TRAINING: Two ways to train

My marathon preparations are beginning to gather pace again after a busy summer. This time I am taking my training into unknown territory. I have finally abandoned the last vestiges of the physiological approach to running that has dominated our sport for over 50 years since exercise physiologists rose to prominence as the de-facto experts on what is right and wrong for runners and returned to a holistic view where we respect the body as a dynamic inter-connected system.

A brief history of “The Great Split”

What happened is very similar to what happened in the fitness industry, and I recount how Tony Riddle first told me the story of “How Arnie and body-building corrupted strength and conditioning.” Essentially everyone became obsessed about training muscle, protein shakes and so on to the exclusion of all else – including quality of movement. The mainstream fitness industry is still crawling out of the black hole it fell into then but many brilliant coaches are now leading the way back to movement-focused training.

Running as a sport became obsessed with esoteric physiological variables such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold, muscle fibre composition, capillarisation, aerobics/anaerobics (energy systems), lactate shuttles and after 30 years had passed it was suddenly an epiphany (although still contested) that our brains (or more precisely – mind) have a role to play in performance.While this constituted a huge step forward for the granular understanding of how the body works, the big picture was lost, the view of the human body as an intricate system and the art of training “the whole” instead of “the parts”.

The old school coaches like Cerutty and Lydiard stood on the border when this shift happened. A new generation would grow up learning about physiology before they understood basic movement. Had the same thing occurred in motorsport, driving instructors would have shifted their focus to learning about car engineering at the expense of driving techniques.

Return of the Renaissance Man

“Today we have regressed to a point that resembles the pre-Renaissance. Knowledge has once again hardened into rigid categories, with intellectuals shut off in various ghettos. Intelligent people are considered serious by virtue of how deeply they immerse themselves into one field of study, their viewpoint becoming more and more myopic.” – Robert Green

This evening I completed my second “technical workout” in two days. I began wearing VivoBarefoot Aqualites but had to take them off almost immediately as, on this night, the shoe interfered with my technique and made my lower legs tight.

When you perform a bad movement some times and a good movement other times it’s like having a “tug-of-war” in the nervous system. You’re confusing it. It was like, on this night, the old pattern was battling to return. Only by running on hard and rough tarmac with no filter between me and the ground could I get my mind to execute the correct pattern – it was like “an exorcism of bad technique” with the hard surface playing the role of “The Exorcist”. Thousands of miles were executed with that old movement pattern – when I blindly tried to make my heart stronger and train my “energy systems” at the expense of all else.

In the Renaissance they pursued an ideal called “Universal Man” – a person who tried to master as complete and broad a skillset of abilities and knowledge as possible. In our fragmented world we have never needed this ideal more.

Training more than physiology

In Tony Riddle’s coaching model there are three pillars which we have adopted fully in the ChampionsEverywhere model: physical (physiology sits here), psychology and technical. In my interpretation technique is the interface that connects mind and body, the physical and the mental.  The better the technique the better the mind moves the body). Endurance, strength and other factors are not skills in my book – they are just manifestations of how well developed these three pillars are.

Tonight’s run, just as yesterday’s, trains all three in harmony instead of just one. I could have taken on a big clunky pair of shoes with foam as thick as burger buns and hammered myself for 2 hours for the sake of giving my heart maximum stimulus or trying to build more capillaries paying no attention to the quality of my movement or how my mind perceives the training (bad movement stresses your psychology and over time builds up tension).

With tonight’s run I forced myself into an environment where any flaw in my technical execution was immediately exposed (as in – just one heel strike would hurt – there where none). This trains the mind at the same time – because the new style is not entirely second-nature for me yet, the old one lurking in my subconscious waiting for an opening to return, I need to focus my attention on what I am doing. Once my mental energy is drained my stride would fall apart. I did not take it to that point of failure. Ankles that were in a constant state of inflammation two years ago absorbed each impact with no help. A plantar arch riddled with fasciitis for 18 months collapsed and sprung back happily on each foot strike.

Quality first, always…

In this type of training, we essentially put Quality first and then move into Quantity (a more traditional endurance phase) and then Intensity (race specific work). But the three pillars are with us all the way – there is never an excuse for running with poor movement – whether in a 3 hour long run or 10x400m. If I do not have the mental and technical ability to keep a reasonable running stride, then the session will be changed to a level where I can keep this. Quality comes first.

So this is where the journey continues into the Autumn – with a new training system, unlike any plan I have previously undertaken. While it stands on the shoulders of countless giants  (Pilates, Lydiard, Hebert, Amoros, Newton, Cerutty, Tulloh, Romanov, Daniels,  and many more) whose ideas all led into its creation after our fortuitous meeting with Tony, it is not a replica of any of these approaches. It’s more like their love-child (!) and I look forward to sharing how this type of training looks on these pages and my experiences with it. I took a few baby-steps when I first realised the implications of what I learned in London almost 2 years ago now but thankfully I have removed any compromise-solutions from my training in recent months. It is not worthwhile taking 2 steps forward just to take 1 back every now and again.


Gary said…
Hi René, at what point do you think you will be in a position to tackle your marathon PB, or is focussing on improvement/race times an 'old-world' concept? Are you more focussed on building and living 'in the now'?
No cynicism, genuinely interested!
Renny said…
Great question. Improvement/race times are not old-world concepts. Sport just like life needs to be related to a practical outcome in my view. That means if you're building muscle my question would be "for what"?

I run to compete. Some people run because they just love to do it. My assessment of the situation in 2012 with the 2:55 time was that it took me 12 weeks of roughly 70-100km per week to do it. With the technique I had and the footwear, injuries were sneaking back in and the race caused me an early stage stress fracture in one foot.

I knew then that to be able to fulfil my belief that any average man should be able to break 2:30, it would require a training load that my technical ability did not match. I also did not want to achieve better times at the expense of my long-term health (my feeling was that I could get to 2:40 with my current technique but it would be at the price of my joints later in life).

Hard to predict when I can challenge it but from the evidence we see in others (like Aoife) and myself earlier in the year - it takes only 6-12 weeks of specific conditioning (on top of the new technique) to blow the old PBs away.

Gut feeling is that I need to polish off the technical aspect for another 6-12 weeks and then it will take a further 6-12 weeks to break the old PBs. But I have created a 9-year plan with clear progressions each year towards the overall target. If I don't run sub-2:50 this year I will be behind schedule, so I still hope to make that a reality by end of year.
Renny said…
So perhaps to summarise for general readers who see this: I do not think race results and times are irrelevant but I think that when training the quality of movement is the priority because that is the real "base of the pyramid" - not general conditioning (that comes after).

There's no beauty score for a race (and rightly so) so once race day arrives only the result counts. But for me personally, and as a coach, the process matters. Put on a fine point - I have no interest in just putting someone on high mileage, see him run good times and then picking up an injury or hitting a performance ceiling because his form is poor.

I'd rather ram home top class movement until it's completely subconscious to the athlete and then add conditioning. To me it seems the most responsible way to train but I realise it might not sound attractive to spend 6 to 18 months "reprogramming" bad habits.

When assessing a result like "2:55" I am just trying to keep a balanced view - sure it was a good time for me at the time but it was achieved by almost wrecking my body and it wasn't fun either. Erwan le Corre summarised my view nicely thus:

"There is more to building a body than building muscles, and there is more to building a human being than building its body. To me fitness is the level of your energy at every level, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. This is old school, in the sense that the ancient Greeks thought like that, all the main pioneers of physical education in Europe all thought like that."
Gary said…
Cheers. Great answer. I subscribe to the 'sub 2:40 at the price of my joints later in life' school of philosophy! Have broken 2:40, but as expected, every year gets a little tougher and the niggles get worse. I know that the idea of pushing through my body's current limitations is not a good one and will ultimately realize a longer term injury, so will follow your progress with interest (not enough interest to drink the cool-aid, but enough interest to peer through the microscope!).
Renny said…
Cheer Gary, pressure is on to set a good example then!