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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Stepping Stones to Summer Fitness

By Frank Horwill

Cathy and John are two young runners who train together for cross-country races. They have the following 14 day run training cycle:

Sunday 30 minutes
Tuesday 15 minutes
Thursday 15 minutes
Saturday 15 minutes
Monday 30 minutes
Wednesday 15 minutes
Friday 15 minutes

The good thing about Cathy and John’s programme is that they are training regularly and have adequate time to recover from their sessions. They start each workout fresh. If they keep rigidly to this schedule for twelve weeks they will get reasonably fit. To be precise, they will increase the aerobic enzyme, cyctochrome c, by about 16% and their mitochondrial numbers by around 5%. Also, their VO2 max (a measure of fitness) will take a 10% boost. But they will not get race fit. Why not? Well, first of all, their programme has no plans for progression. Also, it’s not race specific.

How can they progress?

They can do one of two things:

a) Increase the volume by adding 5 minutes per week to the 15 minute runs, and 10 minutes to the 30 minute runs until the duration is double, i.e. the 15 minute runs become 30 minutes and the 30 minute runs become 60 minutes. Roughly speaking, they will move from 22 miles per cycle to 44 miles. This will boost up their cytochrome c levels by about a further 15%, and their mitochondrial density by around another 8%. Their VO2 max will also take another 5% leap. They could, if they wished, continue to increase the duration of running progressively until the 15 minute runs become 45 minutes, and the 30 minute runs become 90 minutes, and, of course, if they had the time, they could aim for 60 minutes and 2 hours respectively.

But there comes a time when running at 50 – 60% of the VO2 max (that’s about 60 –75% maximal heart rate) ceases to improve fitness significantly. Physiologists estimate that 80 miles per week at 50 – 60% of the VO2 max running speed is the cut-off point.

b) Cathy and John have not introduced any relative speed training into their programme. They will be hard put to cope with an opening first mile of a race at 6 minutes or 5 minutes a mile. They have a few options for faster running:

  • They can do an acceleration run on Tuesday and Wednesday in their schedule. The first 5 minutes is run slowly, the next 5 minutes faster and the final 5 minutes flat out.

  • They could jog 5 minutes and then run hard for 4 minutes duration and jog 1 minute recovery several times.

  • They could go to a rack and either do timed or untimed repetitions relative to race needs. Timed sessions require a basis of logic, the yardstick being the average time per 400m in a 1,500m race. If this is not known, a time trial should be done with others. If, for instance, Cathy and John both recorded 5 minutes for the distance, this is 80 seconds per 400m. Therefore, to be analogous to the pace of cross-country racing, the repetitions will be 4 seconds slower per 400m, 8 seconds slower and even 12 seconds. As the time per 400m declines, the recovery times after repetitions get less.

Here are some specimen timed rep sessions to fit the time example given:

84sec/400m 2 – 4 x 1,500m in 5min 15 with 3min recovery (3k speed)
88sec/400m 4 – 8 x 800m in 2min 56 with 45sec rest (5k speed)
92sec/400m 1 x 3,200m (8 laps), 90sec rest, 2 x 1,600m, 45sec rest (10k speed)

Of course, an athlete with a time of 4min/1,500m has an average 400m time of 64sec, and would do the above reps at 68sec/400m, 72sec/400m and 76sec/400m respectively.

Untimed sessions follow the same pattern as for timed workouts, but because actual times will be vague, they should be assessed by perception of effort on a 1 to 5 scale:

  1. Poor effort, where the athlete is not even sweating

  2. Effort is moderate because the athlete is able to talk during running and immediately after.

  3. Not only is the athlete sweating a lot, their mouth is wide open at the end of a rep, trying to inhale as much oxygen as possible.

  4. Not only is the athlete sweating profusely and unable to talk afterwards, they are bending down or kneeling on the track.

  5. The athlete is totally exhausted.

Somewhere between (3) and (4) is generally required; and occasionally (5).

Here are some untimed speed sessions which can be done on a track. Generally speaking, the time of the recovery jog dictates the speed of the running:

  • Run three laps hard, i.e. 1,200m with 300m jog recovery x 3 (3k speed)

  • Run two laps hard, i.e. 800m with 100m jog recovery x 6 (5k speed)

  • Run six laps hard, i.e. 2,400m with 60sec rest x 3 (10k speed)

Generally speaking, recovery jogs should not exceed these times: 100m jog/45sec, 200m jog/90sec, 300m jog/135sec, 400m jog/3min.

Speed or volume?

We come to an important issue with Cathy and John’s progression. Should the volume remain static as it is and the speed sessions introduced become more extensive, e.g. 2 x 1,500m at 3k speed progressing to 4 x 1,500? Or, should the volume increase and the speed sessions remain static? Or, should the volume increase to a point while the speed sessions also increase?

One opinion is worthy of note, George Gandy, the incumbent coach to Loughborough University and coach to numerous GB international runners, stated, “I have found it impossible to increase the volume of weekly running and also increase the amount of speed training. Athletes break down under such a regime.” I must say that I agree. Increase the volume to a target and stop. Then increase the volume of speed running to a goal and stop.

Cross-country races invariably involve running up endurance-sapping long, gradual hills, or short steep hills. While hill training involving running up and down a hill for thirty minutes may seem to be apt training, the ascent is followed by a jog or walk down. There is no jog or walk recovery after tackling a hill in a race. It’s better to choose a hilly course over cross-country and to accelerate up all hills and run on afterwards at a good pace. I used a system with Tim Hutchings – double silver medallist in the World Cross-Country Championships – where he ran up a hill fast and then ran 400m flat out immediately after without stopping. He became known as an awesome hill-runner. He started this routine at seventeen years of age!

The race

Find out the distance to be run beforehand. Cathy and John will have no trouble with the distance because their longest runs may well be three times the duration of the race. However, longer races call for pace judgment, and if a 10k race sees you covering the first mile faster than any mile run in training, the oxygen debt incurred will not be overcome and the last quarter of the race will see many athletes passing you. Better to run comfortably for ten minutes and then all-out to the finish. As you begin to pass others, your confidence will grow.

Short cross-country races call for a sprightly pace from the outset. These are usually run at approximately 3k and 5k equivalent speeds in track races. Cathy and John should cope well, as they’ve included prolonged speed reps in their training.

If it’s a very cold day, gloves and a long sleeved vest should be worn under your club or country vest. Freezing runners do not run well! If the course is very muddy and wet, longer spikes may have to be screwed into the shoes.

If you observe all the above suggestions, you will maximise your potential. But this article isn’t only for cross-country runners. It became clear in some individual and team events in the Olympic Games involving aerobic fitness, that the participants were just not fit enough. For example, in the triathlon, all the early leaders in the 10k run were passed by the time they reached 5k. One hockey team totally fell apart physically in the second half and lost by a huge margin.

You may possess enormous sporting skills but if you run out of steam half way through the event, a lesser skilled but fitter opponent will win the day.