Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Act your Age

By Frank Horwill

Knowing at what age an athlete is likely to achieve peak performance is a big help in planning a training programme.

An 800m and 1,500m male runner is most likely to run his fastest at around the age of 25. If you don't believe it, compare the ages of past and present world-record holders for these distances. For females, the peak is delayed to the age of 27. Why women differ in this regard is a mystery. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but these are rare. In addition, having achieved an all-time best time at these ages, the athletes often continue for another decade with world-class times. Seb Coe, for example, ran 1:41.73/800 at age 24 and 1:43.52 / 800m at age 33. Steve Cram ran a mile in 3:46:32 aged 25, and 3:53.8 when he was 30.

The age at which a male runner is most likely to run a lifetime best for 3km and 5km is 27, for females, 29. For the 10km, it is 29 and 31, respectively.

What is the significance of these statistics? A lot. First of all, they tell the 14 year-old keen club runner that he or she has a long way to go before they reach true potential. Parents of such athletes who want to see their offspring on the Olympic dais in their teens have little chance of seeing that dream fulfilled.

Changing up

Next, they point the way to changing the competitive distance to a longer one. Moving up a distance before the indicated age is not a good idea. All longer-distance events are associated with what the athlete has achieved at a shorter one.

For instance, the calculation for running a 5km is three times the 1,500m time plus two-and-a-half minutes - eg, best 1,500m time = 4 mins x 3 + 2½ mins = 14½ mins. At world-class level this is often reduced by adding only two-and-a-quarter minutes - eg, best 1,500m time = 3:40 x 3 + 2¼ = 13 mins 15 secs. The same applies to the 10km distance; this is usually calculated at twice the 5km time plus 60 seconds - eg, best 5km = 14 mins x 2 + 60 secs = 29 mins. It will be seen that in order to run sub-27 minutes an athlete would need to have a time of around 3:30 for 1,500m, which indicates a 13 mins / 5km, which makes a sub-27 mins / 10km a possibility.

The age of peak performance in the marathon is a little more elastic-it is between 30 and 37 years of age. This, too, is largely dependent on what the athlete has done at 10km. A rule-of-thumb indicator is five times the 10km time equals the potential marathon time - eg, best 10km time = 30 mins = 2 hrs 30 mins. This is considered a little pessimistic by some and optimistic by others; however, by adding plus or minus five minutes to this original formula, we won't go far wrong. For example, Emil Zatopek, 10km, 28:54, best marathon time, 2:23:03.2; Liz Mc Colgan, 10km 30:57:07, best marathon time, 2:27:32; Eamonn Martin, 10km, 27:23:06, best marathon time, 2:10:50.

Hanging in there

The other quality that age statistics give to an athlete is patience. I recall a Royal Marine miler who was stuck at 4:08, which he had done four times. He was 24 years old. A new coach took him in hand and at the age of 25 he ran a 3:56 mile. He also broke the UK 1,500m record (3:38.78) in 1972. This runner was on the point of giving up athletics at the age of 24! An apt saying to remember when progress seems to slow down at this crucial time is: 'Keep on, keep on, until a little something inside you says 'keep on!''.

Time for action

The age allowance also permits the athlete and coach to assess personal strengths and weaknesses and gives time for concrete action to be taken. Here is an example. Mary is a 22-year-old club runner with personal best times of 4:40 / 1,500m, 2:12 / 800m, and 56 secs / 400m.

What do these times tell us? If we apply the 5 second rule for females, we get some fascinating results. This rule is when 5 seconds per 400m is added to the distances above. For instance, 2:12 / 800m is 66 seconds per lap, but if we add 5 seconds to her 400m time of 56 seconds it equals 61 seconds, and if multiplied by two it equals a potential of 2:02 for 800m (61 seconds per 400m). If we take this further, her 1500m time should be 66 seconds per 400m (4:07.05 secs). Quite clearly, this athlete has not achieved her potential. Why? Her 400m time is good, but her 800m time is double the 5 second rule - instead of being able to run two consecutive laps of 61 seconds (56 + 5), she can only run 56 seconds + 10 seconds (2:12). Further, she can only run 74.5 seconds per lap in the 1,500m, where her potential is 66 seconds per 400m, some 8.5 seconds faster. As the event distance increases, she gets proportionately slower. She obviously lacks endurance for the longer distances beyond 400m.

What must be done?

First of all, she will have to start training at these new speeds on a regular basis. She will have to inoculate herself with these speeds consistently so that when experienced in races they will not come as an unwelcome shock. So, she could train at 1,500m speed on Sunday, 800m pace on Tuesday and 400m speed on Thursday. On the days between these track sessions, she could bind together the bricks of speed with the cement of steady runs - eg, Monday, 1 hour steady run; Wednesday, 45 mins acceleration run (15 mins slow, 15 mins steady, 15 mins fast); Friday, 30 mins fast run. Racing on Saturdays at this juncture should be a secondary consideration for about 12 weeks.

Reducing recovery times

At this point it is wise to remember the old Chinese maxim: 'A 10,000-mile walk starts with the first step'. The main task is to get used to the new speeds, which means adequate recovery times after repetitions. This recovery must be reduced gradually as the times are achieved. Here is a table of starting times with progressions:

1 500m speed - 8 x 400m in 66 secs with 400m jog recovery (3 mins). Reducing the 400m jog by 100m (45 secs) to 300m, thence to 200m (90 secs).

800m speed - 8 x 200m in 30 secs with 200m jog recovery (90 secs). Reducing to 100m jog (45 secs) when executed.

400m speed - 1 x 350m full out, jog 800m (6 mins), 1 x 300m full out, jog 800m, 1 x 250m full out, jog 800m, 1 x 200m full out. Reducing the jog recovery in stages by 100m until 400m (3 mins).

As these distances become accommodated, they can be increased to bear a relationship to the actual race distances, eg, 1,500m speed, 4 x 800m in 2:12 with 400m jog recovery (3 mins); 800m speed, 4 x 400m in 61 secs, 400m jog recovery (3 mins).

In place of early preparation races, meaningful time-trials over segments of the race distance can be done . Traditional favourites are 1,200m for the 1,500m, 600m for the 800m and 300m for the 400m. I recall an athlete saying to me many years ago at the end of a track season, 'I'm very disappointed with my 800m time this year'. Asked how many he had raced, he replied, 'One'. Dean Cromwell, former chief coach to four US Olympic teams, compared racing to finding an old pair of shoes in good condition in the attic. First of all, the dust is removed (Race 1); then the polish is applied (Race 2); then they are polished to a shine (Race 3); finally, they are buffed to a fine sheen (Race 4).

The implication of this analogy is that a minimum of four races is required at any distance to bring about minimum results. This would be four of each at 400m, 800m and 1,500m. Many will find that double this number may be needed. In the US there is a preference to racing under-distance more than the specialist distance. Thus an 800m specialist would race, say, eight 400m races and only four at 800m. There is a psychological advantage in preceding a longer race with a shorter one, eg, 400m followed by 800m; 800m followed by 1,500m; 1,500m followed by a 3km or 5km. There would, of course, be a week or a fortnight's gap between such races.

What I said about lack of endurance in the example applies equally to lack of speed. There is often an air of hopelessness about not being fast at 400m. One thing is for sure-if regular sprint work is not done, it will not improve. There is also a right and a wrong way to sprint. Leg-strength is a vital ingredient in a sprinter. One simple test is the number of hops to cover 25m; 10 hops on each leg is indicative of good leg-strength for sprinting. If an athlete is way off this target, it must be achieved by regular hopping exercises and/or judicious weight training under expert supervision. As leg-strength improves so does the stride length, and provided the rate of stride remains the same, the athlete will automatically go faster.