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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Progression - the key to increasing fitness

by Frank Horwill

The late Ron Pickering, former national athletics coach for Wales, and mentor to Olympic gold medallist Lynn Davies in the long jump (8.23m) many years ago was giving a lecture to the British distance running squad at their training camp in Merthyr Mawr. The theme of this lecture was – progression. He said, "If you wake up every morning and go for a 2 mile run around the park in 15 minutes, you will become very good at running 2 miles in 15 minutes. But, if you wish to progress, some of your runs will have to be 4 miles around the park, and some, just one mile around the park much faster".

During his lecture he was puzzled by the appearance of a middle-aged man sitting in the back-row of the audience, wearing a battered old trilby hat and smoking a pipe (Smoking was not so badly thought of thirty years ago!). Pickering thought no more of the matter until a year later when he was again addressing the same gathering – the same man, in the same place and in the same gear.

After his lecture, the man approached Pickering and said, "I thought about what you said last year on progression. I started with one chin to the bar and increased it by one a day. I got up to fifty!" The average for chinning the bar correctly for the British running elite in 1963, was three for men and a half chin for women.

Pickering felt inclined to doubt the man’s story and suggested they adjourn to the gymnasium for the man to give a demonstration. When the man had reached thirty chins he spluttered to Pickering, "Sometimes I get bored doing these and pull myself up to arms-length." He then proceeded to pull himself up until his arms were fully extended and his hips were above the bar! He completed fifty chins. His sport was sheer face rock climbing, for which he was world-renowned.

The moral of that story is obvious and not new. One of the most famous stories of its kind occurred more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. Milo of Crotona was delighted with the birth of a bull calf from a good stock cow, he expressed his joy for lifting the calf above his head first thing in the morning. He continued to do this until it was 4-years old and twenty times heavier than when first born. This did not stop him carrying it the length of the stadium at Olympia. Progressive weight-training had started.

The writer had a similar experience to that of Ron Pickering. He was in the habit of putting his athletes through a series of tests at the beginning of each winter, one of these was the number of press-ups that could be done in one minute – 60 was good. 50 was fair and 40 was poor. One athlete scored only thirty – he was asked to start with one press up every morning and to add one each day. Several months later, the athlete enquired of the writer, "How long should I keep up these press-ups, Frank! I’m up to on hundred and thirty-three at present".

The key to progressive training is to start small – aim big. One never to be forgotten distance runner did just that when he ran in the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley in 5,000 metres, where he gained a silver medal, his daily training consisted of 5x200, 200 jog recovery, 10 x 400, 200 jog recovery and 5 x 200. Two years later, he doubled this and a year later, he doubled it again, i.e. 20 x 200, 20 x 400, 20 x 200 daily! Inclusive of the jog recoveries, this is the equivalent of running the marathon distance daily! He was to be handsomely rewarded – Emil Zatopek gained gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres plus the marathon, the last distance he had never run before, but it did not stop him breaking the Olympic record (2:23:03:2) A feat that has never been equalled.

There are many who watch the London Marathon in April each year, with admiration tinged with envy. The latter sentiment comes from a feeling of wanting to run but doubting one’s ability to do so. There is also a fear of looking something of a spectacle in one’s initial outings. But, the simple fact is that every person who completes the London Marathon has had to make a start from a start of semi-decadence. Some start by doing a little too much, they get stressed and depressed – they give up.

The art is to start with minuscule amounts of work and progressively to add to it. We can either begin with just one minute of running on the first day then add one minute a day to this with every seventh day off, or we can run for one minute a day for a whole week and then make it two minutes a day for the second week, and so on.

With the first method, a person will reach 100 minutes a day in about 4 months. Once thirty-five minutes of running are reached in thirty-five weeks by the second method, it should be changed to a minute a day progression, so that by the end of the thirty-ninth week an hour’s running is done daily (about 8 miles).

To complete a marathon without too much stress, double the distance of the marathon (52 miles) should be run each week. Do not believe those who tell you that you need double that amount! The writer has coached females who in their first marathons, ran about 2 hours 40 minutes 30 seconds and 2 hours 54 minutes on just 40 miles a week.

This brings us to another important aspect of progression – making the activity tougher. There will come a time when the quantity of an activity is not practicable, we have only so much time in the day for exercise. When we reach the limit of that practicality, it’s perhaps time to halve the quantity and make it harder. Take for example, the lad who reached 133 press ups. If he had placed his feet on a chair and hands on the floor he would not have done so many repetitions at first. But, given a month or two he might reach his former maximum, and in doing so make his arms and shoulders immensely strong. So, with progressive training we have some options:

  1. Going for quantity.
  2. Aiming for a quantity making it tougher and aiming for the same quantity
  3. Fixing the quantity and increasing the quality.

Emil Zatopek concentrated on two things at the same time. In a conversation with the writer in 1963, he claimed that he did his 20 x 200, 40 x 400, 20 x 200 at the same speed as he did only 5 x 200, 10 x 400, 5 x 200. That takes some doing!

Roger Bannister (first man to break 4 minutes for the mile), on the other hand, went for (3) above. His motto was – minimum time – maximum effort. Time for him was a precious commodity, he had medical exams to pass, and later, when a house doctor, he was on call 24 hours a day. From the time he left his students’ residence to the time he returned, not more than an hour had elapsed, and during that hour he did his training!

He started the winter with 10 x 440yds in 66 seconds with 440yds jog in 2 – 3 minutes. The aim was to reduce the time of the repetitions by a second a month. In May 1954, he got them down to 56 seconds. But, he was mindful that he needed endurance as well, and did the "dreaded" session of 3 x 1.5 miles (6laps of 440yds) once a week with 5 minutes recovery after each. This regime led him to immortality.

Tradition in Britain has decreed that runners go for quantity in the winter. The runner is somewhat unique: he/she is expected to compete all the year round although some other sports at international level do compete abroad out of season due to the timing of world championships. Needless to say, there are some runners who do not believe in year-round competition.

Sebastion Coe at 21 years of age, decided to give up cross-country racing in the winter and aimed to concentrate on category (3) above in training, whilst Steve Ovett aimed for category (1) above and competed in cross-country. When both were aged sixteen years, Steve Ovett was the superior athlete. At 15 years of age, Coe’s best for 1,500 metres was 4:25 at the same age. Ovett was 10 seconds faster.

But, 10 years later Coe was superior to Ovett in the 800 metres, 1,500 metres, mile and 1,000 metres, and had gained twice as many Olympic medals and world records. This could be a strong recommendation to follow category (3) in training and to avoid cross-country racing. The latter choice is not popular with die-hard athletics club officials.

So, what is your weakness? Usually a weakness is something you avoid because you are no good at it and do not want to be humiliated. One thing is for sure, it won’t get any better by ignoring it. It will always be your weak link in the chain of total fitness. Many middle-distance runners’ usually 800 metre specialists are good sprinters but poor endurance runners – they would avoid long repetitions with short recoveries. Such thinking is not world-class thinking, it is third-rate also-ran thinking.

Here is a plan to move up a peg in your own estimation, and possibly to improve your fitness beyond your wildest dreams. Accept that you have a personality – it is made up of three things, a trinity in unity, mind, body and will. They are all important but the will is the most important since it dictates to the mind and hence the body. Treat the will as a muscle to be exercised daily with small tasks which grow in magnitude.

Decide now what aspect of your fitness or competitive training you dislike most. Be honest! Have the guts to say, "I hate running up hills", or "I hate any form of strength training." Once this is said, you have accepted that you are not so cracked-up as you think you are. Your days as a poseur are over, no longer will you do just the things you are good at and look good. You are prepared to face reality and look, at times, "all fingers and thumbs". You have made a momentous decision.

Remember the old Chinese saying – "A 10,000 mile walk starts with the first step." Choose a minuscule amount of the activity you dislike most and decide whether you want to do it daily or weekly, remember that it progresses each time you do it.

For example, you may dislike bent-knee abdominal exercise. This can be done daily at home first thing in the morning. You start with one exercise, next day two, etc. It may be that you are afraid of hill-running – once a week will suffice. You choose a long hill of about 1,200 metres. You scale it once, next time it will be two efforts. Choose the same time and the same day.

At the end of a week of progression, give yourself a pat on the back. Get a postcard and write on it in block letters, the word will and stick it up on the bedroom wall, it will remind you that your will-power is in the ascendancy. Each week of progression, replace the paper with bigger letters, if necessary start painting the wall with the word – will! Be able to say 6 months hence, "I am greater than I ever knew".

Frank Horwill