Usain Bolt recently ran his first 800m race. As I’m training for this distance, my interest was piqued to see what he achieved. Bolt, of course, is generally seen as the best sprinter of all time winning multiple gold medals in the 100m and 200m at consecutive Olympics and the World Championships from 2008 to 2016. As a junior his coach had wanted him to become a 400m runner, his best time was 45.28s, but he didn’t enjoy the longer training sessions and it became apparent he could be a champion at the short sprints. Running his first 800 race would be a big step up.
Out of athletics for the past four years, he said he’d been training for this race but it turned out to be part of an advert for a used car dealership. Its premise was that you can get an online valuation for your car quicker than Usain Bolt can run 800m. Bolt in lane 1 versus the customer in lane 6 sat in a comfy chair typing her car’s details into her phone. I’ll embed the video at the bottom, if you want to watch it, but Bolt appears to be jogging round on his way to a 2:40 time for 800 metres. The commentary is overlaid and there’s no sound from the track so I’m tempted to believe it’s masking the director telling him to speed up or slow down to ensure he finishes just slower than the customer. After all it wouldn’t be much of an advert if Bolt wins easily. Actually it’s not much of an advert anyway because I thought they were providing insurance quotes, not a price for your used car.
What I could glean from the footage is Bolt is running at a cadence of around 160 steps per minute which equates to a stride length of 1.88m per step. That’s not unbelievable given he’s 6’5” and when he’s in full sprint mode he’s averaging closer to 2.50 metre per step (and his cadence also up at 250 per minute). It’s deceptive watching the video because it really doesn’t seem like he’s covering much ground until you see his strides around the start-finish line. The slow cadence really does make it look like he’s taking it casually.
Even allowing for some play-acting, I doubt Bolt could currently run it that much faster – bear in mind his pace is 5:20/mile, it’s not that slow. He’s not overweight or unfit but of course he has detrained from his peak athleticism. As the best sprinter in the world, his genetics are geared towards speed. He stated in a 2013 interview that he could run the 800m in 2min05 so that gives us a reference for his ability when he was a trained sprinter. There’s also a segment from Superstars in 1986 on Youtube of Carl Lewis, who was the Olympic champion in the same events as Bolt – the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, where he ran 2min15 for the half mile. So I’m inclined to think a detrained Bolt couldn’t have run 800m much quicker than he did in the advert.
A short postrace interview with Bolt shows him lying on the ground having his legs massaged and breathing hard. His splits for this 800 were 35s and 39s for a 1:14 first lap followed by 44s and 42s for a second lap 1:26. That final 200m being faster suggests he did try to pick up the pace. These splits are fairly consistent with what I experienced in my 800m time trials – when I ran 2:53, my splits were 39 / 43 / 45 / 46 secs and I tried to sprint at the end but my legs were tying up with lactate. It’s a fast start and then struggle to hang on.
One difference is that Bolt can run a significantly faster 200m than I can – his world record is 19.19s – yet at 35sec his opening 200 isn’t much quicker than when I time trialled at 39s. His controlled start may have avoided building up the oxygen debt that leads to heavy breathing.
What I’ve found with all my distance races is that it doesn’t matter how hard you train for speed and to handle oxygen debt, there comes a limit to how fast you can go because the by-products seize the muscles up. When your body is trained for speed lactate and waste products are being produced from start to finish. It’s why for in distance running you need to build a good aerobic system to delay their production so they are only produced at higher speeds.
I can remember finishing parkruns when I was speed-trained, saying there was more to come because my legs never felt tired, yet it was only when I did more easy running that my times got quicker. I had to build aerobically through daily easy, steady and long runs to improve at parkrun and longer distances.
Some people are naturally full of slow-twitch muscle and therefore find it easier to build their aerobic capacity – they’ll start with a bigger base. For those with more fast-twitch, either you stick to the sprints as Bolt did or commit to doing the miles that will develop them aerobically.
Today I continue my in-depth review of MAF training with a look back at how it went for me in the summer of 2014. In part 1 of this series, I explained most people promote the Maffetone Method as low heart-training, but it’s actually a holistic system including re-evaluating your diet by taking a two week break from refined carbohydrates. I too was in the heretic camp and went with the low heart-rate training only. I didn’t change my diet or try any of the other things Dr Phil Maffetone recommends, partly because if I gave up carbs I wouldn’t have anything left to eat. I read a copy of his book while I was doing the training and was trying to make sense of it as I was going along.
This wasn’t my first experience of low heart-rate training, that occurred over twenty-five years ago as I recounted in this post about John Douillard’s Body, Mind and Sport book. Using “Darth Vader” diaphragmatic nose-breathing, while running to a sub-130 heart-rate, I saw no success at getting faster or achieving the effortless flow state he promised but I kept trying. It was only when I got good at running through pace-based training that I began to see the low heart-rates promised by Douillard. But the idea of low heart-rate training stuck with me and somehow I read about Maffetone training and when the opportunity arose I decided to give it a dedicated shot.
My first two years of committed running (2011-13) saw me recording personal bests at all distances raced but something was missing which was stopping me from hitting the heights I hoped for. I didn’t quite know what it was but the combination of The Redgrave Paradox, a return from a winter virus and wanting to try new things led me to give MAF training a try.
The winter virus knocked my training back for two months and while, I’d missed the half marathon I was aiming for, I was still running capable of running twenty-one minutes at parkrun. With the virus over I began to bulk up training with four mile runs in the morning and another thirty minutes of barefoot running in the evening.
In early May I clocked forty-three minutes at Lymington 10K. A week later I jogged round Bournemouth parkrun in 25:43 with heart-rate averaging 141bpm but hitting a max of 155bpm. I’m not sure why but, that evening I decided to try MAF training. I was 42-years-old, the formula gave me 138bpm and in the past I’d always found my running felt very comfortable at this level. When I was building my first aerobic base three years earlier it was where my heart-rate naturally seemed to fall on easy runs.
Beginnings – May and June
I followed the MAF low HR regime religiously. The first Sunday long run was hellish because I picked a hilly route. I must have stopped and walked thirty times to keep my heart-rate down on the hills but I managed the twelve miles without going over the limit. It was slow at 10:24/mile with the fastest mile being 9:40 and the long uphill into Broadstone taking over eleven minutes. The following week was even slower but I stuck with it. Like all spiritual adepts there were times where I unintentionally fell off the pew and I did have one deliberation exception; at the end of some runs I would do a 150m sprint back to my house. It sent my heart-rate soaring and those moments are not included in any of the stats that follow.
In the first six weeks of training I ran, on average, for eight hours and fifteen minutes covering fifty-five miles yet only spending 1min35 above my MAF-HR of 138. I’m doubtful it’s possible to do any better than this. By the end of June I’d accumulated fifty hours of training but less than ten minutes of it exceeded MAF-HR.
Most days I was running morning and evening yet what’s incredible is, while I was accumulating all this, I still took Fridays off as a rest day. I’m sure that helped parkrun to feel good on a Saturday morning. Monday to Thursday mornings were a shoed run with a barefoot run round a local field in the evening. At weekends, the evening run was shoed. Here’s a sample week from this period.
Time above MAF-HR
9:22 / mile
8:31 / mile
9:14 / mile
8:38 / mile
9:21 / mile
8:27 / mile
9:42 / mile
8:34 / mile
9:42 / mile
9:36 / mile
Morning long run
10:16 / mile
9:50 / mile
Going further – July into August
In July I decided to change tack. I was still going to train to MAF-HR but the arrangement of my week would be different. The barefoot running had to come to an end. It was a long, hot summer and through June the ground began to harden up. It eventually became like running on concrete and my body simply couldn’t handle it. One thing I’ve haven’t yet been able to sort out in my running is not being a loud and noisy runner who hammers their feet into the ground. I know one guy who can run half marathons comfortably in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on tarmac but I can’t do it for more than a few yards.
Part of my experimental mindset also wanted to see what would happen if I ran longer distances so rather than splitting my training day into two runs, I usually only ran once but much further.
Below is a training week which totalled 67+ miles and 10+ hours while only exceeding my MAF-HR for nine minutes. This particular week, my Bournemouth parkrun time scraped under twenty-seven minutes compared to the thirty-one minutes when I started. This was as fast as it ever got during MAF-HR training and it stabilised in the twenty-seven minute range in the following weeks.
Time above MAF-HR
9:18 / mile
9:30 / mile
9:07 / mile
9:37 / mile
9:09 / mile
8:39 / mile
8:35 / mile
9:22 / mile
Many people who try low-HR training say they can’t run slowly. Part of it is they go off too fast but sometimes it’s their ego complaining. I never cared if people saw me running slowly. If anyone asked why I was jogging round at the back of parkrun I’d patiently explain the MAF training system with its focus on improving fat-burning over sugar-burning and then get on with doing my thing.
One of the reasons I stayed motivated was I knew the general approach of the elites is to do a block of ten weeks building their base. Sometimes they do this for longer but either way, the idea of replicating this helped me to overcome any doubt I was feeling when results weren’t showing up plus I had a reward in store to delay the gratification. When I’d completed three months of MAF training, I’d go to Poole parkrun and run all-out.
Even though I was completing Bournemouth parkrun 3-4 minutes faster, over those three months there was barely any improvement to my average weekly pace – it was always a few seconds faster or slower than 9:15/mile. The graph below shows this and the one notably slow week was when I totalled 77+ miles!
The reading I’d done suggested it would take three months for the aerobic base to be built. Not knowing better and not seeing any gradual improvement, I took it to be a timeframe where new speed or pace would appear at the end of it.
It therefore came as vindication when I ran Poole parkrun in 19:52 and I was very pleased to break twenty minutes. I’d been running twenty-one minutes before I started and I’d knocked a minute off with training. I now had the encouragement to continue on and see where this system could take me.
Peak experience – August into September
In the week following the parkrun my average pace improved to 8:51/mile – almost thirty seconds quicker. And it stayed there for the next three weeks. I thought I was finally beginning to see the promised gains and even put in occasional barefoot runs around the field again. These were proving quite efficient and I could run nine minutes with heart-rate averaging 115bpm. At my best I ran a sub-25 5K barefoot round the field without exceeding MAF-HR.
My Sunday long runs to Pamphill and back, which had originally been over ten minute miles, were now breaking nine minutes and I was even seeing a sub-8 mile on the downhill into Wimborne. The MAF training all seemed like it was going in the right direction.
Part of my year’s plan had been to do my UK Athletics coaching courses and I’d become a Leader in Running Fitness in May. The next level up, the Coach in Running Fitness course began with a full weekend in Exeter and meant I wasn’t going to be able to do my usual MAF training runs but I wasn’t too concerned as I figured a short rest would help. Over the two days we did many short practical sessions, both coaching and being coached by our partners but nothing extensive. We weren’t sent on one hour runs or anything, just technical drills, jogs and sprints and while my heart-rate was higher on the Sunday morning I thought nothing of it. I couldn’t get out of doing the practicals but I thought it would also be a test of MAF training’s effectiveness, no runner should have to be so perfect in their training if a system works.
Collapse – September into October
On the Monday morning I woke up … eventually. I’d slept for twelve hours, 10pm – 10am, and still felt exhausted. I played it safe and took the day off from running and resumed the next day. While the first couple of miles were ok, by the end of the run I was slowing my pace drastically to avoid breaking the MAF-HR.
Over a weekend I’d gone from being able to run over eight miles in 1hr10 to barely more than seven. In pace terms it had dropped by a minute per mile (8:38 to 9:40/mile pace). It clawed back slightly over the next four weeks but never back to where it had been. It was still an improvement over where it had been in June and July but not at the late August peak. I was still putting in the effort with weeks of 65, 63, 59 and 58 miles but the pace was often the wrong side of 9min/miles.
Enough – October into November and December
I was beginning to lose faith and needed to know where I was at, so in mid-October I went back to Poole parkrun. I’d run 19:52 nine weeks earlier but now I could only achieve 20:39. It had all fallen apart with one weekend of non-MAF training. I felt disheartened and ready to give up. I’d never truly seen the improvement that seems to be promised by low heart-rate training and I couldn’t see myself shuffling through months of my watch beeping at me.
I was scrabbling around for explanations and diving back into the Maffetone book I began to wonder if the increased heart-rates I was seeing were due to overtraining. It can be one of the signs and MAF’s recommendation for overtraining is to cut your training volume back. So this is what I did. All that happened was it became increasingly harder to run to MAF-HR off less and less training.
I was left wondering whether the previous winter’s virus had flared up again even though I otherwise felt fine. I took more and more rest days logging only 55-60 miles in each of November and December; mileages which had once been my weekly exercise had now become monthly. I was done with MAF training. I’d started it in May, shuffled around for months and not got anywhere closer to the best running I’d done in the preceding years. I felt like I was always waiting for it to come to fruition and it never did.
Within this post, I’ve tried to sum up my training for people to understand what I experienced while avoiding getting bogged down in the details. Even now I feel it’s quite stat-heavy. Every run I did that summer is recorded in Garmin and on spreadsheets. So many of the runs are virtually identical in their splits, heart-rates and times that there’s little to be gained from reproducing them, a summation seems enough.
I’m split between saying MAF-training worked and saying it didn’t. Unfortunately I didn’t have an outright benchmark to compare between when I started training and the all-out August parkrun that clocked in at 19:52. I think it was an improvement but I’d been capable of running this sort of time in February before I got hit by a virus.
The first question mark is when you look at my average weekly pace over those first three months it doesn’t change. It’s always somewhere around 9:15/mile. It’s hard to make a perfect comparison because I changed routes from the beginning of July but whenever the opening miles were along the same paths, the splits were very similar. It suggests I wasn’t getting any improvement from the MAF training.
It was after the 19:52 Poole parkrun that things picked up. The pace of my Sunday runs were notably quicker than they’d been in May when I was trudging up hills taking over eleven minutes for a mile.
The trouble is the fast parkrun seems to have been the trigger for this improvement and that isn’t part of the MAF training. The whole theory of MAF training is that you will get quicker simply by running below MAF-HR. [It should be pointed out the book allows you to add in some Anaerobic Intervals from time to time, but if you follow what the Youtubers say it’s simply about low HR training. Once you start mixing aerobic and anaerobic work you’re heading back towards conventional training methods.]
The second big question mark about my MAF training is what happened after my run coaching course. I went backwards and never reached the same heights of the 19:52 parkrun again. If you look at it over the whole five months of training there was no improvement – I was capable of running 21-mins at parkrun before, I ran 20:39 after.
I believe I adhered to MAF training as well as anyone could or should be expected to. I logged hundreds of miles in over 200 hours of training at slow paces. In almost six months I only totalled 4½ hours above a heart-rate of 138bpm and that includes two 20-minute parkruns where it was averaging high 160s. The graph below shows the time running with the yellow blocks representing the small percentage of time spent in excess of my MAF-HR. You can barely see any yellow in the first six weeks which reflects how well I was following the system.
What my stats don’t include are the occasional 30-second sprints I did at the end of training runs two or three times each week, or what occurred on my run coaching course. If this were a true scientific experiment they would be question marks against the validity of what I did, but with over 98% of my training as MAF expects I don’t believe they should be the difference maker to its effectiveness.
The biggest disappointment of having followed the MAF training system for all those months is that any gains I did make, didn’t last. I ran 1,345 miles to try and build the fat-burning system as Phil Maffetone suggests. By the time I ran parkrun on Christmas Day I was only able to achieve 21:45 with notably higher heart-rates than they’d been in August. Where I’d averaged 165 then, now I averaged 169. Where the maximum had been 174, now it was 181. In a matter of months, I’d gotten slower and my fat-burning had got worse. While I trained less in November and December, I’d have hoped the conditioning would last for longer.
But perhaps more importantly, whether I think my experiment proved MAF training works or not, here’s how I felt about it.
My overriding memory is of how much I grew to hate it,
I grew to dread the watch beeping at me to slow down.
Many hours were spent each week trudging along at paces close to 10min/mile. There was never any chance to break out and run fast, I was always trudging along barely lifting my knees or opening my stride. I was always waiting for the watch to beep. Not just a single tone but an irritating diddle-iddle-eee like a demented doorbell from the Seventies.
I enjoyed the evening runs much more but that was more down to the novelty of running barefoot laps round a field and feeling the ground fly beneath my feet. The lack of footwear reduced the energy-cost of running and my heart-rate stayed lower so I got to run faster.
But too many hours were spent trudging along in the mornings; automatically slowing down to trudge up hills; forever aware and vigilant for the beep of the watch ordering me to slow down.
While I was highly motivated to give MAF training a good shot, grasping for any sign of improvement, the slow pace meant my legs barely got out of first gear and I was repeatedly trashing the same muscles day after day. Running so many miles left them feeling hollow and lacking spring, and the lack of variety just made it unenjoyable. The only redeeming factor was that this all took place in the warm of the summer months. I’m doubtful I could have stuck with it through a cold, windy, rainy winter.
The one bright spot was the 19:52 parkrun at Poole and that was it. I believe you need more intrinsic feedback and enjoyment when you’re training hard to stay motivated through the tough times. If, for some reason, you aren’t getting that feedback then this is where having a good coach helps out. They will reassure you that you’re on track to achieve what you’re aiming for. They find ways to say “Don’t worry, it’s going to work out”, to point out any successes you haven’t noticed, or explain why the slump you’re experiencing is normal. In this respect, my years of coaching enabled me to self-coach and keep giving positive messages and reinforcement.
Knowing how my running improved in the years after, I realise I’d never use MAF training again. Its monotony and the age-related MAF-HR meant it didn’t work for me. Becoming a slave to the beep of a watch and heart-rate monitor sucked the enthusiasm out of me.
I know, as I can show to anyone I coach, there are better ways to train. Endurance miles are an important part of the equation but not the only one. It’s possible to mix up bouts of fast and slow running in ways that allow you to get the best out of yourself and see intermediate improvement while the training comes together.
In part 3, I’ll talk further about what I believe the pros and cons of the MAF training system are. When it can work, what you can learn from it and what the issues are.
This is part one of a three part series on MAF training. This week, I’ll explain who Dr Phil Maffetone is and outline the basics of his MAF Method and training system. In part two I’ll tell you how it went for me the summer I trained to it for five months. In part three I’ll give you my critical analysis of MAF training as a training method.
Occasionally I come across runners on Strava or Youtube waxing lyrically about MAF training. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a heartrate-based formula created by Phil Maffetone that focuses on building the aerobic system. As well as being a shortening of his name, he says MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function.
Phil Maffetone is a retired chiropractor who treated athletes from the 1970s onwards including triathletes like Mark Allen, runners like Marianne Dickerson and ultra-runner Stu Mittelman. Chiropractic is described on Wikipedia as being “concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system” and this is the basis of the Maffetone Method.
While there are many articles around the web and Maffetone has an extensive website promoting his methods, the information in this series of articles is mainly drawn from his “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”. It’s an attractive 500-page tome going into detail about training, its effects on human physiology and giving many examples of athletes he helped. It manages too avoid being to technical even though there is a good dose of biology thrown in. If you want insight into the human body and keeping it healthy then it’s worth a read.
Low heart-training with MAF
The core of the MAF Method, as others promote it, is low heart-rate training. At its simplest the MAF heart-rate is calculated bysubtracting your age from 180 to give a maximum value that shouldn’t be exceeded. It’s not an average heart-rate to run at, it’s the heart-rate you aim to never go above. If you’re thirty years old, your MAF-HR is 180 – 30 = 150 and you try to never go over 150HR on your runs.
Depending on your recent health and training you tweak your MAF-HR by adding on, or subtracting, a few beats. For example, if you’ve been training for two years without injury or illness you can add on five beats to raise the MAF-HR you’ll be working to.
There’s a couple of exceptions anyone under sixteen should use MAF-HR of 165bpm, anyone over sixty-five may add ten beats if they’re in good health. This means almost everybody training to a MAF-HR is doing so between 125-165bpm.
The MAF test
For those who really get into MAF training there is the MAF test. Once every month, you run five miles at your MAF-HR and record the mile splits. The splits will gradually get slower but over the months you should see the overall numbers improving and your runs getting faster as the following example shows:
Example results from a series of MAF tests (p. 82)
Ideally you go into each test rested, warm-up prior to the test miles and run the same course under similar conditions every time to keep the comparison valid. Of course with seasonal variations, results can be affected by cold, heat, humidity and high winds but as long as you allow for this, you should see a year-on-year improvement.
The real MAF Method
Training to MAF-HR is the appealing “Train to a low heart-rate and your running will get faster” headline of MAF training. To the Youtuber and Strava disciples promoting MAF training, this is all it entails to get clicks and views.
In reality this is a cherry-picked aspect of Maffetone’s training philosophy which has the following four key points:
Build a great aerobic base
Improve brain function
As a chiropractor, his focus is on healing people and helping them to stay healthy, so he comes at this from a holistic perspective as the key points show. The focus of his training method is to get the body fuelling its exercise by burning more fat instead of carbohydrates. By staying away from sugar-based anaerobic exercise, stress remain low and the two halves of the autonomic nervous system stay in balance. Too much anaerobic leads to high levels of stress, the body kicking into “fight-or-flight” mode and all the negative effects which are seen in overtraining syndrome.
Certainly the low heart-rate training is a major aspect of the Maffetone Method but once the aerobic system is building up, it doesn’t preclude you from doing some anaerobic exercise. Beyond the evaluating what you eat and how you train; he also gives advice on foot strengthening, shoes, exercising to music, as well as how to reduce stress by setting better boundaries, staying in the present and learning relaxation techniques. To an extent, I’ve only scratched the surface in my summarising it’s a big book, that’s why it’s called “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”.
Ultimately the true Maffetone Method is an extensive set of guidance aiming to help you find what will keep you healthy while training extensively. Like any good health system, it’s about learning how your own body reacts to training, to nutrition and identifying any weaknesses that need building up or eliminating. Low heart-rate training is simply the headline being attached to it.
Recently the BBC ran an article on Emer McKee, who’s set a 5,000m world record for a twelve year old with a time of 16min40. She’s quoted as saying “Normally I’m just running as fast as I can and just waiting for it to be over,” which is pretty much how any all-out 5K or parkrun should feel.
Emer started at parkrun when she was nine and joined a local running club, Willowfield in East Belfast, and has been improving ever since, competing in a range of events from 60 metres up to parkrun but also including long jump and cross-country.
Three points I want to highlight from her story:
As a member of a running club, she is getting decent structured coaching and sessions that enable her to make progress. Although the headline from the article implies she “runs as fast as she can” this refers to her races. It doesn’t necessarily apply to her training. Just going out and running the fastest you can every day in training will bring short term results but eventually you’ll see the gains stop.
It’s taken her three years to reach this stage. She began running parkrun in 2017 and quickly made good progress twenty-nine minutes down to twenty-one by year end. Since then it has taken three years of training to build on that and get down to a sub-17 time.
Being part of a club limits the amount of racing she does and gives time for training to develop. While she’s a regular parkrunner, unlike typical adult runners, the rest of her year is not spent entering 10Ks, half marathons and marathons. The club events she does are all completed within twenty minutes (usually significantly less) and therefore don’t require much recovery. By contrast, adults regularly enter distance races that require more recovery and therefore cut into their ability to train to improve.
The great thing about being twelve years old is she’s got her whole running career ahead of her. She turns up to her club and the coach has already decided what the session is and how it will help her (along with her clubmates) to improve. For the most part, her running priorities are defined by the club’s season.
The coaching of juniors is usually very good because the focus is on developing them, through a structured approach to training, for when they are adults. This approach is one I try to replicate for adults attending my Big Red Running sessions. Sessions build on previous weeks to enable progress in the long-term. If you would like to come to my session then please do. Check the homepage for details and if you have any questions by all means contact me for further info.
Imagine running your first marathon in 2hr41? Imagine doing it off less than three months of training? Most people would be pleased with that, but now imagine you were already a great endurance athlete used to training thirty hours every week. This is Gwen Jorgensen’s story.
Graduating to work as a tax accountant in 2009, Gwen Jorgensen was talked into becoming a triathlete by USA Triathlon. She’d been a runner and swimmer through college so only needed to add the cycling skills to enter her first triathlon a year later. She was good enough to finish with elite status. Two years later, she competed for the USA at the London Olympics coming in 38th after getting a flat tyre in the cycling section. In the following years Gwen became one of the world’s premier female triathletes, being crowned the winner of the ITU’s World Series in 2014 and 2015.
This lined her up as the favourite for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like the World Series events, the Olympics are a 1.5km swim (taking around twenty minutes), a 40km cycle (1hr) and a 10K run (thirty-five minutes). This is about a quarter of the more famous Ironman triathlons.
In the six months prior to Rio, Jorgensen logged 137 swims, 110 rides and 171 runs. With running being her strength she’s often able to start the run, which is the last part of a triathlon, behind opponents and catch them. She was generally recognised as the fastest runner on the women’s circuit and in Rio ran 34:09 for 10K on her way to taking the gold.
Having claimed the Olympic title, Gwen then threw out a curveball, she was going to run the New York Marathon three months later. More accurately she was going to do it in seventy-eight days’ time. She won the Rio gold on 20th August and the New York Marathon was being held on November 6th giving her just twelve weeks and one day to train.
As we now know she ran 2:41:01 to finish 14th and by her own admission she wasn’t happy with that time. Running the NYC marathon was to be the first step towards her goal of winning the (now-cancelled) 2020 Tokyo women’s marathon. The fastest women in the world are running sub-2:20 and in New York she set out with the leaders at 5:40/mile, managing to stay with them for the first five miles before dropping back and finishing the last two miles at seven minute mile pace. The graph below highlights how her performance dropped away in the second half.
Her seventy-eight days of training were less than ideal. She still fitted in triathlon events which meant continuing to train for those and her running mileage came in at fifty miles per week. She’d never run further than ten miles before and with the limited time available, her longest training run was sixteen miles. Another aspect of her training that was less than ideal was she trained off-road which was unlike the tarmac surfaces she encountered in New York.
So what are the lessons we can learn from this performance? To me, the notable (and somewhat obvious) thing is that even though Gwen never ran longer than sixteen miles in training for her first marathon; her pace was high from the beginning and she was able to get to the end still running. She didn’t end up walking because she has a huge base of fitness from her triathlon training.
On the other hand, her triathlon training wasn’t specific enough to allow her to continue her starting pace and see it all the way through. If you want to get the most out of training then running is going to be better for your marathon than cross-training.
Training off-road didn’t work for Gwen as the tarmac in New York was tough on her legs – she wasn’t accustomed to it. Often elite runners and physios recommend running on softer surfaces to avoid inflicting damage. But I believe this is advice better suited to those running higher mileage. Gwen went from running 30-40 miles per week to 40-50 – it’s not a huge increase.
Also with specificity I’ve known people training for London who do their long Sunday runs over the hilly Purbecks. While it’s nice to get out in the peace and quiet, hills are one thing London doesn’t feature – it’s a flat course other than a slight downhill in the opening miles. Hill training has its place in a training plan as a workout but combining that with a long run is adding unnecessary stress especially for slower runners.
While Gwen is not the first runner I’ve seen who records decent times in half or full marathons off less than perfect training. I’ve seen guys run sub 1hr30 half marathons with barely any long distance training because they’ve got the speed over shorter distances. I’ve done it myself – I ran a 3hr41 marathon with only six weeks where I ran more than thirty miles but I was already running twenty-one minutes for 5K.
This is really key. First you have to be able to run fast, or more specifically you have to have a high lactate threshold which is the result of combining speed and endurance. After that it’s about how much pain you’re willing to suffer as your body fatigues and slows down. Trying to run a marathon on fifty miles per week, in less than three months, with nothing longer than a sixteen mile run wasn’t enough to stop Gwen’s pace dropping in the final miles. I experienced the same on my marathon, I went from running 8:15/mile to 9min/mile in the last six miles.
If you’ve read my post on the 20-mile myth you may wonder, doesn’t this conflict with the Hansons’ idea of not running longer than sixteen miles in training? Superficially it does, but the plans in their book are not aimed at elite runners like Gwen. Their elite plans do more weekly mileage, over a longer training period and go out to twenty miles. The underlying principle of their system is to avoid overdoing long runs if you can’t complete them in two-and-a-half to three hours maximum. I believe that’s good advice.
A key driver for Gwen’s change from triathlon to running marathons was a desire to start a family. Typical triathlon training is thirty hours per week with three session per day. Some days that includes a three hour bike ride which, when you add in early morning runs, mid-morning swims, eating and changing is likely too much, although not impossible, to also do justice to raising a baby. Any parent will tell you it’s hard enough as it is. By comparison an elite marathon runner typically trains for thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning straight out of bed and then another longer session in the evening. With a supportive husband, it’s much more manageable.
However things haven’t worked out in the marathon world for Gwen. Her best marathon is 2:36 in Chicago in 2018, which puts her well down the list of American women running the marathon. It’s a time that wasn’t going to be anywhere near the gold medal in Tokyo, so in late 2019 she decided to switch to focusing on the 5,000 or 10,000 metres. Her times are still struggling to be world-class but it’s clear that while she was great at Olympic-distance triathlon she hasn’t turned out be the endurance monster many expected.
Come this autumn we’ll see how all that training has worked out for her with the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Will she even be there? In my opinion, whichever way you look at it she’s had an enjoyably challenging decade. She began it working sixty-plus hour weeks as an accountant which by all accounts (pun intended) she enjoyed. She then became less cerebral, pushing herself physically and competing in two Olympics, winning gold in one. As a triathlete she travelled around the world for the World Series events and at one stage seemed unbeatable with thirteen consecutive wins, then as the joy of parenthood beckoned she took on a new challenge and all that entails. Whatever happens I’d sum that up as living life to the max.
Recently I’ve been reading Charlie Spedding’s autobiography “from last to first”. He’s a runner I only remember because he was one of the early winners of the London Marathon and being a trivia buff it was the sort of factual list I knew off by heart at one time. The following year he finished second in a time of 2:08:33, which remained the English record until 2014, as he relinquished his title to Welshman Steve Jones.
Published in 2009, “from last to first” looks back to Charlie’s running career which ended twenty years earlier after the Seoul Olympics. Like all autobiographies, it tells of his early life, parents and formative years in running. It details his two major successes, winning the London Marathon and a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympic, events which occurred a few months apart in 1984 as well as a copy of his training diary between them. The final chapters of the book give an overview of how he trained and brings us up to date with some of his thoughts on the reasons behind the nation’s lack of health and prospects for future running success.
At just over two hundred pages, the book is well written and often humorous. As a pharmacist, he clearly has an understanding of science yet is able to tell his story without unnecessarily resorting to big words or jargon. I laughed out loud when he recalled his time at Chorister School in Durham where “One of the lads I played with was a boy called Tony Blair. I don’t recall his skill with the ball, but I do remember his ability to make up rules of the game to suit his team’s situation.” Also the tale of how he was invited to do an inspirational talk at a local psychiatric hospital. Introduced to a patient by the doctor as “This is Charlie Spedding. He’s an Olympic bronze medallist in the marathon”, the patient replied “That’s alright, I thought I was Henry the Eighth when I got here.”
About to undergo Achilles surgery in the 1970s, he almost died in hospital due to anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to a drug. It’s interesting to think that, at the time, surgery was deemed the way to fix these issues. Derek Clayton stated in his autobiography that he’d had nine operations for problems which included his Achilles. Nowadays we understand surgery isn’t necessarily the solution, heel drops can resolve it. My friend, Simon rehabilitated his Achilles simply by doing a month of very easy running after racing twenty-five times in a year. Charlie notes late on that he avoided further Achilles issues when he was in the United States by getting regular massages.
Throughout the book, Charlie impresses how important attitude and mindset were to his succcess. He talks about how he was fortieth or forty-first academically in a class of 42 at junior school but went on to achieve a degree and running his own business. When he first played sport, he wanted to be a footballer but wasn’t good enough; when he ran sprints he was last but then found cross-country and finished second in his first race. Having found what he was good at, he then worked hard at it.
After a decade of high level national running as part of Gateshead Harriers, he sat in a pub and rethought his attitude as to what he needed to do to reach his potential. He realised he needed to be more positive in his vocabulary, to be specific about his goals and to be willing to think differently if he was going to achieve more than the average person. His underlying philosophy was one of getting the best out of himself for whatever talent he had and accepting that as success.
I found many parallels in his writing to how I’ve lived my own life apart, of course, from winning the London marathon or going to the Olympics. The attitude and mindset of always giving your best to fulfil your potential are one that resonate with me. Also his willingness to try new approaches and not giving up when things haven’t worked out. It’s something of a cliché to say “how bad do you want it?” is the determining factor but I’ve met many people who say they want to achieve good times in their running but aren’t then willing to make it a priority or get out of their comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with not doing those things but I believe it’s best not to talk about your desire for improvement if you’re not willing to do the things that are firmly within your control. It’s like wanting to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.
I enjoyed reading this book for its refreshing honesty and humour. It was a very easy read and, as I was loaned this copy, I’ll probably look to pick up my own one in the future for a reread. As an aside, the hospital in which Charlie Spedding nearly died is the one where I was born!