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
13030:4012:407:52
23825:1210:356:52
34621:259:075:52
45419:178:014:59
56217:037:114:35
67014:556:304:02
77813:355:57/mile3:42

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.

Update on my 800m training – May 2021

In April’s update I talked about the surprise of seeing no improvement in my 800m time despite seeing myself get fitter, faster and leaner over the course of training. After the time trials, I slipped into a six week block of endurance training taking me through to the end of May.

At the height of training back in January and February my weekly mileages were in the 40-45 range. As the April time trials approached I eased off to let the legs freshen up and recorded a couple of weeks in the high thirties. With the return of endurance training and the bigger runs midweek, the totals for the six week totals were 49, 49, 50, 52, 47, 48.  May alone comes in at 220 miles.

My schedule for this block of endurance was:

  • Monday – 40min recovery run
  • Tuesday – 8-mile Steady run (with warm-up / cooldown)
  • Wednesday – 40min recovery run
  • Thursday – 40min recovery run
  • Friday – 8-mile Steady run (with warm-up / cooldown)
  • Saturday – 40min recovery run
  • Sunday – 11.7-mile fasted Long run

I adapted it once or twice, threw in some strides occasionally but always two Steady runs in the week with a Long run at similar effort level on a Sunday. Recovery runs on all the other days.

Steady improvement

Across the six week I did twelve Steady runs. May was unseasonably poor weather so the conditions varied from complete calm to 20mph winds. All but one was done at the beach where the wind doesn’t always blow in the same direction. I have a 9-mile out and back route from Durley Chine to near the end of the prom at Hengistbury Head. I always just allow the runs to get faster but the first half mile is taken carefully and I discount the split for this, then run four miles out, four miles back and run the last half mile back as a warmdown. This eight-mile exertion takes a little over an hour which is perfect.

Here’s a table of those eight mile runs at the beach. For ease of reading I’ve ordered the miles from fastest to slowest for each run as it allows you to see how the quickest are getting faster.

20-Apr23-Apr27-Apr30-Apr04-May07-May11-May14-May18-May20-May25-May28-May
108:1007:5507:2907:4407:3707:1107:4507:2307:0607:0807:0907:31
208:1507:5907:3607:5107:4407:1807:4907:2407:1007:1807:1107:35
308:3108:0007:3707:5207:4607:2607:4907:2607:2207:2107:2807:45
408:4208:0907:4508:0108:0107:3307:5207:3507:3007:3907:3107:53
508:5508:3307:5008:0309:0907:4707:5507:3808:0407:4808:2807:58
608:5608:3907:5508:0309:1508:0708:1707:4808:2007:5508:3308:00
709:0208:5407:5908:0609:2908:1508:2007:4808:2007:5708:3808:01
809:0508:5708:0308:0709:3008:1608:2107:5308:3108:0008:4208:03
             
Avg08:4208:2307:4707:5808:3407:4408:0107:3707:4807:3807:5807:51

You can see in the first week I couldn’t even break 8-min mile pace on these runs whereas by the final week, every mile was faster. If you track across the fourth mile row, you can see it was beginning to consistently be around the 7:30 mark a solid improvement from the early weeks. The final run was a backslide but I suspect the legs were tired from the excellent 7:38/mile paced Sunday long run preceding them.

This table also highlights how improvement isn’t a linear thing. It can be two steps forward, one step back while you recover and consolidate but if you can stay injury-free there should be an improvement over time. Some of the ups and downs in the table are due to windy days!

Changing run form

In April, I began thinking about my form again. I’ve probably been looking at aspects of my form since 2013 when I bought a cadence monitor and started improving that. It’s a real work in progress and last year when I was doing hill sprints and bounding I began to feel some sense of how to get quicker. In the summer when I strengthened up my core I found it made a difference to my running but I still feel there’s been something missing from my sprint speed.

I reread some of my books which talk about technique and watched some Youtube videos of sprinters and how it is something of a difference action to how most distance runners run. I found some drills and exercises that began to improve my knee lift and instantly I could feel more drive when my feet hit the ground. At my coaching sessions, I do these drills as part of the warm-up to try and help the runners to improve.

Over the course of this training block, I’ve slowly been integrating this new knee drive action into my running and when it’s going well I feel like I’m running on air. My upper body seems to become almost still (other than armswing) and my lower body begins to feel like it’s doing all the work. It feels like I’m running from the hips and every step is driving me forward. My cadence is slightly up and I’ve even begun to notice quieter footfalls at times.

I still haven’t seen this translates to increased speed in my sprints as I haven’t done many strides but I think it may be responsible for the increased pace on my steady and long runs. I’m looking forward to when I get back to the speedier portions of 800 training as I’ll be hopefully be able to further ingrain this new action.

One small downside is that the outsides of my shoulders have ached towards the end of runs. I think this is because as my armswing is becoming freer and driven by running it’s causing muscles that haven’t previously been used to get involved.

Another time trial

Coming off the six week block of endurance I knew I’d speeded up on my easy runs and hoped it would transfer to my 800 time. It didn’t. At the start of June I did another time trial this time clocking 2:53 – so overall five seconds quicker than in December.

It’s possible that my legs weren’t ready for this recent time trial. The final week of the endurance training saw the paces pick up noticeably and this can sometimes lead to what I call a VO2max lull; a 10-14 day period where the body is adapting and takes a step back.

Truth be told I’m somewhat frustrated by the lack of significant progress in the 800 time, especially as I feel fitter and faster but also because I’ve been quicker following my own methods in the past.

I’m going to stick with JackD’s plan for a second go around and throw in the strides he suggests doing to see if this improves my top-end speed. I suspect there’s a missing link waiting to be filled in that will connect my general endurance to my speed and ability. Let’s see what happens.

Update on my 800m training – March 2021

Things are coming together at last. I’m in the final two weeks of the plan and tapering towards a couple of 800m time trials in April to see whether the training has paid off. I already know it has and it’ll be good to see it quantified in my time trial, but that’s for next month’s update!!

Although I began following Jack Daniels’ 800m training plan at the start of December, I actually consider training started back on 21st September when I went back to a steady diet of gentle runs at ten minute mile pace, subsequently introducing strides and a faster session midweek.

So really this has been six months of consistent training. I wanted to write “hard work” but apart from putting in big efforts during the twice weekly workouts, and a difficult spell around the start of February when my body was struggling to adapt, compounded by atrocious weather, I don’t believe it’s been hard work. I’ve looked forward to the training, enjoyed it and it’s not felt like a burden at all.

I realised over this past month my body has begun to feel fit and strong again. I hadn’t appreciated a lack of regular fast running over the past 3-4 years has allowed muscles to weaken. That translated in my day-to-day living as minor aches or pains walking up the stairs, or pushing with my hands to get up off the sofa. Nothing drastic, just minor little things that most people put down to the effects of ageing. In some ways they are the effects of ageing but not irreversibly as those people would have you believe. The takeaway is if you stop using it, you lose it. I actually now feel as strong and fit as I did ten years ago, and would like to believe I’m as fit as I was in my twenties although I know that’s not quantifiably true. My running still isn’t as fast it was when I started parkrunning at forty but I can see it’s getting back there and I believe it’s going to surpass that because of what I’ve learned since then.


March’s training has been focusing on what Jack calls T- and FR- pace running which stand for Tempo and Fast Rep. After adjusting for the expected improvement in fitness, these have been mile repeats at 7:12/mile and short intervals (200-600m) at 5:38/mile respectively. To put this into perspective when I began in December the Fast Reps were 44½ secs per 200m, now they’re at 42secs. Training has been going well enough that I’ve been overcooking these with some coming in at sub-40! I even managed a 37.45s effort (5:01/mile).

One of the problems I faced for T-paced sessions is ideally needing somewhere flat where I could keep pace and effort consistent. In other years, I would have gone to the beach or Poole Park, but with lockdown ongoing, as well as the possibility of sand on the prom or people out for a walk; I decided to look closer to home. The roads right outside my front door are fairly flat and quiet, but I’ve always resisted doing intervals on them for no explicable reason other than I always think of warm-up as taking me away from home. Circumstances led me to conclude this would be the best place for the training. Maximising the area available to me, I created a loop measuring 900m which had no sharp turns and only minor ups and downs. On some sessions, it meant I ended up doing a good 10+ laps of the same roads which, I suspect many people would find boring, but I hardly noticed as I was focused on my breathing, pace and sometimes trying to reach the end without completely falling apart! This ‘track’ worked well apart from, where I run in the road my early morning sessions brought me into conflict with people driving off to work.

Around mid-month, my legs began to feel strong and, the walking up the stairs with ease I talked about, came into my awareness. I could tell a step change in my fitness was about to come through and when it arrived my easy running pace improved by 20 secs/mile. It felt wonderful and that improvement then fed into the next session of T-pace running coming in at sub-7 min/mile rather than 7:10. In turn it made the fastest intervals feel a lot easier although not necessarily faster!

I’m not going to do my usual breakdown of successful / failed repeats until next month’s post but my attention was drawn to a bizarre set of times on last week’s 200s. I run these back and forth along a road which I’ve come to realise, has slight undulations to it, and these result in one direction being marginally faster than the other. The four efforts in the slower direction were 41.66 / 41.66 / 42.20 / 41.66 secs. I’m sure you can see the bizarreness of the fastest three being exactly the same time to one-hundredth of a second, it simply cannot be a coincidence. And if I then tell you the first effort on the previous session was … yes, you’ve guessed it … 41.66secs; there’s some kind of limitation going on somewhere in all of this! I’m not sure what it is, my legs were fatigued that day but in the other direction I ran 41.77 / 40.05 / 39.33 / 37.45 secs so it was possible to go faster under the right conditions. Bizarre numbers aside, it’s been a good month’s training.


I’ve got two more workouts to do in April, then the time trials begin. I’m only intending to do two mid-month but this will be weather dependent. If I feel I’ve underperformed I may slot in a third. Analysing my training times, I’m hopeful I can break 2min40 but I’ll report back whatever the fruits of my harvest are!

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.