When low volume training works

“Who is the only neurologist who will still be remembered one hundred years from now?”

In his 1996 book “Why Michael Couldn’t Hit”, Harold L Klawans states he often asked a sports trivia question to spark up discussion in what otherwise promised to be uninspiring lectures. Klawans was the professor of neurology and pharmacology at Rush Medical College in Chicago and his book discussed sports topics such as why basketball’s Michael Jordan failed to be successful at baseball; why Muhammad Ali was one of the few boxers to contract Parkinson’s Disease among his peers and how conditions like acromegaly, Tourette’s and ALS affected other sports stars.

The answer to his question is a trick one – it’s Sir Roger Bannister who will most certainly be remembered for many years to come, not specifically for his career in neurology, but for becoming the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier. Sadly he died in 2018, aged 88 after a long and successful life in both sport and medicine.

When Bannister ran the first sub-4 minute mile in May 1954, it was based on a low-volume, high intensity approach. In 1949 he’d run 4:11; in 1950 it was 4:09.9; in 1951 it was 4:07.8; while in 1952 he only raced the mile once as he focused on the Olympics in Helsinki where he finished 4th in the 1,500m. In 1953 he ran 4:02 and would certainly have broken the 4-min barrier under modern conditions. The tracks in those days were cinder and runners’ spikes accumulated the ash as a race went on, costing one second per lap.

Bannister’s training schedule during the winter months reached a maximum of twenty-eight miles per week but, when he was training hardest in the spring, prior to the sub-4 he was down to as little as fifteen miles per week. His sessions never exceeded 48-minutes and many were fitted into the lunch hour during his medical studies.

Once out of winter training, two of his key sessions were as follows:

  • Run 3 x 1½ miles at 4:50/mile pace which would have equated to 7-minutes of running at Threshold pace.
  • Hard intervals of 10 x 440yd in 1min06 with a 440yd jog recovery in two minutes. Twenty laps of the track taking half an hour and totalling five miles of training. Bannister stated there was no warm-up or cooldown. This training started in the October of 1953 and the time for the ten efforts was reduced by a second each month so that by the time of the record-setting mile he was running them in sub-60, sometimes as quick as 56 seconds.
Photo of p.209 of Klawans book. Archive photo according to index page.

So, this all leads to the question, if Bannister was able to train this successfully with intervals why don’t more runners train like this? I believe there are two reasons.

Firstly it’s my opinion that Bannister had decent levels of natural endurance due to his genetics. He was 6’2” and weighed 11-stone. Compare this to Britain’s 400m record holder Iwan Thomas who is as tall yet weighs 2½-stone heavier. That extra muscle is a suggestion of larger, fast-twitch muscle fibres that lack endurance. Even though we consider Bannister fast, he doesn’t have the blazing speed of Thomas whose record is under 45 seconds. Another indication of Bannister’s natural endurance is his ability to do these sessions without warmups. It’s something only a natural could do.

Secondly Bannister was exclusively a middle distance runner in the 800m / 1,500m / mile events. His five mile training sessions were the longest runs he did. Most of the runners I meet are interested in parkruns and longer. Even a parkrun is over three miles long and therefore requires significantly more endurance than a four minute run.

This is the real meat of this story. The problem with low-volume training is it doesn’t stretch the demands of the race for most runners. Even though Bannister was training low-volume he was still doing 15-30x as much training each week as his mile race. Each session was 5x as long as he was racing. Obviously the longer your race, the harder it becomes to scale up like this (a marathon runner would have to run the impossible 400 miles each week to train 15x their race distance) but more miles is generally beneficial to improving endurance for your distance races. Now compare this to the average runner entering 10K races who are running twenty miles per week and barely doing 3x the distance. As I wrote in the How to Improve series, successful training requires runners to get out there frequently to build up a base of miles.

BONUS STORY – Klawans’ book also tells the story of Wilma Rudolph who was the Olympic champion in Rome 1960 in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay events. She was the fastest woman in the world and yet had suffered from polio as child. This entailed walking with a heavy leg brace for much of her childhood and intensive physiotherapy, massage and heat treatments for four years up to the age of ten. Once the polio had gone and her body had regrown the nerves, which can take one to two years for the muscles of the feet, she went onto become a basketball and track star.

Given our current circumstances with Covid-19, I found it thought-provoking to read how polio is also caused by a virus. Klawans states “When I was growing up it seemed as if one day you could be playing baseball with your friends and the next day you could be paralysed for life. In Chicago, every summer, you had to stay away from crowds, especially the crowds at the beach. Otherwise polio might get you.

He explains polio existed from the time of the Egyptians but in those days was endemic, by which we mean it was always around. It was present in the water supply because there was no separation of faecal waste from drinking water. With people being exposed to the virus early on they built a resistance to it without ever knowing they’d had it. However once sanitation became the norm, it became an epidemic because people no longer grew up being exposed to it and gaining the immunity it would have brought. Of course, this is not to rally against sanitation, only to highlight how herd immunity was the endemic route to avoiding polio while the development of a vaccine was the thing that eventually wiped out the polio virus and its associated epidemics.

Photo of p.189 of Klawans book. Attributed as "Archive photos/DPA" on index page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s