Part IV

23 March, 2003.

Let’s move from the Why to the How To…

And in contrast to the accepted method, let’s start from the end. I have repeatedly stressed throughout this thread and the preceding one, that there is a huge improvement in performance that can be made from purely aerobic training, if you get it right. A huge improvement wayyy before any faster work is done. In the example that follows I want to stress that what was achieved was done without any of the sort of sessions that many of you might expect.

So when you read what follows, just bear in mind that there were no sessions of repeat 1,000s, no repeat miles, no “tempo” runs (at least in the accepted sense of 10k-pace +15 secs). Just lots of controlled aerobic training (detailed examples of the training will follow)

All the figures and timelines that I will quote are genuine and I want to use the example of my friend Giuseppe (whom I’ll refer to as Joe, for the purposes of this thread).

A little over 5 years ago I coached Joe to two 2.27 marathons. We had expected the second race (some 6 months after the first) to be sub-2.25, but raceday proved to be extremely wild and windy and Joe ran his heart out and yet just broke his earlier 2.27 by a bare 2 seconds.

We would have ducked the race under normal conditions and found another, but it was a fall marathon and we did not have a fall-back. Life being what it is, there was no guarantee how things would be if we waited till the following spring. Work, injury, illness… anything could happen in four/five months. Joe made the decision to race, and I admired him for doing so.

Some months after the race I moved house, away from the area and we lost touch.

Early last year my wife raced near Rome and Joe came across her after the finish line and we all met up that evening for a meal and a chat about old times. We had all enjoyed many long runs together all those years ago, so we had much to recall and talked late into the night.

Joe ruefully admitted that he had put on 20 pounds and was now approaching 35 years of age. He was also mired in work, since he was the financial controller of his family’s printing business and was having to hassle many clients for lack of payment on time. A relaxed, easy-going guy, Joe admitted that the stress of having to constantly argue with clients was getting to him and serious training had long been forgotten. It was at least two years since he had had any kind of fitness and now he was down to maybe 20 miles per week, if that. And slow!?! (many of us could tell similar stories).

Anyway, we parted after swapping email addresses and telephone numbers. During the evening Joe had several times remarked that his best running days were behind him, but my wife (older than him by a few years) had admonished him every time, repeatedly telling him he was talking nonsense. All he needed, she said, was to make the decision to begin, and with the right training it would all come back.

A few weeks after I got back home, I got an email from Joe saying that he was going to go for one more serious marathon. We had got him hyped and he had been able to think of little else. I told him before he began to look at his working life and figure out how he was going to find 90 mins to 2hrs per day for training. I also told him to ease his way (taking as long as he liked) to get to 50mpw and then I would give him a written schedule from there. (Examples of the schedules will follow).

One thing that concerned him (and I) was how we would monitor his growing fitness without jumping into regular races. Since he had worked with me in the past, he knew all about lactate testing and HR training. After some thinking, I told him we would be able to do the same, only without the blood tests. If we were really careful, I said, and he kept me informed of everything, it would work. He agreed to try. He argued with his brothers, telling them he was going to alter his work hours to suit his training. Grudgingly, they agreed.

Elsewhere, on another thread, I had explained why I liked the period in lactate tests to be a minimum of 8 mins long. I have long used a protocol that consists of repeat runs over 2400m at slowly increasing intensities (with pauses after each period to draw blood). (Note: you really should have followed and read the lactate link I put up earlier to be able to fully understand the discussion from this point on. Don’t worry, it’s not difficult and it’s well worth the read).

Once Joe got to 50mpw, I told him to perform the following mini-test (he knew the protocol). Go to a track on a windless day, as rested as if for a race, and do the following:

  1. Run 2400m at a steady 140 HR (stop 90 secs and record time)
  2. Run 2400m at a steady 150 HR (stop 90 secs and record time)
  3. Run 2400m at a steady 160 HR (stop 90 secs and record time)
  4. Run 2400m at a steady 170 HR (stop 90 secs and record time)
  5. Run 2400m at a steady 180 HR (stop 90 secs and record time)

At all times, adjust the running pace to maintain a stable HR. On each new stage slowly edge the HR up (ie: it is ok if the HR takes the first 600-800m to reach target level), then simply maintain HR. DO NOT start fast and have to slow to maintain target HR.

Joe got back into things in mid-April, and ramped to 50mpw of easy jogging pretty quick. I got him to do the mini-test on 11 May and periodically thereafter (bearing in mind the ~6 week period for mitochondrial growth). The numbers below detail his progression in running speed at each date and each HR. The times are in mins/mile. Joe’s organised training began immediately after the first test.

In 12 weeks ± Joe improved his HR vs running pace at all intensities. A pace that required 150 HR initially, only required 140 HR a brief 12 weeks later. This was true across the board. A pace that used to require 180 HR now required less than 170 HR…

Dates 140 150 160 170 180
11 May 7.56 7.22 6.42 6.05 5.40
06 Jun 8.03 7.17 6.36 6.01 5.33
29 Jun 7.23 6.49 6.12 5.42 5.18
04 Aug 7.18 6.36 6.00 5.33 5.10

Six weeks after this last test (and less than 20 weeks after beginning organised training), Joe entered a marathon with instructions just to sit quiet with the 2.20-low group and stop at halfway. He ran 71.xx.

Managing to finish less than 2 mins off his all-time half marathon PR after only 20 weeks organised training, Joe began to see how his sub-2.25 dream could still happen.


Before I get into the exact details of Joe’s training, let me pre-empt one question you might have: how was Joe able to run 5.33m/m with 170 HR when it used to require 180 HR to run at 5.40m/m?

If you have read and understood all that I have posted, you should have a good idea of why this occurs, but let me just review it quickly.

A prime function of your heart is to deliver oxygen to your active muscles. Your muscles then use this oxygen combined with glycogen or fat to create energy to run. If your muscles are inefficient at doing this, you will not get as much running energy per unit of oxygen as you could.

Think of your heart as a pump that is told what to do by the muscles. “We need more oxygen!” say the muscles and the heart beats faster. “We have enough”, they say and the heart rate stays low.

To break one unit of glucose down into energy anaerobically (WITHOUT oxygen) you get two units of energy (let’s say that you get 2 paces/strides up the road before you need more energy).

If you break that self-same unit of glucose down into energy aerobically (WITH oxygen) you get 36 paces up the road before you need more energy. Obviously this is much better. So if you can make what used to be an anaerobic pace into an aerobic pace, you are a much superior runner and can keep this pace up for much further.

But even better, if you were so efficient that you could break down one unit of fat into energy (instead of glucose) you would get 460 paces up the road before needing more energy. And your HR would be wayyyyy low at the same time.

Now 100% fat-burning isn’t going to happen, but I hope you can understand that the higher a percentage of fat there is (along with a percentage of glucose/glycogen) in the fuel mix you burn at marathon race pace, the more comfortable you will be, the longer you will keep up the pace, and the faster you will run.

The short answer? Joe just got more efficient at using oxygen and breaking glucose/fat down into energy for running.

Addendum to Part IV

25 March, 2003.

When Joe ran his first mini-test on 11 May, as well as emailing me the data, he also sent his opinions on the effort levels involved at each stage. At the lower end, he remarked that it was somewhat difficult to keep his HR low enough. This is often the case at first. As can be seen, Joe was very slow initially which showed how much aerobic fitness he had lost. The running pace at this very low effort level improved in time with the training. Most runners would skip this effort level and so lose the valuable adaptations that take place.

At the higher end he found 170 to be a bit of work, and he said he would not like to have maintained the 180 HR effort for much longer. When pressed, he stated that he would be lucky to keep the 5.40m/m pace up for 5km. Definitely not further. This signifies, even without testing, that Joe had passed his lactate threshold at this pace and was now building serious amounts of lactate in his running muscles.

Less than 20 weeks later, Joe would complete a HM (at 21km, a distance that was over four times longer than the first mini-test) at faster than this 5.40m/m pace he had found so tough (HM pace was 5.28m/m). He would be able to do this because, through training, his lactate at this pace was now significantly lower than it had been in his first test. Since this was so, the “effort”, the degree of difficulty to him, the stress at this pace, was greatly reduced and he had no problems maintaining this effort for 71+ mins.

Second addendum to Part IV

25 March, 2003.

How can we all move our Lactate Thresholds? Actually, the question is not that simple, because for some of you it will be necessary to first establish a threshold. Think back to the lactate charts I linked you to in Part II.

Editor's note: I have created and included the following chart, following the author's description below, and looking at a similar chart in the linked article.

You’ve got the x and y axes, and the lactate curve begins from the left and runs horizontal for a short way and then climbs at 45 deg angle. For some of you, that would be exactly what we would find if I lactate tested you; your anaerobic energy kicks in wayyy too early, and you have no good relationship between your 1500m time and your 10k / HM time.

Slightly better would be the next runner whose lactate curve stays horizontal for slightly longer (remember, the horizontal axis is running speed, so the further the curve goes to the right before climbing, the better). At a slightly better running pace, this athlete’s curve then climbs at 33 deg angle.

And, of course, we have the well trained athlete whose curve stays flatter for much longer before curving upwards.

We need to train to become like the third athlete.

Note that if you draw any vertical line that crosses the horizontal axis anywhere on the graph you can see how much lactate each athlete has to build to run at the same pace as the other two athletes. Runner A’s lactate can be crazy high, and runner B’s climbing, while runner C’s lactate is still at calm levels.

How do we make runner A like runner B (and B like C)? To move the lactate curve to the right, we need to go wayyy back to just before the curve begins to turn, and train both at the point, and below (slower). Not faster. If we do this right, in six weeks the curve will move and we will be able to run faster, more easily (ie: aerobically and not by calling up some anaerobic energy).

Obviously, doing lactate tests, the effort levels at which to train are easy to find. How can we find them without lactate testing? That is what I will try to explain in Part V.

Of course, almost every running book since Lydiard has asked you to train this way, but they just say “run easy”, and it has been my experience that very many runners get the definition of “easy” wrong.

On to Part V

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