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Training: Quality not Quantity

The old adage of ĎLong Slow Distanceí (LSD) for achieving optimum race fitness has long since gone by the way.  More and more scientific evidence is emerging, indicating that the fastest and most effective way to run further at race pace is not by running long and slow but by running short and fast.  I know this may seem contradictory but with the increase in physiological testing and the emergence of the African nations - to the forefront of international endurance running - there is now sufficient evidence to confirm this approach.  The Kenyans, for example, run about a third of their training mileage above lactate threshold (LT) at 5k pace, either in surges or interval work.  Other quality work in sessions like 1000m intervals at 3k pace, 1200 - 1600m reps at 5k pace, and 2 mile reps at 10k pace, are now common with little tempo training below threshold.  The consequence of such work gives them more capillaries per muscle fibre, enhanced enzyme levels, more mitochondria and a super big heart!  Itís all about raising the LT level, or in other words, enhancing your physical ability to run longer and harder without your legs going wobbly with that lactate-overflow feeling.

The sessions indicated are a highly effective means of raising lactate thresholds, the more severe approach of lactate buffering e.g. short hill reps of less than a minute - near to maximal intensity - have a similar effect but over a shorter time span.  This lifting of the LT also has a knock on effect in raising the V02 max.  But as I have said in the past you need to be in a group to take full advantage of such sessions.  These faster sessions do not mean that volume is no longer required, it is.  Mileage is still the foundation for an endurance runner and most International athletes will run in excess of 80 miles a week with some regularly going over the 100 mark.

Running at 70% MHR for many hours is now left to those runners who are not aware of this change in training practice.  This is now considered the recovery pace between the harder sessions and not the training pace itself.  Obviously one has to build up to this level of intensity but as long as the notion is that you are heading in that direction and not extending the miles in hours, then the improvement will occur.  At the heart of this physiological change is MCT1 - or monocarboxylate transporter one - a muscle protein that has the capacity to move lactate from the blood into the muscle cell, for breakdown into energy.  The research on these proteins shows that the more they accumulate in your muscles the quicker the lactate can be turned into fuel, raising the LT higher.  The knack of creating more than your fair share of MCT1 is to complete the sessions that maximize their numbers.  This is where the higher paced runs above the lactate level are invaluable, without this time at the faster pace the MCT1ís stay statuesque.

Running just above the LT is thought by most athletes to be responsible purely for the production of excessive lactate and they do not associate it with the rate at which muscles can pick up lactate from the blood and tissues and break it down for energy.  Unfortunately most club runners are inclined to believe that this type of training is solely for the elite, they donít consider that applying this form of running science is for them.  Physiological improvements work for all standards of runners, in fact in percentage terms I would suggest that a club runner would improve more than a county standard athlete, based on the fact that there is a bigger margin of improvement to work with.

You may ponder that if we know so much about making improvements then why do the Kenyans still leave us for dead.  It would seem from comments made by Frank Horwill - a very respected international coach - that unless we start with juniors as young as seven, running seven to ten miles a day, followed by more intensive training at high school, then we will never be able to compete with them on equal terms.

I seem to remember that Hailu Mekonnen of Ethiopia was the World Cross Junior gold medallist over 8k - when it was held in Belfast.  What made the win remarkable was that he won the bronze medal the day before in the senior menís 4k race - losing the race by just 7 seconds.  To double up for a senior international was considered out of the question, especially with the going being so tough, but for a junior - impossible, obviously Hailu didnít think so.  But can you imagine the outcry if coaches in this country advocated that juniors as young as seven should be running 7 to 10 miles a day.  Unfortunately thatís the problem; we have a long established protective society in the western world that would not advocate that level of volume for our junior athletes.  In the African countries the daily mileage completed by many children is not done at the bequest of coaches, but because the social and environmental conditions dictate it.

It would seem that until they either get regular bus services or an economic system similar to the Western World they will always be that one step ahead, or should that be ten?

Norman Matthews © 2001-2004
Head Senior Coach
Horwich RMI Harriers