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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

A Little Knowledge

By Frank Horwill

Recently, an athlete recounted to me a chance meeting with two of Kenya’s best 800metre runners in a fitness club in Teddington. Both runners are sub 1:43 performers, so what they have to say bout their training warrants great respect. From his chat with these two, he came away with the following impressions:-

  1. They were 400/800 specialists, never racing 1500 metres.

  2. Their volume of training was well over 70miles a week average for the year.

This probably indicates that in the winter the volume is way above this figure. Now, to the impressionable this information could cause one to follow suit. But, before pursuing this course there are some facts to consider. First of all, since 1900 the world records for the 800metres has been in the hands of the 800/1500metre types for two-thirds of the time. This indicates that endurance is a big factor in the two-lap event. Next, to specialise as a pure 400/800m type, one must possess blinding speed over 400metres, we are talking about sub 46-seconds. The conversion rate of the 400/800 type follows this formula: best 400m time + 8 seconds x 2 potential 800mtime. For example, best 400m time = 44secs + 8 secs = 52secs x 2 = 1:44. In a few cases this is better, e.g. best 400m time = 46secs + 6 secs = 52secs x 2 = 1:44.

The volume of training has always been a controversial subject. First of all, we must ask if there is any physiological evidence that it really pays dividends? If we use the VO2max as a measure of improving fitness, it certainly does with those on a scanty weekly mileage. An athlete who builds up from running 20miles a week at a conversational pace to 50miles a week, will improve the VO2max by 10 per cent. In practical terms this means that an athlete who can run 4,000metres in 15 minutes when doing 20mpw, will be able to run 4,500 metres in 15 minutes when doing 50mpw. That’s a 10per cent improvement. Not to be sniffed at. If the athlete continues to build up the mileage to 80mpw, there will be a further 2 per cent boost to the VO2max, in practical terms this will be around a further 200 metres on top of the 4,500 metres in 15 minutes, i.e. about 4,700 metres. That’s some improvement from 4k in 15 minutes. Now, at this point experts begin to differ. Many say that there is no further improvement with added volume at a slow speed. While others postulate that there will be increased fitness if the added volume is much faster than the average.

The next question to ask is – can one find the time for this increased volume? In the case of the two Kenyans mentioned earlier – they do not work for a living, running is their livelihood. Another question that comes to mind is – is it necessary to have to do voluminous training to succeed at 800 metres? Sebastion Coe, who held the 800m world record for 16 years, and still holds the 1,000 metres record, is on record as saying, "The maximum result from the minimum of work (In volume)". Just how does one do this? Well, the world’s leading physiologists (Astrand, Daniels, Costill et al.) state that work between 80-100 per cent of the VO2max is the great booster of fitness. In practical terms – 100% is your 3k speed, 95% is your 5k speed, 90% is your 10k speed, and 80% is your half-marathon speed. The difference in these speeds is about 4-seconds per 400metres slower from 3k to the half-marathon. In world-class athletes it is often much less.

There is also another important stipulation about the training effect – we do not begin to improve fitness until we have been running for 35 minutes’ druation on a steady run. Also, the low-volume athlete has to record the VO2max percentages for sustained periods many times in one training session. A simple formula is to take one-third of the distance and percentage indicated and repeat it many times, or at least three times. Here is a table that facilitates this:-

VO2max percentage Race Pace Distance Run (One-third)
3k 1,000m
95% 5k 1,600m
90% 10k 3,200m
80% ½ marathon 4.3 miles

Let us assume we have a female with a best time of 4mins.40secs/1500 (75.0/400), her estimated times at farther distances are:- 3k/9.52.5 (79/400), 5k/17.17.5 (83/400), 10k/36.15 (87/400), and 78mins42secs (91/400) for the half marathon.

Let us now assume that this female wishes to maximise her endurance (VO2max) in the winter, but is only prepared to train every other day due to other commitments, her programme could look like this:-

Sunday – 80% VO2max – 3 x 4.3m in 26min14secs with 60secs rest

Tuesday – 90% VO2max – 3 x 2 m in 12min04secs with 60secs rest

Thursday – 95% VO2max – 3 x 1 m in 5min32secs with 60 secs rest

Saturday – 100% VO2max – 3 x 1k in 3min17.5secs with 2mins rest

Monday – 35 minute run

Wednesday – Repeat Thursday

Friday – 35 minutes run

Sunday – Start cycle again.

Assuming that the warm up on each day is 2 miles, the total weekly mileage is around 30 miles, but in reality she will be doing the equivalent of 70 miles of steady running and taking half the time to do it!

We now come back to the two Kenyans mentioned earlier, the discussion was about their 800m times. We should not look at what other runners do as a panacea for success, for their success may be in spite of what they do! For example, Coe once said, "I can run 47 seconds for 400 metres anytime of the year." This means that he had acquired the strength to do this from his early days of training. On the other hand, Ovett, did in the winter twice the volume of Coe in training, but his best 800 metres time was 2.39 seconds slower than Coe'’. However, when it came to the 1500 metres there was only a second between them. Would Coe have gone faster with a greater weekly volume? Would Ovett have closed the 800-metre gap with less volume and more quality of running? WE can only guess at the answer.

A runner’s task is quite straightforward. It revolves around three things:-

  1. Maximising the VO2max
  2. Maximising specific strength.
  3. Maximising basic speed.

We have dealt with (1), but (2) is greatly misunderstood. We do not want the physique of a Gladiator, but we require the apparatus to improve our rate of stride and length of stride at maximum speeds from 100 to 400 metres. The 400 metres flat time will always have a hearing in our 800 metres time. Given a flat time of 56 seconds, the very best time for 800 metres will be 56 + 4secs = 60secs x 2 = 2mins. This is with maximum endurance. To improve, the 400 metres time will have to come down, for example, with the same endurance, 54secs + 4secs = 58secs x 2 = 1:56. To improve 400m times, regular sprint training is required and regular leg-strengthening specific to running. This latter requisite includes sprinting uphill, hopping 25m, hamstring curls, half-squats with weights or partner on the shoulders, one-legged deep squats and the Russian isometric leg lift up from the ground while the other leg off the ground attempts to go down against the resistance of a partner’s hands.

Once we decide on a course of training we should stick to it for 36 weeks, the time it takes for all our systems to be at their best. A person with a "grasshopper" mind who constantly tries a different routine every month and is constantly questioning the training they are doing becomes a neurotic. Decide and get on with it!