Learning From Clarence Bass

Clarence Bass is a stud.

Nowadays, he’s also a Seventy-Something.

Clarence Bass, Mr. America, Over 40 Short Class

Clarence Bass, Mr. America, Over 40 Short Class

Clarence isn’t a distance runner (hardly – check his career pictorial). But what he knows about exercise is very wise and translates well to running.

I had an email exchange with Clarence recently when I asked for his help with a problem in my gym workouts.

The main event of my weekly sojourn in the land of trance music and creatine is the deadlift.

The weird thing was that some days I felt strong as an ox – couldn’t wait to grab the bar.

Those days, I could lift 290 with fair ease. But on the off-days, the weak link was my grip, which would slip with a much lighter weight – 235 lbs or less.

Clarence has pumped iron for 60 years, so I hoped he could offer a solution.

He replied, “I make or buy training straps, and alternate hard and easy weeks…. It takes at least two weeks to fully recover from hard deadlifts.”

That made sense. My strength seems to peak every 14 days.

There’s research that says protein resynthesis takes two weeks to complete after a hard training session.

I remember that Kenny Moore, the two-time Olympian and author of Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, said he thrived on running a brutal workout every two weeks, and not killing himself the other days.

I wrote Clarence a rambling thank-you, in which I mentioned some research I thought he might enjoy hearing about, since he’s always seeking new ways to improve performance.

I talk about the research in several articles on this site – see the “How to Get Faster” pieces in the archive. They’re in the left column, under “Travel & Training.”

My chain of thought goes like this:

  1. A Harvard study found that running speed depends primarily on power applied to the ground, not stride length or frequency.
  2. Power to the ground depends to a large extent on the trainable type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers.
  3. The best ways to increase type IIb FT fibers are: hill exercises (as recommended by Arthur Lydiard); plyometrics; short, fast uphill repeats; and heavy deadlifts.
Clarence Bass at age 65

Clarence Bass at age 65

I thought Clarence would smile at the notion that deadlifts can improve running speed, since he enjoys short sets with heavy weights.

Not surprisingly, he appeared to be aware of these principles. Our email exchange continued (I’ve edited the emails for clarity and to fix the usual email typos):

You’re ahead of me on running speed theory, but I am a big believer that intensity becomes more important, not less, with age. The key is preserving fast-twitch fibers; slow-twitch fibers take care of themselves; see my article on Bending the Aging Curve.

We’d enjoy having you come for an in-person consultation; we’d have a great time talking, training, and eating together. See details of our consultation services.

Continued success with your training.

Clarence Bass

My reply was a bit cheeky. I wanted to find out where Clarence stood on the view, popular among strength trainers, that roughly says: “Intervals improve running speed, so there’s no need for boring long runs. In fact, long runs are harmful and unhealthy.”

I wrote:

I found Bending the Aging Curve very interesting. It confirmed my experience that heavy weights strengthen the legs and make it possible to run like a much younger man at age 70.

But I do have a problem with the view that because intervals increase VO2Max, all aerobic-paced running is therefore somehow “bad.”

Few people who make this claim understand that what the top distance runners do is worlds apart from “long, slow distance.”

Consider how hard the champions train. Going back 60 years, Lydiard’s runners in New Zealand were doing four main hard runs per week: 22 mi at about 78-80% of max HR, 2 days of 15 mi at probably 80% or a little above, and one 10-mile run at just under 85%. The rest was slower, shorter recovery runs.

This was on mountainous courses, where the runners’ heart rates soared well above the stated average on the climbs. Not easy training!

Keith Livingstone recalls that he did the 10 miles at a very fast pace – I believe it was sub-5:30 over challenging hills.

Lydiard showed that while intervals can maximize VO2Max in just 6-8 weeks, aerobic metabolism can be improved for many years. It was the reason his runners never ran out of gas at distances from 800m to the marathon, and why they blew away the interval-trained disciples of Tabori and Gerschler.

Many thanks again for the valued advice.

Best regards,

George

Clarence’s reply was gentlemanly and expansive:

I don’t denigrate marathoners or joggers, but some people just aren’t cut out for it. I’m one of those people. I don’t enjoy long bouts of training and don’t do it. In addition, I don’t believe I could do what I do and also run marathons.

Clarence Bass at 70

Clarence Bass at 70

Marathon running has become a status thing; many people who try it are not prepared and would be better served doing something more suited to their level of fitness.

The people you refer to are, of course, a completely different brand of athletes. I couldn’t be one of them if my life depended on it. By the same token, most of them wouldn’t thrive doing what I do. We enjoy doing what we do best – and that’s what we’re happiest doing.

I’m a strong believer that there are many ways to become strong and fit, and that the key is to find the way that suits you best. You’re not likely to keep doing anything else.

This is a main theme of my new book, which we hope to have out around the end of the year. Hope you will read it when it comes out and let me know your thoughts.

Thanks again for writing. Best on your training.

Clarence

I was humbled and fessed up:

I absolutely agree with you and am looking forward to reading your new book. The points you raise in your response are excellent.

We change, and at some point in our lives the same type of exercise may no longer be expansive for us. I formerly ran ultramarathons. Today, I couldn’t imagine doing the 6-hour training outings. At this point, I enjoy short, fast stuff, plus weight work and plyo.

I agree about the false glow of the marathon. I loathe the marathon, personally – for the false promise it offers to people who, as you said, are not prepared. I’ve seen the dire results. I’ve comforted people during a marathon who crashed badly and were inconsolable.

The marathon is a very hard race. It’s harder than a 50-mile, where it’s at least expected that you’ll take walking breaks unless you’re an elite. Anyone who tries to run a marathon straight through without breaks on less than 60 or 70 miles per week of training is headed for trouble. Unless they are unusually gifted, it will damage their body, and probably their spirit.

For some people, training for a marathon can be expansive, but that’s definitely not true for all.

I knew a woman who was married to a very good ultramarathoner. She was obviously baked in a different mold. Her physique and psychology were designed for fast, shorter distances. I watched her crash in the 1997 Western States 100-mile race – her fourth or fifth meltdown in that very difficult race.

She managed to finish the WS100 in a later attempt, but only barely. Perhaps it was a victory for her. But I don’t believe it pays to go against our nature, or risk our health for a fleeting external reward.

I saw the same woman after a 24-hour track race, when she was sleeping on the infield grass. The temperature had reached 105ºF during the day, and she looked like a corpse. I couldn’t imagine the “victory” in it. I mentally blamed her husband for not urging her to adopt a sport that would be more personally expansive and rewarding for her.

The principle of balance and moderation was confirmed for me during the aforementioned WS100 race. I follow a spiritual path, and during the race I was repeating a short prayer all day.

Approaching the aid station at 52 miles, I felt awful. I prayed, “What should I do? I’m willing to keep going, but only if it is the right thing to do.”

(I was peeing brown gunk, a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition where muscle fibers rupture and spill their contents into the bloodstream, clogging the kidneys and causing permanent damage, or death.)

I heard my spiritual teacher’s voice intuitively: “This is not healthy for your body.” I dropped out, without regrets.

Months later, I was running at a local park. I was weary of the toll that the 6-hour ultra training runs were taking on my body, work, and relationships.

My body isn’t built for endurance. In my early 20s, I was paralyzed from the chest down for 2½ years. I have mild spasticity in one leg and mild paralysis in the other. (Meet Spaz and Gumby.) Long runs take a big toll.

I slowed to a walk and prayed, “What should I do?” and I again heard my teacher’s voice. Very loudly, it said, “RETIRE!!!” That’s when I began doing shorter runs, and my life came back into balance.

I was gratified to see that there’s common ground in how we understand exercise. I’ll be watching your site to learn when the new book is available.

Best regards,

George

When I need a refresher on weight training, I refer to Clarence’s book Challenge Yourself, where he outlines programs for beginning and more advanced strength trainers and details the research behind his ideas.

They obviously work well for him – and they can you make you a faster runner.

 

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