Just before Christmas, I was lent a copy of Ron Hill’s two-part autobiography “The Long Hard Road” which is packed with detail on his life and running up to when he wrote them at the start of the 1980s. I talked briefly about it in my Marathon Speed post. Coincidentally the latest issue of Runner’s World (February 2021) contains a feature on Ron which, of course, goes nowhere into the same level of detail but does give an outsider’s view of what he was like.
Ron’s famous for his fifty-two year run streak and I’ve read analysis elsewhere suggesting he overtrained prior to big races. But let’s rewind, as I’m two hundred or so pages into part one and still learning about his early training and racing. On page 91 he details a week’s training which was the general schedule he began to follow from August 1961 and on through the next couple of years.
About two weeks after formalising the schedule he won his first marathon, Liverpool, in 2:24:22 which gives us an indication of his level of fitness. Up to this point his training had been irregular with weekly mileage varying between 50-80 miles. He even took days off at that stage!
The training week I’m analysing follows the format he used throughout 1962-64, averaging 85-90mpw. His diary begins on a Saturday before Christmas …
The first thing to note is while 91½ miles of training sounds daunting, he’s actually only doing about 1hr – 1hr15 of training each day. The morning sessions are 25-30 mins; and the evening sessions tend to be eight miles of faster training which I’d estimate took 40-45 mins. The Sunday ‘long run’ of 11 miles will be just over the hour. What makes the 91½ miles achievable is being a fast runner – the majority of his running is done between 5-6 min/mile so he’s covering 10-12 miles per hour.
Saturday Dec. 16th
Morning – 4 mile course – 24:27 (6min05/mile)
Evening – 12 miles total. Ten mile race – 1st in 49min59 (5min/mile)
My thoughts – the 10-mile race is 5min/mile. According to Jack Daniels this gives Ron a marathon pace of 5:20/mile – which fits with his first marathon being run at 5:30/mile.
This 5:20/mile gives us a boundary for the 80-20 rule modern elites follow – 80% of their training will be slower than this. This 10-mile race is definitely in the 20% category.
Meanwhile the morning run is in the 80% category. JackD suggests an easy pace of 5:55 – 6:40/mile for someone at Ron’s level of development, so at 6:05/mile it looks about right.
Sunday Dec. 17th
11-mile long run. No time given but run with two others at a “very gentle” pace
My thoughts – at over an hour, it’s slightly longer than an ideal recovery run from yesterday’s race but it certainly falls into the 80% category.
I find it interesting Ron had now been running over four years and his long run was only 11 miles. He managed to win Liverpool marathon without any specific build-up – there was no 20-mile run. It suggests he had natural talent for distance running but, as you’ll see, he ran hard almost every day and in doing so he used the same principle of ‘cumulative fatigue’ that ultra runners use to train for their big races.
Monday Dec. 18th
Morning – 4 ½ mile course – 26:51 (6min/mile). Says he “pushed it a bit”
Evening – 8½ miles – 6 laps of fartlek including fast lap (4:49)
My thoughts – the morning run is slightly longer and faster than on Saturday but Ron’s Sunday was easy by his standards. Falls into an 80% run.
We have few specifics on the how long the fartlek efforts lasted but due to the fast lap, I’d classify this as a 20% run.
Tuesday Dec. 19th
Morning – 4½ mile course – 28:36 (6min20/mile) – “fartlek” “pushed intervals along a bit towards the end”
Evening – 8½ miles – at Firs – 4 laps at race pace (19:35 – 4:54/mile) + 2 laps fartlek
My thoughts – once again, while the average pace suggests it falls within the 80%, by doing a fartlek and pushing along the intervals, this begins to get into the 20% zone.
The evening session is definitely a 20% run, in modern terminology you’d call this a 20-min Threshold or Tempo run.
Wednesday Dec. 20th
Morning – 4½ mile course – 28:08 (6min15/mile) “pushed it where I could”
Evening – 10 miles – 20x440s in 1min10 with 220yd recovery
My thoughts – once again the pace of the morning run is under 80% but Ron isn’t allowing his legs the recovery they need from the race (80% session).
The evening session is the 6th consecutive session where he’s putting in effort rather than simply running easily (20% session).
Thursday Dec. 21st
Morning – 4½ mile course – no time given – “fartlek” “legs tired and leaden at the end”
Evening – 8 miles – “number stride fartlek” up to 60 and back down twice over
My thoughts – finally we see the results of hard racing on Saturday followed by trying to push things on Monday to Wednesday. I’m guessing the legs felt particularly tired because the previous evening was five miles worth of interval work. Yet Ron wanted to do a fartlek that morning. It would probably qualify as an 80% session on average pace but it’s another hard one in my book.
In the evening he did the “number stride fartlek” workout he invented:
“I ran 10 double strides hard effort, counting each time my left leg pushed off then jogged 10 double paces, then 15 double strides with the same number of paces jogged, 20, 25, 30, and so on, up to 55 or 60, then back down again to 10. Half mile jog, then repeat the sequence again. The bursts were relatively short, but it meant a lot of hard work in the acceleration phase each time, and I found it very tiring.”Ron describes his “number stride fartlek” session (p.73)
I calculate this to be over twelve minutes of all-out hard running. First effort of 10 double strides only takes around 5 seconds, the second effort about 8 seconds. By the time he’s on the 60 double strides it’s taking over 30-seconds for each effort and he’s still got to come back down the ladder again. In total there are 21 efforts ranging from 5 – 30+ seconds. He’s packing in a lot of acceleration and hard running here. When you add it all up he’s totalling over 6-mins of all-out hard running on one of these efforts. That’s a session in itself for sprinters and he did it twice over.
Now compare that to the recommendations of Jack Daniels who would suggest doing eight strides after an easy run and describes them as “light, quick 10- to 20-second runs (not sprints) with 40 to 50 seconds of recovery between” (Daniels’ Running Formula 3rd ed. P.152). That’s around 2-3 minutes worth and not all-out. I begin to wonder how Ron ever survived running all those years – definitely a 20% session.
Friday Dec. 22nd
Morning – 4½ mile course – 30:04 (6min40/mile) “easy running”
Evening – 7 miles – ran to Firs and back for six laps of field
My thoughts – at last we see a day of easy running. After the “number stride fartlek” his legs probably weren’t able to do anything else in the morning (80% session).
No time is given for the evening session but it was probably an easier run (80% session).
To summarise, what I’m seeing here is almost constant pushing to run fast. The only days where this doesn’t happen are Friday and Sunday. He raced every Saturday so probably took things easier on Friday to give himself fresher legs and recovered on Sunday.
In terms of the 80-20 rule, it’s hard to know for sure which category sessions fell into I’d estimate he was closer to 50-50. The rule relates to doing training 80% of the training at an intensity where no waste products from anaerobic metabolism are being produced. Their presence upsets the body’s chemistry, uses fuel stores quicker and fatigues muscles thereby leaving the body less able to perform effectively in the next workout.
But beyond the anaerobic metabolites, there’s a question of muscular recovery. When racing or running at high speeds, the muscle fibres get micro tears that have to rebuild stronger. Without adequate recovery this mending doesn’t occur. Ron has it going in his favour that he’s in his early 20s so he’ll still be recovering quickly, but even a young person is only capable of doing three workouts per week – maybe more occasionally. If I’m sounding critical I’m happy to admit when I was Ron’s age, I had no respect for the recovery process either. I used to play sport hard almost every day. It wasn’t unheard of for me to play an hour of competitive basketball then go to volleyball training for another hour. Or play a game of squash at lunchtime and another in the evening.
On p. 108 Ron provides the bare bones of his schedule … (“It was hard training, but as I was seeing improvement and success, I didn’t mind it. Morning sessions rotated on a weekly basis. Evening sessions on a fortnightly basis. I had a card in my training log and I ticked off each session as it was done.“) … it’s a lot easier to see the pattern and intensity of sessions:
|MORNING||(4½ mile runs)||EVENING|
|Mon||Fartlek||Week 1||Mon||Fartlek with bursts|
|Tues||Fast||Tues||Four laps of the Firs (3½ miles) at racing speed|
|Weds||Fartlek||Weds||20 x 440 (usually around 68sec)|
|Thurs||Fast||Thurs||“number stride” fartlek|
|Fri||Easy||Fri||7 miles easy|
|Week 2||Mon||20 x 440|
|Tues||4 laps at racing speed|
|Weds||20 x 440|
|Thurs||4x repetition laps at the Firs|
|Fri||7 miles easy|
Ron is doing four specific workouts plus a race each week. He ran 64 races in 1962! And he’s pushing it on four mornings. His body is under a huge amount of stress and it’s no wonder that, after a year of it, he was eventually forced to back off and take three easy weeks (30-40 miles) in December 1962. As he recounts his year, he’s usually trying to run through some kind of nagging Achilles, foot or quad injury.
I’m certain if he had simply jogged the morning runs each day he would have been in a much better position (but still not an optimal one). Some people can handle more intensity and training than others and it’s clear Ron could. But it’s also clear from how his body reacted that his training was too much even though it helped him get faster over the next couple of years. More recovery sessions would almost certainly have allowed him to do stronger workouts to make the same gains and possibly even run faster.
But enough of the analysis, Ron says he was seeing improvement and it’s certainly the case. As he started this training he won the Liverpool marathon in 2:24:22 in August 1961. A year later he won the Polytechnic Marathon in 2:21:59. It led to him representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the European Championships in Belgrade. He didn’t finish the race pulling out at 30km five minutes down on the leaders. In 1963, he tried to defend his Polytechnic title and, while running faster (2:18:06), he came 2nd to Buddy Edelen. In 1964, Ron ran his fastest time yet with 2:14:12 at the Polytechnic which would have been a World Record had Basil Heatley not been beaten him. It gave them both a place at the Tokyo Olympics but Ron could only finish 19th in the marathon (2:25:34) and 18th in the 10,000 metres – a distance he’d been ranked at 3rd in the world in 1963. Nonetheless in three years he took ten minutes off his marathon time with his training regime. At other race distances he also saw improvements – his 2-mile time going from 9:12 to 8:50; his 3-mile time from 14:08 to 13:29; and his mile time down to 4min 12.5sec.
This is the question mark against Ron’s training methods. He was capable of winning one week, struggling the next. He won the Boston Marathon and Commonwealth Games in 1970 but then failed to even secure a medal at the Munich Olympics when he was the favourite.
I believe more recovery runs each week and fewer workouts would have allowed him to find the consistency to be a winner more frequently. Maybe I’m being unfair to him and as I get into the later parts of his autobiography, I’ll find he did what I suggest but his hard-working reputation leads me to doubt it. It’s instructive that as he prepared for the AAA Championship 6-mile race, key to selection for the Olympics, he was still running in local races. Modern runners are more selective about when they race. Constantly pushing his body meant it had to give out at some stage, so it often happened when everybody else was rested, at the top of their game and able to push harder.
Regardless of the results, I believe Ron got the best out of his talent and had a career to be proud of. His best marathon time was 2:09:28, only a minute or so behind the world record in place a decade and a half later. As a coach, you love people who are committed to their training and willing to work hard so there’s no complaints there.