Why High Mileage Beats Interval Training
Those who don't learn from the past (or the Kenyans) are doomed to repeat it
Jeff Gaudette—One of the best markers of pure running talent for high school boys in the U.S. is being able to break nine minutes for two miles. Case in point: Every male Olympian who raced the 3,000m steeplechase through the marathon at the most recent London Games—and ran four years at a U.S. high school—clocked a time that was under nine minutes for two miles as prep. An examination of the number of high school boys who break nine minutes every decade represents how talent and training methods have evolved over time.
In the 1970s, 84 high school males broke nine minutes for two miles. However, in the following decade, that number dropped to 51 runners. Then, in the 1990s, the U.S. produced just 15 runners who broke 9 minutes for the two mile. Here’s the data.
So what was going on from the 70s through the 90s? Certainly, training methods had evolved since the 1970s, so why were high school runners getting slower by the dozens every decade? Many observers theorized that television, sugary snacks and general laziness were turning high school runners into unfit, slow and unmotivated children.
But then something exciting happened as we rounded into the new millennium—high school runners started getting faster again! So far in the 2000s, 110 runners have broken nine minutes for the deuce. In 2011 alone, 30 runners broke nine minutes for two miles! That is double the number of sub nine-minute two-milers in one year compared to the entire decade of the 1990s.
To my knowledge, high schoolers still watch lots of television, spend a lot of time on the internet, and consume a plethora of sugary snacks. So, what caused this resurgence in American distance running? The answer, in a word, is training.
The History of Training Methods
In the 1960s, distance training was revolutionized by a coach from New Zealand named Arthur Lydiard. If you’re not familiar with Lydiard, he coached some of the fastest runners in the world during the 60s. His athletes dominated the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. Peter Snell, Lydiard’s star pupil, won three gold medals—two in the 800 meters and one in the 1500.
Lydiard’s training philosophy centered around first developing a huge aerobic base by running lots of miles, even for middle distance runners, combined with drills and strides (short, fast accelerations) to work on form and maintain speed. Lydiard is responsible for developing the concept we now call base training. Lydiard’s athletes (even Snell, who was a middle-distance specialist) ran over 100 miles per week and completed hilly, 35K long runs every weekend. Over time, Lydiard’s athletes developed huge aerobic engines, which is what allowed them to dominate distances from 800 meters through the marathon.
As a result of Lydiard’s influence, high school coaches and athletes in the U.S. began to run a ton of miles. Lydiard’s high-mileage approach was “the secret sauce” of training and high school runners weren’t afraid to emulate their Olympic idols and log big miles. The results of this approach were astounding–84 high school runners broke 9 minutes for the two mile.
Then, in the 1980s, training philosophy shifted. Olympic athletes like Sebastian Coe were running low mileage but including lots of intense, lung-busting intervals in their weekly schedules. In addition, coaches and athletes began looking at the science of training more closely. Researchers could accurately measure important markers like VO2 max and lactate threshold in the lab. And, because this was hard data, coaches were quick to act on it. Not surprisingly, when researchers assigned runners six weeks of lung-busting VO2max sessions compared to six weeks of steady base training, the results from interval training crushed the base training approach.
Unfortunately, what science can’t easily measure is the effect of aerobic base building over the period of many months and even more importantly, years. In short, coaches and runners became short-sighted when it came to training. They preferred the quick, X-percent improvement in VO2max over the long and unquantifiable aerobic development. As such, American high school runners following this low mileage, high intensity training started to slow down en masse.
Luckily, in the late 1990s, the Kenyan dominance of the American road racing scene began. As coaches and researchers began to examine the training principles of these unbelievably fast Africans, they noticed that Kenyan athletes had HUGE aerobic bases. They were running up to 50-60 miles per week as children just so they could get to and from school! Long-term aerobic development was starting early, whether intentional or not.
For many coaches, this is where things began to click. Aerobic development is the most important training element for long-term success. High school coaches began instructing their runners to bump their weekly mileage and focus less on intense intervals. The result? A resurgence in American distance running, which started at the prep level, and has resulted in Americans making it back to the medal stand.
Avoid Repeating History
So, what’s the point in this history lesson? As George Santayana famously wrote, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
As a coach, I receive a lot of questions about CrossFit endurance training, specifically Tabata intervals. Given the hard data on how quickly Tabata intervals can improve VO2max measures, many runners want to know why they shouldn’t do more of this type of training.
In short, Tabata intervals consist of six to eight maximum-intensity sprints lasting 20 seconds, with 10-second passive recovery periods between them. The scientific data on this type of workout is staggering. Subjects who used Tabata intervals improved their VO2 max by 14 percent and their anaerobic capacity by a 28 percent compared to the control group, who exercised moderately for 5 hours per week, compared to just 20 minutes for the tested subjects.
Looking at the data, one might believe they’ve found the “secret” to running success in short, maximum-intensity intervals since they produce huge improvements in scientifically measured variables like VO2max.
Yes, running Tabata sprints will make you fitter. If you’ve ever tried them, you know getting to eight repeats is difficult for even the fittest of runners. However, will Tabata intervals make you faster? I look at the workout and research the research behind it and pose the following questions:
1. Do these improvements in VO2max translate to running faster?
While we know VO2max is a good predictor of running performance, having higher absolute values doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be faster. For example, consider the comparison between legendary distance runners Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2 Max values differed by 13 percent (Prefontaine’s was 84.4, Shorter’s was 71.3) , yet whose best 3-mile times differed by less than a second (0.2 seconds, to be precise). Why is this? It’s important to realize that VO2max is only one component to how fast someone can run, as are running efficiency and economy, lactate clearance abilities, and a myriad of other factors.
2. How long do these benefits last?
After a 6-week period of intensely hard workouts, measurements of fitness markers will always improve. But, how long are these benefits retained? For example, we know that after eight weeks of intense speed work, blood pH levels (the measure of your body’s acidity level) drop to the point where they become detrimental to performance and is one of the main causes of overtraining. It is very possible and even likely, that after 6 weeks, performing Tabata intervals will no longer be effective and could actually hamper your progression.
3. What does the macro picture of training look like?
Because of their high intensity level, you can’t typically do much other training the day of a Tabata interval or sometimes even the day after. As we discovered the hard way in the 1990s, these short-term gains in quantifiable fitness markers are detrimental to long-term success when they take the place of long-term aerobic development.
I don’t claim to know all the answers. As a coach I’m always learning, but I also try to avoid repeating the same mistakes I’ve already made once, or even multiple times, before. While I wasn’t doing much coaching or running in the 1980s and 90s, I can learn from history, and so should you.