10 October 2009
Group training, both at altitude and sea level, is integral to endurance performance gains, according to the panel of experts who gathered in Birmingham for the UKA Endurance Conference on Friday.
In a hugely successful forum for endurance athletes and coaches, 140 flocked to the Jury’s Inn in Birmingham, to hear from the superb array of endurance expertise brought together by this weekend’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships
The panelists, Wilson Kipketer, three times world 800m champion and World Record holder; Alberto Salazar, triple New York Marathon winner; World Championship 1500m silver medallist Lisa Dobriskey and her coach George Gandy; former World and Commonwealth 10000m gold medallist and Olympic silver medallist Liz McColgan; Chair of Men's Long Distance Running for USATF Glenn Latimer and UKA Head of Endurance and Meeting Director Ian Stewart, agreed that individuals benefited from the competition generated through group sessions and from sharing knowledge, but that it must be underlined by a hard work ethic and increased training volume.
“Endurance is a numbers game,” says Gandy, “it’s possible to work in large groups in endurance and out of large numbers we’ve developed quality.”
“I’ve trained with 60 athletes in workouts,” adds Dobriskey, “I’m targeting guys ahead of me, while there are a group of female athletes behind me closing the gap.”
Salazar, the force behind the ‘Oregon Project’, is relieved to have witnessed a revival in track clubs across the States - a re-invention of a previously successful concept.
“In the 1970s/1980s this happened all the time,” he explains, “but by the late 80s/early 90s that had dissolved. Since around 2000 we’ve started to see a gradual revival. Things had got so bad that we were celebrating real mediocrity. The Oregon Project was created to promote US distance running and to ensure US athletes had the opportunity to train together and access support. As athletes have started to migrate to create groups across the country, we’re now seeing more track clubs starting up.”
“The groups have come together through frustration,” adds Latimer, “in the same way it’s happening in the UK now. You have to do something about it.”
The man charged with leading the UK revival is Ian Stewart, Olympic 5000m bronze medallist in Munich 1972 and former European and Commonwealth champion. While he strongly advocates group training - including endurance training weekends, which, he says, “should be about running, and not just talking about running” - he wants to take that concept to altitude. “I don’t think we’ve embraced altitude training,” he says. “We also need to open it up to a broader base – the pyramid needs to be wider than it has been over the past 15 years.”
Mileage is key, the panel agreed, but only with controlled progression. “We’ve fallen into a malaise of ‘less is more’” says Stewart, “but that should only ever come into effect prior to a major championship.”
In short, the focus should be on building quantity in order to develop a significant aerobic base.
“When the Oregon project got off the ground we had to recruit athletes that had proved themselves over 5k and 10k, guys that had run 13:35/28:20. I thought I could get them down to 13:20/27:40 then move them up to the marathon,” says Salazar, who coaches Kara Goucher, third in the 2008 New York City Marathon in 2:25:53, the fastest ever debut by an American woman, Dathan Ritzenhein, the American 5000m record holder with 12:56.27 and Galen Rupp, the US 5000m indoor record holder and 2009 USA 10000m champion. “At Boston Track Club we had six/seven guys under 2:11/2:12 for the marathon. I figured with the pace my guys had we’d beat that easily. What I didn’t realise was that the guys I was with were hitting 120/130 miles per week. You need a huge aerobic base and you need to build that over time.”
McColgan, for example, was averaging 120 miles/week in marathon training and peaking at 145. Such was her commitment and drive, she was running 120 miles per week when she was five months pregnant with her eldest daughter Eilish. Twelve weeks after Eilish was born she finished third in the World Cross Country Championships.
“You need to coach the athletes to deliver in competition,” says Kipketer. “If the target is the Europeans, that’s what you build towards with your training.”
“The competition programme has changed, there’s a difference in the way we operate,” adds Gandy. “We used to have less competition choices – mostly people targeted one major championship per year and for the rest of the time went out and ran miles. We need to work more on just running.”
As the panelists’ discussion reverted back to altitude, Latimer, while in support of the concept, acknowledged that McColgan enjoyed success while opting to train in hot, humid conditions, stating: “Altitude is good, but it’s not the only thing that works and it’s not for everyone.”
And while it works, training at altitude is not like waving a magic wand, a point reinforced by both Salazar and Stewart. “You’ve got to be in great shape when you get there, and then you’ve got to train like hell,” says Stewart. “If the wheels are falling off, it won’t save you.”
“It’s not a stresser,” adds Salazar, “but if you can learn to use it, you’ll improve.”