Athletes have a tendency to complete only an even number of reps in each session and David Lowes looks at the implications

On looking through some of my very old training diaries, it became apparent that most track sessions contained an even number of reps. It got me thinking why this was and whether it was tradition or even superstition.

The standard session of 400m reps, which appears to have been part of the staple diet for endurance runners for decades, amounted to 10, 12, 16 but never 11, 13, 15. Is this a coaching trait or is it the case that it not thought worth advancing the number of reps by just one?

If done in sets, though, it wasn’t unusual to see, for example, 3 sets of 8x200m – but the overriding theme was an even number of reps.

Improvement route

Of course, as has been mentioned many times in Athletics Weekly ‘s performance and coaching pages, the recommended route of progression and adaptation is to follow the tried and tested plan of:

» Increase the reps to add to the workload and volume of the session, thus building aerobic endurance capacity

» Increase the speed as fitness and competition dictates

» Decrease the recovery as fitness dictates and make the session more race-specific

» Introduce sets to accommodate extra workload while keeping the quality high

» Importantly, though, never do all of these at the same time and do not necessarily do them in that order

Time to advance

So when do you decide that it’s time to advance a “bread and butter” session like 10x400m in 66sec with 90sec recovery? This may seem like a straightforward decision, but it isn’t always the case due to a myriad of factors. Some things to take into account are:

Only advance session when at least the last two sessions have shown the necessary improvements have been made. Don’t decide just on the evidence of a one-off showing.

The coach should look at the consistency of the session. It is much better if the athlete does 9x400m in 66sec and 62sec on rep 10 (after all, you are expected to pick up the pace in competition on the last lap). If an athlete runs reps 1-4 in 66sec and then has a hiatus, running reps 5-9 in 70sec before speeding up on rep 10, the athlete is clearly not ready for an increase in workload just yet and this effect in training may mirror a weakness evident in the middle part of an endurance race.

From a coaching viewpoint, “body language” is an excellent guide in between the repetitions. How quickly are they recovering. Are they absolutely spent after the final rep?

In conjunction with a periodised plan and depending upon when a peak is required, the aforementioned session should increase in volume and intensity with less recovery to accommodate the specific needs of an event (800m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m).

If the reps are increased first, which is a good idea in the preparation phase of the periodisation cycle, then add just one rep to see how that affects the outcome of the session. If it is handled with ease, another rep can be added in the next session. If that one extra rep is found too difficult, then persevere until it feels easier.

An increase in speed usually comes naturally with gains in fitness. If our example session is done in the pre-competition phase of the periodisation cycle in May, by the competition phase in June it may be looking more like 11-12x400m in 63-64sec with 80sec rec and by July where a peak may be required it could look like 8-9x400m in 60-61sec with 60sec (reduction in reps with a focus on quality, depending on event).

A decrease in recovery is only added when the coach sees the athlete recovering well. Simple body language indicates this. A heart-rate monitor is an invaluable tool in this respect. If the athlete, for example, is registering somewhere in the region of 186bpm after a rep and just before they are ready to commence another rep it has dropped to below 130bpm then they are clearly in good shape. If, however, the second reading is still in the 150-160bpm region then perhaps they are not ready and the session will have a detrimental effect.

Crucially, the advancement route highlighted above should generally centre on speed and sufficient recovery for younger athletes and those with a lower training age. The addition of reps is not so important. When I spoke to Steve Cram, the inaugural world 1500m champion a few years ago, he said: “I did basically one particular session all through my career – 10-12x400m – the only difference being they got quicker as I grew older!”

Breaking reps into sets can have a huge impact on the workload and allow an athlete to do a total amount of reps that would otherwise be impossible without a drop-off in quality. Sets can also help an athlete in their race-preparation phase by allowing them to produce even better-quality reps in two to three sets with suitable recovery periods (2 sets of 5x400m in 60sec with 80sec rec and 5min between sets or 3 sets of 4x400m in 60sec with 80sec rec and 5min between sets).

Less can be more

One thing I have noticed and especially since becoming a coach is that many of the athletes I have worked with will give you a pat on the back after a session if it is voluminous. Adulations of “great session” or “enjoyed that” are all too common if the session was 16x400m in 66sec with a 200m float recovery in 60sec. However, if I offered them 2 sets of 3x400m in 55sec with a 5min rec and 10min between the sets, the response would be far different. Although two totally different sessions and targeting different energy systems, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is the harder – I definitely know the answer, having experienced both! I’m certain many other coaches nationwide will have experienced this culture too and the anecdote says much about the preoccupation with volume in endurance running, which is of course important, but not at the expense of physiological gains in other areas.

Getting back to the “odd” theme, perhaps it is decided from the very first session you do that dictates what follows week upon week, month after month and every year thereon. Although I have no evidence that coaches, or athletes for that matter, have been taught that even reps are the way to go, I have still to find many groups going down the “odd” route.

Conclusion

There is obviously nothing wrong with running either an even or an odd number of reps – they are after all, only numbers. But maybe more thought should be given as to how to progress sessions and for some a meagre one-rep advancement may have a greater training adaptation than an immediate jump of two. Athletes and their coaches have a winter and a summer (training year) to develop and, although everyone wants progress to be rapid, there should be some holding back for younger athletes who are not fully biologically matured.

After all, if a 15-year-old is doing 7-8x400m in 75sec with 90sec rec, they have around 10-15 years (and maybe more) to reach their peak if they are to be retained in the sport. In reality, it is not a matter of being able to do 8-9x400m in 70sec with 80sec rec as a 16-year-old and progress uniformly thereon – although progress might wrongly be judged upon those incremental improvements. It is all the other work that is done – long runs, short runs, hills, cross country and everything else that goes into the pot of success – that eventually pays the dividends.

So next time you plan a session, just give some thought to the number of reps you will be doing and if that is the optimum amount for you. Odd, isn’t it?

» David Lowes is Athletics Weekly’s coaching editor