Hard/Hard Training

On a Saturday morning in the early 1970s, I drove from my apartment in Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco for a long run. I parked at the Polo Fields in beautiful Golden Gate Park and set out on the lovely trails of the park, then ran on the sandy path by the beach to Lake Merced.

I was jogging the five-mile route around the lake, when a runner pulled alongside and we began chatting. He said, “You want to know how to train for a really fast five-mile race? All you gotta do is run this five-mile loop at a slow pace every day for six months. It’ll drive you nuts, but you’ll run a great time.” He told me he’d actually done it. I decided to pass.

Like many runners, I’m interested in how other people train. Over the years, I’ve heard so many ideas, I often wonder if there are as many ways to train as there are runners.

Of course, there are some things we all have to do. Whether we’re Haile Gebrselassie or Joe Blow, we need to balance effort with rest, get enough sleep, eat well, and have a positive attitude.

But that leaves a lot of room for tinkering.

Consider Yannick Djouadi.

The 33-year-old Frenchman won the 2006 World 100K (62.2-mile) Championships in Seoul. Amazingly, Djouadi runs just 60 miles per week, but he trains very hard – a typical outing is 34K (21.08 miles) at 5:41 pace.

In truth, Djouadi doesn’t really qualify as a “low-mileage runner,” since he also rides 200km (124 miles) a week on a racing bicycle, and he works out hard at the gym.

As a former professional cyclist, Djouadi came to running with a very high level of fitness — pro cyclists can train 5-6 hours a day, because there’s less pounding on the bike. Djouadi’s schedule includes hard speedwork (15 x 400m in 70 seconds, or 5 x 1000m in 3:10) and hill repeats.

An article about Djouadi’s 100K victory on the Let’s Run Web site said: “Djouadi’s training philosophy is to force his body to accept as much intensity as possible.”

It’s an attractive idea: we should be able to force our bodies to do what we want. After all, what is the body? It’s just so much meat. Instinctively, we know that will power is a higher faculty. Most runners eventually come face to face with their Inner Wimp. At those times, when we’re melting-down in the late miles of a marathon, or we’ve set a too-fast pace in a 5K, we reach a crossroads where we have to decide: will I call it quits, or will I rise above it? A strong mind can drive the body to amazing feats.

But sometimes there’s also no dishonor in a DNF – instead of “Did Not Finish” it can mean “Did Nothing Foolish” (or Fatal). At other times, pain is opportunity. It can be tough to know what’s right – whether to press on, or to dodge a serious mistake and live to fight another day.

Great runners seem to get to the top by either of two routes: “hard/easy” training as taught by Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman, or Djouadi-like “hard/hard.”

Which is best?

Djouadi isn’t the only top runner who’s trained hard. Steve Jones, winner of the 1988 New York Marathon, trained all-out. Jones famously said that if a runner wants to race at the world-class level, he must be willing to go to bed tired and get up tired every day for 10 years.

Bernd Heinrich trained hard, too. When he made the decision to challenge the U.S. 100K record, he resolved to always train at his goal pace: 6:00 per mile. For Heinrich, everything was training — if he needed to cross the parking lot from his car to the supermarket, he ran — at 6:00 pace. Heinrich describes his preparation for the 100K in a wonderful book, Why We Run.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, gold medalist in the first women’s Olympic marathon (1984) trained all-out. So did former marathon record holder Derek Clayton (2:08:33). Another hard-runner was Norm Green, a top age-group runner of the 1980s. At age 52, Green ran 2:25:51, and 2:27:42 at 55, becoming the oldest American to break 2:30. He ran everything fast – 6:00 to 6:30 pace for all of his training runs. Alberto Salazar ran himself to exhaustion, and paid a steep price, with years of depression.

Years ago, I read an Ultrarunning magazine interview with Western States 100 winner Tom Johnson, In which he claimed that he did his 20-mile runs at 6:00 pace. I thought, “Yeah — right. He’s psyching-out his competitors.” Later, I went for a long run in 105-degree heat on the American River Parkway in Sacramento. I was trudging along at a snail’s pace, when Johnson sailed past in the opposite direction, shirtless, carrying a big water bottle and cruising at, I estimated, 6:30 pace.

What’s with these people? Don’t they know the hard-and-fast “rules” of running? What about hard/easy? What about 100-mile weeks? What about Bowerman and Lydiard?

In my last article, I reflected on how we can model our training on the world’s best runners by aping their methods, if not their speed. But what of the hard-chargers? Can they be our role models, too?

Yannick Djouadi hints at the answer:

Djouadi likes to build his own training programs and prefers not to rely on coaches for his progress. He knows himself well, and knows how to prepare. He was, without doubt, the lightest-trained runner in Seoul in terms of overall mileage, but still won the event.

In “How Prefontaine Trained,” I quoted Kenny Moore’s wonderful book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Bill Bowerman was among the first coaches to scrutinize his runners for signs of fatigue. If he discovered that a runner had secretly trained harder or run farther than he’d told him to, that runner was booted off the team for a week or two. It’s easy to imagine that Bowerman would be appalled by Djouadi’s training.

Arthur Lydiard believed that a runner should finish each run feeling “pleasantly tired.” No matter how we train, we don’t get fitter if we don’t recover. Blend world-class recovery with world-class speed, and you get a Djouadi, Green, Clayton, Samuelson, Heinrich, Salazar, or Jones.

You also get big risks. Derek Clayton was injured often – not surprising, since the Australian ran 140-200 mpw, mostly at a fast clip. Joan Samuelson was injured just two weeks before the 1984 Olympics marathon, and nearly didn’t start. (It’s been suggested that the rest helped her win.)

These runners had highly “stretchable” bodies that could absorb hard training. They also had tremendous will. There’s no question that physical talent alone doesn’t make a champion. U.S. 5000m record holder Bob Kennedy talked about the demands of high-level training, in an interview on the Rogue Running Web site:

It really is more than a full time job. I’ve described it to people in the past, and you know, it really is a 24-hour-a-day job, 7 days a week, 12 months a year. Everything that you do (or don’t do) has some effect, positive or negative, on your training, and as a result your competition. It is not just showing up to practice in high school or college or to your training sessions after that, and doing the workout and then being done. There’s food, there’s sleep, there’s massage, ice baths; there’s core strength and flexibility. All that, and that’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Saturday, Sunday…it never ends. It is a huge, huge commitment if you are going to train at that highest level.

But there are physical limits, too. Djouadi “knows himself well.” The hard-chargers know that they can run their workouts fast and still recover. The extent to which we can “do likewise” depends on our talents.

Jack Daniels, probably the world’s most-renowned running physiologist, observed that world-class runners are able to run at a very high percentage of their VO2Max aerobically, and that this ability is “poorly understood.” When Daniels tested hard-charging Derek Clayton on the treadmill, he found that Clayton was able to run comfortably while carrying on a conversation with the lab staff — at 4:50 pace.

That kind of talent isn’t something we can develop by training hard. You’re either born with it, or you aren’t. Before resolving to run all-out, all the time, we should probably find out if we can do so aerobically. Otherwise, we may be digging our graves.

Lacking world-class talent, we should let recovery be our guide. We can run everything hard – but run less often. Or we can run hard once or twice a week, and make the rest of our training easy. I think Arthur Lydiard would be pleased.