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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Running: Fitness Training for All Sports

By Frank Horwill

Next to cross-country skiing, running is the best type of fitness training for all sports

A famous Cuban boxing coach told me many years ago, "A man can be the most skilful performer in the world, but if he runs out of steam halfway through a contest a less able opponent who is fitter will always win". He went on to add: "If you have two contestants of equal ability I always back the one who has done the most road-work".

The key question we have to ask is: what amount of total muscle mass is used for any particular sport? Cyclists use 40 per cent, runners 60 per cent and cross-country skiers 80 per cent, double the energy cost of cycling. We can safely say that in any sport where it is necessary to propel the body at speed for most of the game, about 50 per cent of muscle mass is used.

Theoretically, then, the best type of fitness training for all sport is cross-country skiing, where VO2 max readings of for top performers have been recorded. However, a lot of time is needed to learn to ski efficiently and what happens if there's no snow? So we are left with running.

Over the past 35 years I have been asked to assist with fitness programmes for various sports, including the Territorial Army SAS. An early influence on me was the coach to the Australian men's national hockey team, who divulged to me at Crystal Palace that each individual member of the team had to do 40 miles a week carrying his hockey stick!

Energy pathways

D. Matthews and E. Fox, in their revolutionary book, "The Physiological Basis of Physical Education and Athletics", divided the running requirements of various sports into "energy pathways": ATP-PC and LA, LA-O2, and O2. These abbreviations mean: Adenosine Triphosphate (a complex chemical compound formed with the energy released from food and stored in all cells, particularly muscles. Only from the energy released by the breakdown of this compound can the cells perform work); Phosphate-creatine (a chemical compound stored in muscle, which when broken down aids in the manufacture of ATP); Lactic acid (a fatiguing metabolite of the lactic acid system resulting from the incomplete breakdown of glucose. However, Noakes in South Africa has discovered that although excessive lactate production is part of the extreme fatigue process, it is the protons produced at the same time that restrict further performance. This discovery is unlikely to alter the much-used phrase "Swimming in lactic acid"); O2 means aerobic running in which ATP is manufactured from food, mainly sugar and fat. This system produces ATP copiously and is the prime energy source during endurance activities.

These energy pathways are time-duration restricted. In other words, once a certain time elapses that specific pathway is no longer being used. There is some controversy about these limitations but the general consensus is:

Duration  Classification Energy supplied by
1-4 secs Anaerobic ATP
4-20 secs Anaerobic ATP + CT
20-45 secs Anaerobic ATP + CP + muscle glycogen
45-120 secs Anaerobic Lactic Muscle glycogen
120-140 secs Aerobic Muscle glycogen + anaerobic, lactic acid
240-600 secs Aerobic Muscle glycogen + fatty acids

Here is an energy pathway classification for some of the more popular sports:

Sport  ATP-PC and LA
LA-O2 O2 
Soccer defence 80 20 Nil
Soccer attack 60 20 20
Hockey 60 20 20
Tennis 70 20 10
Basketball 85 15 Nil
Volleyball 90 10 Nil
Rowing 20 30 50

Translated into action

How do these findings relate to practical fitness training sessions? Let's take the sport of volleyball - 90% ATP-PC and LA, 10% LA-O2. The majority of training sessions could be 16 x 200m fast strides, four sets of four, with three times the duration of the run as recovery, eg 4 x 4 x 200m in 30 secs with 90 secs recovery, or 8 x 400m in two sets of four with twice the time of the repetition as rest, eg, 2 x 4 x 400m in 64 secs with 128 secs rest. The recovery after each set is dependent on how long the pulse takes to drop to 130 beats a minute.

The LA-O2 pathway used in volleyball is small; for every 10 training sessions done using the ATP-PC and LA pathway, one is done at LA- O2. This can be 5 x 600m fast stride, with double the time of the rep as recovery, eg, 5 x 600m in 105 secs with 210 secs rest or 4 x 800m fast stride in two sets with the same recovery time as the rep, eg 2 x 2 x 800m in 2.5 mins with 2.5 mins rest.

In contrast, it will be noticed that rowing is predominantly aerobic (O2) and LA-O2. For the first there are a number of options: (a) 35-minute steady runs (b) 25-minute fast runs (c) 3 x 1 mile fast (4.5-5.5 mins) with half the time of the run as recovery (d) 5 x 1,000m in under 3.5 mins with half the time of the rep as recovery.

Alternative methods

I myself use a more psychological and empirical approach to team sport fitness. The basic plan with all team sports, with the exception of cricket, is:

  1. Do a long slow run once a week the same duration as the match. If the match lasts 90 minutes, the run is 90 minutes. Once this is mastered, it has enormous psychological implications.
  2. Do a faster run half the duration of the match. This would be 40 minutes for a rugby player.
  3. Carry out speed sessions which mimic the conditions found in the competition. For instance, a rugby player will run up to 15 metres carrying the ball at good pace, then sprint 30 metres full out x 10. A popular competitive speed session, commonly known as zig-zag sprinting, is where each player runs for 15 metres in a straight line, then does a right-angled turn and runs another 15 metres, then another turn, and so on. The overall time for each player to negotiate four turns (75m) while carrying the ball is taken and compared. No one wants to be disgraced as the slowest, everyone tries to be the fastest!

Flexibility and ingenuity are required when compiling fitness programmes for sport. For example, the professional boxer has to contend with 12 three-minute rounds. That calls for a minimum long run of 36-72 minutes He also has to work at a high rate of energy for three minutes in every round with a minute's rest. I have found that 12 x 3 minutes of fast running with a minute's rest after each rep is specific to that sport. A whistle is blown every 20 seconds to ensure the 400m laps are covered in 80 seconds and the distance of 900 metres in 3 minutes. As fitness improves, greater distances can be covered.

Quantum leaps in fitness

One of the benefits of possessing a heart-rate monitor is that numerous different exercises can be performed where the propulsion of body weight is the main factor and the training threshold is recorded.

Attempts have been made to carte blanche this threshold by many physiologists. Karvonen's threshold was popular for many years. For this you take your resting pulse before training and deduct it from 200, then take 60 per cent of this figure and add it to your resting pulse. The result is the pulse rate needed to be achieved through-out the training activity. Example: resting pulse is 70, 70 from 200 = 130, 60% of 130 = 78 + 70 = 148 bpm. This is close, but not close enough, since the maximum pulse varies with age and sex.

A 30-year-old man in fit condition would have a maximum pulse rate of around 214 minus 0.8 for every year of his life, giving a maximum of 190 bpm, and in the example given his threshold would be 142 bpm. By the same token, a 20 year-old female is allocated 209 and 0.7 for every year, giving a maximum of 195. Using the same example, her threshold would be about 142 bpm. This simply means that any work below these readings is not very productive. Many of the training sessions listed for the various energy pathways will take the pulse rate past the magic figure of 90 per cent maximum. That's when fitness begins to make quantum leaps. A simple team fitness test is the total distance run in 15 minutes. Men need to record a distance of 4,000m and women 3,600. Any person who fails this test is a weak link in the team.