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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Priority no.1 for middle and long distance runners - VO2 max

by Frank Horwill

Priority No.1 for 800 to 10,000 metres runners is to maximinse the VO2max. What is this? It is a measure of fitness, and literally means the amount of oxygen we can breathe in during one minute of maximal work and is expressed as millimetres per kilogramme per minute. World class middle distance runners have a figure of around (men) and (women).

The VO2max can be measured in a human research laboratory by asking the athlete to run at 11.3km/hour on a treadmill. After every minute of this for the first 5 minutes the treadmill is raised 2 degrees, so that after 5 minutes time the athlete is running up a gradient of 10 degrees. Thereafter the treadmill is raised 1 degree every minute. Top class runners can continue for more than 14 minutes (17 degrees gradient) which approximates to Elite women can last for 12 minutes or more, equal to

However, for accuracy the athlete during this test breathes out expired air into a Douglas Bag. This bag is passed through an analyser to discover how much oxygen has been used – this is called indirect calorimetry. Treadmill tests have the disadvantage of being expensive and can only test one athlete at a time, also, they tend to be held during the working week.

A more practical method of testing a large number of athletes is to use the Balke Test where the VO2max is predicted with 95% accuracy. To do this test you run for 15 minutes around a track on a windless day covering as much distance as possible in that time. If the distance of 4k (10 laps) is covered in that time it equates to For every additional 400m covered add 4.5mls. An athlete who runs exactly 5k (12½ laps) will have a figure of 67.5mls.

What is the best way to improve the VO2max? There are several methods:

  1. Volume – an athlete who is running just 20miles a week (5 days of 4 miles) of just steady running, who increases the volume of running by 1 mile a day per week, i.e. in this example this would be : 2nd week – 5 miles per day; 3rd week – 6 miles per day; etcetera to 50 miles per week (5 days of 10 miles or 6 days of 8.5 miles) of just steady running, will improve their VO2max by 10%. If this progression is continued to 80 miles per week (6 runs of 13 miles each), the VO2max may improve a further 5%. At this point there is an ever decreasing return for the volume expended.
  2. Quality – This is where the majority of running is done between 80% to 100% of the VO2max. What does this mean? 100% = your potential 3k speed. 95% = your potential 5k speed. 90% = your potential 10k speed. 80% = your potential ½ marathon speed. Supposing you have never run these distances competitively – how can you judge what pace to run at? A starting point is to take your 1500m time per lap and to add 4 seconds to it. Thus if you are a 4min/1500m runner this is a 64sec/400, your potential at 3k is 68secs/400(100%) your potential at 5k is 4secs per 400m slower - 72secs/400 (95%), your potential at 10k is a further 4secs slower - 76secs/400(90%), and finally, your potential at the ½ marathon is 80secs per 400m(5mins.20secs/mile)(80%). Now you can either run these distances full out as such over a period of 10 days, or you can run segments of them at that speed with limited recovery. When doing this the duration of the repetitions is important. As a guide ½marathon speed (80%) should last for 4 miles, ie 3x4 ,imles at ½ marathon speed with 60secs recovery. 10k speed should last for 3 miles, ie 2x3 miles at 10k speed with 2mins recovery. 5k speed lasts for 1½ miles, ie 2x1½ miles at 5k speed with 2mins rest. 3k speed should last 1500m, ie 3x1500 at 3k speed with 3mins recovery. The day after these severe sessions should be an active rest day, ie 35mins slow running. Prof Tim Noakes of South Africa discovered that black African runners devoted one third of their training time to work between 80 to 100% of their VO2max. White runners only did 10% of this work each week. It should be noted that some Kenyan runners combine volume and quality, thus maximising their VO2max to the full.
  3. Using a pulse monitor - This is where every run is a fixed percentage of the known maximal pulse. To ascertain the maximum pulse rate, run for 3mins at maximum speed. For a 4mins/1500m runner this would be 62secs per 400m for 3mins, ie faster than 3mins speed. Assuming a maximum of 200bpm for athletes aged 20 years (male) and 190 (female), work is done at a percentage of these and is duration based. Here is a guide - 80% VO2max = 88% of maximum heart rate for 4 miles x3. 90% = 93% of max HR for 2 miles x3. 95% = 98% max HR for 1 mile x3. 100% = 100% max HR for 1 mile x3.
  4. Using the Balke Test result - This involves doing all training around the distance run on the Test. If an athlete runs exactly 4k (10 laps) on the Test, weekly sessions are allocated as follows:
Session 1 - Run three times half the distance run on the test in 7½mins with 1min rest. This will be 3x2k in 7½mins with 60secs rest. The aim is to run all 3 reps eventually in 7min.15secs.
Session 2 - Run double the distance done on the test in 33mins. This would be 8k (5miles) in 33mins. The aim is to run eventually the distance in 31mins.
Session 3 - Work out the speed per 400m done on the Test. In this case it is 90secs per 400m. 5k run in 15mins would be 72secs/400m. Halve this time which in this example will be 45secs. Deduct 8secs from that = 37secs. Run a series of 200s in 37secs starting with 90secs recovery which declines by15secs after each 200m, ie 37/90, 37/75, 37/60, down to 37/15/37. Then start again with 37/90. Continue with the session until the time of 37 cannot be recorded. This might be 8x200 or 28x200.
Session 4 - Run 4 times the distance run on the test in 69mins. In this example this will be 16k (10 miles) in 69mins. The aim is to reduce this to 66mins.
Session 1 is 95% of the VO2max. Session 2 is 90%. Session 3 is 100%. Session 4 is 80%. After 6 weeks of this routine the VO2max will improve 8% for every additional 400m run, eg 4,400m run, an improvement of 400m on the 4k run on the Test. There is nothing to stop the above sessions being juggled about for variety, for instance, Session 3 can be altered to 400m reps in 74secs with 3mins recovery declining to 30secs only. Session 1 can be reduced to miles (1600m) at the same speed (90secs/400m) with 45 secs x4.

Criticisms of the VO2max test

There are many world class marathoners who have modest VO2max readings, eg It has been found that they can run at a high percentage of their reading for a long time. There are also 400/800 tyoes (those who can run sub 46secs/400 (male) and sub 52secs/400 (female)) who have poorish readings. However suffice it to say that former British world record holders Coe, Cram, Ovett and Moorcroft had plus figures. Higher figures have been recorded with cross-country competitive skiers.

Improvements in fitness do not always show up on a VO2max test. This is because the lactate threshold which is a percentage of the VO2max cannot be detected. For example, a runner might be able to move from running at 8miles per hour to 10miles per hour without a sudden increase in blood lactate, this means they can run faster without fatigue, this state may not show up as an improved VO2max. But the improvement is definite.

World Opinion

Russian coaches working with women favour 3k pace (100%) work frequently. Costill, Cooper and Anderson favour 5k pace (95%) work at 1,000m x6 with 45secs rest. The author used both (3kand 5k pace work) to get Tim Hutchings to win 2 silver medals in the world cross-country (1984 and 1989). When you can do 7x800in 2:08 with 30secs rest, like Coe could, you have maximised your VO2max.

What's wrong with being strong?

There appeared in an athletics journal in 1995 an article on weight training. It gave all the basic lifts with loose weights and what muscles they exercised; it was also graphically illustrated. But there was something wrong with the piece. It did not say why we should acquire strength? Do we wish to look like Mr. Universe? Hardly. Do we wish to acquire the physique of a boxer? I don't think we are training to fight. So what is the reason for the acquisition of strength?

To answer this we have to look at strength tests carried out on some of the leading athletes over the last 50 years. Quite obviously a shot-putter is going to be stronger than a middle-distance runner. His event is power oriented. Runners don't require that type of strength. So what exactly do runners require? Well, it alters as the running distance gets farther. We know that a world-class sprinter has to be strong. But where? Speed is defined as the rate of stride times the length of stride. The latter relies on flexibility and the strength of the final push-off from the toes. Some runners have a maximum stride-length at full speed of only 5 feet, while others have a span of 8 feet. The former has weak leg strength, the latter, strong.

We have answered one question already. If you want to improve your basic speed you need powerful legs. That is, unless your name is Johnson, who does five strides a second compared to everyone else's four strides. To get powerful legs running alone will not achieve this, unless you do 6 miles of steep hill-running a day. One of the weakest athletes I ever tested was a 10k world-record holder. Needless to say, as soon as he came up against a runner who could run a last lap of 53 seconds, his days were over. He could only run 58 seconds on the flat, let alone at the end of a 10k race.

Improving Leg Strength

Your house is your gym. Step up and down onto a strong chair for 60 seconds on each leg every other day. After a while this will become easy (it is also an aerobic exercise - about 75% of you VO2max) so to make it harder place a few telephone directories in a hold-all, balance the bag across your shoulders and carry on until you find this too easy - then put more directories in the bag.

Your quadriceps raise the knee and extend it. To get them in shape sit over the edge of a table and hang a small pot of paint over the toes. Slowly raise the leg from the vertical to the horizontal - 10 times each leg, every other day. As it becomes easy use a heavier pot.

The hamstrings bend the knee and straighten the hip. Lie face down on the table with the knees overhanging one edge. Curl your heel of one leg into your buttock several times, repeat with the other. Then ask a partner to apply light pressure to the heel as you curl. Do this 6 times on each leg. As you get used to it the partner applies more pressure. If the hamstrings are not 60% as strong as the quadriceps they will be liable to a strain.

To develop power from the blocks, or power in the final push-off when running, the soleus muscle (below the calf muscle) needs activating. Place the feet together on a piece of wood 3 inches high, 6 inches wide and a yard long; you may have a door ledge that suits. Fill up your hold-all with 6 directories and place it across the shoulders. Now, raise your heels as high as possible 3 times, then turn the toes inwards and repeat, finally, turn your toes outwards and repeat. Keep filling up the hold-all with heavy objects as time passes until you feel that you are really working.

All these exercises have a parallel to the running action. But one of the greatest is to measure out 25metres on grass or track, then hop the distance on each leg. If you are a good sprinter you will cover the distance in under 10 hops. If you take 15 hops to do this you will never run a good 400 or 800 metres race. Keep on until the number of hops goes down.

There is one other good reason for strengthening your legs - the prevention on injury. Knee trouble is associated with weak quadriceps. Back trouble with poor abdominals. Shin soreness with poor anterior tibials. Strained hamstrings with weak hamstrings.

To be effective, strength training needs to be done every other day. The above listed exercises will take a maximum of 10 minutes. Not much to ask of yourself if you want to add that little something to your running, and help you keep injury free. As we get older our bones lose minerals. Runners lose less in their legs than others. But they lose it up top. Hold a telephone directory in each hand and do straight-arm push-ups into the air for 60 seconds, then straight in front of you, then lift them sideways like a bird flapping its wings. You will increase the mineral density of your upper body.