It’s all about hard work?

I grew up believing in hard work. I was doing a Sunday paper round from age 11, a morning one at 13, I had a part-time job at Broadstone Sports Centre at 15 and my mum told me that if I ran out of work, I should always ask for more! After the Sports Centre I did a year at Tesco on Fruit & Veg, where I believe Brian and Dave, the managers, considered me hardworking enough to entrust one side of an aisle to me while three did the other.

When it came to playing sport, I brought the same workhorse mentality and desire to do everything I could. That stood me in good stead when I played a solo sport like squash where I’d run myself into the ground, but it could be less positive playing team sports where you have to have the discipline to sometimes do nothing more than allow your teammates to do their job.

Nonetheless when playing I would squeeze every ounce of effort out of my body. Running on and off-court to get lost balls, chasing after opponents who’d broken away for one-on-one opportunities in football, diving after every volleyball that came in my direction, man-marking opponents and jumping to block every basketball shot. Playing volleyball I picked up an array of minor injuries which included jumping into the post while trying to hit an errant set, running full speed into a crash barrier at an outdoor summer tournament trying to reach a ball that had caromed ten yards off-court, and repeatedly diving on sports hall floors to which my hip still bears the scar of testimony. Whenever I trained or played, I would always walk off court dripping with sweat. My effort was as good as you could ask for, even if my performance wasn’t what I hoped for.

When I became a runner, I brought this wholehearted approach with me. I charged off down the road at full speed from the beginning of runs. If I reached a hill it was maximum effort up it. I wanted to get faster and ended up gasping for breath for however long I was running. The only exception was on long runs when, knowing I would be out for two or three hours, I tried to ration my effort. But at the end of it all my legs would still be tired and lacking energy. This approached lasted with me until 2011 when I started learning how to train. Even since, as I learned about the benefits of high mileage, I’ve been willing to put in sixty mile weeks despite relatively mediocre race performances.

What I now realise is that, for me, all that hard work was a mistake.


Having read the biographies of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton and Steve Jones, it’s easy to conclude miles make champions. The overriding message that comes from each of them is how hard they trained. Ex-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is another who talks about training hard.

Steve Jones was the world record holder in both the marathon (2:08:05 – Chicago 1984) and half marathon (1:01:14 – Birmingham 1985). He was the pre-eminent marathoner of the mid-1980s with two wins in Chicago, one at London, another at New York. He talks about how he never wore a watch or heart-rate monitor, how he didn’t think about his diet but focuses on putting in hard work to be able to run hard from start to finish.

Derek Clayton ran 150 miles per week on his way to becoming the world record holder for the marathon during the 1970s. Ron Hill ran as much as 130 mpw when he was running world class times similar to Derek. Paula Radcliffe’s success and notoriety came when she moved up to the marathon distance and set incredible world records that lasted for over a decade. Like Steve Jones, Paula liked to race from the front and go as hard as her body would allow.

Each of them credit their running success to hard work.


But I believe there’s a catch to this. The marathon is at one extreme event of the running spectrum. If you’re interested in running the longest distance in the fastest time then working hard to convert all your muscle fibres to become more efficient at fat burning and aerobic metabolism is a good way forward. Forcing yourself through long, hard training runs to handle the pain of running for over two hours, while feeling depleted, is going to make a difference.

For all their talk of success through hard work, none of these world class marathoners was as successful at shorter distances. Steve Jones was a 5,000m – 10,000m specialist before he took up the marathon. His results in the 10,000m major championships are less prolific. No world record, 12th place at 1983 Helsinki World Championships, 8th place in 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Paula’s track career resulted in a single 10,000m silver medal at the Seville World Championships in 1999. Ron Hill placed 18th and 7th in the 10,000m at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Derek Clayton never tried shorter distances once he realised the marathon was where his talent lay.


I’m trying to highlight that while these runners tell you how hard they worked to achieve their notable successes, what goes unsaid is how all that hard work wasn’t any use in shorter distance races and it’s a lesson I believe we can all learn from.

A key part of training is to figure out where your own strengths and weakness lie with regards to your physiology. It’s something a coach should be doing as they get to know your running. Some people are built for speed, others built for endurance. The more you’re built for speed, the fewer miles you need to run in training whatever the event. This was the lesson I never understood until recently. Even two years ago, I was running sixty miles per week to achieve the same 21-22 minute parkruns I was running ten years ago on only ten miles per week. Yet ten years ago when I upped my mileage from ten to thirty I began to run faster times so there’s a paradoxical element to it. Mileage helps when it’s well-aimed.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and mileage is the key to running success. If you’re a complete beginner, it is obvious you only need to do a small amount of exercise to start getting fitter and faster – one mile per day might be enough. If you’re competing at the Olympics, it takes many miles of training each week simply to maintain your fitness before you squeeze out more. You have to find the sweet spot that is right for your level.

The “20-mile” myth

The Hansons’ Marathon Method contains an interesting approach to training for the marathon. The idea of the traditional “20-mile run” is abandoned with the longest run being only sixteen miles in their plans. Within the book they explore and compare the recommendations of other coaches and plans.

The idea of the 20-22 mile run comes from the days of Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s when he had his middle-distance runners doing this distance every Sunday! It might sound hard but remember these were runners with the capability of racing four minute miles. They’d begin the season taking 2hr35 and slowly work down to completing the runs in little more than two hours – quicker than 6min/mile, but that’s typically the easy pace of a world class runner. I don’t know if it was deliberate to create a course this long or down to the natural geography of Auckland, running in the Waitakere mountain range where Lydiard lived.

Derek Clayton, the world record holder for the marathon through the 1970s ran 150-160 miles every week. It was his belief, and he put it into practice, that he needed to run a 25-mile run every Saturday to be ready for his marathons. It’s hard to argue with a man whose record stood for so long yet Clayton suffered injuries and needed surgery eight times. Very few, if any, modern elites would do this level of mileage regularly now. Although there’s no record of how long these runs took him, given his toughness and general mileage, it’s hard to believe they would have been run any slower than 6-min/mile therefore being completed in 2½ hours.

In Jack Daniels’ Running Formula book he states a Long Run should never be more than 25% of the weekly mileage. The problem with this statement is it suggests you have to be running eighty miles per week to train for a marathon which is unnecessary for all but the best runners. This 25% limit is better applied to his training plans for shorter race distances but even with the marathon he says don’t go over 2½ hours. He makes the point that for someone only running four times per week, the runs are automatically 25% of the weekly mileage!

The 20-mile run is actually an arbitrary distance, there’s no science to this number. In Europe where they work in kilometres the Long Run is often 30K or 35K which are 18.6 miles and 21.7 respectively. People love round numbers! Of course, it’s true that runners used to say “Twenty miles is the halfway point of the marathon” as a reference to when the body starts to hit the wall and you have to dig deeper, but it’s also because they rarely trained much past it so the body wasn’t used to longer runs.

The most interesting approach to the marathon long run is the one detailed in Steve Magness’ The Science of Running. Magness coached at the Nike Oregon Project under Alberto Salazaar, himself once a world-class marathoner. The training knowledge at NOP was of the highest calibre so this method is one used by some of the best runners in the world. The first two months of a training programme are used to build up the Long Run to the twenty mile mark but then after this, there’s rarely specific Long Runs scheduled. They’re replaced by workouts that typically total the mileage. A world-class marathoner running at 5min/mile might do a Tempo run of 15-miles taking 1hr15 and when you add in a 4-mile warm-up and warmdown the session totals twenty miles. US Marathoner Josh Cox demonstrates this workout in the Training Day video.


The Hansons believe your marathon should be based on good physiological principles. They conclude that running for significantly longer than 2½ – 3 hours doesn’t provide those benefits to runners. Certainly in my own limited marathon training, I used to find that a three hour run left me feeling dehydrated whereas I happily run between 2 – 2hr15 every Sunday without taking food or drinks and arrive home feeling fine.

Hansons may limit the Long Run to sixteen miles but they include a run of eight miles the day before which results in a total of twenty-four miles over the two days. As they describe it, those sixteen miles then become the “last sixteen miles of your marathon” rather than the “first sixteen” which runners who set off fresh legged typically do. This is a method called cumulative fatigue and is used by ultrarunners to train for their races which can be in excess of one hundred miles. On a training weekend they might run for 5-6 hours each day to enable them to compile a total closer to their race distance.


When I was marathon training because I was capable of a 22-min parkrun I could reach twenty miles in three hours, it happily coincided with my 9-minutes per mile easy pace. For a slower runner, I would look for them to improve their pace and to use the principles of cumulative fatigue to help them prepare for a marathon. I’ve met far too many 5-hour marathoners focused on reaching the mythical 20-mile run in training because that’s what the guys who were capable of running four minute miles in the Sixties did. The problem is, as they build up through fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty miles they start tearing themselves down Sunday after Sunday with demoralising trudges lasting four hours or more, often in unpleasant winter conditions. Motivation sags, they can’t wait for the taper and end up walking large chunks of the marathon anyway. If you must build up to twenty miles get it done early interspersing the progression with less-taxing two hour runs on alternate weeks to give the body a chance to recover.


This far I’ve focused on the marathon distance but I find many runners don’t believe a Long Run is necessary for anything other than half or full marathons. This is a mistake and maintaining a weekly Long Run is an important part of building your aerobic base. By running further once a week you dig out muscle fibres that would otherwise lie dormant. Does it need to be 20-miles? Definitely not unless you’ve reached the capabilities of the Lydiard crowd.

Middle distance runners typically do a run of 10-12 miles and it goes up from there depending on the distance being raced and the runner’s capabilities. But it’s equally important to think in terms of time. I always aim for a minimum duration of 1½ hours for my weekly Long Runs and a maximum of 2½ hours. Of course, this distance needs to be in proportion to my other running, I wouldn’t do that if I were rebuilding after a layoff and only doing thirty minute runs the rest of the week.

Whatever your event, whether it’s parkrun, 10K or longer don’t neglect a weekly long run. It’ll keep you positioned to pick up on a half or full marathon at short notice while helping you get fitter and faster for your chosen distance.

Marathon speed

Recently I’ve been loaned biographies about Bill Adcocks, Derek Clayton and Ron Hill. These are names from a long-forgotten past but, in the late 1960s, they were three of the best, if not the best, marathoners in the world.

Derek Clayton was the marathon world record holder for fourteen years including the whole of the 1970s. Born in Northern Ireland, he emigrated to Australia in his early twenties and set his mind on becoming the world record holder. His training regime consisted of 150-160 miles each week which enabled him to set the record, first in 1967 with a time of 2hr09min36 in Fukuoka (Japan) then improve it two years later to 2hr08min34 in Antwerp (Belgium). There was however controversy over this latter record as the course was thought to be short. Nonetheless it stood until 1981 when it was broken by Rob de Castella.

Derek Clayton looks out from the cover of “Running to the Top”. Part autobiography / part advice

Bill Adcocks was another great marathoner and, the year after Clayton’s recordsetter, he became the sole Briton ever to win Fukuoka marathon in 2hr10min48. He was only a minute slower than Clayton and, while he never held the world record, until 2004 he held the course record for the original Marathon route in Greece with a time of 2hr11min07. Among his other accomplishments were to place 5th in the heat and altitude of the 1968 Mexico Olympic marathon and win silver at the Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1966.

Bill Adocks running on the left.
The cover of his autobiography “The Road To Athens”

Ron Hill is better known these days as he’s continued running into the 21st century and is famed for his daily run streak that stretched from 1964 to 2017. Arguably he was slightly better than Bill Adcock at the marathon but it’s a close contest. Ron competed for Great Britain at the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 Olympics. In 1970, he set a course record in Boston in 2hr10min30 then followed it up by winning the Commonwealth Games gold in 2hr09min28. He claimed this was the world record as it was faster than Clayton’s Fukuoka time and the Antwerp course had never been successfully remeasured.

Part two of Ron Hill’s “The Long Hard Road” – both parts are 400 pages

Having graduated with a PhD in textile chemistry, Ron began his own clothing line. I remember when I was a sixteen year old attendant at Broadstone Sports Centre, the other lads (Warren, Justin, Eddie, Tim) all wore RonHill Tracksters – navy blue leggings with a thin red stripe down the side and stirrup loops at the bottom. While they were tighter than the woollen tracksuits of the day, they were still looser compared to the lycra of today. Of course I had to get a pair to try and fit in with the cooler, older lads!

The legendary RonHill Tracksters. A favourite of the lads at Broadstone Sports Centre in the ’80s

What I found revealing from these books was that each of them began at clubs where they did regular intervals sessions to develop their speed. Mileage was secondary and a big week in their early years was 30-40 miles. Their best times for 400m and the mile were as follows:

400m / 440yd timeMile time
Derek Clayton52 secs4:07
Ron Hill55 secs4:10
Bill Adcock57 secs4:12
1960s world record45 secs3:51

My big takeaway is that even the best marathoners in the world, who are the most naturally talented towards endurance, could run a 400m or 440yds in under sixty seconds. Yet I know few runners entering parkruns, 10Ks or other distance events who can do this. Do you have to be freakishly endowed with speed to achieve this? I don’t believe so – simply committed to a good training programme. Of course there will be some who aren’t capable but I suspect many more could if they tried.

The related takeaway is that in being able to run 2hr10 marathons, Clayton, Hill and Adcocks were running at 5-minutes per mile. It’s an obvious statement yet most people approaching the marathon are more concerned about training for the distance than being able to run a single mile faster. To an extent, you can build decent times off general runs and progressively pushing harder but often this only leads to being a decent runner at the front of local races with times that are far off those of the best club runners.

When you think about it, it’s obvious – “if you want to run a fast distance race, you have to be fast over a shorter distance”. I know lots of people who do speedwork with the intention of getting fast for their current races but no-one who’s taken a dedicated approach to improving their speed at shorter distances before working on the distance of longer races.