Speed Thrills

Jerzy and Aniela Gregorek are over-40 world-champion Olympic weighlifters. About a year ago, Jerzy called and said he’d started writing a book and needed an editor. We met at their beautiful Woodside, California home.

This wasn’t my first encounter with weightlifters. I’d read books by Clarence Bass,, an Albuquerque attorney and lifelong bodybuilder/powerlifter who won the Past-40 Mr. U.S.A. title in 1979.

Clarence and the Gregoreks are wonderful people — they’re gracious and eager to help others with advice and encouragement. (See their website. The atmosphere in the Gregoreks’ home was exceptional — it was energized, and very pure and spiritual.

I also had an email exchange about six months ago with Krista Clark, a professor at the University of Toronto who runs Stumptuous.com, quite possibly the best strength-training website for women. (Guys — it’s also an excellent general strength-training resource.)

Someone told Krista about an article of mine, and she asked if she could use it on Stumptuous. I agreed, and we ended up discussing the merits of strength training and distance running. I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that, like Jerzy and Aniela and Clarence, Krista believes that distance running is unhealthy — and she isn’t shy about saying so.

In fact, I’ve yet to meet a strength athlete who doesn’t share this view. Weightlifters and bodybuilders don’t just frown on aerobic exercise — they actively disapprove of it.

(Here , for example, is an article that exemplifies the ironmongers’ take on cardio training for health and weight-loss. It’s actually a very good article. But it shows how very wide the gap is between runners and lifters.)

At my meeting with Jerzy and Aniela, I got off on the wrong foot when I naively announced that I was a runner. With a pained expression, Jerzy informed me that aerobic training was “dangerous,” that the best exercise for general health and fitness is anaerobic sprints.

Having tasted the joys of running under nature’s glorious canopy of blue sky and green leaves, I found Jerzy’s remarks mind-stopping. But there’s no persuading the Iron Gamers — and they’re quite happy to trot out research in support of their views.

The headline of an article on Clarence Bass’s website gleefully announces: “Sprints Build Endurance! Tabata-type Training Takes Center Stage. Two Minutes Potent as Two Hours. Intensity Trumps Volume.”

The article describes two studies that suggest runners can quickly improve their VO2Max and endurance with short, hard sprints.

Dr. Tabata and his colleagues at the National Institute of Health & Nutrition, Tokyo, Japan, reported: “[Six to 8 very hard 20 second intervals with 10 second rest periods] may be one of the best possible training protocols…” Dr. Tabata told Dick Winett in a personal communication: “The rate of increase in VO2max [14% in only 6 weeks] is one of the highest ever reported in exercise science.” What’s more, anaerobic capacity increased by a whopping 28%….

Clarence describes the second study:

Because of my interest in high-intensity aerobics (I first wrote about it in Ripped 3), quite a number of people emailed about the recent research on sprint interval training done by Kirsten Burgomaster and colleagues at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (June 2005).

In that study, sixteen active but untrained students, average age 22, were divided into two groups: eight who performed two weeks of sprint intervals, and eight controls who were tested before and after, but did no training.

The test group did four to seven “all-out” 30-second sprints on a bicycle ergometer with four-minute rest periods, six times over two weeks. (Dr. Tabata’s subjects did intervals five days a week for six weeks….

The muscles of the trained group showed substantial aerobic adaptation: 38% increase in citrate synthase, a mitochondrial enzyme that indicates the power to use oxygen, and a 26% increase in glycogen (muscle sugar) content. Interestingly, there was no change in peak oxygen uptake (VO2max) or anaerobic work capacity.

“Most strikingly,” the researchers wrote, “cycle endurance capacity increased by 100% after [sprint interval training].” The time to fatigue cycling at about 80% of VO2max increased on average from 26 minutes to 51 minutes!

The control group showed no change in any of the test parameters.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that sprint training dramatically improves endurance capacity during a fixed workload test in which the majority of cellular energy is derived from aerobic metabolism,” the researchers reported. Impressively, the short period of very intense exercise produced improvements “comparable to or higher than previously reported aerobic-based training studies of similar duration.” In other words, about two minutes of very intense exercise (15 minutes over 2 weeks) produced the same or better results than previously shown after two hours a day at about 65% of VO2max, or 20 hours over two weeks….

It seems logical, says Coyle, that “aerobic endurance performance is only enhanced by aerobic endurance training, but it has been proven wrong in the realm of athletics as well as muscle biochemistry.” In short, prolonged low intensity exercise is not necessarily the best way to build endurance. Long slow running or biking may be a waste of time for people who want to become fit and healthy but have no plans to run a marathon or compete in high-level bicycle racing.

What should a distance runner make of these studies? Are we wasting our time, running 20-milers in preparation to race at 1500 meters, 5K, 10K, or even the half-marathon? Clarence Bass improved his world ranking in Concept ergometer rowing by following the Tabata protocol just once a week. So it would seem the results are real. And the subjects of Tabata’s original study, who raised their VO2Max so dramatically, were top Japanese national team speed skaters.

Here’s a letter that Clarence posted on his website, from a 5K runner who improved his PR:

Here’s my story of how I successfully prepared for an endurance event using the Tabata Protocol.

I’m a 32-year-old male, with a lean build. Last year, in my first 5K race, I ran 22:26; it turns out the course was somewhat short, such that 24:30 may have been my “real” time. My preparation had been low in volume, but otherwise normal for a beginning runner: moderate effort over moderate distances.

I continued running after last year’s event, but discovered that it hurt my feet. The standard fixes–motion-control shoes, proper stretching, avoiding the sidewalk — didn’t help. I quit running for the time being.

This year I signed up for the same 5K…. Because I could not train in a normal fashion without hurting my feet, I decided to try the Tabata Protocol, which calls for a very low volume of activity. (I had read Clarence’s Article #152, Sprints Build Endurance!)

My workout consisted of eight 20-second sprints, with 10-second rests between. I stretched and jogged for a few minutes before and after. I did the sprints on grass, to cushion my feet. I worked very hard, but not murderously hard.

Over the course of 2 1/2 weeks, I performed this workout five times. I also had one unofficial workout, in which I ran to get indoors during a thunderstorm; I tried to follow the 20/10 work-rest ratio then too.

I estimate that I trained a total of 24 minutes for the 5K: six 4-minute workouts. To make sure that I was fully rested, I stopped training five days before the race. I did no other aerobic work whatsoever.

The result: 21:14 on the short course, over a minute faster than last year.

I am not an advanced or experienced runner by any stretch of the imagination. If I could follow a full, 35-mile-per-week training regimen, I would probably run faster yet. Nevertheless, my experience suggests that the Tabata protocol is effective as preparation for an endurance event….

Marlon (Last name withheld by request)

Let me say, straight up, that if I can improve my VO2Max and race better at 5K, 10K, and even the half-marathon by doing brief speedwork 1-3 times a week, you can sign me up. I ain’t too proud to learn from the weightlifters.

But I am inclined to temper my enthusiasm.

For starters, VO2Max is more a determinant of speed than endurance. From Timothy M. Noakes’s authoritative book, Lore of Running (4th ed.):

The second reason that VO2Max alone is a relatively poor predictor of performance is because it cannot account for the proportion of the VO2Max that different athletes can sustain during prolonged exercise. We have termed this ability fatigue resistance. In short, it is found that regardless of their actual VO2Max values, the most successful athletes are those who can sustain a high percentage of VO2Max during racing at any distance, because they have superior fatigue resistance. Therefore, another reason why the VO2Max is a poor predictor of running ability is because it neither measures nor predicts fatigue resistance during prolonged submaximal exercise. (p. 50)

It may not be surprising, then, that Clarence Bass was able to improve his PR — his rowing events are just 500 and 1000 meters long, lasting under 2 and 5 minutes, respectively. They are the kind of short, high-intensity events that benefit from increased VO2Max. Among top distance runners, VO2Max varies widely; an equally important factor in determining performance, says Noakes, is biomechanical efficiency. So rhe question is remains open, as to how much Tabata-style intervals actually increase “fatigue resistance” for distance runners competing at, for example, 10K and beyond.

Then again, in running, hard intervals are old news. Sports physiologists, focused on the body’s internal workings, are apt to forget what’s been tried before. And that includes interval training.

Clarence notes that Roger Bannister trained with hard intervals to run the first sub-four-minute mile. Of course, subsequent, endurance-trained runners have improved Bannister’s record by wide margins. In fact, Peter Snell reports that he was surprised to find that he could run close to a four-minute mile, following 10 weeks of pure endurance running without any speedwork at all. Snell set his world record (3:54.4) on a base of 100-mile weeks, plus hill training and speedwork.

Emil Zatopek, the only winner of gold medals in the 5000, 10,000, and marathon at the same Olympics (1952), trained almost exclusively with intervals — up to 20 miles of 400-meter repeats in a single session. Even accepting “Zato’s” claim that he wasn’t a very gifted runner, his 10,000-meter world record time (28:54.2; 1954) has been bettered by many of today’s top, endurance-trained collegiate runners.

From the late forties through the sixties, pure interval training was the prevailing training method. Even in the seventies, marathoner Bill “Mad Dog” Scobey was training exclusively with intervals. Scobey was notorious for running 10 miles of 100-yard dashes. It’s impossible to say whether his talent would have allowed him to improve his 2:15 PR, if he’d done Lydiard-style endurance training.

While driving to Canada on vacation one summer, I stopped in Eureka, California, to run on the track at Humboldt State University. I happened to arrive just as Scobey was beginning one of his all-out interval sessions. As I started my run at 8:30 pace, he scowled at me angrily, as if it were a desecration to sully his track with such slow jogging.

In the seventies, interval training declined sharply, as Arthur Lydiard’s distance-trained runners blew the interval-focused runners away. Thenceforth, intervals would become a tool for sharpening, not a foundation.

I can understand why Bass, Clark, and the Gregoreks are prejudiced toward sprints. They aren’t built to run long distances comfortably — and 20-mile runs certainly wouldn’t help them achieve their goal of building strength and muscle mass. Bodybuilders frankly fear endurance running, because they think it’ll make their muscles long and stringy.

In the sixties, I would see a famous Southern California bodybuilder chugging along the beach at Santa Monica. He’d played a strongman in Roman epic movies of the fifties. He was built like a Mack truck. I admired him for working on his aerobic fitness, but it was painful to watch him run.

Short, hard intervals helped Clarence achieve a fourth-place world ranking in his age group in Concept ergometer rowing. (The story — see part 1 and part 2 — is inspiring.) Regardless of his ideas about running, Clarence deserves respect for his amazing all-round athleticism, at over 65 years of age.

I’m simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Clarence’s approach. I love free weights and speedwork, but I don’t see the point of carrying slabs of muscle. If I were a professional tough guy — force recon Marine, Navy Seal, Army Ranger, SWAT officer — I’d probably train for functional strength rather than massive muscles, perhaps with Russian kettlebells.

Years ago, when I was young and, frankly, stupid, I’d have felt compelled to make invidious comparisons on high-flown moral grounds. I’d have snorted and chuckled, as I pondered the ways the Iron Gamers are wrong and why running is a purer, more natural, spiritual kind of sport. But looking back over 35+ years, I see that I’ve had many “seasons” as a runner — times when I derived joy from run-walking 6-7 hours, or learned thrilling lessons by hard speedwork on the track, or got deep satisfaction from a simple 30-minute jog. Always, the joy came by doing the right thing for me, at the time.

That’s why I’m hesitant to say that hard sprints are “wrong.” “Some people try to appear taller by cutting off the heads of others.” I like that wry saying of the eastern sage, Sri Yukteswar. On the Internet, it’s common to find people arguing hotly over the One True Way. I wish they’d learn how dumb that is. I’m hoping the Iron Gamers will learn that lesson, too.