Archive for June, 2019

The effects of training on longevity: what can we learn from Haile, Paula, Ed and Gene?

June 4, 2019

In my post in January, I discussed the ways in which genes might influence the career longevity of a long-distance runner. To provide context for that discussion I compared the possible ways in which genes might have contributed to the longevity of the two greatest elderly long distance runners ever, Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes.  They are the only two people to have run a marathon in less than 3 hours in their 70’s. (As discussed in the comment section on my post in December, I consider it remains unproven whether or not Frank Mesa also achieved this; a recent examination of the evidence by Derek Murphy of Marathon Investigation provides a well-researched case casting doubt on Frank’s performance).

In this and the following post, I will examine the influence of training on longevity, focussing especially on the effects of training on the musculo-skeletal system.  Again the contrast of Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes will contribute to the context for this discussion, but I will broaden the context by also examining the training of two of the greatest distance runners in the open age group in recent years: Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe

Haile Gebreselassie

Haile Gebreselassie was born in  April 1973.  As a school boy, he ran 10 Km to and from school daily.  At age 19, he won the 5000m and 10,000m at the 1992 World Junior Championships in Seoul, and the following year won the men’s 10,000m world championship. That win was the first of four consecutive world championship gold medals and two Olympic golds in the 10,000m. In 2002 he turned his attention to the marathon, finishing 3rd in the London marathon. In Berlin in 2006, he took 29 seconds off Paul Tergat’s world marathon record and then a year later, another 27 seconds off his own record, recording 2:03:59.

However evidence of serious injury had first emerged in 2004, when an inflamed Achilles tendon confounded his attempt to win a third successive Olympic 10,000m gold.  He also suffers from asthma and in 2008 he withdrew from the Beijing Olympics on account of concerns about the effect of poor air quality on his breathing.  In 2010, back pain disrupted his intended assault on his own world record in the Dubai marathon, though he nonetheless won in a time of 2:06:09. Later that year, he made a premature announcement that he would retire after dropping out of the New York marathon.  However he returned to international competition but never quite achieved the dominance of earlier years.  He missed the 2011 Tokyo marathon on account of injury. Nonetheless in April of that year he won the Vienna City half marathon. In 2012 he returned to Vienna to run the half marathon, pitted against Paula Radcliffe, who was given a 7:52-minute head-start reflecting the difference in their half marathon records.  He easily overtook Paula, to win in 1:00:52.  In 2013 he again won the Vienna Half marathon,  in 1:01:14, and later that year set an over-40 world 10 mile age-group record of 46:59.  In May 2015 he retired from competition after a 25 year career in which he set 27 world records, won two Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship gold medals.  However, for the final 5 of those 25 years, his performances were substantially disrupted by musculo-skeletal injuries.  Although not unexpected, in those five years the level of his performances declined gradually even when he was not overtly injured. Nonetheless, contrary to the expectations of many, after his initial world masters title at age 40, he did not proceed to take the masters distance record book by storm in subsequent years.

Paula Radcliffe

Paula Radcliffe was born in December 1973, and began running with her distance-running father, at age 6.  Like Hailie Gebreselassie, she achieved international prominence in 1992 when she won the World Cross Country junior championship in Boston.  At senior level she continued to be successful at the World Cross Country Championships. On the track she was successful at European level but did not match Gebreselassie’s dominance at the highest international level.  Her best performance at the track World Championships was a silver medal in Seville in 1999. She finished fifth in the 5000m in the Atlanta Olympic s in 1996 and 4th in the 10,000m in Sydney in 2000.  The first of many significant injuries had emerged in 1994 when she was forced to miss the World Cross Country championship due to a foot injury.

After several strong half-marathons, she turned her attention to the marathon in 2002 with immediate success, winning the London marathon in 2:18:55, a world best time for a woman’s only race. Then in Chicago in October 2002 she set a world record time of 2:17:18. In my mind, that was her greatest race. The determination with which she pushed-on alone in the final miles was awe-inspiring.    Perhaps she will be best remembered for her astounding time of 2:15:25 in London the following year. However, despite her claims to the contrary, in that race she was clearly paced virtually all the way by two male runners, with one of them beside her as they rounded the final turn into the Mall.    The pacer was unceremoniously shunted aside by a marshal as Paula ran the final 200 metres to the tape.  Unfortunately injury blighted her chances in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. The sight of her sitting disconsolately at the roadside after dropping out of the Athens marathon in 2004 was a striking contrast to her powerful performance in Chicago two years earlier and her triumphant run to the finish line cheered on by her home crowd in London in 2003.

She had a good year in 2005, setting a new world best for a woman’s only marathon with a time of 2:17:42, and won gold in the marathon at the World Championships held in Helsinki.  In 2006 she took a break from running due to injury, and then to have her first child, Isla.  A stress fracture of her spine delayed her return to running in 2007, though in November 2007 she won the New York marathon in a time of 2:23:09. She withdrew from the London marathon in 2008 due to a foot injury. She was also experiencing hip pain which was subsequently shown to be a stress fracture of her femur.   These injuries disrupted her preparation for the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing, where she struggled with cramp and eventually finished in 23rd place.  Again in November 2008 she won the New York marathon, recording 2:23:56, but soon after was plagued once again by injuries, including knee problems. She took another extended break due to injury and also to have her second child.

She set her sights on a 2012 Olympic qualifying time in the 2011 Berlin Marathon.  She came third with a time of 2:23:46, which was adequate for Olympic qualification, but not up to the standard she was aiming for.  She ran a disappointing half marathon in Vienna in 2012, where she was left trailing well behind Gebreselassie despite her 7:52 head-start.   She withdrew from the 2012 Olympics due to a foot injury and eventually retired from competitive running in 2015, after a farewell run in the London marathon surrounded by a pack of club runners. Her 25 year career had included flashes of glory that justify regarding her as the greatest female marathoner of all time, but also a sad trail of opportunities blighted by injury.

Comparing the training of Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe.

Anecdotal evidence based on selected individuals proves very little.   Perhaps we could have selected other athletes: Emil Zatopek and Grete Waitz from earlier times or Eliud Kipchoge, the current dominant figure in the marathon.  However, to provide context for a discussion of the impact of training on longevity, Radcliffe and Gebrselassie stand out as exemplars.  They both pushed training near to the limit feasible with our current understanding of what the human body can stand and both were competitive at the highest level of distance running for more than two decades.  It should also be borne in mind that many factors: genes, early life experiences, subsequent training and mental approach contributed to their successes.   Nonetheless, by illustrating what is humanly possible, exceptional individuals do provide a valuable test of the credibility of any conclusions we might draw from more scientific examination of evidence drawn from samples more representative of typical humanity.  I have reviewed both Paula’s and Haile’s training in greater detail in previous posts, and will highlight what I consider to be the key features here.

The characteristic feature of Paula’s training was a high volume (typically between 120 and 160 miles a week when in full marathon training) with a large proportion at a place near to lactate threshold.  We can make informed guesses about the relative contributions of genes and training to her performances on account of Andrew Jones’ detailed report of physiological tests performed over many years.  At age 19, Paula already had an exceptionally high VO2max of 70 ml/min/Kg.   She had been a runner since age 6 and in her late teens had trained up to 30 miles per week. Beyond age 19 she built up to the high volume training characteristic of her later training yet over the subsequent years her VO2 max remained approximately constant. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that her high aerobic capacity was largely due to genes and early development, rather than her subsequent high volume training.

While her VO2 max did not increase after age 19, her pace at lactate threshold, the crucial determinant of marathon performance, did increase markedly.  In part this was due to an increase in leg muscle power which produced an increase in speed at VO2max (described in greater detail below).  However, measurement of her capacity to metabolize lactate demonstrated that the major contribution to her enhanced pace at Lactate Threshold came from an increased ability to metabolize lactate, thereby delaying the onset of lactate accumulation until she was nearer to VO2max.  It is probable that the high proportion of her training near to lactate threshold helped promote her ability to metabolise lactate.  However there are less stressful ways to achieve this effect, as I will discuss in my next post.

Paula also adopted measures to give herself the benefits of high altitude training . Not only did she frequently train at Font Romeu in the Pyrennees and occasionally in Kenya, but she also slept in a low oxygen pressure tent to stimulate the production of red blood cells.   The high altitude training would have added to the stimulus for lactate metabolism, though the lack of increase in her VO2max makes me dubious that sleeping in the low pressure tent was worthwhile.

Another potentially crucial aspect of Paula’s training arose from an assessment of her leg muscle power during a physiological assessment by physiotherapist, Gerald Hartmann, after her disappointing performance in the 10,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.   To remedy the observed lack of power, Hartmann recommended a programme of plyometric jumping and hopping.  I suspect that this played a crucial in the development of her speed at VO2max and in the transformation of her performances over the following 2 years, though it was not without risk of injury.   Although her first seriously disruptive injury had been in 1994, it was in the period 2004 to 2015 than injury became a dominant theme shaping her career.  While no definite conclusion can be drawn, her story is a salutary reminder that plyometrics are effective in promoting leg muscle power but also risky.

Haile’s training was also characterized by a high volume. He typically covered a total of 190 Km (approximately 120 miles) per week.  Almost 60% was at 6:15 min/mile or slower (substantially slower than his marathon pace of 4:48 /mile). About 8 % was at paces near marathon pace, and 6% faster than marathon pace.  He trained at Addis Ababa at an altitude above 8000 feet. Thus the training performed near to marathon pace would have been more demanding than marathon pace at sea level.   However, it is noteworthy that he was careful to avoid too much stress. In a Q&A session with the BBC in 2002 he stated: ‘I generally have 13 training sessions a week. On Sunday I only run once. Each week, I try to do 3 speed sessions, one long run (1½/2 hours) and one or two Fartlek sessions. The rest of the sessions are endurance runs that I try not to run too fast. They help my muscles to recover from the hard training’. Thus 7 or 8 of his 13 weekly sessions were intended to facilitate recovery.  He stated that one of the best pieces of advice about running he ever received was from his agent Jos Hermens. He states: ‘Jos taught me not to run too many races and to train and rest well. When I started to do this, my performances got even better’.

In summary, both Haile and Paula employed high volume training, but whereas Paula’s training emphasized paces near to lactate threshold, Haile’s approach was more polarised, including a substantial proportion at a comfortable pace, consistent with his emphasis on recovery. While it is probable that Paula has a greater initial predisposition to injury, reflected in the onset of injury problems early in her career, it is tempting to  speculate that if she had adopted a training program that included a higher proportion of recovery runs she might have suffered fewer frustrating injuries.

Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes

I have discussed Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes in detail in recent posts.  Here I will summarise the key points relevant to our present discussion.  Ed was a talented school-boy athlete but gave up running while at university following a persistent Achilles problem.  Almost two decades later, after moving from the UK to Canada, he recommenced running almost incidentally in response to his wife’s suggestion that he might coach local youngsters.  He achieved world class as a masters middle distance runner, winning a world masters M45-49 title for 1500m.  Although his main focus was on the track, he ran the Ottawa marathon in 2:31:23 at age 48. He continued to run competitively as a masters distance runner, training fairly intensely including intervals.  When he turned to focus on the marathon in his late 60’s he introduced a major change in his training, phasing out the speed work and replacing it with multiple long runs up to 3 hours duration each week. He ran with a slow shuffling gait designed to minimise the stress on his legs.  His only high intensity running was in frequent races over 5K or 10K, run with a powerful, fluent stride that contrasted markedly with the shuffling gait of his long runs.  As I have described previously, he took great care to minimise risk of injury. He became the first 70 year old to break 3 hours for the marathon.  Subsequently, at age 73 he set an astounding M70-74 world record of 2:54:48.

In the following years he continued his programme of multiple long slow runs each week, actually increasing the duration up to 4 hours   On several occasions he was forced to stop running for up to a year due to arthritis.  On each occasion, as the arthritis settled he recommenced his training, building up slowly and using his performance in 5K or 10K races to assess his fitness.   In many of the years from age 70 to 85 he utterly smashed the single year age record for the marathon, while also setting world records at many other distances.  However at age 83 he complained of persisting pain in his groin which he assumed was an injury. Unfortunately, in retrospect it appears that it was pain from prostate cancer.  Nonetheless he took 38 minutes off the M85-89 marathon world record only a few months before his death shortly after his 86th birthday.  Although he modestly maintained that he could only claim that his approach worked for him, his response to his training suggests that an extremely polarised program with a large proportion of very low intensity running is a good strategy for achieving longevity.

Gene Dykes’ story is different.  He too had been a schoolboy athlete but found himself out of his depth on the track in college.  He continued to run but described himself in mid-adult years as a ‘some-time jogger’.  At age 49 he ran a marathon in his adopted home town, Philadelphia, but finished injured and did not run again for 6 years.   After recommencing, he made a determined effort to improve his marathon time, achieving a best of 3:16 at age 65. When he failed to improve at his next attempt in Toronto in 2013, he was afraid that age might be overtaking him.  To forestall that fate, he engaged a coach, John Goldthorp, who recommended a demanding program that included a substantial number of tempo sessions.  Gene continued to run a massive volume of slower paced running, including ultras of up to 200 miles.   The combination of tempo sessions with long slow ultras worked. In the Rotterdam marathon in April 2018 he became the 2nd 70 year old to break 3 hours, with a time of 2:57:43.  In contrast to Ed, Gene was still improving in absolute terms.  Six months later in Toronto he recorded 2:55:17 and then at the Jacksonville Marathon in December he recorded 2:54:23, 25 seconds faster than Ed’s M70-74 world record.  However, the race was not sanctioned by USA Track and Field, and hence Gene’s performance was not recognised as a world record.  Gene’s ability to respond well to such demanding training is truly phenomenal.  His Strava page states: ‘I run races from 1 mile to 240 miles. I run on roads, trails, track, and cross country. I run in all kinds of weather. I run a lot.’  In contrast to the usual pattern of deterioration with age beyond 40, his continued improvement into his 70’s is extraordinary.

Speculation and Conclusions

In light of the fact that both Ed’s and Gene’s training included large volumes of very slow running, it is interesting to speculate on how very slow running might enhance marathon performance.  The three main requirements for a marathoner are the ability to maintain a good pace in vicinity of lactate threshold, efficient use of stored fuel and resilience of the leg muscles.   It is likely that large volumes of relatively low impact running serve to enhance muscle resilience. It is also possible that very low intensity running is an effective way to enhance fuel efficiency by promoting shuttling of lactate from fast to slow twitch fibres where it augments the fuel supply. I will return to this issue in my next post.  However the question of whether or not Gene’s very demanding schedule will result in longevity similar to the phenomenal longevity of Ed remains to be established.

Overall, the four exceptional athletes we have discussed in this post illustrate that high volume training together with at least some intense sessions is required for world record breaking distance running performance.  The lessons regarding longevity are less clear, but the comparison of Haile Gebrsalessie with Paula Radcliffe suggests that high volume training tempered with a substantial proportion of relatively easy recovery runs is a safer route to longevity; Ed Whitlock’s training adds more evidence supporting this conclusion. The future performance of Gene Dykes will be an interesting test of the degree to which intense training is consistent with longevity

However, anecdotes about elite athletes only tell us about the limits of what is humanly possible. My next post will examine what the scientific evidence suggests for enhancing longevity in less extraordinary distance runners.