The appliance of science has its place in modern training methods, but it has yet to produce meaningful results, argues Ross Murray
In today’s sporting world, sportsmen and women are always looking for that extra edge and a more efficient way of training.
Sports science has evolved and we now understand the body in a way we never could previously. It allows us to utilise areas that were not previously given much attention – strength and conditioning, nutrition, altitude camps, physiology, drills, ergogenic aids like beta alanine and countless amounts of vitamins and minerals to keep the body healthy during hard training periods.
With all of these added dimensions to our training, is it logical to think we should be running significantly quicker than we were 30 years ago?
Before I continue, this is not going to be one of those articles that has a go at standards of British endurance running today. I think it’s in a good place, being led by superstars like Mo Farah and Laura Muir.
What I’m questioning is the effectiveness of all of these new elements of training and how much of a role they have to play in determining the success in endurance athletes. I wonder whether we overcomplicate simple training principles by throwing in all the new science. For example, a physiologist giving you four different training zones for running and then sub-zones within those zones makes it a concept difficult to grasp. It used to be: easy running, steady running and hard running. You gauged it by how you felt on the day. Not, it seems, any more.
On the other hand, are athletes like Farah great examples of what modern training methods can produce? Potentially it’s riskier to have a heavier training load, but when it goes right you can see a new age of super-athletes.
Why aren’t we running any quicker?
I suppose the bottom line question is: with access to all of this new information, new technology and new science, why aren’t we running any quicker? Why haven’t we moved from the 1:41/3:29 bests for 800m/1500m to 1:39/3:25? Surely with all these extra training methods we should have managed this easily. Could it be that we have simply reached the limit of what the human body can achieve?
Given that we aren’t running significantly faster and we don’t have the depth of accomplishments and times that we used to have, should we be questioning the benefits and effectiveness of these new training methods? Does science simply give athletes more to stress about, potentially taking away the quality from their running, creating more injury risks? In short, are we trying to complicate a previously simple way of making endurance runners great athletes?
The Eighties approach
Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett and Peter Elliott boast PBs of around 3:29-30 and 1:41-42 – times that right now would still put them well in the mix for a medal at a major championships. Yet, Mo Farah aside, in the last 19 years the quickest time by a Briton has been by Mike East, who ran 3:32 – three seconds off the times these athletes were knocking out 30 years ago.
Dave Moorcroft pretty much front-ran his way to 13:00 and won by 150 metres. If Moorcroft was in a quick 5km in Monaco, I think it’s more than feasible to think he would have run close to 12:50, which would put him in contention for a medal at major championships, particularly with a 3:33 time to his name. Again barring Farah, the closest Brit to that since then has been Andy Butchart with 13:08.
The reason I’m stressing “barring Farah” is that he is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete and arguably the greatest distance runner of all time. If we were to use him as our reference point for today’s standards, it wouldn’t give a true reflection of our current position.
I’ve spent a lot of time meeting the 1980s generation of athletes on training camps or at races and, after giving a lot of them the Spanish Inquisition about how they trained, along with reading books like The Perfect Distance, I feel I’ve absorbed a lot of information on how “the old boys” trained. From what they have told me, the approach was very simple: run a lot of miles – up to and over 100 miles per week in the winter, two or three hard sessions down at the club and little junk mileage in between these sessions.
In the summer the mileage dropped slightly and they ran hard, event-specific sessions on the track. There was, of course, training periodisation involved but I’m trying to paraphrase a lot of information here. I could write another full article on the specifics. The point I’m trying to make is that the fundamentals were basic and based around putting in the miles and the hard work. The remainder of the time you rested and did things to take your mind off running.
It was simple but it clearly worked.
Strength and conditioning?
What’s notable is that nobody I’ve spoken to from the 1980s dream teams talked about doing specific group drill sessions. If they wanted to improve their speed and technique, they added in hard sprints once or twice a week on the track and ran flat-out for 50 to 100m. They did a lot of hill running and Ovett famously used sand-dune running as a key part of his build-up. There were no daily core and conditioning sessions, few weights. Sometimes, I think people forget that when you run you work your whole body. Run 90 to 100 miles per week and those thousands upon thousands of steps you take gives you a good enough stimulus.
It poses the question: is running more the best way to condition your body for running?
There is an exception, of course. Coe’s training was influenced by a gym programme and his success suggests there is a place for weight training. Nevertheless, I think in the last 30 years we have overcomplicated the basics of strength work to zero effect in terms of progression.
In the 1980s, athletes did not have nutritionists. Rather, they ate pretty much the same diet as everyone else in Britain at that time – a lot of meat, vegetables and potatoes. It was clean and simple. Their recovery drink after sessions was a glass of milk or water. It wasn’t three scoops of whey protein with super minerals and vitamins mixed with organic coconut vegan milk.
Altitude camps were in their infancy at this point. Some people were heading to places like Colorado, but if you looked at what they did when they were there, experts now would say they were doing it all wrong. Many were going in March, which meant that by the time the summer came they weren’t getting any benefits. Plus, going once a year for three to four weeks really wouldn’t be something that’s going to make you a superstar.
Back then, there were few physiology tests or coaches taking blood lactates at the track. Athletes knew they were running hard in sessions because they felt it – in their lungs and in their legs. They didn’t need to know they had 9ml/g of lactate per 100mg in their blood to know they were training hard. They didn’t need someone to tell them that after four weeks on a training camp they had got fitter because they produced less lactate in a step-test or that their oxygen uptake was more efficient. They knew they were fitter because, when they got on to the track, their times got quicker. And that’s ultimately the thing that matters. Have we forgotten this?
Moderation is key
What I’m not suggesting is that endurance runners shouldn’t be doing anything other than run. I don’t believe that. And I think these extra training methods have their place, but should be built into a programme in moderation.
I believe there is too much emphasis put on time in the gym, working on drills, and spending time in the laboratory, but not enough belief in the simple things we know worked for so many world-class athletes in the past.
Some coaches and athletes reading this will be thinking that I’m talking rubbish because they’ve found massive gains from scientific input. If that’s the case, keep doing it. Every athlete is different and you have to do what works for you. Yet if you’re reading this and, like me, the appliance of science has produced no improvements and have actually been injured or ill more often than ever, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back, relax, get back to basics and take a look at what used to work for the superstars in the past.