Lab Report: What Do We Know Now?
Thirty Years of Running Lessons
By Pete Pfitzinger, M.S.
As featured in the JanFeb 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine
In recognition of Running Times’ 30th Anniversary, Jonathan Beverly asked me to write a column on how our knowledge of training has improved over the past 30 years. In 1977, the first running boom was accelerating, and I was a sophomore at Cornell, reading Running Times to discover Frank Shorter’s, Lasse Viren’s and Bill Rodgers’ training secrets. Here are my observations of how our understanding of training has changed over the past 30 years, and how we use that knowledge to train more effectively.
More mileage is not always better
The prevailing training philosophy in the 1970s was \"more is better.\" If Tom Fleming was running 150 miles per week, then someone else would try 160, and if Derek Clayton was doing 30-mile long runs . . . you get the picture. The ethos of the time was the more mileage you put in, the more you \"deserved\" to race well. This approach trickled down through the growing running community, and led to a boom in sports medicine as thousands of injured runners flocked to doctors, physical therapists and podiatrists.
Today, we understand that while large increases in training can be made over long periods of time, the body can only handle relatively small increases in a given time period. In addition, there are large differences between runners in how much mileage their bodies can deal with, based on their biomechanics, running experience, age and injury history.
LSD is for novices
In the 1970s, we thought that the benefits of long runs were obtained by simply accumulating \"time on your feet.\" LSD (long, slow distance) was often touted as the most effective way to train. Even then, elite runners, such as Don Kardong and Patti Catalano, knew that LSD would only prepare them to run a long way slowly, but that knowledge was not widespread.
In 2007, we know that many of the physiological adaptations to long runs (e.g., increased glycogen storage, and increased fat utilization at race pace) are specific to your training pace. With LSD, your body does not gain the beneficial adaptations at speeds approaching race pace. LSD is great for novice runners whose goal is simply to finish a marathon, but more experienced runners should do their long runs at a variety of paces depending on the specific goal of the workout.
Intervals get longer and slower
A key component of training 30 years ago was 400 meter (or 440 yards back then) intervals. Running hard once around the track was handed down from the 1960s when the U.S. running scene was dominated by milers Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori.
Now we know that while 400s may be excellent preparation for the mile, they are not as relevant for longer races. The primary purpose of interval training is to increase your VO2 max, and the most effective way to do that is to run intervals in which you accumulate time at close to your current VO2 max pace (about 3K race pace). When running hard 400s, you train your lactic acid (anaerobic) system and provide less stimulus to improve your VO2 max pace. In addition, because it takes a minute or so to get your cardiovascular system up to its maximal capacity, you do not accumulate much time in the optimal range during a 400 workout. Longer intervals (e.g., 600-1200m) at the correct intensity are more effective than flat-out 400s.
Cross-training has its place
The approach to cross-training has totally changed over the past 30 years. Back in 1977, runners were runners, and it was the rare runner indeed who did anything more than run, stretch, and perhaps lift weights. In 2007, we know that swimming, cycling, elliptical training and other forms of aerobic training are great ways to improve overall cardiovascular fitness with less risk of injury than cranking up your running mileage. In addition, core stability training helps runners maintain good technique and avoid injury.
Training based on intensity zones
In the mid-70s, a huge void existed between long slow distance and fast intervals. Today, we train in several intensity zones with specific purposes to optimize race preparation and enhance recovery, and many runners use heart monitors to ensure they maintain the optimal effort during each workout.
During the next decade, renowned exercise physiologist and coach, Jack Daniels, and others verified the benefits of tempo workouts to improve lactate threshold pace, which is the best physiological predictor of distance running performance. Tempo runs are now a staple component of training, and heart monitors help ensure that you stay in the optimal intensity zone.
Recovery is as important as hard training
Thirty years ago, runners tended to string together as many hard days in a row as possible before their bodies made them take an easy day. These days, we understand that optimal adaptation only occurs with the correct balance of hard training and recovery. It takes discipline to go easy when you feel good on a planned recovery day, and using a heart monitor provides objective data so you stay in the optimal zone. Including a recovery week after every three to five weeks of training allows your body to adapt to the key workouts you put in during your hard weeks, and helps prevent overtraining (which is really under-recovery).
Carbohydrates and fluid
Thirty years ago, most of us only drank water during training and races. I can even remember being given salt tablets (well, OK, that was closer to 35 years ago) to prevent cramps. Today, we understand the performance benefits of preventing both dehydration and glycogen depletion. A wide variety of products are now available to help us stay well-hydrated, to avoid carbohydrate depletion and to rebuild glycogen stores quickly after training.
A new prescription for stretching
In the 70s, we knew stretching could be good for you, but made the mistake of stretching cold, or doing prolonged stretches before racing which has now been shown to temporarily weaken muscles. Now we know that stretching is safer and more effective after a light warm-up, and to hold stretches for no more than five to 10 seconds before racing.
Women runners can beat the men
The most dramatic change over the past 30 years is that back then women represented less than 25 percent of the running population. In the 1970s, although the number of women runners was growing exponentially, no one knew what the female body could (or should be asked to) tolerate, and there were no generally accepted training regimens for women. In 2007, we know that women can train at the same relative intensity as men, and that some women can outrun almost all of the men.