Keeping it Simple

In my last blog I made the statement that doing several 1% activities in daily life can help enhance running performances. There is an argument that by applying several small 1% efficiencies then each sum to give an overall better result. With today’s science and knowledge there are many 1% efficiencies that can be added into a training programme. However if this is the case, why aren’t New Zealand athletes running faster? In one of the original Auckland Marathons (run in 1982) the top 10 men were all quicker than this year’s race winner. In the 1985 Huntly Half Marathon, the 20th place getter ran a little under 69 minutes. If running the same time today, that same athlete could have won the race 3 out of the last 4 years. Races in New Zealand are not being run significantly faster and the depth of times are not what they used to be. Should we therefore question the effectiveness of New Zealander’s modern training methods?

There are many sports science studies, some done with highly trained athletes and some with normal subjects. A lot of the exercise physiology taught in the 1970s and 1980s is now considered incorrect. We have a much better understanding of the body, how it is conditioned, how to improve to go faster and how to reduce injuries. Science has given us a better insight into strength training, drills for correct form and nutrition. With all of this extra knowledge and if all these new elements were effective then it would be logical to suppose that times today should be significantly quicker than they were 30 years ago.

Long distance running is a simple concept. You put on some shoes and you run. If you want to improve, you run further and faster. It has always been run easy, run steady, run hard, repeat. In the past, the gauge was how you felt on the day. Has the training become neglected by complicating it with too many strength drills, core exercises and conditioning workouts?

In the 1980s the approach to long distance training was simple. Athletes ran over 160 km per week with the main run being a 30km on a Sunday morning and (quite often) another 16 that evening. During the week athletes ran with a group and did one or two hard sessions around a park or track. On the other days, they just ran. They didn’t need a blood lactate test at the track to know they were running hard. They could tell by the state of their lungs and how their legs felt. They knew whether they were improving because of the times on their watch. The training was basic and based around long miles and hard work. When not training, the athletes rested and did things outside of athletics. Some did drills while warming up but there were no days programmed for that specific activity. If you wanted to improve speed or technique, you added in hard sprints during the week. These could be on the flat or up a hill. Weight sessions and sit-ups were often done in the afternoon after an hour of running. When it came to nutrition, athletes ate meat, vegetables and potatoes. Recovery drinks were orange juice, milk or water. There were no protein powders, minerals or vitamin drinks. Like the training, it was simple.

The time at the end of the race is the only true indicator. If you haven’t improved during the season or over the last year, despite adding new drills, new strength work, new nutrition formulae or new science then maybe it is time to get back to the basics. Look back and see what the top NZ athletes used to do in the past. You might find they were running faster than you, because they were doing less fluff and actually training harder.