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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Why Do Repetition Running?

By Frank Horwill

Glen Cunningham (USA) was seen in 1932 running a mile flat-out every day on the track. A puzzled coach asked him what he thought he was doing. Cunningham replied that he was trying to get his mile time down. The coach told him that that was not the way to do it. He should run parts of the mile faster and run double the distance slower. For instance, if his best time for the distance was 4:40, he should attempt to run half-mile 4-seconds a lap faster, ie 2:12 (66 secs / 44O yds). Also, three-quarters of a mile 2 seconds a lap faster ie 3:24 (68 secs / 440yds). For stamina. it was suggested he ran 2 miles at 10 seconds a lap slower (10:40 or 80 secs / 440 yds). Cunningham was to break the world mile record 2 years later, running 4:06.8.

This routine, was known as under-distance faster, over-distance slower. It was the first beginnings of interval training. In 1939, Dr Woldemar Gerschler (Germany) took things a step further. He stated that steady running was wasteful of effort and inefficient. He suggested that by his method, an athlete could achieve in 6 weeks what would take 12 weeks of steady running to register. His plan was that by running 100 metres 3 seconds slower for one’s best time for the distance, or 200 metres 6 seconds slower, or 600 metres 18 seconds slower, many times in one session, this would strengthen the heart faster. There was a further stipulation: after each repetition the athlete had to wait for the pulse-rate to come down to: 120 beats a minute (20 beats per 10 secs) within 90 seconds. If it couldn’t, the session had to be stopped. The benefit of this training, he postulated, was in the recovery period. How could this be? It was all to do with the heart’s stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out in one beat per minute). During the running the stroke volume reached just over 90 ml a beat; however, during the recovery time it soared to 105 ml a beat. It was the latter that strengthened the heart.

Now, another reason for repetition training is related to the Cunningham story. If you run a mile in exactly 5 minutes (75secs / 440yds) one day, then, on another day you ran 440 yds at the same speed with 1 minute rest, four times in succession, you would have performed the same amount of work at the same intensity, but the fatigue following the repetition runs would be less because less lactic acid will have formed. This means that you can perform three times the work done in your 5 minute mile ie 12 x 440yds with 1 minute rest. This is the basis for repetition running.

Now, another reason for interval training is based on the vaccination principle. When we get vaccinated, modified germs which are harmless are introduced into our body, which leads to immunity from attack by the real germs. If we do all our training at 7 minutes a mile, we will be hard put to it to run at 6 minutes a mile in a 10km race. We have to vaccinate ourselves with repeated doses of 6 minute "serum". We can start with running 400 metres in 90 seconds with 60 seconds rest, then 500 metres at the same speed with the same rest period. In time, we may reach 800 metres in 3 minutes with just 60 seconds respite. We don’t stop there! We can press on until we are doing repetition miles in 6 minutes with 60 secs recovery. The ultimate being 3 x 2 miles in 12 minutes with 60 secs rest. The key word for this process is: progression.

Fartlek is a form of repetition running which can be done on the road, in a park or around a playing-field. It must have purpose if it is to be productive. If you’re a 10km runner, there’s not much point in doing short bursts of speed lasting a few seconds. The race calls for sustained effort - so does the training. Hard efforts lasting 5 minutes in duration are called for with modest recoveries. That time-span for some might be a tenth of the total time, for others, a sixth. That tells one how many such efforts are required during a fartlek session. In the examples given, it is 10 x 5mins and 6 x 5mins. In case you think that’s tough, what about 50 x 400 with 30 secs rest? What about doing them all in under 64 seconds? Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) does! He started with 10 x 400 in 1994, that’s ten extra a year. That’s progression.