"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Interval Training 1: History

The first coach to use interval training for runners was Woldemar Gerschler, who, with the aid of a physician, tried to develop a method to train the heart as one would train other muscles. They found that repeated runs of 100-200 meters was best and they had great success with one runner, who set the world record for 400 meters. That particular method did not work for longer distances.

Gerschler's countryman, Franz Stampfl, moved from Germany to England (because of World War II) and brought the interval training idea with him. His idea was different: a runner who can't run a 4 minute mile could still run 2 miles at the same pace, if divided into quarter miles. This allowed runners to do more work at race pace than before. His idea caught the attention of medical student Roger Bannister, who used his medical background and Stampfl's method to break the 4 minute barrier. Bannister's book only mentions the last 10 workouts he did, which has caused endless troubles for those who tried to repeat his success - he was tapering at the time. Running 400 meters in a minute 10 times with a 2-3 minute rest interval is still the starting point for those wishing to break 4 minutes. The idea of training more at race pace falls apart beyond the 5K distance - it's interesting to note that Great Britain has produced many great 800-3000 meter runners, but few great long distance runners.

The next development involved Mihaly Igloi, Emil Zatopek and others. Though one couldn't train for a marathon by running a dozen 3 mile repeats, interval training did still have the advantage of being consistent and measureable (while one's stopwatch measures to .01 seconds, most runner's courses are off by a few per cent - almost always short). Here, the idea was to do an interval workout and then build upon it, either by increasing the number of repetitions, increasing the pace, lengthening each repeat or decreasing the time interval in between reps. This led to a bewildering array of different interval workouts, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

Gerry Purdy and Jim Gardner made the brilliant leap to using empirical evidence. At the time (late 1960s -early 1970s), there were enough runners doing enough different workouts to compare them. Their book "Compterized Running Training Programs" allowed one to make comparisons between races; it worked fairly well for a large number of runners (I still refer to it as a shortcut). The most useful information was that runners could only run at 95% effort once, but could run at 90% two or three times with a 4-5 minute rest, 85% four or five times with a 3-4 minute rest, 80% six to nine times with a 2-3 minute rest, 75% ten to fifteen times with a 90-120 second rest and 70% up to 30 times with a 60-90 second rest... AT ANY DISTANCE. The percentages were easily found with a few equations (hence the "computerized" in the title). This allowed coaches to write workouts quickly for several members of a team at once and every college coach had a copy. Then, every high school coach used it. This led to a lot of high school students learning to hate interval running.

Little changed for decades in interval training, as other training methods became favored. Most recently (1980s), interval training for specific physiologic results, such as maximizing the volume of oxygen delivered by the heart per minute (ala Jack Daniels) has been the norm.

Next, I'll try to unravel that physiology and give practical advice on interval training and it's cousin fartlek.

1 comment:

keith said...

So for the distance minded runner, how does interval training help? I feel like I did too much speedwork last year about this time and didn't have enough of a base...although that may be changing somewhat now.

You're fast, what kind of interval training do you do?