My interest in polarised training was piqued more than five years ago by the study of the effects of a five month polarised training program in sub-elite cross country runners by Esteve-Lanoa and colleagues from Madrid. They provided a fairly convincing demonstration that a polarized training program in which about 80% of the work is done at low intensity, is more effective that a program including a higher proportion of work in the mid-zone, near to lactate threshold. A subsequent review article by Stephen Seiler and Espen Tǿnnessen published in Sportscience in November 2009 presented a quite compelling argument in favour of polarised training: a large amount of low intensity training, together with a small amount of high intensity training, and a minimal amount on the intervening grey zone around lactate threshold. That review confirmed the direction of my own thinking about endurance training, so I posted a positive commentary but included a cautionary note.
The scientific method is mankind’s most successful way of making and testing predications about the natural world, but individual scientists are not dispassionate observers. The strength of science comes from the debate between scientists. In this debate, each individual scientist tends to be biased towards the evidence that supports his/her own hypothesis. In my comment on Seiler and Tǿnnessen’s review, I noted that Seiler was a co-investigator in the study by Esteve-Lanao. Furthermore he and Tǿnnessen had been selective in the evidence presented in their review article. They reported major improvements in both performance and in physiological variables such as VO2max, after a change to a training program including a higher proportion of low intensity training, in the case of two Norwegian athletes: pentathlete and runner, Øystein Sylta, and cyclist Knut Anders Fostervold, but made no mention of Norway’s greatest female marathon runner, Grete Waitz . Waitz won the New York marathon 9 times, was the silver medallist in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and won gold at the 1983 World Championships. She did a large amount of training in the grey sub-lactate threshold zone.
Since 2009, the evidence in favour of polarised training has become even stronger, supported by both experimental studies such as that of Stoggl and Sperlich, and further examination of the training of elite athletes. My own recent examination of the training of seven elite masters marathoners led me to conclude that those who employed markedly polarised training had the greatest longevity at the top of the world rankings. I had selected the seven on the basis of predefined criteria that I knew would be satisfied by both Ed Whitlock, who employs markedly polarised training, and Yoshihisa Hosaka, who does twice daily interval sessions. When I set the criteria I was not sure who else would meet the criteria and therefore had little way of knowing what training patterns would be represented in the sample. However, despite my intention to be as dispassionate as possible, I am aware that my own beliefs about training influenced my presentation of the evidence.
In a comment on the Fetch polarised training thread, I was challenged over my failure to examine the training of any female marathoners in my blog. In fact no female marathoners had met my predetermined selection criteria, though Miyo Ishigami of Japan came nearest to meeting these criteria. She set the W55-60 record with a time of 2:57:55 at age 55 in 1989 and remained near the top of the rankings up to age 75 when she recorded 4:27:42. That is the 7th fastest ever for a lady in the 75-80 age group. Furthermore, there is an additional problem in examining the training of female ‘masters’ marathoners: information about their training is less accessible.
However there is abundant information about two younger female marathoners who played key roles in the transformation of the women’s marathon over period of a quarter century: Grete Waitz who took more than 2 minutes of Christa Vahlensieck’s world record of 2:34:48 in her first marathon in New York in 1978 and subsequently broke her own record on 3 occasions; lowering it to 2:25:29 in London in 1983; and Paula Radcliffe, whose 2:15:25 London in 2003 remains unchallenged as the outstanding women’s marathon performance in history. Both are famous for the demanding nature of their training. An examination of their training offers the prospect of putting polarised training into a more balanced perspective.
How do sex differences in physiology affect marathon performance?
Before examining the training of these two individual athletes it is potentially informative to address the question of whether the optimum training for women should be different from that for men. It might be predicted that the lesser muscular strength of women would be a lesser handicap in the marathon than in shorter events, but this is not borne out by evidence. The proportional difference of almost 10% between Paula Radcliffe’s record amd Wilson Kipsang’s male marathon record is similar to the proportional difference between female and male world records across track events from 100m upwards. There no longer a strong reason to claim that cultural bias against women running long distances accounts for the handicap. The fact that Paula’s record has stood for over a decade despite prominent recognition and prize money for the women similar to that for the men in many of the major marathons, indicates that the differences are likely to be mainly due to physiological differences. It is not clear which of the physiological differences plays the greatest role. Perhaps the lesser power of both cardiac and skeletal muscles in females does matter in the marathon as it does in shorter events. Thus there might as much, if not more, reason for females to train in a manner that promotes cardiac and skeletal muscle power.
This is borne out in a study of the training of qualifiers for US Olympic marathon trials by Karp. Across the entire sample, the men ran more miles in training, though interestingly the women who achieved times less than 2:40 had a similar training volume to the men. But more intriguing was the observation that the women did a higher proportion of their training at marathon pace or faster. The women did 32% and the men only 25% at marathon pace or faster. Perhaps a fast marathon does require power and these elite or sub-elite women got to the Olympic trials as a result a large proportion of relatively more intense training. Overall, there is at present little evidence to indicate that women might do better with relatively less demanding training than men. Perhaps they might benefit from an even higher relative intensity of training, and/or increased focus on building strength.
Grete’s husband, Jack, persuaded her that a trip to New York for the marathon would be like a second honeymoon for them, despite the fact that she had never run more than 12 miles in training. At the finish she took her shoes off and threw them at him declaring ‘never again’. However she had just taken over two minutes off the world record time, and despite her protestations, the marathon bug had bitten, just as she was contemplating retirement from international competition. Three years earlier, in 1975, she had broken the world record for the 3000m, but after a disappointing race in the 1978 European Championships in Prague, she was planning to return to her full-time job as a school teacher. However, earlier that year, in Glasgow in March, she has won the world cross country championship, and I suspect that Jack, who was her mentor and coach at that time, had a premonition that she had the makings of a marathon runner. If so, he was right. She went on to win the New York Marathon on nine occasions in 11 years, the London marathon twice and the World marathon championship in Helsinki in 1983.
She had made the world record her own in New York in 1978, and by April 1983, when she lowered it for the fourth time in London, it stood at 2:25:29, almost 10 minutes lower than it had been when she stood unassumingly on the starting line in New York 5 years previously. However the day after her record-breaking victory in London, over 3000 miles away in Boston Joan Benoit took two minutes off Grete’s time. The following year, on a hot day softened by Los Angeles’ morning fog, in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon, Joan made a bold early break from the leading group. Grete prudently held back but Joan’s confidence was justified. She took the gold, leaving Grete with the silver. The women’s marathon was now an established event. Despite being deprived of Olympic gold by a worthy challenger. Grete had perhaps done more than any other person to raise the women’s marathon to Olympic standard.
Grete continued to perform at leading international standard, with another victory in New York later that year, and again in 1985, 86 and 88. She won the London marathon for a second time in 1986, during which she achieved her own personal best time of 2:24:54, but she was never again to hold the world record.
By 1990, at age 36, she was beginning to fade. She was fourth in New York in a time only marginally faster than the world record had been before she ran her first marathon twelve years previously. Nonetheless, she returned to New York two years later to run side by side with Frank Lebow, founder of the New York marathon who was at that time in temporary remission from a lethal brain cancer. When they crossed the line together in a time of 5:32:35 and raised their entwined arms in celebration, she and he cemented their intertwined places in the annals of marathoning. When Grete herself died on cancer at age 57, in 2011, the flood of tributes from marathoners of all levels that accompanied the article in the New York Times reporting her untimely death, confirmed that this tenacious, determined but humble and gracious woman indeed merited one of the highest places in the Pantheon of the marathon.
The training of Grete Waitz
Her husband, Jack Waitz was her coach during the year leading up to her first marathon. Here is his account of her training:
‘I’d never coached Grete for this kind of race. She never did high mileage; 80 miles a week, that was more or less what she did. ….At that time I was working as an accountant for a newspaper, and Grete was a schoolteacher. We lived in the suburbs of Oslo, and her routine was to run in the morning at 5 or 5:30, then she had to take a bus to the subway, and then another bus to get to the junior high where she taught. Then in the afternoon the same thing back. So it was pretty tough. But with any workout she did, she always ran fast. Knut trained with Grete and never wanted to run in the mornings with her, because she took off like that [he snaps his fingers]. She kept a good pace all the time.
In the afternoon, she often ran with one of her two brothers, Arild and Jan. According to Arild:
‘Jan and I had been running on the track, the 800 meters and the 1500 meters, for many years, but because of Grete we started to do races on the road—the 10-K, and half-marathons and marathons. Training with her was very systematic: Jack in the morning and Jan and me in the evening. In the afternoon we were running between 12 and 15 kilometers. But Jan and I took shifts. We couldn’t do what she was doing every day. We had to rest; her training was hard.’
According to Jan: ‘She was very disciplined. She normally ran every kilometer around 3:50. We call that slow distance running, but it was pretty fast.’
In the forward to her book, Run Your First Marathon, co-authored with Gloria Avebuch, Grete wrote about her own first marathon in New York: ‘Make no mistake, I was able to run and run well because of my strong track background (and my will power) ‘. From her book, and from the comments of her husband and brothers, it emerges that early in her career, when she was focussed on 1500m and 3000m, that her training included a substantial number of high intensity sessions. Subsequently during her marathon career she did a substantial volume at or near lactate threshold, much of it near marathon pace. According to Johan Kaggestad, her coach later in her career, even her long runs (of more than 30Km) were never slower than 4 min/Km.
It is noteworthy that Johan Kaggestad also coached Norway’s other legendary female marathon champion, Ingrid Kristansen. Kristansen’s training was both in higher volume and somewhat more polarised than Grete’s. She ran twice daily, covering 160-200 Km per week. Her longest run during marathon preparation was a two-and-a-half-hour run covering about 36km at a pace of 4.10-4.20 min/Km. Kristiansen set a world record of 2:21:06 in London in 1985, more than 4 minutes faster than Grete’s time in London in 1983.
Like Gete Waitz, Paul Radcliffe came to the marathon during the final stages of a successful career on the track and cross country. She had won the world junior cross country championship in Boston in 1992, and the senior championship in Ostend in 2001. On the track she had won the European cup at 5000m on three occasions; the Commonwealth Games 5000m in 2002 and the 10,000m European Championship that same year. However, unlike Grete who had arrived in New York in 1978 knowing virtually nothing about the marathon, Paula had won half marathon championships in Veracruz in 2000 and in Bristol in 2001, and was better prepared for her first marathon in London in 2002. On that cool but pleasant April day in 2002 when Khalid Khannouchi had forged ahead of Paul Tergat and Haile Gebreselassie along the Embankment with little more than a mile to run, to take 4 seconds off his own world record in the men’s event, the women’s event belonged to Paula alone. She had broken clear of the leading group by 15Km and continued to exert her dominance with a series of sub- 5:10 miles in the second half. She crossed the finish line in 2:18:55, only 8 seconds outside Catherine Ndereba’s world record.
Later that year, in Chicago she ran away from the field to finish powerfully in 2:17:18, taking almost a minute and a half of Ndereba’s record. Then the following April in London she ran the most phenomenal marathon ever run by a women to establish a world record of 2:15:25 which survives to this day. Despite the best efforts of Kenyans including Mary Keitany, and Ethiopians including Tiki Gelana, the only other woman to record a time within 3 minutes of Radcliffes’s world record is Liliya Shobukhova of Russia, Shobhukhova has been suspended for two years on account of a blood profile suggesting blood doping. The terms of her suspension include annulment of performances since October 2009. This would include her time of 2:18:20 recorded in Chicago in 2011. See the footnote below for furter details .
Since 2003, Radcliffe has won the London marathon for a second time, the New York marathon on 4 occasions, and the world championship in Helsinki in 2005. However despite these triumphs, her marathon career has been dogged by injury and misadventure. She failed to complete the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens due to stomach upset, possibility caused by medication for a recent leg muscle injury; she finished 23rd in Beijing in 2008 after struggling to regain fitness following a stress fracture of her leg, and she was forced to withdraw from the GB team in advance of the 2012 Olympic marathon due to surgery for a foot injury – an injury that had been mis-diagnosed in 1994,and finally, 18 years later, was repaired . Her most impressive performance in recent years was third place in the 2011 Berlin marathon in a time of 2:23:46. She hopes to return to London next year to lay some of the demons to rest.
The training of Paula Radcliffe
Paula has always trained with determination, but since the early days of her track and cross country career she has been prone to injury. Following a disappointing 4th place in the 10,000m in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she underwent a through biomechanical assessment by physiotherapist, Gerald Hartmann. Hartmann described this assessment in an interview with sports journalist, Frank Greally, published in Running Times in 2004. Hartmann not only directed his attention to the prominent bobbing movement of Paula’s head which he attempted to alleviate by exercises to strengthen her shoulders and neck, but he also identified a lack of power in her legs. He had asked Paula to do 20 hops up and down from a 16 inch high box as fast as she could. Whereas Kelly Holmes, 800m and 1500m gold medallist in Athens, had achieved 20 hops on and off the same box in 12.5 seconds, Paula took 27 seconds on her first attempt. This led Hartmann to devise a program of plyometric exercises and heavy weight sessions.
The fruit of this strengthening program were clearly apparent in the report on Paula’s physiological development reported by Andrew Jones in International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching in 2006. Paula’s vertical jump performance increased from 29cm recorded in in 1996 to 38cm in 2003. Furthermore, her speed at VO2max increased from 20.5 Km/hour in 1992 to 23.5 Km/hour in 2003. Although the marathon is typically run at VO2/VO2max in the range 83-85%, the increased speed at VO2max would be expected to produce a similar relative increase at marathon pace. Paula’s speed at lactate threshold increased from 14–15 Km/hour in 1992–1994 to 17.5–18.5 Km/hour in 2000–2003. Similarly, her speed at lactate turn point increased from 16 Km/hr in 1992 to 20 Km/hr in 2003. Paula’s average pace in London in 2003 was 18.6 Km/hr, consistent with the expectation that a well-trained marathoner can maintain a pace very near to lactate threshold.
It is likely that the strengthening and improved biomechanics achieved by Hartman’s program played a substantial part in the increased speed at VO2max and hence in Paula’s phenomenal marathon in London in 2003. However it should also be noted that the proportional increase in speed at lactate threshold from 1992-1994 to 2000-2003 was approximately 24% whereas the increase in speed at VO2max over this period was only around 14%. This suggests that she had also increased her capacity to metabolise lactate. This possibility is confirmed by the fact that she exhibited a lactate concentration of only 4-6mM at maximum speed during treadmill tests whereas most athletes exhibit maximal concentration around 8-12 mM.
It is also noteworthy that Paula had already had an exceptionally high VO2max of 70 ml/min/Kg at age 19 in 1992, and this did not increase appreciably over the eleven years to 2003. Thus she was endowed with a high VO2max, but this did not increase with her training.
Apart from the strengthening program, what changes in her training occurred during these eleven years? First, she increased her total training volume greatly. At age 18 she did 20-30 miles per week but by 2003 she ran between 120 and 160 miles a week when in full marathon training. According to Andrew Jones, she would never compromise training quality for quantity. If tired she would cancel a session rather than perform at a lower level. She typically did the steady state continuous running that made up a large proportion of her training at 3:20–3:40 per km, only 5-25 seconds slower than her marathon pace.
In summary, Paula was endowed with a very high VO2max, which remained unchanged by training. The gains from the eleven years of training that turned her from a world junior cross country champion into the world’s fastest female marathoner were an increased speed at VO2max, perhaps attributable to the improved strength and biomechanics, and an even greater proportional increase in speed at lactate threshold, implying increased capacity to metabolise lactate in addition to her improved strength and biomechanics.
Both Paula and Grete were endowed with exceptionally high VO2max. At age 19, Paula had a measured VO2max of 70; Grete’s 3000m world record of 8:34 at age 21 also corresponds to a VO2max of 70. Both focussed on track and cross country racing in their early twenties. Once they turned to the marathon, both continued to run fast during training, Both did a substantial proportion of their training at a pace that might be described as sub-lactate threshold – though nearer to the threshold in Paula’a case. Paula also did a much larger volume of training, and achieved a personal best about 9 minutes faster than Grete, consistent with the evolution of women’s marathoning for which Grete had laid the foundations.
It is probable that for both women the substantial amount of sub-lactate threshold running helped develop their ability to metabolise lactate. In Paula’s case, the measurements reported by Andrew Jones provide direct evidence that this was the case. Thus, it might reasonably be argued that a large amount of running in the grey zone around lactate threshold, the zone that is avoided in a polarised program, played a substantial part in their success. Their success is a challenge to the claims for polarized training.
However, great as these two athletes were, one is left with the feeling that they could have been even greater. In the five years from 1978 to 1983, Grete made the women’s world record her own, lowering it by almost 10 minutes. Yet in the year that the women’s marathon became an Olympic event, she was eclipsed by Joan Benoit. Grete still remained near the top of the rankings for another five years, but she scarcely improved. In light of the evidence that polarised training is the most effective way forward for an athlete who has achieved a plateau, I can’t help wondering if she might have gone on to even greater achievements if she had included a larger amount of low intensity running in her training schedule.
In Paula’s case the sense of frustrated hope is even more overt. Not only did injury rob her of opportunities for Olympic gold, but it robbed her of the chance to demonstrate where that stellar trajectory of improvement that she exhibited in 2002-2003 might have taken her. Would a more polarised approach to training have taken less toll on her body? Might it have allowed her to reach an even higher level of performance? In light of the evidence that polarised training is the most effective way of improving VO2max once an athlete has reached a plateau, is it even possible that she might have been able to increase her VO2max beyond the level she achieved in her teens. However, further increase in VO2max would be of limited value unless she maintained her extraordinary capacity to metabolise lactate, and perhaps that capacity was dependent on maintaining a large amount of sub-lactate threshold running in her schedule. Is it possible to minimise accumulation of acidity by other potentially less damaging means? That will be the topic of my next post.
Note regarding Liliya Shobukhova
In a comment below, Thomas points out that Liliya Shobukova has been suspended for a doping infringement, and suggests that I should not provide information about her marathon times. I am strongly opposed to drug abuse in sport. Furthermore, when providing information relevant to the training or physiology of runners I try to be as accurate as possible. As far as I can establish, the facts regarding Shobukhova’s suspension are:
1) She has been suspended on account of irregularities of her blood profile that suggest blood doping. Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance. Some methods, such as high altitude training, are legal; other methods such as blood transfusion are illegal. I do not know any details in Shobukhova’s case.
2) The suspension applies from 24th Jan 2013 to 23rd Jan 2015. The terms include the annulment of any performances dating from October 2009.
3) In August 2014 it was reported that she plans to appeal against the suspension.
4) Her profile, including her time of 2:18:20 in the 2011 Chicago marathon is still listed on the IAAF web-site (as of 15 Sept 2014).
If Shobukhova’s performance in the 2011 Chicago marathon was achieved with the aid of illegal blood doping, this would serve to emphasise the outstanding character of Paula Radcliffe’s world record time.
Addendum 7th Nov 2015: The evidence regarding drug abuse in athletics continues to emerge in an alarming manner and the situation has become increasingly muddy. By now it is clear that Shobukova is not going to appeal her suspension. She has publically acknowledged that there were apparently corrupt payments in connection with her case. The fact that her performance in Chicago had remained on the IAAF website counts for little, as senior IAAF officials are themselves under suspicion of complicity in corruption related to drug abuse. Paula Radcliffe herself has been the subject of speculation because of anomalous blood tests indicating unusual production of red blood cells. There has been debate about the way she opposed publication of this information, but there are plausible innocent explanations for her blood test results.
In summary, Shobukova’s suspension is official confirmation that she employed illegal means to increase her levels of red blood cells. On the other hand Radcliffe possibly achieved similar effects by legal means, such as training at altitude, and sleeping in a low oxygen environment. With regard to the physiology of marathon performance, elevation of red blood cell levels appears to be advantageous, and is likely to improve performance by a small margin.
With regard to the main theme of my post, I do not believe that unusual production of red blood cells, by whatever means, was the main factor in Radcliffe’s extra-ordinary performances. With regard to Shobukova, her performance should be regarded as invalid as she was convicted of using illegal means to gain advantage, and she has not appealed that conviction. If this information had been clear at the time, I would not have mentioned her in my post. Nonetheless, at this stage, I think that the least confusing way to describe a muddy situation is to add this addendum to my post. If further information about Radcliffe’s unusual blood results emerges, I will add a further addendum.