Friday, January 27, 2012

Lydiard and the Quarter Mile

Why the secret to running fast is confusing

Recently I stumbled upon a fascinating article titled 'Train SLOWER to Race Faster' by Andy Friedlander. It wasn't (as you might suspect from the title) about Lydiard-coached runners logging 100-mile weeks in the base-training period. It was about 400 metre sprinters! Now there's a contradiction in terms — how could training slower possibly produce a faster quarter-miler? Isn't the one-lap race all about speed, speed and more speed? Apparently not!

It turns out that the great coach Clyde Hart (maker of Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner and Darold Williamson) found that "the key to running fast 400s is to slow down." Hart's method of training quarter-milers came about when trying to get an injury-prone Michael Johnson through a full season of racing. Hart's system is Lydiard-like in that it begins with a large volume of easier running (to build strength and aerobic capacity — Hart believes the 400 is 40% aerobic), then gradually progresses to a smaller volume of faster running. In the autumn his athletes start with 20 x 200m "at a very slow pace, about 40 seconds each, on the grass." Now 40 seconds for 200 metres is incredibly slow for an athlete with a PB of 20 seconds or less. These are done with a short recovery. As training progresses "pace quickens and the repetitions shrink, but never to the point of full-speed sprints." Eventually his athletes might be running 6 x 200m in 26 seconds with a 90 second recovery. Training 'slowly' didn't produce plodding runners with fast-twitch depleted muscles. It produced athletes with the aerobic capacity to withstand a full racing season and the multiple rounds of championship competition.

Janene has blogged about the 80:20 rule of training for distance runners (which states that 80% of running should be below lactate threshold and 20% above). This ratio is more likely to be 85:15 or 90:10 for elite distance runners. What's confusing for recreational runners is that the perfect ratio varies according to the weekly volume run, age, and individual response. If running volume and frequency is low (for example, 3 days per week for a total of 40 kilometres), then the best ratio of 'easy' to 'fast' running might be 30:70 or 50:50. As volume is increased, the ratio must change. For example, it would be physically impossible to run 160 kilometres per week with 70% of that running being above lactate threshold. One pay-off with higher volume training is that the volume of 'above lactate threshold' running can be higher.


Blogger Girl In Motion said...

Love this! Thanks for the article. You can't argue with results and those are some truly impressive ones right there.

12:36 pm  
Blogger strewth said...

That's an interesting article Ewen. I read it right through to the end. I wish running slower made ME faster!

2:58 pm  
Blogger Ewen said...

No worries Flo. A lot of 1/4 milers would baulk if you told them the session was to be 20 x 200m, especially as most of them seem to only have two speeds (flat out and jog/walking).

Strewth, running slower might make you faster. We'll see in April at the Canberra Marathon :)

9:33 pm  
Blogger Andrew(ajh) said...

Yeah, an interesting article. But I guess I need to actually start doing some running before I worry about my ratios :-)

10:15 pm  
Blogger Robert James Reese said...

The slow 200m runs for a 400 meter guy are, in a way, like a tempo for those of us looking at longer distances -- half the distance of the race, slower than race pace, but faster than a jog/walk.

12:00 am  
Blogger Ewen said...

Andrew, when you start again, if it's 3 runs a week, go with a ratio of 100:0 (all easy), then work you way to 0:100 ;)

RJR, good point. They'd initially be very demanding aerobically for those guys. 40 second 200s is about 5:22 mile pace and Hart indicates their rest for these slow 200s is short (maybe 30 seconds?). If you had a 30 second PB for 200 it'd be like running about 8-minute mile pace (very easy for a distance runner). The equivalent workout for the 6 x 200 in 26 secs for a 30 second runner would be 6 x 200 in 39, so still pretty easy. Distance runners don't have masses of fast-twitch fibres in reserve though ;)

2:44 pm  
Blogger Black Knight said...

Interesting article. It is difficult for me to follow strict (or different) rules because the injures are always on the corner after the incident and the 2 operations so I cannot plan a quality work. I simply run as I can and when I can.

8:09 pm  
Blogger RICK'S RUNNING said...

Really good article.
I'll pass that link on to one of our up and coming 400m runners here in Southport.
At 20 he can run 47 sec, but I'm sure he can run even faster.
Cheers Rick

8:35 pm  
Blogger Jog Blog said...

Hi Ewen. Good article and a forever interesting concept. I think what is becoming more and more limiting for me (and perhaps other older runners??) is the amount of control (or not!) we have over what counts as ordinary or slow running and what counts as "fast" running. If we all still had (a) extensive or at leaast reasonable variation between the two paces and (b) control over the relativities between the two - ie, we could make ourselves run "slow/easy" and "fast" on demand - then perhaps we could all make good use of the theory and practice outlined in the article but ..... how many of us really do have that much variation between our "slow/easy" and our "fast", and/or control over the two??

8:35 pm  
Blogger Ewen said...

Stefano, I think many older runners are the same. Intervals and sprinting can be risky for the injury-prone. Consistent running is the most important thing - and enjoying it!

Hope it helps Rick. 47 at 20 is good. He must have potential to run faster.

Jog, for older runners I think it's easier to have variation between "slow/easy" and "fast" if one is running lower mileage. I find it difficult to run purposely fast sessions if I were on my version of high mileage (100k weeks) unless I have an easy/short day the day before a fast session.

7:37 am  
Blogger Runner Susan said...

Whenever something is a secret I just ask you!

Hi Ewen!

9:22 am  
OpenID canute1 said...

Thanks for the link to a very interesting article. I think the question it raises is not the question of the ideal proportion of below-threshold to above threshold training but rather, what proportion of training should be in the mid to upper aerobic zone. Ever since Daniels presented his ideas about zones, there has been a tendency to regard mid to upper aerobic zone training as less desirable than a balance of low aerobic and anaerobic sessions. However, when I was running my best marathons, a large proportion of my training was mid to upper aerobic. This appealed to me largely because I did not have a great deal of time for training, and running slowly seemed a waste of precious time. However, after I became aware of Dudley’s studies of rats, showing that all fibre types benefitted from fairly fast running, I wondered whether indeed the optimum program includes a large portion of running at a pace that is as fast as is possible without producing cumulative exhaustion during the training week.

It might be argued that Zatopek’s training session in which he did very large numbers of repetitions at a moderate fast pace resembles Clyde Hart’s program, adapted only moderately for a longer distance runner. In Zatopek’s case it produced gold medal performances at distances from 5000m to marathon.

All distances from 400m to marathon require the ability to sustain a fairly fast pace for a relatively long period. I wonder whether perhaps a high proportion of mid to upper aerobic training might be beneficial in preparing for any of these distances. If so, the lesson is not to train slowly; it is to train as fast as is possible without cumulative exhaustion. Though it should also be noted that Clyde Hart recommends quite marked periodization, including a return to relatively high volume, slower session up to four times per year. Monotony is to be avoided.

12:36 pm  
Blogger trailblazer777 said...

Interesting. As always your blog really is looking at things in different ways. I think Michael Johnson was an amazing athlete for his time, and a few things he was doing are unique. My understanding when I was at Uni in the 90's was that there is 3 energy systems; ATP-PC, Anaerobic,and aerobic. Towards the end of the marathon and in ultra events the Aerobic system makes a major physiological shift from a mainly carbohydrate fueled system to a mainly fat fueled system, so maybe you could call that energy system 3a and 3b or the 3rd and 4th energy systems with the 4th being a variant of the 3rd. Training volume and periodization are important. The best % of Aerobic v Anaerobic training is a concept worth exploration. My thinking is that each individual athlete will get the best outcome off different % 's of the too, and while 80/20 may be optimum for some, 90/10 or 70/30 may work better for others. However with 400m to 5000m events I think the ATP-PC system (especially 400m/800m) needs to be factored into things as well for sure, maybe not for 10km and up so much...For events longer than 30km the energy system 3b or 4 needs to be considered in your training setup. Running often is more important than what intensity you run at. To really attack times we all need to work the anaerobic and perhaps ATP-PC systems as well. Having a good aerobic system for sure helps in a 400m as well, and maybe for elite world class 400m/800m runners its a significant factor perhaps even approaching 40%, but about 75% of a 400m is dominated by the ATP-PC and anaerobic systems. I guess the better your aerobic system is the higher your anaerobic threshold, and the more you can get out of the 2 anaerobic systems in a 400m so it does make sense that even for a 400m or 800m you need some form of an aerobic base. That said its still the fast stuff that dominates those sorts of events, although at the very top level i.e. world championships you cannot afford to neglect the aerobic system and get away with it. So my 2cents is we need to work all our energy systems if we want to improve to the max at anything 400m or longer...

7:14 pm  
Blogger Ewen said...

Hi Susan! Good to hear from you. We need you out here to sort out the fracking dramas in outback NSW and Qld.

Canute, thanks for your comment. It raises some interesting points. Like you, I enjoy running in the mid to upper aerobic zone - those speeds are also good from a 'mechanical' and neuromuscular standpoint in that training form isn't too far removed from racing form (as it is with slower running).

Thanks Jonathon. As I understand it, the anaerobic system is the 'icing on the cake' for distance runners. It's hard to spot in the 400, but in the 8 and 1500 you can see the runners that are weak aerobically. Typically they can kick well off a slow pace but if the pace is fast they can't.

9:50 pm  
Blogger rinusrunning said...

Slow makes fast, thats what i do!.
Have fun Ewen.

10:53 pm  
Blogger Thomas said...

About your suggestion:

"How do you think this would work? (as a 'workout' to get the body used to burning fat): Saturday afternoon, 25k or so. Afterwards no carbs with the meal. Sunday morning another 25k."

My old coach once told me, if you keep hitting yourself with a stick, it won't make you tougher; just mushy in the head.

While the basic idea is sound, skipping carbs in the meal is not something I would advice. The rest sounds like fun, though (my idea of fun, that is).

1:01 am  
Blogger Ewen said...

Rinus, I know! You do VERY long and slow running and fast short races. Your 5k, 10k and half marathon times are very good!

Thomas, I'm mushy in the head already, but maybe that's from reading Scott Brown's jokes ;) I just thought it might be a good way to train for using fat as fuel without the need for a 20+ mile long run every weekend. I train with marathoners. I wouldn't be doing it!

9:38 pm  
Blogger Robert Song said...

Thanks for the article. I am already a convert to lots of aerobic running (I dislike the term slow) and it has been good for me in terms of race performances. But it is always good to see the theory being reinforced by top quality sources.

1:49 pm  
Blogger Ewen said...

That's what I thought. If the info was from less than a coach of Olympic gold medalists, people could argue that there are better methods.

6:24 pm  

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