What You Can Learn from the History of Training Methods

One of the best markers for defining pure running talent is the ability to break nine minutes in the two mile (or 3200 meters) in high school. Case in point: Every distance runner (steeplechase and up) on the 2012 Olympic team who ran for four years in a U.S. high school achieved this distinction.

As such, the statistics logged for each decade can be a good measure of the talent and training methods over time.

In the 1970s, 84 high school runners broke nine minutes in two miles. However, in the 1980s, that number dropped to 51 runners. Then, in the 1990s, the U.S. produced just 15 runners who broke nine minutes in the two mile. Here’s the data.

What was going on? Certainly, training methods had evolved since the 1970’s, so why were the talent pool narrowing each decade?

Many theorized that television, sugary snacks, and general laziness degraded the health of our youth and hampered high school runners’ success.

But then something transformed the situation as we rounded into the new millennium. High school runners started getting faster again. In the 2000’s, 110 runners broke nine minutes. In 2011 alone, 30 runners broke nine minutes for 2 miles! That is double the number of sub nine-minute two milers in one year compared to the entire 1990s.

To my knowledge, high schoolers still watch lots of television, spend a lot of time on the internet, and consume a plethora of sugary snacks. So, what caused this resurgence in American distance running? Training.

The history of training methods

To explain the answer, we must first go back in history.

In the 1960s, distance training was revolutionized by a coach named Arthur Lydiard.

If you’re not familiar with Lydiard, he coached some of the fastest runners in New Zealand (and the world) during the 60s. His athletes dominated the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Most notably, Lydiard’s pupil, Peter Snell, who won three gold medals (two in the 800 meters and one in the 1500).

Lydiard’s training principles centered around developing a huge aerobic base by running lots of miles, even for middle distance runners. Lydiard is probably most responsible for developing the concept we now call “base training.”

During base training, Lydiard had his athletes (even Snell, who was an 800-meter specialist) run more than 100 miles per week and complete hilly, 35k long runs every weekend. Over time, Lydiard’s athletes developed vast aerobic power that allowed them to dominate running.

As a result of Lydiard’s training principles, high school coaches and athletes in the US began to run a ton of miles. Lydiard’s base training was “the secret sauce” and high school runners weren’t afraid to emulate their Olympic idols and log countless miles. The results of all this aerobic development were clear – 84 high school runners breaking 9 minutes for the two mile.

1980′s a new model emerges

In the 1980s, the leading Olympic training changed. Athletes like Sebastian Coe were believed to be running low mileage (we’ve since learned this was not the case). Even further, we believed athletes like Coe were supplementing this lack of aerobic running with lots of intense, lung-busting intervals.

In addition, coaches and athletes began looking at the science of training more closely. Researchers could accurately measure VO2 max and lactate threshold in the lab. And, because this was “hard data”, coaches were quick to act on it.

Not surprisingly, when researchers assigned runners six weeks of lung-busting VO2max sessions compared to six weeks of base training, the interval training results crushed the base training.

Unfortunately, the brief length of studies limited the understanding the effects of aerobic training and base building over months and, more importantly, years.

Coaches and runners became short-sighted. They preferred the quick impact of VO2-max in place of the long-term, aerobic development. American high school runners following this low mileage, high intensity training started to suck!

A shift back in the 90′s

Luckily, in the late 1990s, Kenya entered the American road racing scene and perplexed coaches and researchers with unbelievably fast running times. Kenyan athletes had HUGE aerobic bases. Some Kenyans (not all) were were running 50-60 miles per week to and from school.

For many coaches, the principle that aerobic development is the most important training for long-term success began to click. High school coaches began instructing their runners to bump their mileage and focused less on intense intervals.

The result? A resurgence in American distance running that has returned our runners to the best they’ve ever been.

What history reveals about training

So, what’s the point in recounting this athletic historical period? As the philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

I’ve recently received a lot of questions about CrossFit endurance training, specifically Tabata intervals. Given the data on how quickly Tabata intervals can improve VO2-max, many runners want to know why they should not do more of this type of training.

Tabata intervals consist of six to eight maximum-intensity sprints lasting 20 seconds, with 10-second passive recovery periods between.

The scientific data on this type of workout is staggering. Subjects who used the Tabata intervals for 20 minutes improved their VO2-max by 14 percent and their anaerobic capacity by 28 percent compared to the control group, who exercised moderately for 5 hours per week.

Looking at the data, it seems we’ve found the “secret” to running success.

Short, maximum-intensity intervals produce huge improvements to scientifically measured variables like VO2-max.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Let me be clear. Running Tabata sprints will make you fitter. If you’ve ever tried them, you know getting to eight repeats is difficult for even the fittest of runners.

However, the real question is, will Tabata intervals make you faster? More importantly, I look at the workout and research and ask: Do these improvements in VO2-max translate to running faster?

  1. While we know VO2-max is a good predictor of running performance, having higher absolute values doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be faster. For example, consider the comparison between Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2-max values differed by 16 percent, yet whose best three-mile times differed by even less (0.2 seconds). Why is this? Well, VO2-max is only one component to how fast someone can run.Running efficiency and economy (believed to be the case between Prefontaine and Shorter), lactate clearance abilities, and a myriad of other factors.
  2. How long do these benefits last? After a six-week period of intensely hard workouts, measurements of fitness markers will always improve. But, how long are these benefits retained?For example, we know that after eight weeks of intense speed work, blood pH levels (the measure of your body’s acidity level) drop to the point where they become detrimental to performance and is one of the main causes of over-training. It is possible that after six weeks, performing Tabata intervals will no longer be effective and could actually hamper your progression.
  3. Likewise, what does the macro picture of training look like? Because of the intensity, you can’t typically do other training the day of a Tabata interval or sometimes even the day after. Like we discovered in the 1990s, it’s possible that these short-term gains in quantifiable fitness markers are detrimental to long-term success when they take the place of long-term aerobic development.

I don’t claim to know all of the answers. However, I try to avoid repeating the same mistakes I’ve made already. While I wasn’t doing much coaching or running in the 1980s and 90s, I’ll gladly learn from what history can teach me. What about you?

A version of this article originally appeared on Competitor.com

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2 Responses on “What You Can Learn from the History of Training Methods

  1. Jeff,

    you are correct in your assumptions here about building a base as the foundation to the pyramid of health….and performance.

    Arthur Lydiard understood all this at the mitochondrial level….build more factories (mitochondria) and deliver oxygen by building more roads (capillaries).

    This will increase your max oxygen uptake and economy at any speed.

    Lydiard said the speed was the “icing on the cake”….6 weeks

    watch this amazing movie….have fun too
    http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2012/07/17/on-run-an-amazing-short-film-zealand/

    Mark Cucuzzella MD

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