They Must be on Something, Surely?
By Frank Horwill
When, in 1993, Wang Junxia broke the 3,000m world record by 16 seconds and devastated the 10,000m world record by 42 seconds, Harry Wilson, Steve Ovett’s former coach, was asked the question above. He replied: "Yes. It’s probably hard work."
Now the world 5,000m record has been broken by a Chinese female and 10 women in their national championships ran sub-four minutes for 1,500m - in the heats - pushing Kelly Holmes down to No.12 in the rankings, more questions are being asked.
When Glen Grant, chairman of the British Milers' Club, was asked to comment on their recent spate of good times, he replied: "We keep looking at snapshots instead of looking at the wider picture."
So, what is the wider picture?
Chinese women are inherently tough. It was not long ago that all females in China had their toes bent under their soles and tied there for several years. Fashion decreed that women should walk in a particular way.
From an early age most females worked either in the rice fields or in some other farming occupation; and even today, two thirds of the female population is engaged in farm work. Women were classed as inferior work horses until the Communists took power in 1946, when they were granted equal status with males. Chinese women come from very hardy stock.
Next we have to look at China's peculiar system of reward for sporting achievement, where parents are rewarded as much as the individual athlete. Wang Junxia and Qu Yunxia (world record holder for 1,500m) saw their parents moved from a one bedroom flat to a much larger one, and both fathers were promoted to managerial positions at work.
The communist bloc system of early specialisation in sport still survives in semi-capitalist China. There are more than 500 specialist sports schools in the country where children are sent if they show aptitude for any sporting activity.
We have looked at two "snapshots", background and the system, but there's a third - training!
Ma Jungren, Wang's coach, engaged in considerable leg-pulling of Western sports writers when he told them the elixir of success for his athletes was drinking turtle's blood.
If we believe this is the secret of success, we'll believe the moon is made of Mars bars.
A further "snapshot" was created when Ma stated: "We had a few Western coaches over here for a while. Their methods were unsuitable to the Chinese way of living." So, what is suitable?
Some Western sports writers began to probe further. How was it possible for a female (Junxia) to be ranked 73rd in the world in 1992 at 3,000m and a year later to break the world record? Not only that: Wang also ran a 2:24:07 marathon to head the 1993 rankings.
Observers reported that some days Ma's athletes ran the marathon distance in total in three sessions (about nine miles per outing) a day.
There is nothing spectacular about that - Emil Zatopek did 20 x 200m, 40 x 400m, 20 x 200m every day in 1952, to win the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon gold medals. He had never raced a marathon before and winning it in an Olympic record astounded the marathon world. No one said: "He must be on something."
It has been well established by Costill et al, that increasing the volume of running from 20 to 80 miles a week in gradual stages is a major boost to endurance fitness. Beyond that level he felt there was little return for the work done.
When world records began to fall in 1993, observers noticed something thing a bit unusual about the Chinese women's regime and it kept occurring.
For two to seven-day spells they doubled their workload, which was followed by the same period of reduced training.
In practical terms, if a runner was averaging 10 miles a day six days a week, for two days consecutively they would do 20 miles a day, and for the next two days only five miles a day. This news reached Western physiologists who decided to research it.
One of the first to do so was Dr Peter Snell, former mile and half-mile record-holder and double Olympic gold medallist in the 1960-64 era.
He asked a group of swimmers to increase their work-load from 5km a day to 10km a day for a week. Two of the swimmers failed to complete the week - they suffered a glycogen shortage (not enough carbohydrate intake). In this bit of research, Snell was mostly concerned with what happened to the body if training was doubled. He reported a high cortisol level in all the swimmers, an indication of advanced stress.
His conclusion was that the maximum period for doubling one's training load was seven days and this must be accompanied by 400 grammes of extra carbohydrates above normal intake. He coined the phrase crash training for this type of increased work.
Snell had disturbed a hornet's nest. Others were to follow.
Seven elite Dutch cyclists carried out above-normal quantities of intense training for twof weeks. During this time their total training load increased from 12.5 to 17.5 hours per week, and interval training went from 24 per cent of the total to 63 per cent at around 90 to 100 per cent of V02 max (93-100 per cent of maximal heart rate, equivalent to running from 10km speed to 3km speed).
After this period their fitness nose-dived. However, after two weeks of sub-average training (six hours a week), their maximal power rose six per cent above their pre-intense 14 days, less lactic acid was produced during top speed cycling, and performance time in the 8.5 km race improved by four per cent. The high intensity 14 days produced positive benefits. The fitness increase was attributed to the body super-compensating for the severe work.
Dr David Martin, writing in Training Distance Runners by Martin & Coe, also subscribes to a reduced form of crash training: "Following an intense workout, a runner s blood volume is often elevated for about 24 hours or so, since this greater blood volume means that more blood is available to be transported to hard working muscles in the leg, a runner might actually be in a high state of readiness to carry out intense training on the day immediately after a speed workout."
In other words, a severe session followed by a couple of easy days is inferior to two hard days consecutively followed by two easier days.
Strangely enough, this concept is not new. As far back as 1960, General De Gaulle, furious at the showing of French athletes in the Olympics, ordered the French Academy of Sports Science to investigate a better method of fitness training. They came up with the four-week cycle:
Week one: severe
Week two: active rest
Week three: moderate
Week four: light
In terms of volume, this could be 100 miles, 25 miles, 75 miles, 50 miles, respectively for those weeks.
Now, we know the Chinese crash train.
Do we know if any British runner, male or female, has tried it? Until we know this we are not in a position to say: "They must be on something."
The latest research on crash training has stipulated some strict rules:
- Don't do it if you are injury prone.
- Don't do it if you are prone to viral infections.
- Start with just two days of increased training.
- Always follow a crash period with the same period of sub average work, or even total rest.
- Never crash train for more than seven days consecutively.
- Always double the carbohydrate intake during crash training.
- Increase the vitamins C and B complex a week before and during a crash training period.
The choice is ours. We never suggested: "He must be on something" when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier or when Coe broke 12 world records in four years.
Was it because those feats were done by Britons?
Is our inability to match world class performances conveniently excused by saying: "They must be on something?"
As Harry Wilson has observed, "that something" in this case is crash training and it is very hard indeed.