whitlock style training until the spring.  By March my fitness had deteriorated quite markedly.  Once again I began the gradual build-up  of long run duration.  Progress was slow, but nonetheless, I set my sights on an autumn marathon.

During a long run with my marathon running sister-in-law, Mary, in the Border District of Scotland in April

During a long run in the Borders District of Scotland in April with my marathon running sister-in-law, Mary, who took the photos

 

Like Ed Whitlock in training, I adopted a short stride and high cadence to minimise impact damage to my legs.

Like Ed Whitlock in training, I adopted a short stride and high cadence to minimise impact damage to my legs.

Then in July disaster struck.  I suffered quite a nasty fall from my bicycle when the front wheel got stuck in tram–tracks that I need to cross at an oblique angle on my daily commute to work. I hit the ground very hard, producing spectacular bruising at every protruding point on the right hand side of by body from knee to forehead.  For several weeks, one side of my face was stained, at first purple and then yellow, along the path where a broad tide of blood had tracked beneath the skin.  The initial concern of the two nurses who rushed to my aid at the scene of the fall had been the possibility of serious head injury, but in the longer term, after the bruises had faded, it turned out that the most troublesome injuries were to my left knee and right elbow.     I had torn lateral ligaments of my left knee, and also damaged the attachment of tendons at my right elbow.  Even now, five months later, both of these injuries limit my movements.  The physio anticipates it will be a year before the knee has recovered.

For several months I could not run at all, but over the past two months I have been cautiously rebuilding once again. In recent weeks I have increased the length of my ‘longish’ runs up to 10Km.  The most dismaying feature is that I cannot cope with paces any faster than 10 minutes/mile.  While the crucial limitation is the knee, I am also appalled by how unfit I have become.    I remind  myself that Ed Whitlock has on several occasions taken almost year to get back to fitness after an injury.   In fact Ed has scarcely raced at all this year, subsequent to an upper thigh/ groin injury that he suffered last year.   For two successive years he has missed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon – an event in which he had set a single age world record on six occasions during the preceding decade. However, despite failing to be on the starting line for this year’s marathon, he did set an M84 single age 10K World Record of 49:08 in the Longboat Island Race in September.

I have no expectation of setting any records, but I fear that even after making generous allowance for the expected slow recovery from my illness last winter and my injury in the summer, I am suffering an alarming deterioration in my overall physical condition.  I suspect that I do not have good genes for longevity. In my next post I will examine the evidence regarding genes for healthy aging.

But whatever my prospects for the longer term future, I am now focused on rebuilding my endurance.  Despite the limited evidence that a Whitlock style program is the best way for me to build aerobic fitness, my experience so far does indicate that it is a good way to build endurance.  As this is my immediate goal, I am again using a modest version of a Whitlock style program.   At present, three runs per week, each of an hour in duration, is about all my body can cope with.  Promoting recovery of my knee ligaments and also vigilant deployment of my inhaler to minimise the constriction of my airways during winter training runs will be equally high priorities. I will not set any marathon target for the near future.   I am playing with the idea of setting targets for a ’heptathlon’ of physical activities, including not only running but also some other challenges to be completed in the week of my seventieth birthday in March.   I will defer specifying the specific targets until I establish how my recovery progresses in December.

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19 Responses to “Emulating Ed Whitlock’s training: a follow-up”

  1. James Rogers Says:

    Canute – I am so sorry to hear of your injuries and let me wish you the best of luck in your recovery and your return to running. Being close to your age and a life-long runner, I know how much longer it takes to recover from injuries as we get older. In fact it seems that we geriatric runners are constantly in either a state of injury prevention or injury recovery. As you examine the genetics for healthy aging, you might also examine how the body’s ability to rebuild and recover from injury changes as it ages. I suspect that genetics plays an important role in that process as well. Once again, best wishes on your recovery!

    • canute1 Says:

      James
      Thanks for your good wishes. There is no doubt that we oldies need to use whatever wisdom we might have accumulated over the years to minimise the risk of injury – but it is especially tricky because our knowledge of what our bodies can cope must be continually updated.
      There is overlap between the genetics of response to injury and the genetics of aging, so I will include response to injury in my review of the genetics of aging.

  2. kennakata Says:

    Speedy recovery from that nasty fall! I really enjoy your posts as they are always thoughtfully considered and well-researched. While I don’t have asthma, I have been using a Powerbreathe K5 inhalation trainer, which a lot of folks with asthma seem to like (judging from a quick search of the Internet).

    • canute1 Says:

      Ken
      Thanks for your good wishes and for you suggestion about respiratory muscle training. I would be interested to hear you own experience of benefit, even though you do not suffer from asthma.

      I looked into respiratory muscle training in the past, but decided it would be unlikely to produce an appreciable benefit for me. There is substantial evidence that respiratory muscle training can be beneficial for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in which respiratory function is impaired even a when the person has achieved the maximum attainable reversal of the constriction of their bronchi by use of an inhaler. In the case of asthmatics with an appreciable deficit even after maximal achievable reversal with an inhaler, several hours per week of respiratory muscle training for several months can produce worthwhile improvement. In my case, I achieve a peak flow around 570 litres/min, after using a bronchodilator (though peak flow falls below 300 litres/min when I inhale cold air. Anything over 500 l/min is regarded as good for a person of my age and chest size, so I think that in my case respiratory muscles are not the limiting factor, and that I should place my main focus on reversing the constriction of the bronchi, However I have not ruled out trying respiratory muscle training if I cannot control the reversible constriction more successfully this winter than I managed last year

  3. Karin Says:

    I enjoyed this blog. I too had asthma. It was made worse by racing and cold air. GP said go dairy free and stopped the asthma steroid medication. I was unhappy but it has worked. It takes about aonth to get used to dairy free.

    • canute1 Says:

      Karin
      Thanks for your comment. That is interesting. Triggers for asthma differ between people. I have identified my main triggers, but have not thoroughly checked-out dairy products. Do you experience any other symptoms or signs of allergy to dairy products. ( eg hives or eczema.)

  4. ThomasBubendorfer Says:

    I have to say you don’t make ageing sound particularly enjoyable!

    I was shocked to hear about your accident – as bad as it was it could have been a lot worse, considering teh nurses’ concern about a head injury. All the best in your recovery and subsequent rebuilding program.

    • canute1 Says:

      Thomas, thanks for your good wishes.

      Aging is certainly a mixed blessing. To get a rounded overview of the effect of aging on enjoyment of running, it is necessary to talk not only to those who have continued to run but also to those who have disappeared from the running scene. Even among who are still running at 70, there are few who are untroubled by the vulnerability that age brings. It is a challenge to adjust to the reality of deteriorating performance. Even maintaining WAVA standard demands a resilience that matches the resilience of the standard setters who not only exceptionally endowed runners but are also endowed with exceptional resistance to aging.

      For me personally it is not so much my loss of performance relative to external standards that I miss, but simply the fact that the sensation of running powerfully and fluently is now a thing of the past. Despite all this, there can be great satisfaction in navigating one’s way through the challenges, and experiencing the sensation of at least running fluently when thing go well.

  5. Robert Osfield Says:

    Great to see an update on your training progress and than BANG, some really bad news on the accident and injury front. That really sucks. I guess life is full of ups and downs, if endurance running teachers us anything it has to be mental resilience as much as physical strength.

    I feel your approach to recovery is sound. The only thing I’d be tempted to tweak would be to run more often but to run less far, spreading out the physical stress and stimulus for adaptation through the week. Something like 5k every day and 10k or two at the weekend.

    I do wonder if doing some strength training on other parts of your body through the week might be worth slicing in. The motivation would be as an extra stimulus for the body to release growth hormones into the blood stream. This extra dose would build muscle strength where you are strength training, but also could help keep the repair/rebuild process going on the other parts of the body too.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      Thanks. I tnink that on balance, the evidence does suggest that running a modest amount most days is usually more effectvie than running a larger amount per day on fewer days. When I re-commenced running I did run very short distances almost each day (initially about 1Km/day), but over the first two weeks the knee became increasingly more fragile, so I cut back the frequency of runs. I have introduced cross training of various sorts on the intervening days and in general have found that pattern is working moderately well, though I am only able to increase total distance quite slowly. I am keen to increase endurance, but I have to avoid getting too tired within a session

      I agree entirely about the potential value of resistance training I typically do two resistance sessions per week. One of these sessions is devoted to barbell squats. Provided I do these very slowly, taking great care with the position and orientation of my feet and legs, I can squat up to 5x90Kg without any discomfort in the knee.

  6. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute. That was a shock to read of your cycling accident – as a keen cyclist, it’s a reminder to be careful and aware, even when riding at slow speeds. I can sense your frustration at having “Whitlock-style” lengthy injury/illness delays and also the thought that you may not be able to return to that feeling of running fluently and powerfully. Don’t give up!

    Balancing one’s whole lifestyle is so important to running/exercise performance and everyone is different. As well as good genes, I think Ed was a “full time” endurance runner in retirement, so had the luxury of not having to work (or the stress that goes with work).

    I like Robert’s suggestion of running more days/week but shorter sessions (combined with the cross-training) and ever so gradually, building up from there. I also know how frustrating it is to lose fitness during a lay-off… On my recent holiday to the US I was able to run an average of 26k per week (down from my usual activity of 40-50k + 200k/week of cycling). Most of my runs were 5k, with a few 10s. My 5k race fitness did decline, but not too much: 24:07 for 5k at 642 h/beats per k before leaving, to 24:12 for 5k at 716 h/beats per k yesterday. Best of luck as you head into winter (esp with your asthma) – must say I’m happy to be back in summer after some freezing runs towards the end of our US holiday.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen
      Thanks for your comment.

      As you note, many aspects of lifestyle have an impact on running. I enjoy my work, but it does place constraints on time for training, and even more importantly, it adds to the overall fatigue at the end of each day Perhaps the most noticeable feature of my physical deterioration in the past year has been greater susceptibility to fatigue.

      I am at present treating my cycling commute as a part of my training in a systematic manner. In the past, I merely regarded commuting by bike as a ‘background’ support to my fitness base, and did not count it in my training log. However, in recent months, I have adopted a slightly longer route to work that avoids the tram tracks and is more suitable for effortful cycling (though only at about 15km/hour; I am also being careful) I hope that this will make a useful contribution to my recovery of fitness.

      The question of adopting more frequent, shorter runs remains a possibility, but for the time being I will stick with three runs/week, regular cycling and some other cross training; mainly elliptical and weight sessions.

      Well done with maintaining moderate fitness during your travels. The minimal deterioration in 5K performance is creditable. I suspect that your blood volume has decreased a bit, hence resulting a smaller cardiac stroke volume and higher HR for a similar cardiac output. One you get back into your usual training routine your stroke volume should recover rapidly.

  7. padraigjapan Says:

    Your blog is a fantastic read as always but I am shocked by your fall and the injuries you suffered. I guess that we never know when something untoward will happen to us, even when we are just following our daily routine. I am however very impressed with your spirit and determination to recover and get back to racing when you are fit again. Good luck and I look forward to reading more updates in the future.

    • canute1 Says:

      Padraig
      Thanks for your comment. My run today on a delightful sunny winter’s day, with some autumn leaves still clinging to the trees and others underfoot, reinforced the reasons for being happy that I can continue to run. I felt quite fluent though a bit dismayed to observe that the low-angled winter sun revealed that my feeling of fluency was not reflected in my shadow’s gait.

      • padraigjapan Says:

        That was probably only your shawdow’s gait. I am sure that you were running fine. I love running in the winter. I will try and post some photos of running in Japan at this time of year. It really is amazing.

  8. Prince Says:

    Thank you

  9. Bob Says:

    With all respect, if you want to adopt an Ed Whitlock-style routine you should ditch the analysis. Somehow I can’t imagine Ed talking about his Keto breath or analysing his “aerobic capacity, assessed by calculating beats/Km recorded over similar terrain.”

    Ed just runs and for a long time. He records the time but doesn’t pay attention to distance or pace since, as he knows, it doesn’t matter when you’re training for 2-3 hours a day. He doesn’t fret that his training pace is 9-10 min a mile or even slower on some days I’m sure….

    • canute1 Says:

      Bob
      Thanks for your comment. You are partially right insofar as Ed’s mental approach appears less analytical than mine.

      It is virtually impossible for any two runners to have exactly the same mental altitudes and motivations in their training. Ed is strongly motivated by the goal of setting world records. Few other runners are in a such a strong position to enjoy that motivating factor. On the other hand he describes his training a very boring. It is perhaps possible that Ed’s stoical mental attitude contributes to his phenomenal success

      In my case, I am not holding out hopes of setting any records. For me, part of the enjoyment of running is in the analysis; part is the enjoyment of being in the countryside. I do not find training boring. I suspect that in my case, my approach to training is on the whole helpful in maximising my performance. But as you say, in this respect, I am not emulating Ed’s approach.

      Nonetheless, numerous remarks Ed has made, both on the Lets Run Forum and in interviews with reporters indicate that he does in fact analyse crucial aspects of his training. He sometimes employs a 10 k race before a marathon to assess how well prepared he is for the marathon. Furthermore, several aspects of his training are very carefully thought out (eg his short stride during training – though in his typically mischievous manner he dismisses this as a a shuffle.)

  10. johnnydajogger Says:

    Great article, thanks. I’m also trying an Ed style program but mostly on a treadmill with some interval training mixed in. I use a heart rate monitor to keep the long runs at 70-75 percent of max.

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