When I was twenty-two the gym I went to held monthly challenges. These rotated around the cardio equipment with one month being who could run the most miles, the next being to climb the highest on the versa climber, the the stationary bike, the stepper and so on. Typically the same people won the challenges because they were willing to get in the gym every day and train. I’m certain there was one woman who turned up twice a day to ensure she won the stepper challenge. I often didn’t participate because I wasn’t committed enough and I wasn’t into cardio for cardio’s sake.
The October challenge was to row as far as you could over the month. As I enjoyed the rowing machine and felt I was quite good on it, I gave the challenge a go. This was in the days before the Concept2 machine and there was a blocky graphic display showing your avatar rowing but the machines were technical enough to allow you to go head-to-head with someone on the other machine. I’d done this with Gary, who I played volleyball with, and there was something of a rivalry between us; so I went at the challenge full pelt; I wasn’t going to let him beat me. Fortunately the challenge rules limited you to fifteen minutes rowing each day on the six days of the week the gym was open, so it couldn’t get out of hand.
I suppose the aim of the challenges was to give people a reason or motivation to come to the gym. It was early gamification of the sort you see on Strava every month now. Badges for running 5K, 10K, a half marathon, cycling, swimming or whatever every month. These Strava challenges are participatory and while there is a leaderboard it’s about doing it for yourself rather than beating other people.
But back in the day I was interested in beating Gary, if not winning the challenge, so I made sure of going to the gym every day to max out my rowing allowance. All-out, hard effort for fifteen minutes to log as much distance as I could in my quest to be the best and beat Gary. I’d probably then go off and lift some weights and play volleyball or basketball.
I lasted two weeks before I fell sick. It was so bad I went home from work on Thursday lunchtime, took the Friday off work and stayed in bed all weekend to recover. I was back at work on the Monday but I’d learned a lesson about overdoing things. I often say I’m never ill and the Friday was the only day I took off in eight years working there.
The real consequences of that lesson came a couple of weeks later. November rolled around and the gym staff were looking for people to sign up for the next challenge. I declined. I realised I’d made myself ill from a meaningless challenge. My ego took part in the challenges because I wanted to be part of the gym but more so because I wanted to be at, or near, the top of the leaderboard. There was no reward, only bragging rights to be a big fish in a little pond. More so I realised the challenge was the gym staff’s thing not mine. They were signing up people to try and keep people motivated and have as many names as possible taking part to make it an interesting competition but so what? Those were their goals not mine. My goals lay in a different place, in particular on the volleyball court and staying fit and healthy enough to keep training, playing and improving at that.
Running 10Ks, half marathons and marathons in the 1990s my attempts to race faster were limited. I’d enter a race at one or two months’ notice believing all I had to do was get fit enough to cover the distance and rely on the speed I’d built up from playing other sports and some shorter runs. I never thought about it any more deeply than that. There was no connection or systematic way to string together training sessions, and the biggest downfall was that I never trained regularly for longer than a few months. Other sports or interests would drop into my life, running would stop until the next lull gave me the impetus to enter another race and start training again.
My first systematic attempt to race faster wasn’t in running, it came on the Indoor Rower, which I wrote about in detail here, when I tried to improve my 2,000m time. I suppose because rowing isn’t something you do naturally like running, I felt I needed to research how to improve at it. My research was done, after a lunchtime at the gym, over sandwiches on my return to the office, accessing the infant “World Wide Web”. It was so young, Google wasn’t even the search engine of choice then; I used Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and a meta-engine called Dogpile. I was lucky, working in an IT department, to have a fast internet connection and a management that didn’t mind how long our lunch hours were, because they were usually off playing football, squash or at the pub on a Friday!
Another stroke of luck was to stumble across Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website. He was a university researcher with a Masters thesis about rats running on treadmills and their response to exercise. But he was also a rower interested in applying his knowledge of exercise physiology to his sport. I lapped up the information on his website and began to follow his “Waves of Change” system of building fitness by rowing hard intervals to push my body to get faster. Although this post is going to refer to rowing often, stick with it because it’s very relevant to running as you’ll come to see.
Another of my internet searches turned up an interview with Sir Steve Redgrave which left me puzzled for years afterwards. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to relocate this piece and would love to reread it, to view it with fresh eyes.
To the younger generations, I suspect Redgrave is now unknown or simply a footnote in history. But growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, watching the Olympics, he was one of Britain’s few reliable gold medal prospects. Golds were rare in those days, nowhere near the twenty-seven won in Rio. In fact, twenty-seven is how many golds Great Britain totalled in the five Olympics Redgrave participated in, and he won 18% of them! Five consecutive Olympic gold medals that began in Los Angeles (1984) in the men’s coxed fours then continued in the coxless pairs in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992). In Atlanta (1996) he and Matthew Pinsent claimed Britain’s solitary gold medal and then it was onto Sydney where at age thirty-eight, Redgrave claimed his final gold as part of the coxless fours. Over a similar period, Redgrave won another nine World Championship gold medals as well as silvers and bronzes. He was undoubtedly our premier Olympian to that moment and, as the pre-eminent British rower, you can understand why I felt any advice I could glean from an interview with him would be worthwhile knowledge.
The interview appeared after he won his 5th Olympic gold medal and Redgrave talked about how, after meeting Jürgen Gröbler for the first time in 1991-92, his training changed because of it. Gröbler had moved to England when his native East Germany disintegrated with the fall of Communism and, with him, he brought knowledge from the nation’s coaching programmes. The East Germans were so dominant that, even now, thirty years after ceasing to exist, they still lead the rowing World Championship medal table with ninety-four golds to second place Italy’s eighty-five. While some of that success is explained by a state doping programme, the methods the East Germans used were also significantly different to how Redgrave was training.
From what I can glean a typical season’s training for Redgrave in the 1980s was rowing 20-40 min fast efforts two or three times each week, along with hard intervals every spring and summer throughout the racing season. Everything was geared to pushing to get faster, the runner’s equivalent of Tempo runs and Speedwork. But Gröbler had Redgrave rowing the majority of his training at very low stroke rates which felt like he was barely putting in any effort. This was as low as 14-18 strokes per minute which is significantly less than the 40-50 he might be reaching during a race. There are many runners who baulk at a similar concept of easy running because they believe you have to train fast to race fast.
Redgrave, himself, was sceptical about this method, but he was also intelligent enough to realise he needed to commit to the training if he was going to make a fair judgement of its effectiveness. The following March, after a winter of low stroke rate steady rowing, he attended the Thames “Head of the River” race which, by his own admission, he’d never done well in. Gröbler told him to start easy before turning on the power. Long story short, Redgrave won and was sold on the training. He stated that he and his crewmates followed Gröbler’s methods from then on.
So to recap, up to this point, Redgrave’s training in the 1980s, when he won Olympic golds and World Championships, had been training hard intervals each year to reach top form then dropping back over the following winter before building up again the following year. With Gröbler he did hours of slow training and gradually improved year-on-year and still won Olympic golds in the 1990s.
This was the itch I couldn’t scratch for years – how could rowing hard intervals in the 1980s lead to success but a gradual build in the 1990s also lead to gold medals? Surely there’s only one true method to success with coaches/athletes using variations on it. How could two significantly different methods be effective at winning gold medals throughout Redgrave’s career?
In subsequent years I would come across articles on running which talked about building endurance through slower training to get faster. Yet whenever I tried it, I could never get the huge benefits being promised. But the literature on endurance training was so prevalent, I felt I was missing something. I understood it was important but at the back of my mind there was always the paradox of Redgrave winning through two seemingly opposite methods.
Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website even made reference to this question on a page called “Understanding Intervals” where he posed the question “Which is better, Interval training or Steady-state training?” In it he firstly explains how doing interval work is effective at getting more work done. For example, you’ll be able to run 8x200m in a faster time than you can run a single mile. But having established interval training allows you to do more work at faster paces, he tells the story of how East German rowers were training with slow, steady rowing throughout the 1980s and winning championships. He tells of how Kenyan distance runners do vast amounts of their training at slower paces. So once again, everything pointed to the best endurance athletes doing massive amounts of steady state training to be fast. And yet whenever I tried training slow, I couldn’t get it to work for me even though all the books and articles seemed to suggest it was the route to success. Meanwhile there are numerous articles telling you of the benefits of running hills and speedwork. Very confusing to try and figure out how the two things fit together.
In the last few years, I’ve finally been able to resolve this paradox of how Redgrave was able to win two Olympics with one method and then three more with another. It turns out I wasn’t looking or thinking about what his event entailed. The typical 2,000m rowing race lasts under six minutes for an elite man, it’s the equivalent of a middle-distance running race, somewhere between the mile and 3,000m. When Roger Bannister became the first man to break four minutes for the mile he did it with twice weekly interval sessions where he ran ten laps of the athletic track during his lunch break and only totalled fifteen miles each week. Basically this is the nature of events that last under eight minutes, it’s possible to reach very good times off a relatively low volume of training and Bannister’s training is how Redgrave trained in the 1980s.
But this training is outdated, I doubt it would be possible to be a world class miler today off the low volume Bannister ran. The decade after he broke the four minute mile in 1953, Arthur Lydiard’s runners began to win the Olympics in the 800m and mile by running a hundred miles per week. This was where the East German rowers learned about the benefits of Steady State training and why Jürgen Gröbler converted Redgrave to this type of training in the 1990s.
The change in method also explains Redgrave’s success in the Head of the River race. This race lasts between 15-20 minutes and is much closer to the demands of a parkrun for faster runners. Redgrave’s previous lack of success in this race is because hard intervals are only one piece of the training required for longer events. He needed to build a base of training to support his speed, so he converted some of his speed into endurance to be able to last three times longer in the Head of the River race. That’s what Gröbler’s Steady State training gave him, more endurance.
But this still doesn’t fully answer the question of how you can win off both types of training. What I missed (or more likely wasn’t explained) about the gradual build-up method is that, as Redgrave got nearer to the championships, he would still go back to rowing hard intervals to ensure he peaked at medal time. He was essentially still winning with hard intervals but there was now no dropping back the following winter because he was building an endurance base. The big advantage of this base is it allows you to recover quicker between interval sessions and train harder during them. If Redgrave had to row through rounds of qualifying and repechages then he was better able to withstand their stresses and strains.
The middle distance events are such that they’re about finding a balance between sprint speed and longer distance endurance. You can come at it from either direction. Bannister came at the mile from the speed end and relied on his endurance to develop over the course of his running career and tempo runs. The Lydiard approach was to come at it from the endurance end and then perk things up with intervals to get enough speed into the legs for competitive racing. As I say, it’s the middle ground of events – you’d never train for sprints through endurance, you never train for the marathon through pure speedwork. You have to train at both ends of the spectrum for middle distance.
BONUS FACTS – One final bonus from my rowing reading. Redgrave mentioned he occasionally did runs along the river towpath. He stated he’d run ten miles in an hour and a half-marathon in 1hr30! Even more impressively his Sydney foursome partner James Cracknell, who is 6’4” and 15 stone, ran the 2017 London Marathon in 2hr43 at age 45. Nothing is impossible if you know how to train properly.