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This Low-Volume Rubbish
By: John Kellogg, aka JK
August 6, 2004

"Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

In the 1970s, it was common for American runners - even high schoolers - to average well over 100 miles per week during their preseason periods. At that time, such a practice was in no way considered outrageous; it was merely the kind of thing serious runners did if they had big dreams. It was no coincidence that high school marks in the distance events were at an all-time high during this period, followed by a banner crop of American road runners and long track event specialists in the ensuing years. This higher mileage fell out of favor among high schoolers in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, being replaced by low-volume, high intensity work, and performances significantly declined from both a top-end standpoint and from a depth perspective. The cycle of mediocrity continued for American runners long past their high school careers and into adulthood.

With the popularity of Internet message boards and mailing lists in the late 1990s, the training methods of many former American greats have been disseminated at a grassroots level. Subsequently, there has been a return to higher mileage and more aerobically-based training, and performances have returned to (and even surpassed) pre-1980s standards at the high school, college and post-college levels.

But how can slow running make you faster?

Recent advances in physiology have shown that improvements in specific endurance-related indicators such as mitochondrial enzyme activity, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and other determinants can be elicited just as dramatically through higher intensity work without prodigious volumes of slower running. These findings have fueled the long-standing debate among runners, physiologists, fans and other enthusiasts as to whether the high mileage base work can be eliminated entirely from a training regime with equally impressive results. Many physiologists argue that it can indeed be excluded. Most serious runners who have actually acquired a base say that it cannot be omitted. History points compellingly to the fact that the vast majority of elite runners have at one time in their lives obtained a substantial base, but no one has been able to show exactly how high mileage base training contributes to improved performances. Obviously, the scientists are overlooking something - perhaps a single enigmatic ingredient or, more likely, some subtle interaction of many such factors. It is entirely possible that part of the answer has to do with relaxation, which fosters coordination (i.e., the elimination of tension and wasted motion), which in turn promotes superior economy.

In running, economy is defined by the amount of oxygen required by an athlete to sustain a steady pace. The lower the runner's VO2 is at a given pace, the higher the runner's economy is at that pace. An athlete's oxygen consumption is also directly related to the amount of energy substrate (stored fuel) used during exercise. Carbohydrate (also known as CHO, which is short for "Carbon-Hydrogen-Oxygen") is stored as glycogen in the skeletal muscles and in the liver. The glycogen stored in the muscles is the primary substrate used during moderate or intense physical activity. It is broken down into glucose (C6H12O6) for ATP energy production. Basically, 5.0 kilocalories of glycogen are used per liter of O2 consumed.

In long races, a runner's economy becomes extremely important inasmuch as poor economy (a high oxygen demand) at the chosen pace results in squandering available glycogen, which eventually leads to severe depletion. In shorter, faster-paced races, CHO depletion is not a factor, but higher economy allows for a larger fraction of the race's energy requirements to be met aerobically, thus forestalling the onset of acidosis.

Economy is influenced by many factors, some of which are efficient selection and mobilization of muscle motor units, contractile properties of the muscles themselves, the capacity to buffer acidosis and the ability to reconvert lactate to other metabolites or use it as a fuel. Some strategies for improving economy may be addressed in future articles.

How relaxation may pay dividends

Slow running maintains very low muscle lactate levels, which is likely one of the key factors in its ability to influence economy. As mentioned, higher intensity will also create important changes (such as mitochondrial density), but the resulting acidosis interferes with efficient movements (ultimately even inhibiting muscle contractions), which reinforces less orchestrated recruitment patterns and promotes inferior use of available oxygen. Relaxation is therefore synonymous with efficiency; i.e., using the fewest number of muscle motor units required to accomplish your task with the lowest O2 requirement. In simple terms, this means "channeling your energy" to avoid the wasted motion and excess tension that detracts from forward propulsion and invariably leads to premature anaerobic metabolism.

With sufficient high mileage running over time, your body will adopt the gait mechanics which provide the highest economy. This has less to do with the outward appearance of good form and more to do with the way muscle fibers are mobilized and the way muscle groups work in unison to eliminate wasteful movements such as vertical oscillation. Some very experienced runners may exhibit apparently crude form, but this may actually be correcting for other unseen imbalances - perhaps leg length discrepancies, mild scoliosis, overpronation, or even joint or muscle weaknesses brought on by factors such as poor mineral absorption. Even non-prime mover groups such as back and buttocks muscles must work together in concert with other factors such as arm carriage to hold a runner comfortably in an upright position during a race. With enough relaxed running, these muscle groups become very proficient at eliminating tension and using the lowest energy requirements needed to perform the task.

Another advantage of slow, exertion-free running is that it provides some light muscle activation and blood flow with extremely low impact stress and little chance for muscle cell stress or overload. Very easy jogging is also beneficial for management of metabolism. Many of the top Japanese marathoners perform daily "shake-out" jogs at 8:00 per mile or slower to supplement their primary sessions of stronger-paced running. One of the purposes of such relaxed jogging is to promote weight stabilization. Arthur Lydiard (widely considered the founder of periodization and marathon-style training for track athletes) also recommends a few miles of light jogging as an adjunct to the faster aerobic running that comprises the staple training of his preseason program. Lydiard believes the Japanese runners may actually be overemphasizing the longer endurance work at the expense of shorter speedwork; however, it is hard to argue against the Japanese results: a horde of male marathoners in the 2:06-2:10 range and an army of female runners between 2:19 and 2:24.

All systems must be optimized

It has been hypothesized by many athletes and physiologists (triple Olympic gold medalist Dr. Peter Snell among them) that slow or moderate-paced running, if done long enough, would actually necessitate recruitment of "fast twitch" (FT) muscle fibers (motor units) as "slow twitch" (ST) units become depleted. However, this is almost certainly not true in runners unless the speed is increased near the end of a long run or unless strides or drills are used at the conclusion of the run. It has been demonstrated conclusively that performing long single runs or maintaining regular high mileage definitely depletes both ST and FT units, causing adaptations (such as increases in glycogen synthetase and other oxidative enzymes) which improve oxidative capacity of the fibers.

In unfatigued muscles, motor unit recruitment is regulated according to Henneman's "size principle." Small motor neurons, which innervate slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers, have the lowest threshold for synaptic activation and are recruited first. Requirements for greater forces are met by the recruitment of increasingly larger motor units. The largest motor neurons, which innervate the fast twitch glycolytic (Type IIx) fibers, have the highest threshold and are recruited last.

The slow twitch fibers are called on first regardless of the exercise intensity. If the intensity is low, these fibers may be the only ones that are utilized. If the intensity is high, as during an all-out cross-country race, ST fibers are recruited first, followed by the oxidative FT fibers and, finally, the glycolytic (non-oxidative) FT fibers, if required. During the most intense exercise, all fiber types will be elicited.

You can think of your muscle fiber distribution as having 100 men of various strength which can perform tasks for you. You have some strong men with relatively poor endurance and a number of weaker men with a greater capacity for endurance. If your task is to roll a boulder (the size of which represents effort intensity) up a hill, your cerebral cortex and central nervous system will initially attempt to enlist the weakest men (according to the size principle) to try to perform the task. If they cannot generate the requisite force, you will then call up the next strongest men, and so on until enough men of sufficient strength are present and able to move the boulder. If you are an elite sprinter, your stable of 100 men will probably consist of 85 or so strong men and a very small number of weak men. When you contest the 100m event, you are in essence rolling a very large boulder up a steep but short hill. Although you will in fact recruit the weakest men along with the stronger ones, the need for any of the men to be fatigue-resistant (well-trained for endurance) is negligible, owing to how short the hill is (i.e., the event requires virtually no oxygen consumption). All of your weak men will be enlisted, but they will not be able to contribute with any significance to an effort requiring such forceful contractions. Basically, they will not be able to "catch up" to the stronger men as they power the boulder along at a high velocity.

Having highly trained, oxidative, fatigue-resistant muscle fibers across the full spectrum (both FT and ST) is analogous to training your strong men and your weak men to roll the boulder up a longer, gentler hill. Training only at higher intensities (i.e., doing hard intervals and/or weight training, with low overall mileage) is tantamount to training the strong men and a very slight number of the weak men to roll the boulder. If you have the body type of a middle distance runner (e.g., 20 strong men, 40 slightly weaker men, and 40 still weaker men are available to roll a moderate-sized boulder for four minutes), but your 40 weakest men are poorly-trained and only marginally fatigue-resistant, they will not be able to contribute as much to the team effort and a greater burden will fall on the stronger men rather early in the task, and they will fatigue quickly. You will always be better served by having all of your weak men (as well as your strong men) trained to be as fatigue-resistant as they can be so they can shoulder as great a share of the workload as possible for as long as possible. While the weak men (ST fibers) are not instrumental in the 100m, the 1,500m is an event requiring a high degree of aerobic energy production, one in which the weaker men will contribute significantly. This contribution will not be as substantial as in an even longer race, such as the 10,000m, so it might be argued by some that large volumes of aerobic training are relatively ineffective for the 1,500m, or that such training delivers diminishing returns. It must be remembered, however, that diminishing returns are returns all the same, so any improvement in aerobic fitness, however slight, will be of benefit to the 1,500m runner as long as basic speed and a limited injection of anaerobic, race-specific work are not sacrificed.

High mileage tips

While methodology is not the main thrust of this piece, a few general guidelines about high mileage running should be mentioned.

The best policy on most regular easy runs is to start extremely slowly (literally at walking speed) and allow your breathing pattern and heart rate to stabilize before attempting to increase the pace any. Never struggle during an easy run. It's probably best that you do not time your easy runs, as timing every run usually leads to racing against previous efforts, which can be ruinous. If you feel awesome, it's fine to go fairly fast and count that workout as a "tempo" run, but by no means should you force the pace. The usual idea is to feel like you are storing up energy for the next day's run. If you get fatigued from a regular easy run, it should be from the length of the run (or from a series of fairly high mileage days), not from the pace.

About half of your easy runs should be done on a soft surface - safe, smooth grass or dirt trails. If you cannot find suitable courses (with no uneven grass or ruts or potholes), at least try to run a portion of each easy run on a soft surface. Perhaps do a few loops of a grass field in the middle of a run, or stay on the soft shoulder of a road rather than run on hard surfaces all the time.

Do not allow your shoes to wear down excessively. This is a major contributor to injuries and general fatigue. You should keep 2-3 pairs of shoes that are in good condition, and rotate your footwear regularly. It is a good policy to wear racing flats on many runs that are faster than an "easy" pace. You can also wear racers on short, easy jogs every now and then. This practice will promote ankle strength and flexibility, which will hopefully reduce injury risk.

It isn't all jogging

A substantial portion of preseason high mileage running (roughly between 15% and 40%, depending on your age and experience) needs to be done at just below your "maximum steady state" of effort, as this pace uses more glycogen as fuel (as opposed to fat, which is accessed more during slower jogging), and sufficient use of glycogen as the primary substrate allows for the greatest improvement of oxidative properties within the muscle cells.

These "high-end" aerobic workouts should at some point become the staple "fast" sessions of any serious runner's preseason training. They contribute to running success more than any other type of workout, since the cost/benefit ratio is favorable at a pace which is fairly quick yet still relaxed enough to eliminate tension.

The general idea on a high-end aerobic run is to find the fastest pace at which you can run without feeling as though you're having to fight to sustain the pace. You should start at your usual easy run pace and let your breathing and perceived effort stabilize before attempting any increase in pace. As the run progresses, lock in to the pace which will train you yet force a slower runner to strain. In layman's terms, this means "relax and train a runner, kill a jogger". The pace should always be manageable; that is, you should be well in control of the speed rather than forcing yourself to maintain it. Once you sense that struggling is about 10 minutes away if you keep the pace you're running, it is time to wind up for the finish of the high-end portion of the run. You should then squeeze the pace down to a gradually faster speed for only about 2-3 minutes. At this point, you may find yourself flying, but you should still feel as though you are floating rather than straining. Because you will only be spending 2-3 minutes at the faster speed (above your lactate threshold), you will not accumulate enough time at this effort level to go into a predominantly anaerobic state. This is important. You should always finish a high-end workout feeling strong - almost energized from the sensation of running right on the edge of pushing it.

The most prudent approach is to work with your body rather than against it, watching for the signs that tell you that you are about to go too hard, as opposed to struggling and fighting yourself and undermining the effectiveness of your workouts.

A good analogy is to think of a high-end aerobic run as though you were driving across town, timing your speed so as to hit all the lights green. It's efficient, fairly comfortable, conserves energy, and involves the least risk of having a wreck or getting pulled over for running red lights. Think about that. If you were to actually try to drive in such a manner as to hit all the lights green, you would have to find out how long those lights stayed green. You would also have to be sure your car was working properly and that you had enough gas in the tank. Therefore, it would require a little trial and error to succeed in your mission to hit all the lights green! The analogy carries over to running. You need to practice finding your high-end effort by feel, and you must have some running background in order to do an effective high-end run.

Many runners relate that a moderately long run the day after a race feels great. The athlete is left wondering, "Why couldn't I have felt this good in the race?" This strong, weightless, free-spirited feeling is partly attributable to the fact that the recovery run is started very slowly and there are no expectations to increase the pace at any pre-planned point in the outing. This leads to all systems warming up gradually and achieving a relaxed equilibrium, after which follows a spontaneous, memorably enjoyable run at a good pace. As long as this pace is not forced, but is allowed to happen in an impromptu fashion, this type of training can be repeated regularly without excessive torque, impact stress or acidosis and will ultimately lead to superior fitness. It must be mentioned, however, that too much fast running (though it may feel fine for a few weeks) can eventually backfire, and flying into an unplanned tempo run the day after a tough race should not become a regular practice.

Stay in touch with faster speeds

Regular inclusion of "alactic" fast running (buildups or strides of 10-35 seconds duration or short bursts of 7-10 seconds) and certain form running drills can be instrumental in maximizing the effectiveness of high mileage base work. The short strides promote efficient movement at all ranges of speeds. The drills foster stability and neuromuscular control.

An entire session may be devoted to strides, drills or both. You may also include 3-4 light to medium speed buildups or strides in the middle of your "cool-down" jog following certain high-end runs. This practice will re-elevate your heart rate and allow your body to "take up" some of the lactate you might have accumulated from running somewhat hard at the end of the high-end portion. It will also train your FT motor units to perform after your ST units are somewhat fatigued.

If you are feeling chronically sluggish or your progress seems to have stagnated, you might give yourself a jump-start with the following short routine:

1.) Very light pre-stretch

2.) Two sets of 10 traveling (moving forward) lunge steps (use shallower lunges in the first set and deep ones in the second set, but avoid bending your lead leg past a 90 degree angle)

3.) One or two sets of 30 steps of rapid high knees

4.) Skip the length of the infield (start out low and relaxed and begin skipping for height and distance when you get about one third of the way down the field - concentrate on getting a soaring feeling)

Do not recover much following these drills; instead, go straight into a run starting at an extremely slow pace. The drills are anaerobic, but they should remain alactic, accessing the high-energy phosphates as opposed to causing acidosis.

A set of 30 rapid high knees can also be inserted in the middle of an occasional run or can be tacked on at the end of the run in order to liven your routine up a bit.

The bottom line

Laboratory theorists and other non-runners often ask advocates of Lydiard-style training, "What changes take place through higher mileage that cannot be achieved through moderate mileage at higher intensity?" The question continues to be asked because no specific physiological changes have been demonstrated to date in an exercise physiology laboratory. However, the statistical evidence from the larger laboratory of real-world trial and error, head-to-head competition and marks on the stopwatch points overwhelmingly to the fact that one change - the most important change of all - takes place with higher mileage: improved performance.

Obviously, a balance must be struck between long, slow running and higher intensity work. The faster running increases neuromuscular control, elicits a different recruitment pattern (invoking more fast twitch units) and improves the athlete's ability to work in an anaerobic state, and these attributes are unquestionably essential for maximum performance in all-out competition. The main question for the individual runner is whether more running at a lower intensity will pose more of an injury risk than will a moderate amount of higher intensity running. The answer to that question depends largely on the athlete's structural integrity and not as much on muscle fiber composition. It is certainly possible to abuse either a high mileage approach or a high intensity method by relying on one system to the complete exclusion of the other.

From a standpoint of enjoyment, there may be some people who do give higher mileage a chance for several months out of each year and find that even after several years, they still hate every moment of it! These individuals will probably lose motivation and focus by forcing themselves to adhere to such a program and most likely will achieve more in the sport by bringing a fresh, positive attitude to sessions they will enjoy. In the end, the ideal balance for any given runner will be found only through patient trial and error.

John Kellogg is a full-time, professional running coach. It is his passion in life and career of choice. John has logged over 70,000 miles in 28 years of running, with a highest week of 156 miles. He has experimented with as many combinations of training procedures as is possible in the course of a human running career while still devoting enough time to each mixture of techniques to ascertain their effectiveness. While he never reached the elite level himself, he was able to train himself effectively enough to run 14:22 for 5,000 meters while possessing a best time of only 57 seconds for 400 meters. John also has a Cross-Country 10,000 meters best of 30:46, and was nationally-ranked in the marathon as a Junior (under age 20).

He has trained in America and in Europe with runners of all ages, abilities, and nationalities, including world-class athletes, and has coached runners of all ages for 15 years, producing results at the state-class, national-class, and international-class levels.

LetsRun.com co-founder Weldon Johnson trained under Mr. Kellogg's guidance in middle and high school and credits his return to Mr. Kellogg's training with his huge post-collegiate improvements. A 30:13 10,000 meter runner in college, Weldon recently has run 28:06 for 10k, has finished 4th at USA Nationals twice at 10k.

When Weldon was a 29:49 10k runner, he then said John Kellogg was the best running coach out there. He still believes that today and we believe Weldon's results support this contention. One of the reasons this website was started was to spread the training philosophies of John Kellogg.

John Kellogg formerly operated a website, we hope to have it up again soon. If you'd like to read JK's 4 training principles click here

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