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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Run Like a Gazelle

By Frank Horwill

If you want to improve your race times, imitate the action of the gazelle

(Frank Horwill was in South Africa for six months coaching the South African cross-country team. Both the senior and junior men' s teams defeated the Great Britain teams.)

In 1947 the sports world press was flabbergasted by a report from the Middle East. An Arab prince decided to go hunting for gazelles in a jeep. In due course they spotted a herd grazing in the distance. They approached at top speed and drew alongside the stampeding animals, when one of the prince's servants tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to what seemed to be a gazelle running on its hind legs. They moved in closer to view this extraordinary spectacle and were astounded to discover that it was not a gazelle but a young man!

The prince looked at his speedometer which was registering 30mph, twice as fast as Roger Bannister ran to break the four-minute mile! They pursued the youth until he dropped exhausted to the ground. He was immediately photographed and tied up. The picture was cabled to every news agency in the world. The lad was thin, with long black hair, no beard, completely naked and very scared (which was hardly surprising). The prince sent the boy to a Cairo hospital where it was discovered he could not talk nor eat any food other than grass. Without his gazelle friends and not used to captivity he began to pine, refused to eat and eventually died. A sad and remarkable story.

When they took fright, he ran too.

The world's athletics press began to speculate about his plight and what he might have done if they could have gotten him to run around a track. How he joined the herd was a mystery. It was agreed that he would not have survived unless he had done so already able to walk and run, say around five years of age. Any older and the herd would have been wary of him. When feeling hungry he copied their habits and diet. But, more significantly, when they took fright, he also ran with them. As the years went by, he learned not only to run with them but also of necessity to keep up with them. The Cairo doctors estimated his age at around 17 but said he would not have lasted much longer as he was showing signs of malnutrition. This is a true story and any national newspaper will have the press- cuttings filed away.

Running at world-record pace

What is the significance of this amazing occurrence? It is this: gazelles do not jog, nor do they do steady runs. They are built to run fast away from their enemies, perhaps once or twice a day to survive. They learn to do this from the day they are born.

Modern middle-distance training methods are based on the principle that athletes start running slowly and get faster. This has one obvious snag - the athlete never experiences what it is like to run at world-record pace; in fact, the athlete may never run at such a speed. This has a bad psychological effect the longer it continues because world-record pace is thought to be something beyond reality. But is it?

If we examine every distance-running world record, then work out the speed per 400m, then break that down into the rate per 100m, we will discover that we can train at world-record velocity. What's more, we can actually cover the distance in total at that speed.

For example, let's take a mile in 3:46, that is 56.5 secs per 440 yds or 28.2 per 220 yds or 14.1 per 100 yds. We might not be capable of running many 400m in 56 secs (400m is about two metres short of 440 yds) or even many 200s in 28 secs, but we can run 100m in 14 secs. If we ran 16 x 100m in 14 secs with 30 secs recovery after each, we have a mile done at the world-record pace of 3:46. When we have accomplished that, we might consider running 24 x 100m, and from there we could progress to running 150m in 21 secs, still with 30 secs rest, then eventually on to 200ms in 28 secs, 250ms in 35 secs, 300ms in 42 secs and 400ms in 56 secs.

Record Familiarisation

More to the point is that, like the Gazelle Boy, we can start young runners doing this once a week, and who knows what they will progress to in eight years' time? Even more significant is the fact that they will know what world-record pace feels like and will keep experiencing it every week.

Here below are two tables of world-class times broken down into rates per 100m:

We can call this particular session each week 'Record Familiarisation'. We need from the outset to adopt a methodical system. For instance:

  1. What day in the week is this to be done regularly?
  2. What event?
  3. What segment can be tackled first?
  4. How many repetitions?
  5. What recovery?
  6. What progression?

Here is John's programme

Let's take an example. John is a 26-year-old 10km runner with a best time of 30 mins for 10km (72 secs / 400m). He decides to do the session on Sunday morning and to reduce his traditional long run. He chooses, of course, the 10km event.

Since the world-class time for 400m is seven seconds per lap faster than in his best-time 10km, he decides that 300ms in 48.6 is manageable. He works out that there are 35 x 300ms in a 10km. Too many to start with, so he opts for 18 x 300m. He has to think carefully about the recovery. He wants to do them all on time, but bearing in mind his event (25 consecutive laps) he wants the recovery to be realistic. He opts for 100m walk after each. He completes the session with some effort but on time.

He decides that the following week he will add a further four repetitions. This time it takes him six weeks to get it right. He now goes for the maximum (35), and after a month he conquers the session.

The track season is now over but he thinks it would be good cross-country preparation. He decides to increase the repetition by 50m to 350m in 56.7 secs and go for the maximum of 35 repetitions. By the middle of the next track season John is doing 25 x 400m in 65 secs with 100m walk recovery. Two years later he is doing 12 x 800m in 2 mins. 10secs with 100m walk rest. His 10km time is now 28mins.45secs (69 secs / 400). He is progressing to world class having trained at world class.

And here is Jane's programme

Another example might be Jane, a 16-year-old interested in the 800m. She has a best time of 2:16 (68 secs / 400m). She decides to do world-class pace on Saturday afternoons when not racing. She decides to do 16 x 100m in 14 secs, which is also her best speed per 100m for her 400m (56 secs). She reduces this to only 8 x 100m in 14 secs with 100m walk rest.

After a month it becomes too easy, so she decides to add four more repetitions, and a month later she can handle 16 x 100m. She then reduces the reps by half and increases the distance of the repetition to 150m in 21 secs. This takes her to the end of the track season.

She wants to compete in the National Indoor 800m championships and keeps the weekly session going. Halfway through the winter she conquers the 150ms, but only just; she advances the distance to 175m in 24.5 secs and reduces the reps to six. After a month she is able to do well and reverts back to eight reps. Indoors she runs a PB of 2:12 and is now able to do 8 x 200m in 28 secs with 100m walk. She now plans to do 8 x 250m in 35 secs with 100m walk recovery. In all, she has done over 50 training sessions in a year at world-record pace.

Add one press-up per day

It should be remembered that if a person aged 14 takes up running, it will take 8-10 years before a peak is reached. There may be great moments on the way, but the statistics are there. Many athletes are impatient for instant success, a bit like instant coffee, easily made and easily gone. From humble beginnings amazing things have been achieved. An athlete was told he was weak at press-ups, so his coach advised him to do one press-up first thing in the morning, and add one a day.

The coach forgot all about his advice, and a few months later the athlete queried: 'Hey, Frank, how much longer do I have to continue these press-ups? I'm on 133 at present'. That was more than 100 better than he could do five months before. He had taken note of the old Chinese proverb: 'A 10,000 mile walk begins with the first step'.

In time (it might be years), if we train at world-record speed we will no longer fear it. In fact, we may become contemptuous of it, thinking nothing of running the first half of our specialist event at a speed that has become all too familiar. The Gazelle Boy was, after all, a human being.