TRAINING: Anaerobic Art

For the last three training cycles, I have trodden onto the synthetic surface of either Charlesland or Irishtown’s running track with a feeling of anticipation as if a voice in my head said: “Now the season is really about to begin.”

Anaerobic training, in the form of intervals, arrives late in the Lydiard program and is not a regular activity as in many modern training systems (or those harking back before the 1960s when the New Zealander’s approach really took off). This makes it a novelty when it arrives but that is not the only benefit of waiting this long.

Interval training is the the most difficult, most dangerous, and perhaps the most misunderstood of all training approaches. It is also horrendously effective within a very short time but using it in a way that will aid your cause is almost an art.

Go2Lydiard’s Program

My suggested “short repetition” session of the week was 12-15x400m with 400m active recovery (jog) or until HR went below 120bpm and a fifteen minute warm-up and cooldown.

You are prescribed a pace range based on your previous race performances as well as a gradual progression of the toughness of your pace targets from week 1 to week 4 of anaerobic training.

The early week really only sets the stage for week 2 to 4, a clear departure from the oft-quoted approach of running yourself into the ground each track session. This was never Lydiard’s way.

Endurance on the track

My session today added up to 18km of running (12km during the interval session, 6km warm-up and cooldown) with only a few seconds of break here and there.

Surprisingly, I felt I could have done a good few more if needed, even with this volume, but my calves would not have thanked me. While aerobic training has many benefits, it is clear that in order to undertake sessions such as this you need to have built significant aerobic fitness and strength first. Neither my legs nor my fitness buckled today at any stage and that is the point – only that way could I keep forcing the body into oxygen debt, step by step, and slowly tire out my entire system.

What often occurs in intervals, is that people’s legs give out well before “systemic fatigue” (that is fatigue of the lungs, heart and other internal organs and systems) set in.

Applying intuition – trial and error

My target time for each 400s for the first week was set at 85 seconds (I remembered this wrong, however, and thought it was 83 seconds, as you can see below). Either way, this is just an educated guess, so I set off doing the first two of my repetitions simply going by what intensity I thought it should feel like to achieve the goals stated in the guidelines from the Go2Lydiard session descriptions.

When “calibrating” like this, I do not look at my watch until after the “test runs” are completed. The result was times of 83 seconds (first 400) and 84 seconds (second 400). Then I asked myself the question “think I could do this for another 10-13 reps?” I thought so, and continued, rarely looking at the watch to check results.

Choosing recovery

The second thing to note was my recovery. 400m sounds longer than many would use (it get’s shorter in the later weeks), but you can control your recovery by slowing down or speeding up your recovery pace.

Using this technique I found that my heart rate had generally dropped to around 134-138 by the time I had jogged 400m. To me, this felt like I was completely recovered and bearing in mind that heart rate is not 100% reliable (it is influenced by other factors than just exercise intensity) and that it did not seem useful to wait for it to drop to 120bpm, I decided to just adjust my pace so I would arrive at the end of each 400m recovery with a heart rate around 134-138.

How to measure tiredness

I did not look down on my watch or count my reps for the first eight or so repetitions, as I wanted to stop when I felt done, and not when the session called for it. Eventually, I felt like looking, and thought another 7 sounded like a lot, yet i quickly realised, my pace was not dropping and I did not feel that much worse for wear.

There was very little difference in performance from start to finish with the average of the last half only a second slower than that of the first half. The tiredness instead manifested itself in longer recovery periods. Starting out with recoveries of 2:09, most of the early recoveries were around 2:11-2:19. For the last five I needed 2:19-2:22 to recover while jogging. A clear indication that the strength to maintain the pace is not the main problem, but rather a decreasing ability to shake off the stress of anaerobic metabolism.

How to be a metronome

Running on a track is a great way to develop a sense of your own pace judgment and I feel I have become very strong in this area in the recent two years. My data confirms this: My average pace was 82 seconds (against the 83 seconds target I thought I had, and the 85 second target I really had).

The average deviation from my average pace was only 1.7% (equal to 1 second) per repetition without any guidance from the watch beyond the initial calibration. So you will do well to put trust in your ability to run by feel.

Go2Lydiard targets versus UCD test

Romain Denis’ physiological test of me seven weeks ago, suggested that my best interval pace should be at a running speed of 16kph and a heart rate of 174-179 (this was then my “lactate turnpoint” or the “non-steady state” where you can no longer rely mainly on your aerobic metabolism but are falling increasingly into oxygen debt.). General scientific consensus points to this as the most effective training zone for developing anaerobic capacity.

So how does it compare to reality? Well, firstly, the Lydiard system predicted that I would be faster at this stage (not unreasonable given another seven weeks of training, although I missed most in reality) and set the target pace at 3:33min/km (16.94kph versus Romain’s prediction of 16kph). Consider also that 400s are easier to maintain high speeds at than 1000s which can help explain the higher target.

When it comes to heart rate, Romain’s predictions were very close: The average of my heart rate counts at the end of each repetition was 175bpm (lower end of Romain’s range). You would expect to be in the lower end because 400s are so short (you only climb into the high 170s on the latter half of the rep) and because the week 1 sessions are meant to be transitional (towards the end, my goal will be around 77 seconds).

My pace was also higher than expected coming in at 3:25min/km pace (17.54kph) but this again can be explained by two factors: 1) 400s are relatively short and 2) heat dissipation is more effective outside than in the laboratory which allows higher performance levels.  

Any easier way to think about this?

Pace and intensity are two ways of trying to adjudicate your performance on the day but if it helps, you can equate your aims to a race pace that you are familiar with.

My pace today, for instance, is close to my 3k pace and faster than my 5k pace. For longer anaerobic sessions (4k to 7k of total hard running), this is the type of race paces you are looking for. I would start out at around 5k pace in the early weeks and build up to slightly faster than 3k race pace.

Maximal pace – handle with care

When doing 400s, your pace will invariably be even a bit faster than this, but the one barrier to avoid is to stray into middle-distance pace (for me, as a 5:10 miler, this area of pain begins at 3:13min/km or 18.6kph). This pace range is generally considered by physiologists to be in the “maximal effort” range (mine is 19kph and heart rates of 192bpm and above according to the test) and is a very specialised training form which eats heavily into your aerobic fitness and has limited value for long distance runners (it is essential for middle-distance runners).

A mistake I have often seen runners of my level do is to go out and run their first one or two 400s in 71-72 seconds and after that struggle to break ninety seconds. This is entirely predictable because the pace they are playing with is closing in on their 400 to 800m race pace. Quality workout terminates very quickly at these speeds and localised (rather than systemic) fatigue sets in. In layman’s terms this means your legs turn to jelly and you’ll have to drag them along with you for the rest of the session to fatigue your heart, lungs and the rest sufficiently or abandon the session before you can achieve this objective.

Windsprints – maximal effort?

Lydiard’s system, even for long distance runners, introduces a degree of this type of speed with the “wind-sprints” in the coordination phase but these are not as harmful and can safely be done by long distance men.

The reason is that the windsprints are no longer than 100m meaning you employ the “alactic” (that is “non-lactic” anaerobic system) which does not create the detrimental side-effects of 400-1 mile race paces. What they do instead is induce localised fatigue (turning your legs to jelly) basically through repeated, and harmless, sprinting.

How hard is hard enough?

An interesting difference I noted between today’s workout and prior year’s workouts was that I was a bit tired afterwards and then got a pretty strong endorphin reaction (hyperactive excitement basically) before stabilising during the afternoon.

Traditionally, I have felt tired, then got the endorphin reaction, and then felt wiped for the rest of the day and usually the next. I think here-in lies the difference between Lydiard’s dictum of “train, don’t strain” and proper dosage versus “going to the well.”

In the Lydiard program featuring six or seven days of running, I need to be able to recover to do another interval session 48 hours after the first and then a Progress Calibration Run (basically a tempo) another 48 hours later. And it is not all complete rest in between these three runs.

Example: On Saturday I need to be ready to run 66 minutes at ten mile to half-marathon intensity, then do a long run and then be ready for a session of 5-7x1000m reps @ 3:40min/km pace (with warm-up likely to be 16-20km of running) and so on. If I attempted to annihilate myself in each workout, this is unlikely to be sustainable for very long.

With those words, best of luck to anyone else out there dabbling in this magical art of anaerobic intervals, a topic this blog will undoubtedly return to in the future many times.