A (Not Very) Deep Secret of Successful Runners

What kind of training brings the best results, defined as really rapid improvement?

I have no doubt about the formula. In fact, it’s so drop-dead, brain-drainingly simple that it’s stooooooopid.

Here goes: “Run very hard, then take it very easy.”

“Oh, hey,” I hear some people say. “What about Arthur Lydiard? You’re always preaching Lydiard-this, Lydiard-that. Didn’t Arthur’s runners spend months doing purely aerobic work?”

Well, yeah, they did – and no, they didn’t.

On their aerobic runs, they ran hard. This is reliably documented in Keith Livingstone’s excellent book, Healthy Intelligent Training – The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard.

They weren’t lally-gagging. Livingstone describes Peter Snell’s training shortly before he set an 800m world record in 1:44.3 (on grass!).

By November, he was able to cover the 22-mile Waiatarua circuit confidently, covering 4 miles to Lydiard’s home before running the full course in 2 hours 11, his best since before his Rome Olympic 800m triumph.

            The Waiatarua course is very hilly, with a dauntingly long climb at the start. Yet Snell ran it “confidently” while averaging 5:57 pace.

Elsewhere, Livingstone describes how Lydiard’s runners would routinely go anaerobic on the uphills during their long runs – for example, spending 20 minutes “at the edge of the anaerobic threshold” and occasionally sneaking beyond on the big Waiatarua climb.

In fact, they spent a great deal of time visiting the border of anaerobic metabolism. They ran aerobically most of the time, but they completed the “big three” weekly runs (10, 15, and 22 miles) while continually flirting with the anaerobic fence.

Last week, I described the training system of Renato Canova, coach of several of the best Kenyan elites. Boiled down to simple principles, Canova has his charges run very hard, followed by however much rest and easy running it takes for their bodies to recover fully.

I’m fascinated by the “very hard, very easy” approach because it works so well in other areas of life, besides running.

Do you do ab work at the gym? – e.g., sit-ups or crunches? Would you like to improve faster?

Glad you asked. Try doing “ab 45’s.” On an ab crunch bench (see photo), lower your body to about 45 degrees – and stay there. Hold for as long as you can, until your whole body is quivering and you’re forced to send energy, very strongly, to your abdominals.

This is much harder than standard situps or crunches. It’s an intense, difficult exercise that absolutely forces you to send focused energy to your tummy for a short (painful) period of time.

If you do ab 45’s for a couple of weeks, guess what? The next time you try normal situps or crunches, I promise that you’ll exceed your previous PR by a wide margin.

The big secret of ab 45’s is simply this: intense energy forces the body to produce gains. It shakes the body out of its complacency and impels it to adapt and improve quickly.

And it works for runners. Scott Christensen coaches the cross country and track teams at Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota. In his 32 years, his teams have won four state titles in cross country and four in track. In 1997, the cross country team was ranked number one in the country by a USA Today/Harrier poll. (See The Stillwater System.)

Christensen’s simple formula has three elements: low mileage, hard running, and lots of rest. He calls it miler training, but his runners do well in races up to 5K. Why? Because … well, because it’s intense (forces gains) and allows the runners’ bodies to recover.

 Instead of high mileage, Christensen works on increasing his runners’ top-end speed by giving them enough rest between repeats. Christensen’s key workout is “Flying 30s,” a workout based on gradually accelerating into a 30m sprint at maximum speed. The real key to the workout is the long, complete recovery between repeats. The scientists told Christensen that it takes 3 to 4 minutes of recovery to get the body ready to sprint all-out again, and to go at maximum velocity for each sprint, you have to have enough rest. “I tell them we are going to do eight to 10 of these Flying 30s,” Christensen says, “and the workout is going to take us 40 minutes. They look at me like I’m crazy. The purpose of a coach is not to tell you how much to run, but how much to rest.”

            Four Stillwater graduates have broken 4:00 in the mile, the most of any U.S. high school. I’m convinced.

Earlier I claimed that “lots of intensity plus lots of rest” works in other sports as well. This is from a New Statesman article by Ed Smith, “What Some People Call Idleness is Often the Best Investment.” Smith is a former (don’t run away!) professional cricket player. What he says applies one-hundred percent to running.

Experience tells me that excessive hard work is counterproductive. When I was a professional cricketer, before each season – just before the team got together as a group – I would block out a few consecutive days and dedicate them entirely to practising batting. My only goal was to become a better player, to develop new skills. This wasn’t the humdrum practice that happens throughout the season. This was my selfish time: it was as close as my cricket practice got to a creative exercise.

Which days ended with me batting signi­ficantly better than I started out? The best days followed the same pattern – an intense morning session, around two and a half hours long, followed by a shorter, lighter afternoon session, perhaps lasting an hour or 90 minutes. In total, then, I would do about four hours, just as Russell wanted.

Strangely, when I spent many more hours practising, spreading the work across the whole day, my game stood still or even slightly de­teriorated. Quite simply, you cannot work all day, at least not at a high level. When you are performing near your limits, you use up your psychological resources very quickly. The obvious point follows: stopping practising at the right moment is a vital form of self-discipline, every bit as important as “putting the hours in” and “giving it your all”. There is an optimal amount of work….

Nor should we trust the popularised social science alleging that “geniuses” evolve inevit­ably from 10,000 hours of practice. In his study of talented young musicians in Berlin, K Anders Ericsson asked what separated the outstanding soloists from those who were merely good. The difference was not – as is often misquoted – that the best players practised more. Instead, they practised intensely and then allowed themselves more time to relax and recoup.

            The evidence is everywhere that high intensity produces faster results. Of course, there’s probably a balance point beyond which too much intensity just breaks us down. None of the coaches and players I’ve cited – Lydiard, Canova, Christensen, Smith – would drive an athlete into a ditch of fatigue, in the name of intensity. That was the old way – it was the path of Mihaly Igloi, Waldemar Gerschler, Laszlo Tabori, and the other interval-mad coaches of the 1950s.

I remember going for a long run with a young man who had survived several seasons of training under Tabori. He laughed as he recounted how he would collapse on his bed every afternoon, utterly exhausted from the latest soul-deadening interval session, incapable of raising his head, much less do his school work. He told us that he only began to improve after he left college and began giving his body more rest.

The (very) hard, (very) easy principles work in school, too. Cal Newport, a young professor of computer science at MIT, writes a wonderful blog called Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. Newport is obsessed with finding the most efficient ways of learning. His four books have sold 125,000 copies: How to Be a High School Superstar (Random House, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student (Random House, 2006), How to Win at College (Random House, 2005), and So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Hachette, 2012).

I love Cal’s ideas because they’ve worked whenever I’ve apply them. At Stanford in 1965, I took a course from Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, a superstar professor from Germany who taught in three academic departments and advised an amazing number of doctoral candidates, I believe it was 23 or 28.

In college, I was passionately engaged in a search for meaning. And I was utterly un-engaged with any books, classes, and professors that I felt couldn’t take me a step further on the way.

Mueller-Vollmer challenged us to compare two 20th-century critics whose ideas were radically opposite, one of whom I considered more meaningful. Long story short, I mulled the ideas for days, absorbing them with my atoms, then stayed up all night typing out a sloppily formatted paper at the last minute. When I turned it in, M-V scolded me for its ugly appearance, but gave me an A because I was intensely engaged, had thought deeply about the subject, and wasn’t afraid to express my ideas. Intensity, intensity, intensity. High energy works its magic everywhere.

I fulfilled the three criteria of the Study Hacks method: (a) I did fewer things, (b) I did them better, and (c) I knew why I was doing them.

From an article by Cal Newport, “What the Hell Is Study Hacks?”:

I’m interested in why some people end up leading successful, enjoyable, meaningful lives, while so many others do not. Being a geek, I’m not satisfied with simplistic slogans (e.g., “follow your passion!”) or conventional wisdom (e.g., student success requires stress). Instead, I dive deeper, looking to decode underlying patterns of success.

When I started this project, I was a student. Therefore, much of my early writing concerns the patterns of success followed by remarkable students. I reject the idea that doing well in school requires stressful overwork, and instead promote a philosophy of simplicity: do less, but do what you do much better.

            Obviously, it works in academe – Cal was hired straight of grad school to teach at MIT.

Another Study Hacks theme:

            If you stick around here long enough, you’ll learn that I have an obsession with simplicity. I hate the warped understanding of impressiveness that leads students to try to do many, many things.

            I think the happiest, most successful students know why they are at college, and they believe this answer. They also tend to do very little, but the small amount of things they do, they do exceptionally well. They recognize that in the end, the world rewards those who are so good they can’t be ignored. By contrast, we forget about the burnt out triple-major who joined 10 clubs to show leadership and managed to earn a 3.9 without ever once impressing a professor.

            I applaud the student who adopts a balanced and reasonable course load, and leaves enough free time in his schedule that he can saturate himself in the material – letting it get inside his head and stew for a while; the type of student who tolerates a little boredom as the price you pay for doing stuff well.

            Of course, “doing a few things well” can be self-defeating also, if we take it too far. Too little intense running, for example, is a recipe for failure.

One of my roommates at Stanford was an English major who, like me, refused to take most of the curriculum seriously. I remember how Carl spent an entire quarter, in a course on Milton, Keats, and Shelley, memorizing vast portions of Milton. He got a D- but possibly gained as deep an understanding of Paradise Lost as the professor.

While feeling my way back into running after a layoff of several years due to illness, at one point I started doing speed training, and I asked the coach of one of the country’s biggest running clubs for his advice. I told him I was running every other day, in my mid-50s, and he responded with alarm. He urged me to train every day, because if I didn’t, “You won’t be tired enough when you start your training the next day.”

I reject that idea utterly – even though some respected elites have said the same thing, perhaps most notably Steve Jones, the Welshman who won the 1984 Chicago marathon in a world-record 2:08:05. Jones also won London (2:08:16) and repeated at Chicago (2:07:13, one second slower than Carlo Lopes’s current world record). Jones won the 1988 New York City marathon by over three minutes, in 2:08:20.

Jones famously said that a runner who wants to compete at the elite level must be willing to go to bed tired and get up tired every day for 10 years.

I doubt it. These days, the top Kenyans are routinely running sub-2:05, and I doubt very much whether they’re always tired. Well, I know it – the Kenyans famously stop running when their bodies tell them to. If they “got up tired” every day, I believe they simply wouldn’t run. It’s probably why the Kenyans are not only the world’s best runners, but are known as the happiest.

Very hard / very easy makes sense: driving the body hard works only when we give it enough rest to absorb the work.

So here’s a corollary to Run-Hard, Rest-Hard: never run hard when it would only drive your body into a fatigue from which it would require ages to recover.

Bodies don’t get faster if they’re always tired, and a burned-out runner is never a happy runner.

3 thoughts on “A (Not Very) Deep Secret of Successful Runners”

  1. This is soooo true…I have for many years believed in the high mileage ethic, and ran twice daily, but although i was fit, was always tired, and became slow.

    When I “gave up” on this boring regimen, and ran after I got well rested, sometimes only on alternate days, with perhaps some weight training on off days, my speed work perked up, and I did my best of workouts.

  2. I know this article is ancient now but you completely misinterpreted Lydiard and Canova’s training principles and cause and effect. Lydiards athletes always ran aerobic during base, even on those zippy 10 milers, they remained aerobic which by definition is not high intensity, they were called steady state runs. Once in the specific mesocycle, Lydiard added a lot of high intensity training but only looked at this phase as sharpening, the base phase determined how high the peak would be and he would only remain in the specific phase for 6 weeks because extended periods of high intensity lead to the athletes blunting. You also contradicted Lydiard by saying to do less, Lydiard was on the complete other side of the fence in that regard, he believed in huge volume.

    You have also similarly misinterpreted Canova as you only point to one piece of his training known as a special block where they complete 2-3 days in a row of huge workouts and may run easy for a week after. This is a peaking mechanism which is only one part of Renato’s training methodology yet you are basing all your beliefs about training on this short block. The most important piece of Canova’s philosophy is what he calls the aerobic house (base) just like Lydiard. Without this sufficient base, the special block is almost useless as Renato himself has pointed out numerous times, the aerobic house is achieved through high volume aerobic running just like most of these Kenyan kids did for 10 years running to school before they met any coach or implemented any specific training. The biggest gains in training are made aerobically as the marathon is 99% aerobic and even the 5k is 90% aerobic, high intensity is the icing on the cake. The reason why high volume aerobic training gives the greatest return is because it’s repeatable for sustained periods which high intensity is not.

    While Special blocks are hugely interesting and get results as Canova’s athletes prove, they are just one piece of the puzzle and you are putting the cart before the horse and most runners at the lowend elite to recreational runners should not be trying to replicate what the world’s best are doing now but should be trying to replicate what they were doing 5-10 years before they were great

  3. Howdy, Caballo. Of course you are correct – but I wonder if the point at issue doesn’t concern how we define “intensity.” It’s well known that elite distance runners can run aerobically at a majestically high percentage of their max heart rate. (This was famously shown by Dave Costill’s testing of then-marathon WR holder Derek Clayton.) I think that, by any measure, the way Lydiard’s group ran their “short” long runs was intense, even if it was aerobic. I’ve never suggested that ordinary runners do likewise, but that they model their training on the PATTERN that Lydiard established for the base phase: a long run, a shorter long run, filler runs, etc. In the Lydiard Foundation’s official training text, the author (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name, though I’ve studied the book minutely) suggests that the long-long run be done no faster than 80% of MHR, while the short-long run never exceed 85%. That’s about as intense as aerobic running gets for most of us, and it’s what I’ve always suggested. In any case, training at each phase is absolutely individual and cannot be based on numbers; one runner’s 85% will be another’s 80%. Again, obviously, runners who try to exceed their abilities end up in the ditch of overtraining. My concern has always been with principles that can be applied for success at every level of ability, not with trying to hammer-down the details too closely. It’s the way Arthur Lydiard approached coaching, with his rough, ball-park instructions for how fast we should do long and short-long runs – he gave rough percentages of max speed, not details.

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