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LEARN THE TRAINING METHODS OF THE WORLD’S BEST ATHLETES

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Emil Zatopek – Marathon Training Insights

Emil Zatopek – Marathon Training Insights

Once described by an observer as resembling “a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt,” Zatopek’s style was unorthodox. But he was notorious for unrelenting grit, not smooth running. “I shall learn to have a better style,” he retorted, “once they start judging races according to their beauty.” His was not an effortless lope that carried him smoothly across the track, Milne of Athletics Weekly once reported on a race: “He ran as only a Zátopek could run such a distance one moment looking like a super-tuned machine, the next like a fugitive from justice; grimacing painfully in one lap, smiling contentedly in the next, and finally winding up with a last lap that would have done credit to a first-class miler.”

Interval training wasn’t invented by Zatopek, but after a lull in its use by athletes during the period of WWII it was Zatopek who began to push its use to new extremes. When he first began his experiments with startlingly high-volume interval training in the forests of Stara Boleslav (often run in his army boots, through the snow and mud), contemporaries were appalled. ‘Everyone said, “Emil, you are a fool!”’ he reminisced. ‘But when I first won the European Championship, they said: “Emil, you are a genius!”’

At the time the use of such techniques was not standard practice. Emil was not known for his natural speed, and the training was aimed at running a fast pace, with recovery allowing repetitions and a gradual extension of the cumulative distance that could be run at that increased pace. “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast.”

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Taking To The Trails – How It Will Help You Be A Better Runner

Taking To The Trails – How It Will Help You Be A Better Runner

Recently the Sweat Elite Podcast has featured ultrarunners Jim Walmsley and Tom Evans, and just this week we sat down and had a chat with the undisputed king of the mountains, Kilian Jornet. These three strong athletes have many things in common, but a standout is that a huge proportion of their training is on trails. They do most of their competitions in the mountains, so that makes sense… but all three of them, along with many other athletes, agree that running on trails offers myriad benefits the road cannot.

Getting off sealed surfaces doesn’t mean you have to immediately direct your focus towards running a mountainous hundred miler, it can form an integral part of training for shorter distances on the road and track. Many athletes who have seen great success in more traditional running have also spent a great deal of time running off road.

The Ethiopian greats Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele have spent hundreds of hours running the uneven, hilly terrain through the forests surrounding Addis Ababa. Many of Kipchoge’s runs are along muddy, rutted roads and paths through the Kenyan countryside. Nick Willis recently wrote the following in an “Advice to my younger self” letter posted on the World Athletics site: “Based as you are in Wellington, you are surrounded by hills and the city is home to several world mountain running champions – so why then are you so terrified of running hills?”

What is it about getting out onto the trails that can be so beneficial? Here we will look at just a few ways that it can help you to reach your running goals and become a more well-rounded athlete in the process.

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Tokai University – Training for Hakone Ekiden

Tokai University – Training for Hakone Ekiden

The ekiden is what lies at the core of the Japanese prowess in long distance running. Ekidens are long distance relays, which can take place over multiple days and have legs of varying lengths. The most prestigious of all is the Hakone Ekiden, a race which sees the top universities of the Kanto region around Tokyo compete, captivating the nation every January. Hakone Ekiden was inaugurated in 1920 by Shizo Kanakuri – known as the father of the marathon in Japan – with teams running from 108km from Tokyo to Hakone on the first day (January 2) and 109.9km back to Tokyo the next.

Tokai University took the crown in the 2019 edition of the race, with the ten athletes covering the whole course in a stunning 10:52:09. That’s 3:00.2/km, the fastest time ever run on the current version of the course. This year’s iteration of the race, the 96th time it has been run, saw a demolition of the records. Seven of the ten segment records were beaten, and Aoyama Gakuin University was the winner with a total time of 10:45:23, Tokai came in second in 10:48:25, also well under their old course record.

During our trip to Japan this year Tokai’s assistant coach – Noriaki Nishide – kindly invited us to join a session taking place on the university’s royal blue track. It was an absolute pleasure to watch Nishide working closely with head coach Hayashi Morozumi, overseeing the orderly procession of their athletes ripping through mile repeats.

Morozumi was one of Japan’s most successful high school coaches before moving to Tokai. Suguru Osako, the national record holder for the marathon (2:05:29 – set at the Tokyo Marathon 2020, the day after the session we watched), rose to prominence under his tutelage, among many other top athletes. Under Morozumi’s guidance the Tokai team have made steady improvement over the past few years.

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Jim Walmsley – The Road to Atlanta

Jim Walmsley – The Road to Atlanta

His training is heavily volume based. Jim’s huge aerobic base that has served so well in the ultras is the foundation for his performance in these shorter road races too, with the speed work and increased leg turnover serving as the icing on top. At the end of a 283km/175 mile week in December, balancing heavy training with the stresses of having family in town over the holiday season – think, fitting in Christmas celebrations around a 49km run… – was becoming a bit much. Despite feeling strong, the accumulated miles were amassing in the legs, leading to feeling slower and entering the realm of overtraining. It was decided to abandon the plan for a 300km+/186 mile week and hold constant at the 175 mile mark. All of this was relatively slow running, with few structured sessions – but finishing each session with some strides to work on “hidden speed”.

Following this he started to lower the mileage and ratchet up the speed work, preparing for a half marathon in Phoenix. With only three weeks of speed sessions, sometimes two sessions in a day, he jokingly says he was “cramming for the half marathon”. He decided to take to the track, wanting to see some fast times on the watch. “Before the half marathon I was trying to stay on the track a bit more to get the leg speed up, and my confidence with running that speed a little higher.” A lot of these sessions were on a track down at Sedona (4,300ft/1,320m) rather than Flagstaff (7,000ft/2100m) where Jim lives and does most of his training.

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Fitness Loss – How Fast Does It Happen?

Fitness Loss – How Fast Does It Happen?

In a 1990 study Houmard et al looked at detraining of experience endurance runners who were averaging 81km per week in training (~60km at ~75% VO2 max and 21km at ~95% VO2 max). Over a three-week period of detraining the athletes cut their volume by 70% to 24km, maintaining the intensity distribution with 17km at ~75% of VO2 max and 7km at ~90% VO2 max.

The participants in the study had an increase in maximum heart rate (2.3%), and plasma volume decreased (-5.6%) during the period of reduced training, so some physiological adaptations regressed. However, performance saw no change, with VO2 max and 5km time trial results holding steady. Another significant finding in this study was also that time to exhaustion during VO2 max testing increased by 9.5%, suggesting that the decreased training left the athletes much fresher. These results indicate that being smart with limited time or training capacity can still help massively in maintaining running performance.    

These changes also appear to be less pronounced in older athletes and athletes who have trained for a longer time. Which makes sense, the accumulated progression and adaptations from consistent training over a long time are more entrenched, and therefore more resistant to deterioration than acute improvements in performance from relatively shorter training blocks.      

As Ross puts it, defending physiology requires much less work than earning that physiology, and a little goes a long way. With races off and freedom of movement restricted in many places, despondency is pervasive. But lamenting the situation and the certainty of your lost fitness gains won’t serve you well. These studies highlight that even though it may be difficult to stick to training plans and complete hard sessions, a significantly reduced load of training still goes a very long way to preserving the physiological adaptations for which you have laboured.

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Tom Evans – Pushing Limits in the World of Ultrarunning

Tom Evans – Pushing Limits in the World of Ultrarunning

A few weeks ago we sat down to record a podcast episode with British athlete Tom Evans for some insight into his life as an ultrarunner. Having only recently devoted himself to running full-time – leaving the military to focus on athletics – as we sat down Tom said, “I’m really excited to share some of my knowledge, some of my wisdom that I’ve built up over my very short running career so far.” Throughout our conversation, Tom shared captivating anecdotes of his journey into ultrarunning and a wealth of information on his training that has taken him to where he is now.

Articulate and charming, Tom Evans, an ex-captain in the Welsh Guards, has had an unorthodox trajectory to reach the upper echelon of the ultrarunning world. The now twenty-eight-year-old initially tested the turbulent waters of ultras by diving headfirst into the scalding Saharan vortex that is the 251km self-supported stage race, Marathon Des Sables. What’s more is that this came about from a bet in a pub, where Tom thought that he could outdo some mates who had recently placed in the top three hundred of the 2016 edition of the race.

With six months of preparation – self-coached, with no proper training plan and without much direction – Tom managed to place third in the 2017 MDS. A slew of impressive results followed, with Tom taking out first place at the 2018 edition of the 100km Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc CCC event and third at the Western States Endurance Race hundred miler in 2019 – becoming the first non-American to go sub-15 hours at the event. Tom prepared for some of these mountain races whilst still based in London. When asked about how this worked, he responded “running is running, no matter where you’re doing it.” But he also admits that he had to run some sessions that were a bit “outside the box.”   

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Lactic Acid – Friend or Foe?

Lactic Acid – Friend or Foe?

Another commonly held belief is that the warm down after a hard workout or the shake out the next day is important to ‘help get the lactic out of the legs’. However, again the science doesn’t back this up. Yes, walking or jogging does shorten the time it takes for lactate levels to return to normal, but this return to baseline occurs relatively quickly anyway. By the time someone is doing a shakeout the day after a race or hard session, the lactate generated by that effort has long ago left the muscles. And where is it going? This is where lactate being a fuel source again comes into play, according to Brooks, after ‘exhaustive’ exercise lactate then becomes the preferred energy source, being burned up by muscles that are no longer using anaerobic respiration, and by the liver to regenerate glucose.

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Nick Willis – Train Smarter, Not Harder

Nick Willis – Train Smarter, Not Harder

Some example sessions:

4 mile tempo (5:00/mile), 4 x 1000m (2:50), 2 x 300m (41), 2 x 400 (56), 600 (1:21)

400 (59), 800 (1:58), 1200 (2:57), 2 x 200 (26), 2 x 300 (38), 400 (50.5)

The Michigan – 1,600m @ 10km pace – 2km tempo – 1,200m @ 5km pace – 2km tempo – 800m @ 3k pace – 2km tempo – 400m all out… Nick has run it with the following splits: 1600m – 4.20, 1200m – 3.13, 800 – 1.58, 400 – 52

200 (26), 1,000 (2:27), 400 (58), 6 x 200 (29)

3 mile tempo (14:10), 7 x 300 (42)

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Japanese Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 2)

Japanese Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 2)

Discipline, honour, self-restraint. These are some of the stereotypical character traits people think of when considering Japan. However, devotion to athletics and a motivation to succeed are not enough, in isolation, to explain how so many athletes are competing at such a high level in Japan. Ekiden and the elevated position it holds in the collective conscience of the nation explains a bit more of the situation. However, a final factor that we found came up over and again was the integral role of corporations in the fabric of Japanese running culture. I’m not talking about Mizuno, Asics and Nike.

Many corporations within Japan – Honda, Japan Rail, Kanebo Cosmetics– employ athletes to race and train in-house. The living expenses of the athletes are taken care of, food is cooked by in-house chefs that prepare a menu laboriously agonised over by a nutritionist. Training takes place multiple times per day – some runners in the corporate system reportedly average more than 600 miles (965km) per month – and around these sessions the athletes spend time with the team’s physiotherapists, strength coaches and masseurs. In addition to such extensive support from the team, living expenses being covered, and daily tasks such as cooking being taken care of, athletes running in the corporate teams reportedly receive a salary of US$35,000 and upwards each, depending on performance and their stature within the sport – there are plenty of high performers on six-figure salaries.

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Japan Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 1)

Japan Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 1)

Japan. Nihon. The Land of the Rising Sun. A country globally renown for many things. A rich cultural history. A cuisine like no other. The world’s largest metropolis – Tokyo. And… running?

Japan is not one of the nations that first comes to mind when most people think about the global running scene. However, in the marathon distance, Japan comes in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia when looking at the number of athletes in the top thousand marathon times in history. Japan has over one-hundred athletes that have run sub-2:10 in the marathon. Compare this to the USA: with a population nearing triple that of Japan – and massive infrastructure surrounding their collegiate athletics system – the States have only twenty athletes that have run sub-2:10 (thirteen if you exclude record-ineligible Boston).

Our interest piqued, we decided to plunge headfirst into the Japanese running scene and investigate what was going on.

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How Much Protein Do Athletes Need? (Part 2)

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need? (Part 2)

It’s interesting that despite studies suggesting that the (already elevated) recommendations for protein intake by endurance athletes may be too low – failing to optimise performance – there are many top endurance athletes who controvert this. An interesting study looked at the dietary habits of elite runners in Kenya.

The athletes were consuming a diet very high in carbohydrates (76.5%, 10.4 g/kg of body mass per day) and low in fat (13.4%). Protein intake represented 10.1% of their total calories which worked out to be 1.3 g/kg per day, which matches the recommendations by the American College of Sports Medicine mentioned above. Another interesting point is that the estimated energy intake of the athletes (2987 ± 293 kcal) was lower than energy expenditure (3605 ± 119 kcal).

This aligns with what we witnessed whilst training with Kipchoge and other elites in Kenya. Coming in from a long run, there was no sign of protein shakes. The snacks of choice were bananas, white bread and milky tea saturated with sugar. The authors of this study also noted that fluid intake by the Kenyan athletes studied was modest, mainly in the form of water (1113 ± 269 mL) and tea (1243 ± 348 mL). Their conclusions: “Although the diet met most recommendations for endurance athletes for macronutrient intake, it remains to be determined if modifying energy balance and fluid intake will enhance the performance of elite Kenyan runners.”
Here we take a look at some of the research and recommendations on how much protein athletes should be consuming, and the reasons why. There’s no universal answer but I hope this will provide some interesting points to consider when making dietary choices. Protein is obviously of significance – playing a key role in myriad bodily functions – but figuring out how much, what type and when you should be consuming protein is really quite a confusing undertaking. It’s by no means as simple as protein = gains. I mean, firstly, what is protein?

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How Much Protein Do Athletes Need? (Part 1)

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need? (Part 1)

Protein! A hype word like no other in the health and fitness world. Endless tomes of information and misinformation on the subject lurk out there on the internet, with mud-slinging fights aplenty in any forum you care to look at. There is likely no other dietary component that inspires as much debate, insofar as athletes are concerned, as protein. This article isn’t being published to add more fuel to the fire, and I must warn you that there’s no magical solution proffered in the conclusion. Nutrition is something that different bodies react to in different ways and if someone is trying to bludgeon you with a concrete opinion, it’s probably worth questioning their motives.

Here we take a look at some of the research and recommendations on how much protein athletes should be consuming, and the reasons why. There’s no universal answer but I hope this will provide some interesting points to consider when making dietary choices. Protein is obviously of significance – playing a key role in myriad bodily functions – but figuring out how much, what type and when you should be consuming protein is really quite a confusing undertaking. It’s by no means as simple as protein = gains. I mean, firstly, what is protein?

read more
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