The Beauty of VDOT

Jack Daniels is a famous running coach with an infamous moniker. Mention him to anyone outside the world of running (as well as quite often within it) and you get a remark about drinking whisky. He has been called “the world’s best running coach” by Runner’s World and has coaching experience dating back to the 1960s. He himself won medals in the modern pentathlon at the Melbourne and Rome Olympics. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I used his 800m training plan last year for my training.

He took a scientific approach by examining the relationship between how fast runners race and the big three measurables: V̇O2max (properly stated as “V-dot-O2max”), Lactate Threshold and Running Economy. Historically it was believed the runners who could process the most oxygen (V̇O2max) were the fastest. But when Jack compared himself to Jimmy Gilbert, a teammate with a significantly higher score, it didn’t make sense because Jack could often beat him in their 4,000m pentathlon races.

Realising the picture was incomplete Jack and Jimmy began measuring elite runners and from this were able to publish tables of data relating race times to training paces. Online calculators doing this are more commonplace now but even twenty years ago this was revolutionary.

My 2nd and 3rd editions

The 4th edition of Jack’s book Daniels’ Running Formula was published in 2021 but I have yet to lay eyes on it. I bought a copy of the 2nd edition ten years ago and it revamped my ideas about how to train. It laid out step by step how you create your own training plan, what paces to run at and so on. It’s packed with information, pictures and profiles of elite runners and all laid out in a highly readable font and format. By comparison the 3rd edition seems to be full of standard plans rather than teaching you how to coach yourself and I think this likely reflects the increased participation and how much less modern people like to think for themselves.

In each book it’s the VDOT tables which I prize most. There’s two obvious uses, firstly the tables provide the times you should be able to run for different race distances for your current ability. Secondly they tell you what pace to train at to make progress to the next level.

VDOT training paces in the 2nd edition – pages falling out through heavy use

If you run parkrun in 25-minutes then the book suggests running Easy runs at 10:35/mile (which is a lot slower than most people realise). To run marathon pace at 9:08/mile and to run fast intervals at 54-secs / 200m (again this would seem slow to most).

The race times converter suggests to be able to run a 3hr marathon you need to be able to run a 1hr25 half, 39-min 10K and 18:45 5K. In the old days, people estimated that a doubling of distance resulted in a time that was double plus 5-10% (which agrees with these) but they had to work it out every time.

The benefit of knowing race times is huge. Most runners either go out tentatively and therefore can never hit their best possible time; or go out hard and blow up. For example, If you have run a 25-minute 5K then you’ll be able to scrape in for a four hour marathon with good training. But while the average pace of a 25-min 5K runner is about 8 min / mile their marathon pace is 9 min / mile at best. They can go out and practice this pace in training to get used to what it feels like.

The Real Prize

The VDOT tables aren’t perfect and when you’re trained more towards speed or endurance, they can push you down the wrong path a little. That’s not to say they’re terrible, they’re not and a good general guide to follow.

The tables stretch from VDOT 30 all the way up to the elite standard of VDOT 85 which line up with the men’s world records. When you consider the average parkrun time is 28:57 (a VDOT of 32) then it suggests there is much untapped potential among runners. This VDOT is close to the bottom of Jack’s table and while not everybody is genetically capable or motivated enough to train, this begins to suggest why there is something of an obesity and health crisis these days.

Even times which are considered quite exceptional by average runners e.g. 20-min parkrun (VDOT 51), 45-min 10K (VDOT 45), 1hr45 half marathon (VDOT 40) and sub-4 marathon (VDOT 38) are actually much closer to those of a beginner than they are to the elites.

It’s not just the context I prize, I can see how quickly progress may or may not be made. Let’s say I start coaching someone who runs parkrun in 25-minutes. To get them under 23-mins – which sounds massive to them – requires four levels of progress. Yet for a 17-min parkrunner the same four levels of progress won’t even get them under sixteen. Of course we intuitively know progress is smaller at the faster levels but it’s good to have it quantified and be able to manage expectations.

Although Jack doesn’t say it, I believe you might expect to see a VDOT improvement of one level every six weeks, two per quarter and eight per year. This is probably a little optimistic and depends on commitment to training but again highlights why it may take the better part of a decade to reach your peak:

YearStarting VDOTparkrunEasy pace per mile/km

While the VDOT numbers and paces are accurate, the rate of progress is an example. Experienced or talented runners would start higher up the scale; and how quickly anyone develops depends on how training is structured. Nonetheless, I find the VDOT tables extremely useful for gauging what we could hope to achieve over the coming year, as well as a reminder of where I might get to with repeated years of building on past training.

As I said before, I picked up Jack’s book ten years ago and it still sits on my coffee table. While it’s not the typical read for a coffee table book, I doubt a week has gone by in that decade when I haven’t picked it up and looked at the VDOT tables.

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