Leading the Pack

Endurance athletes can benefit from a variety of new and old training techniques. Here’s how to combine the best of both to get your athletes out in front.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 10.7, October 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1007/leadpack.htm

A few years ago, I wrote an article in Training & Conditioning on endurance training as it applied to team sports (see “At the End of Endurance,” T&C, April 1998). This time, I will concentrate on training for traditional endurance events, especially distance running. By definition, this will encompass events that last from three minutes to several hours in duration. These events are inherently continuous in nature, as opposed to the mostly intermittent nature of team sports. Even though this article is directed toward running, its ideas are applicable to other endurance activities, such as cycling, swimming, cross country skiing, and rowing. Many of the technical considerations I discuss are different, but the general training philosophies are the same.
Rather than rehash conventional wisdom readily available through a variety of sources, I will center my thoughts on observations and first-hand experience gleaned from training runners for distances from the 800 meters to the marathon. I must emphasize that the focus here is on training to race—training to run fast is the essence of endurance training. Somewhere along the way, many people got the mistaken impression that endurance training is about the runner’s high and that it should be some sort of pleasurable, Zen-like, meditative experience. Training to run fast for prolonged periods of time demands hard, directed work that is concentrated and planned. Sometimes it is very uncomfortable.
One of my motivations for writing this article is the lack of success in American middle distance and distance runners over the past 20 years, especially on the male side of the ledger. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is an increasing sedentary lifestyle among our young people, as well as an overabundance of overprocessed foods and an overprescription of antibiotics (which many people believe contribute to our high rates of asthma). In my opinion, perhaps the biggest reason has been a lack of proper training.
There is little that is new in the preparation of endurance athletes. But, sometimes we have to look back in order to move ahead. Methods like strength training, core training, resistance running, and recovery were all ingredients in the regimens of former American distance running champions. I would like to review some of the methods that worked in the past, which we now better understand because of applied sport science research, as discussion points for where we need to go in the future to better prepare endurance runners and, for that matter, endurance athletes in general.

Training Systems
A systematic approach is the key to successful endurance training. A central element of any good system is time. It takes time to develop all the capacities necessary for success in distance running. Bill Bowerman, the late, great coach from the University of Oregon, is a great example of a coach who had a system with the big picture in mind. He knew that it would take time for his runners to mature. His program was very progressive in that each runner’s mileage and overall workload were very controlled so that he or she could handle the workload. His hard/easy principles stressed the importance of recovery. He understood that the body needed time to recover from hard training efforts, so he scheduled easy days to allow for adaptation. His system was an eclectic one that borrowed from other systems he studied and adapted to the American environment and the developing collegiate athlete.
Arthur Lydiard, the famous distance coach from New Zealand, was known for the marathon phase of training. No doubt this base phase of his training was important, but I have always felt that the most important phase of his program was the hill-training phase. This was where his runners developed the specific strength for the powerful strides that led to the ability to handle a fast pace and also deliver a punishing finishing kick. He did not believe in weight training, but this hill phase accomplished the same purpose. Interestingly, his system produced top-ranked runners from the 800 meters to the marathon with athletes who had a wide variety of natural talent. This versatility is the true measure of an endurance-training system.
Percy Cerutty, the eccentric Australian coach, developed a system that put a heavy emphasis on the natural aspects of running. It incorporated a lot of resistance running in sand dunes and running barefoot, as well as a big emphasis on lifting relatively heavy weights. In many respects, Cerutty was ahead of his time in that his emphasis was on power as well as endurance.
Franz Stampfl, in Australia, and Mihaly Igloi, in Hungary and later the United States, both had systems that depended heavily on interval training. This is a very efficient system of training that was first researched and perfected in Germany in the 1930s. Stampfl coached Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile. It is interesting to note that Bannister, because of his medical school demands, only had one hour a day to train. That is one of the advantages of interval training: with limited time, it is possible to prepare for the intensity of the demands of racing.
Joe Vigil is an American coach who formerly coached at Adams State College in Colorado. He continues to coach post-collegiate runners today. His is a very eclectic system based on high-altitude training, which reflects his background as an exercise physiologist. Like most of the other great coaches who developed personalized training systems, he has evolved his methods based on his environment, incorporating hills and sand dunes as well as sustained hard-effort runs that climb 5,000 feet in altitude.

Speed First
Speed must be worked on first and foremost, and it must be part of every training cycle. I find it amusing when I hear runners say, “I have been doing base work, but I have not started speed work yet.” These runners are not training to run fast; they are training to run far, and they hope that the speed will come. The inevitable result is undue soreness and greater risk of injury because of the abrupt change in the training program when they do start to run fast.
The key is to never get too far away from running fast. It should be part of the first training cycle of the year and of each subsequent training cycle. Speed-development work can be as simple as sprint drills, light acceleration drills, or simply finishing each run with eight to 10 100-meter fast strides.
It may be a coaching cliché, but the winner of the race is the person who slows down the least. Therefore, the goal in training is to continually strive to run longer at a higher percentage of peak velocity. Rather than focusing on pace, it is better to focus on distribution of effort. Races, at any level, are seldom run at the physiological ideal of even pace. The goal is to distribute the effort as efficiently as possible over the entire race distance.
It is interesting to note that the highly successful Moroccan school of distance running clearly acknowledges the importance of speed and power in distance running performance through their talent-identification test. They test a short sprint from a standing start, a middle distance race, and the standing long jump.

Running Mechanics
Running mechanics are a key aspect of running performance. It seems like everyone pays close attention to correct mechanics up to the 400 meters, but beyond that distance, it is as if it does not matter anymore, when, in fact, it actually could be just as important. Good, sound running mechanics can go a long way toward preventing injuries and optimizing stride length and rate for more efficient utilization of energy stores.
Improving running mechanics involves specific strengthening of the postural muscles as well as the legs. Technique practice in the form of drills should be part of daily training no matter what distance is being trained. Constant awareness of good running mechanics must be stressed during each run.
What do good running mechanics consist of? It starts with good posture—erect carriage of the trunk. This is followed by good arm action—the arm carriage should be low so as not to cause undue fatigue. The shorter the race, the greater the amplitude of the arm action. The leg action should be short and controlled. High knee lift and excessively long strides are not rewarded. Efficiency is the end-result of good distribution of effort and sound running mechanics.

Strength Training
The objective of strength training for the distance runner is the same as for any athlete: to strengthen the areas that are necessary to improve performance and prevent injury. Somehow, the mistaken notion has developed over the years that it is not necessary for the distance runner to strengthen the legs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The legs are the main propulsive mechanism in running. Therefore, a good multi-joint leg program will significantly help performance and prevent injury by better preparing the body for the forces incurred, particularly on landing. The key is to avoid hypertrophy methods. Undue mass can hinder performance (distance runners don’t need huge arm, or even leg, muscles). That is simply addressed by using more sets and keeping the reps low and the weight relatively heavy (relative to the athlete’s weight and training needs). Bodyweight exercises and circuit training are particularly effective modes of strength training.
Conventional wisdom advises against the distance runner using plyometric training. To a certain extent, that is true, but it is more the form of plyometrics than plyometric training itself. While super-high-intensity plyos, like depth jumps and box jumps, can be counterproductive for the 800-meter and 1500-meter runner and the steeplechaser, plyos in the form of hops and bounds, at very low volume and used in conjunction with strength training, are very important. For the longer events, simple skipping (jumping rope) and sprint drills will have a plyometric effect, which will have a positive carryover to the dynamics of the stride.

Neural versus Metabolic
In order to improve distance running performance it is necessary to think beyond the heart and lungs. It is a given that to be a successful distance runner it is necessary to have a highly developed and efficient cardiovascular system as evidenced by a high max V02. Max V02 is only one piece of the puzzle, however. We now know that once a runner has trained his or her V02 to a high level there is little room for improvement. V02 maximum can only be improved to a certain extent; after that, the improvement and adaptation probably take place in the active muscles. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to maintain the V02 at that high level.
Along with this, it has become quite popular to focus on training the energy systems. It is important to remember, however, that the energy systems are intensity-dependent, not time-dependent. If I walk across a room, I am using my body’s aerobic energy system, while if I sprint across the room, I am utilizing my anaerobic energy system. Either way, the body must produce ATP in order for muscle action to occur, and ATP can be manufactured both through aerobic and anaerobic means. So, it is intensity of effort, not duration, that is most important in training.
So, perhaps we need to focus more on the neural aspect of endurance performance. Running fast for prolonged periods of time demands a high level of coordination of all systems of the body. This should make us more aware of training the nervous system; it is the nervous system that commands and controls the body. As I’ve often said in my articles, the muscles are slaves of the brain.

“Long, slow distance” is a term originally coined to describe running at a steady pace to develop an aerobic base. Unfortunately, as it evolved, the emphasis was on SLOW. This was a huge mistake. The result was proficiency at running slowly for a prolonged period. This has little carryover to racing—remember, the goal of training is to prepare to race.
The emphasis in this method should be on long, STEADY distance. Select a degree of effort that allows the runner to run a steady effort for the duration of the distance with good running mechanics. This type of training needs to be a means to an end and must be combined with other means of training, including speed work. Unfortunately, for many runners, it has become an end to itself.

The Finest Interval
Interval training is one of the key foundations for race preparation. Four variables can be manipulated in interval training: distance, number of repetitions, rest interval, and intensity (represented by the time of the rest interval). It has been my experience that the key to effective interval training is to focus on rest. To harden the athlete to the stress of racing, multiple sets with shorter rest intervals are the best way to prepare. This is perhaps the biggest change in interval training over the years.
Mihaly Igloi, who built his training system on interval training, based the intensity of the interval on the following descriptors of the progressive gradations leading up to race effort:
• easy—used for recovery
• medium easy—moderate effort
• medium—a little harder, but still conversational
• swing—fast, but still controlled (you should still feel like you have another gear)
• fast—just as the name implies
• race—highest effort.
These descriptors are nothing more than a perceived exertion scale. The Borg Scale, used extensively in exercise testing and cardiac rehabilitation, scientifically validates the concept of this scale. This is a method to get the runner to tune into his or her body and feel the effort required by the particular interval. I have found this to be an especially effective system.

Recovery & Regeneration
As I mentioned earlier, the hard/easy method was a cornerstone of the Bowerman method. What this simply tells us is that we must be cognizant of recovery as a key to training. It is during recovery that the training adaptations occur. It is important to carefully plan recovery days as well as recovery cycles into the overall training plan. Further, recovery does not simply mean sitting around—external means of recovery, such as hot and cold contrast showers or baths, sauna, and massage, should be a regularly scheduled part of the training plan. Hydration is perhaps one of the most important aspects of recovery (see “Refueling for Recovery,” in T&C, September 2000).

Periodization relates to the timing of the application of the training stimulus. It is, in essence, balancing all components of training relative to the individual needs of each runner. It is helpful to break the training into manageable time periods that allow for specific adaptation to the imposed demands of that respective training period. Because of the nature of running, I have found it easier to point toward a definite peak in performance. I have found that once a runner achieves a peak, it’s possible to remain at a fairly high percentage of that peak for six to eight weeks depending on the athlete’s training age.
Usually, a race is seen as the event to peak for. In this scenario, it is imperative to carefully plan the racing schedule to allow enough time to recover from the races and to properly prepare between races. It is also important to prepare for the demands of the championship meet by simulated trials and finals on back-to-back days. It is better to see how the athlete adapts to this type of stress by simulating the competition in a controlled training situation.
Beware, however, that over-racing is one cause of overtraining. I believe that racing not only taxes the runner’s physiological reserves, but also severely taxes the psychological reserves. The runner must look forward to racing in order to be an effective racer.
In order to make periodization work, it is necessary to put more of an emphasis on monitoring training. Monitoring can be as simple as maintaining a detailed training log or as complicated and scientific as blood testing and ongoing heart-rate monitoring (which are not available to most people). I have found that a simple fatigue index that rates the runner’s subjective feeling of effort and fatigue on a 10-point scale following a workout is particularly effective—simply asking an athlete how hard a training session was to him or her is in some ways more effective than invasive methods.

Cross Training
Cross training is when an athlete undertakes training in a discipline other than his or her main sport for the sole purpose of enhancing performance in his or her primary event. It has been my experience that those athletes who utilize cross training the most are those who already have a tendency to chronically overwork and are looking for another way to punish themselves. I feel that this is another training myth that has actually detracted from sound training. It certainly has very little foundation in sports science research. For a runner to get in the pool for anything more than a recovery session is time ill spent. The same is true for biking.
Time would be better spent strength training or working on flexibility, both areas that tend to be ignored. Most of the time, they are ignored because the runner feels he or she does not have enough time to fit them in. Yet those same runners can find the time to swim for thirty minutes or bike for an hour. It is all a matter of priorities. Cross training may be okay for the recreational athlete seeking to relieve the boredom of training, but for the high-level athlete it is virtually useless.
Remember, the purpose of the plan is to prepare the runner to run fast over his or her chosen distance. Building a training program from the above elements—speed, good running mechanics, and strength training, with a focus on intensity and optimal recovery, in a well-thought-out, periodized yearly plan—is guaranteed to deliver results for any endurance athlete.