Run Fast to Race Fast? The Genius of Renato Canova

Coach Renato Canova with runners in Iten, Kenya
Coach Renato Canova with elite runners in Iten, Kenya. (Click to enlarge.)

I’m a training Nazi.

Or maybe I’m politically correct. Or just old and fat-headed. But I do believe that when it comes to training, there’s One True Way.

I’ll flex a little. I’ll concede that we need to adjust the One Way to our individual abilities.

Now then, of history’s great coaches, which ones have taught the True Way?

Arthur Lydiard comes to mind, naturally – no coach has produced more spectacular results, more consistently. When Lydiard traveled to Kenya to see if his methods could help the runners there, he saw that they were already practicing his methods.

So what are we to make of Renato Canova?

Based on sheer results, Canova is mighty impressive. His stable of runners includes 2:03 marathoner Moses Mosop, world champion Abel Kirui, and Florence Kiplagat, history’s third-fastest half-marathoner.

Canova’s methods were the subject of wonderful article by Phil Latter in the September 2012 Running Times.

“Wonderful,” because elite coaches, especially active ones, rarely share their methods so openly. It’s a tipoff that Canova is special. Great people in every field are generous.

At first glance, Canova’s approach looks like Lydiard’s.

Canova has his runners do lots of miles at or near race pace. For example, a key workout for a world-class marathoner might be 17-24 miles at marathon pace. A newcomer to the system will extend the distance of the race-pace runs gradually.

That’s the core of Canova’s philosophy. And it’s appealing – “You can only do in a race what you’ve practiced in training.” Pace, not distance, is the guiding principle. Better to run 16 miles at your goal marathon pace, Canova believes, than slog through a 24-miler that does little to improve your endurance at race pace. From the Running Times article:

“A Kenyan runner’s mentality is to run at the right speed,” says Gavin Smith, Canova’s assistant in Iten, Kenya. “The Western runner’s mentality is to run the right distance. I’m not necessarily saying one is better than another, but that’s just how the mind-set works.” A good example of this is a workout where Abel Kirui was the only athlete, in an elite group of 20, capable of running the full 4 x 6K workout. Yet most went home happy knowing they’d matched strides with a world champion. In the United States, meanwhile, most runners would be disheartened if they didn’t finish an assigned 20-miler, no matter how ugly it got at the end….

Following the Golden Rule of Canova, to achieve your best race-day performance, you must practice running at or around goal race pace for long periods of time. A 30-mile trail run up a mountain will get you in good general shape; it won’t, however, make you a faster marathoner.

Run fast to race fast – it makes sense. And it opens vistas of fast, exhilarating running at ever-longer distances in training.

Of course, all of Canova’s elites had previously built a huge aerobic foundation before they came to him, over many years. (The “myth” that the Kenyans run huge mileage as children is actually true; it isn’t uncommon for Kenyan youth to log 15,000-plus miles before they enter the Iten training system in their teens.)

Canova’s speedy training runs build on that huge aerobic base. And that aerobic development stays with a runner for a very long time, even if he/she stops doing high mileage.

Moses Mosop and Geoffrey Mutai
Moses Mosop and Geoffrey Mutai. Mosop, Canova-trained, ran 2:03:06 at Boston, placing second to Mutai in his marathon debut. (Click to enlarge.)

Years ago, I did weekly speedwork for many months with a group led by Carl Ellsworth, a northern California age-group champion (Carl was 64 at the time).

In previous years, Carl had consistently run 100-mile weeks. When I met him, he was logging just 60-70. During a long run, Carl remarked that he had only needed to run high mileage for several years, because the aerobic base remained with him.

Peter Snell, the three-time Olympic gold medalist at 1500m and 800m, had a similar experience. Years after he had cut his mileage to a fraction of its peak, he was surprised to find that his aerobic metabolism was still operating at a remarkably high percentage of its Olympic level.

Canova has his runners do short, hard speedwork at the start of the training season – a very major departure from Lydiard’s “build the base first” approach.

On her website, former marathon record holder Ingrid Kristiansen cites research that showed anaerobic work erodes aerobic development, by reducing the body’s supply of aerobic enzymes. (Regrettably, her site is no longer available in English. I can’t read Norwegian, so I’m unable to supply a reference.)

Which opens the question: will Canova’s elites suffer a decline, as their speedy running gradually degrades their aerobic base?

Probably not. Canova recognizes that training hard without full, complete recovery is a fool’s game.

It’s why he doesn’t believe in rigid weekly training schedules. (“If it’s Tuesday, we’ll do intervals.”) He tells his runners to let their bodies decide when they’re rested enough to run hard.

Coach Renato Canova
In a radical and highly successful departure from tradition, Canova has his runners work on their speed at the start of the training season, to prepare them for the fast long runs that will follow.

Canova says we should be willing to sacrifice any single run to protect the runs that really matter – the longer runs at race pace.

As every runner sooner or later learns, the most dangerous temptation, and the easiest to fall into, is to let the pace and distance of our “easy” runs gradually creep up.

When that happens, we end up burning too much energy on the short runs, so our bodies never fully recover, and all our runs sag in quality. We don’t have sufficient “oomph” to give our best to those runs that truly count – the long runs and speedwork.

How can we prevent this sad syndrome from happening?

The best answer I’ve found makes use of the first miles of each run to discover the day’s best training pace. A core tenet of the One True Way is that we should begin every run slowly.

A slow jog of 15-20 minutes, or even longer, at the start does two wonderful things. First, it gives the body time to get its muscles and organs prepared to run fast. It’s amazing how much easier fast running feels when the body is truly warmed up.

More important, it gives us time to practice the discipline of ruthless honesty.

“What kind of run is my body really and truly ready for today?” The warmup is when we can turn on our BS meter and do battle with those demonic emotions that tempt us to run too hard. “Hey, I’m feeling great…I can go fast today.” A mile passes, and we find we aren’t feeling so great after all.

How does the body tell us that it’s really and truly prepared for a long run at race pace?

The body makes it unmistakably clear. When we’re healthy, fully recovered, and well-fueled, there’s a special energy in our legs. It’s a sensation of having abundant resources, accompanied by an inner feeling of willingness, enthusiasm, and eagerness.

The body tells us just as clearly when it isn’t such a good idea to run hard. On those days, there’s an unmistakable feeling of hesitation, doubt, and sagging enthusiasm.

Training well is for mature people. I recently watched an excellent movie, Act of Valor, with a cast of actors who are active members of the Navy’s elite special-warfare SEAL teams.

One of the warriors dives on a live grenade, sacrificing his life for his friends. After the funeral, one of the team members writes a letter to the dead hero’s son. He says, “Take your pain and put it in a box, because there is no man on earth stronger or more dangerous than the one who can control his emotions.”

Training well is for people who understand that there will always be very few days when we can run hard and achieve maximum gains, and that these days are precious. It’s why Renato Canova says we must protect those days, no matter what it takes.

Conversely, it means that we’ll be doing lots of slower running. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential to find ways to make our slow runs enjoyable, too. If we don’t enjoy them, we’ll be tempted to run them too hard.

There are any number of ways to do this. Arthur Lydiard recommended throwing in a few 10-second sprints during the easy runs. The high-energy sprints reassure us that we still can run hard. They lift our enthusiasm, and they stimulate the trainable fast-twitch type IIB muscle fibers in our legs.

Another way to find enjoyment in the easy runs is to carefully watch the results. When we follow the One True Way and do the right thing in our training, our whole being rewards us with wonderful feelings of happiness and satisfaction, after the run.

This is a very real experience. An inflexible cosmic law has arranged it so that when we do anything that expands our awareness through our body, feelings , will, mind, or soul, we receive a corresponding little extra inflow of happiness.

After running in harmony with our innermost nature, we always experience joy. The key is to be deeply aware of it, and learn to value it. When we honor it, we’re doubly rewarded by opportunities to do fast, enjoyable running, far more often than if we routinely break away from nature’s harmony by running too hard on the easy days.

This is wisdom – and it’s reflected in Renato Canova’s ideas.

My spiritual teacher says, “True teaching is individual.” In other words, it’s a mistake to try to ape somebody else’s training, or their approach meditation, or management, or child-raising. We would be wise to tattoo this principle on our foreheads: the training of distance runners is individual.


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