Friday, January 12, 2007

Arthur's speed work

Arthur probably caused the most turmoil in the minds of runners when he talked about speed work (the anaerobic capacity type not the leg speed type). How many? "Until you're tired" How far? "From here to that tree" How fast? "What ever feels hard" Not exactly the clean mathematical precision of a physiologist's 5 X 1000 Meters at VO2 max velocity with 500 meter jogs. Yet, while working with runners over the last thirty years Arthur's method produced superior results.

To give you a model that you can put your finger(s) on, take an empty clear plastic bottle (without the cap), drill five one-eighth holes around the outside. What you are holding is a model of a muscle fiber at the end of the conditioning phase. Since the during the conditioning phase the pace has been slow relative to racing speeds the five holes represent the speed in which oxygen crosses the fiber wall. Fill a sink with water and push the bottle down to about the neck level. That water running in represents oxygen rushing in to the demand of the mitochondria on the inside. The mitochondria use oxygen which lowers the pressure of the oxygen inside the cell. The faster you run the greater the demand ( at conditioning paces the oxygen is 50% the level of the outside of the fiber, at a very fast pace it drops to 2%). Notice that when you pushed that bottle down that the water came in at a slow rate, just like the oxygen only needs to flow into the fiber at a slow rate to meet demand during a long run ( plenty of oxygen so no oxygen debt). The goal of the conditioning phase is to lay the pipes ( capillaries) for a good oxygen supply and to produce engines ( mitochondria) in all the fibers ( hence the need for volume running).

So what happens during speed work? Since the demand is greater on the inside of the fiber, the fiber opens more holes ( drill ten more holes and note the speed of water coming in), it also develops buffers so the mitochondria can continue to work in an acidic environment and it develops holes so lactate can flow out (and be processed by other parts of the body). If you lift the bottle out of the water it will empty very quickly (lactate removal). You run a repeat; oxygen flows in, you jog a rest interval; lactate flows out. It only takes 4 to 8 weeks to develop the fiber so that it takes in oxygen at its maximum rate and removes lactate at a maximum rate. All it takes is lowering the oxygen level inside the fiber, let it recover ( it really does not matter the length of the rest interval but longer is better so the volume of work can be higher)

Arthur constantly warned against running too much volume, too fast, too soon. By doing a small amount, not too fast at first you'll stimulate the greater number of holes without overwhelming the internal environment of the fiber. This is where he recommended 4 weeks of preliminary speed work at the bottom of the hill ( a little bit with long rest every 15 minutes). Only after this initial stimulation did he move on to greater volume but again not too fast to allow more time for the holes to develop to maximum. It was only then (after the fibers developed their maximum transfer and removal rate) that the very fastest coordination work was added. Now the fibers could handle the load of very fast running. Runners constantly ruin their good condition by doing too much too fast too soon. As you can see by running by feel with the above model in mind you can achieve the effect you want without forcing any of those "perfect" interval workouts upon yourself.


Eric said...

Very nice. This answers my question.

Phil said...

Great post Mike ... I've tried to explain this to people without near the clarity of your post. In the future, I'll I just link them to this post. Thanks.

Mike said...

Thanks for this post, coach. The experiment really does work and illustrates the points effectively. Kiera's was the only bottle I could find to drill holes in though, so I'm telling her you made me do it.

Lawrence said...

great post. I'm going to read it again.

Runneroftrails said...

Excellant example, Mike. I was a little lost with the "activating fibers" thing but I got the bottle.
I'm in the first week of hills in preparation for Boston. The next 12 weeks are all there in the bottle of Dr Pepper on the counter


Mike said...

RunnerofTrails and Phil, I wish I could take credit for this post, but this is all the work of the Mystery Coach, my new co-contributor. Glad you enjoyed the post, I certainly did too.

Abadabajev said...

Mike, can you ask the Mystery Coach, in his own words, why the decline in performance for long distance events in USA since the early 80's?

Is it the heart rate monitor that was invented in 1977 that turned the training upside down? Perhaps the bombardment of countless published books(with their own model/theory) to confuse every runner in North America? Less competition back then?

I read/heard somewhere(cannot remember) that in the early 80s, approx. 300 Americans could run a marathon under 2:20 or 2:30 or something close to this. Now today, only a handful can dip below that. Perhaps my recollection is incorrect but the term ‘handful’ was clearly used.

Please tell the Mystery Coach thank you in advance.

Mike said...

Good question Abadabajev, I hope the coach bites. I was just discussing this with Eric in an email the other day and I found this synopsis of old finishing times at the Boston Marathon. Take a look at 1983, where the 303rd finisher was still under 2:30. In 2006 I think about 50 runners made it under that mark.

If anything, it looked like there was more competition back then (within the U.S.), though it was before the world stage was as crowded as it is now. I do find it interesting to note the differences between how some of the elites in this period trained compared to how they now say how to train. Galloway, Durden and even Pfitzinger come to mind.

Mystery Coach said...

Abadabajev, The short answer, Physiology has hijacked coaching. The heart rate monitor is a good example. Instead of using it as an observation tool ( "How am I responding to this workout compared to the last time I did it?") it is used as a control tool ( "I'm not supposed to go over 73.7% of my max heart rate")

Physiologist look at running depending what they are looking for, they are led in the directions of "their" beliefs. They could tell you that increasing citrate synthase activity 38% would double your running time to exhaustion (A side note: actually increasing that enzyme is one of the mechanisms that those holes represent in the post). Would doing that training be the "secret"? Well according to them it is and it is transformed into the new "perfect" workout of the week. Instead of being observers of what is happening they are the controllers of what you should do. The US runners of the last 15 years are the results of their advice, need I say more.

Before you think I'm anti-physiology I'm not, but I use it only to look at what is happening not control what to do. Here is an interesting study by Edward Coyle Ph.D. that starts with this statement:

"This study shows that long term training has a lot bigger effects than we thought." (Something that Arthur knew 40 years ago)

The research paper by Edward Coyle on Lance Armstrong is being made available at no charge to the public by the American Physiological Society, publisher of the Journal of Applied Physiology:

I'm not sure about the "less competition", my runners had some very distinct racing seasons where we would compete 2 -3 times per week for a couple of months ( we trained to race ) then we took care to recover from racing and did an extensive base phase. Most runners today spend more time training and less racing ( maybe they don't learn to race).

One other fad that has hindered development is the (too) "hard" (too) "easy" approach to training. I think you've see this schedule; day 1: hard VO2 max intervals until you puke ( makes you mentally tough), day 2: long easy run for recovery ( got those miles in). They think by running the intervals harder and harder they will develop. They should be running the easy days faster ( and the hard days slower). In fact a workout like 5 X 1000 meters could be held at the same speed from year to year ( it is already an anaerobic overload why speed it up) and have the athlete run the easier days faster and with greater volume as the years went by and get superior development (better aerobic development of all the fibers). You should be building from the bottom not trying to pull the bottom up. It is hard to explain (to physiologist) why non-specific training is the key rather than specific ( race like) training unless you have practical experience with training athletes. Arthur built his system based on long term results not quick theories of the week and is why his system will stand the test of time.