Running’s Big Unanswered Questions

Have the sports scientists told us everything there is to know about running?

Certainly not. There are still lots of questions — about training, diet, our potential — that we must answer for ourselves.

These are the Black Holes of running science. You know — the big, empty places that the lab boys haven’t got around to exploring.

For example: Why does a very long warmup reliably prepare the body for fast, effortless running?

Or an even more basic question: Why does lots of slow training make distance runners faster than if they ran fast all the time? (The sports physiologists are still hotly debating this one.)

Here’s another Big Question for the lab guys:

World-class runners have used two separate training systems to get the best performance from their bodies:

  1. Periodized training: spend several months exercising no faster than an easy, aerobic pace, then do a several weeks of hill training, followed by 6-8 weeks of hard speedwork to sharpen for a single important goal race.
  2. Do speedwork 1-3 times a week year-round, and fill in with slow running for 100+ total miles per week.

Which is best?

The sports physiologists don’t know.

For myself, I’m too old to wait for science to deliver the answers.

In fact, the answer to that last question may come from looking at how training methods 1 and 2 affect heart rate.

Method 1 appears to train the body to go faster at a slow heart rate. When world-champion triathletes Mark Allen and Mike Pigg converted to method 1, they found that their heart rate got lower at the same pace.

It seems clear that method 2 has the same effect — it, too, trains the body to run faster aerobically. It’s been used with outstanding success by many Olympic and world champions, including Frank Shorter.

Shorter did speedwork 2-3 times a week year-round, though approximately 85% of his running was at a slow (for Shorter) 7:00 pace. When the renowned sports physiologist David Costill tested (former marathon world record holder) Derek Clayton, Shorter, and Grete Waitz in his lab, he found that they were all able to run the marathon at 85 to 90% of VO2Max. Costill observed: “Most runners can tolerate this level of effort for distances of only 10 miles or less.”

Dr. Costill says that the best measure of a runner’s potential, outside of lab testing on a treadmill, is to run for 10 minutes at 6:00 pace and record heart rate as a percentage of HR maximum. The lower your heart rate as a percentage of your maximum at six-minute pace, the greater your potential. Shorter, Clayton, and Weitz could run at a very high effort with a relatively low heart rate.

We’ve come full circle: which kind of training is best to accomplish that result? What kind of training will enable us to run fast with relatively little effort, at a low heart rate?

In his foreword to Philip Maffetone’s book Training for Endurance, Mike Pigg tells what happened when he adopted Maffetone’s methods. For the first five months, he trained strictly at an aerobic pace, as Maffetone advises. He then entered an important race in Australia, the Surfer’s Paradise International Triathlon.

My confidence was so blown that I didn’t even want to get on the plane. But a swift kick from my wife and I was off. The whole week prior to the race I was fighting myself, saying that I wasn’t going to do well because of a lack of speed training. Finally, I told myself to shut up and go have a good time. To my surprise I did have a good time – and won! The speed was there and my endurance was definitely there, too.

So — are methods 1 and 2 the same? On the face of it, they seem to accomplish the same result.

On the other hand, perhaps the similarity is superficial.

Mike Pigg first learned about Maffetone-style slow training when he joined triathlon legend Mark Allen for a series of training rides and noticed that Allen’s heart rate was consistently 10-15 beats lower than his own. As Pigg plodded through the first five months of slow, Maffetone-style training, he, too, noticed that his heart rate got steadily lower at the same pace.

(Caution! Before Pigg and Allen heard of Phil Maffetone, both were ferocious trainers. So we can’t rule out that a more moderate form of Shorter-style, year-round, slow-plus-fast training might have produced the same results. It’s not unthinkable that what counts is the proportion of slow and fast training, whether we maintain the slow-fast proportion with year-round speedwork plus slow training, or in periodized fashion.)

At any rate, if you could run fast at a lower heart rate, wouldn’t you have an advantage over runners whose hearts were beating lickety-split? Surely a slower heart rate at a given speed means that the heart – and perhaps the whole body – is doing less work.

Aha! A host of fresh questions for the guys in white coats.

Does slow training allow us to run faster by increasing aerobic enzymes? Or by changing the balance of fast- and slow-twitch fibers in the working muscles? Again, the physiologists simply don’t know.

Besides Phil Maffetone, another coach who teaches a variation on slow, periodized training is John Douillard, a former professional triathlete and the author of Body, Mind, and Sport.

Douillard describes high school cross-country runners who trained by his methods and were able to cross the finish line looking fresh and unpressured, while the “traditionally” trained runners were gasping, heaving, and falling on the ground.

Douillard’s system, like Maffetone’s, trains the body to run hard at a lower heart rate. In his book, Douillard quotes a protégé of his, a marathoner of average gifts, who tells how he ran a 2:50 marathon while feeling completely comfortable, with a heart rate in the mid-130s.

Douillard differs from Maffetone in that he doesn’t rule out hard running during the slow, “endurance-building” phase. Instead, he teaches a way of tuning in to the body’s innate sense of what it can do on a given day. Douillard recommends walking at the start of every run, then going no faster than your own inner feeling tells you is completely comfortable. Some days, you’ll need to run slowly to preserve that feeling; other days, you’ll be able to go very fast, effortlessly.

There’s more to the method — Douillard provides the details in his book — but that’s the bare outline.

Douillard – my man! Whenever I’ve tried method 2 (weekly speedwork), it never felt entirely “right.” When I was 53, I dutifully went to the track once a week for seven months and did three miles of brutally hard repeats with a group of my over-40 homeys. Those workouts developed wonderful speed; after seven months, I ran a 70-minute 10-mile, a reasonably good time for my age and ability. Nevertheless, I’ve rarely felt truly healthy and happy doing hard speedwork on the track.

The training that seems to suit me best falls somewhere outside methods 1 and 2. Call it method 3.

Case in point. Two weeks ago, I drove to San Francisco and did one of my normal Douillard-like long runs. I walked for 5 minutes, then jogged easily for 10 minutes, keeping my heart rate under 70% MHR. Feeling very good, I picked up the pace and ran for an hour and a half at 77-79% MHR. Finally, coming back across the Golden Gate Bridge, I accelerated to 91.5% MHR and held that pace for 30 minutes, feeling comfortable and unstrained.

It was a hard, 2 1/2-hour effort, yet it felt more joyful than any track speedwork I’ve done. I believe the positive inner feelings were my body’s way of telling me I was doing the right thing.

I’m not claiming either method is best for everyone. In fact, studies have shown that interval training improves 5K and 10K times better than tempo runs. All I can say is that long runs that incorporate a bit of speed at the end have given me a greater volume of positive feedback (plain English: “joy”) than any kind of track work.

(I surely don’t run that hard every week, by the way — at 65, once a month is about all I can handle. The other weekends are for easy long runs. I may throw in a few 150- to 200-meter sprints at the end, but only if I’m feeling really strong.)

Six years ago, I trained for eight months strictly by Phil Maffetone’s methods, without experiencing an iota of the lowered-heart-rate-at-the-same-speed effect. I suspect I may be a physiological freak.

I recommend Maffetone to others, because his way seems to work beautifully for them; but not for me. I wonder if my “failure” is related to something that fitness guru Covert Bailey talks about in his seminars — how some people have big, slow, Cadillac hearts, and others have fast little Volkswagen hearts. Perhaps I’m one of the latter.

Frankly, I’m not concerned. Nowadays, I run mainly for joy. And I’ve discovered that finding joy requires following my zippy little Volkswagen heart wherever it leads.

1 thought on “Running’s Big Unanswered Questions”

  1. Great post. I have often wondered the same thing, comparing what you call method 1 and 2.

    I don’t know which one produced better results, but I would say something like method 2 is more natural. In terms of evolution, if man had to sprint sometimes, it was not only for 4-5 weeks per year. He would have had to sprint on a regular basis along with his regular distance running.

    This topic came up in the book, “Born to Run”. The runs were mostly distance work with occassional sprints thrown in.

    Also, the joy factor: if a person doesn’t feel like sprinting a certain day, there’s probably no reason to do it. Have you heard of MovNat? You might find it interesting.

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