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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

The Track Season Looms

By Frank Horwill

The former physio to the British team, Cliff Bould, once told me something I’ve never forgotten. "My clinic", he said, "fills up every April and May." The old adage "too much too soon" comes to mind…

An athlete who has, for six months in the winter, done nothing else but run 50 to 100 miles a week at six minutes a mile is a candidate for the physio’s couch in early summer if care is not taken. I believe in one track session a week for two months (October & November), two for the next couple of months (December & January), and three for the final two months (February & March). This way athletes are gradually introduced to faster track work. This routine also makes for good cross country and indoor competition. (This procedure was used with Tim Hutchings, twice World Cross Country silver medallist, in 1984 and 1989.)

How much?

When we talk of track training, we inevitably think of repetition running. The pedantic use the term "interval training" for 100- and 200-meter reps, and all other distances beyond those are called repetition running. It matters not how we describe such running. The question we must ask is why we do it. Several reasons come to mind:

  • If an athlete runs a full-out mile in four minutes, that’s 60 seconds per 440 yards. If on another day he runs four separate 440 yard laps in 60 seconds with 60 seconds rest after each, he has run at the same speed and distance as was done in the maximum effort mile. The only difference is that there will not be the same build up of lactic acid in the body, so the athlete might manage ten 440 yards at the same speed and improve.
  • Each repetition done vaccinates the athlete at what can be called Target Pace Serum. If the aim is 1.42 for 800m, the vaccination process can start with 8 x 200m in 25.5 seconds and eventually lead to 4 x 400m in 51 seconds.
  • Repetition running gives the athlete a feel for pace judgement.
  • The stroke volume of the heart during recovery periods increases and strengthens the heart. How can this be? The stroke volume is the amount of blood pumped out per beat and during exercise it can reach over 90ml/beat, but during the recovery period it can sour to 110 ml/beat x 120 bpm and decreasing.

The traditional method used for repetition training is to start slow and get faster. For example, Roger Bannister started with 10 x 440 yards in October at 66 seconds per lap and attempted to increase speed by one second a month, and by May the following year recorded many of his laps at 56 seconds. There is one drawback with this routine: an athlete may be divorced from world class pace for months or even years.

A more recent trend is to start with world class speed with good recovery and to extend the distance run while maintaining the same recovery period. For instance, world record pace for 5,000m is around 61 seconds per 400m. A starting point is decided up: let’s say 300m in 45.6 seconds. The target is to achieve reps, totallying 5km at that speed (ie 17 x 300m). In order to be on time for them all, the recovery period must be adequate – 300m jog in 90 seconds might be possible. If achieved, it is time to progress to 13 x 400m in 61 seconds with the same recovery period of 300m jog in 90 seconds. The progression continues to 500m, thence to 1,000m and even 2,000m with the same recovery period of 90 seconds. The progression process may take weeks, months or even years to reach the ultimate goal. However, the athlete has never been away from world record pace. It’s not something that causes a shake of the head and a remark like "I’ll never run that fast". He has run that fast and is still running that fast!

How often?

We now come to the frequency of track sessions. The saturation point was reached when the late Mihaly Igloi of the Los Angeles Track Club ordered his athletes to meet him on the track at 6am and 6pm for six consecutive days. He got some good results, but we do not know the injury rate or the drop-out level caused by stress and staleness. Keeping athletes fresh and interested in their training is a major role for the coach. There are various ways of doing this:

  • Track training every other day
  • Avoidance of the same repetition distance being given twice in one week
  • Untimed sessions where the athlete has to self-score out of five for effort: eg 1 out of 5 for little effort; 4 out of 5 for a major effort;
  • One week in four off the track where a fartlek equivalent is done on the grass. If the track session was to be 4 x 800m in two minutes with 3 minutes recovery, the fartlek would be 4 x 2 minutes hard running with 3 minutes recovery.
  • Varying the recovery times for the same session done previously.

Recovery times after reps is a very controversial issue. Bannister jogged the same distance after the rep. Many copied him: eg 10 x 440 yards, jog 44 yards, doing such a session 3 times a week – and were disappointed not to crack the 4 minute mile. However, Bannister also did 3 x 1+ miles fast on the track, and 5 x 880 yards. In a mile race, we don’t get 180 seconds rest after each lap: we get none!

Gershler advocated the pulse returning to 120 bpm. Not a bad idea. If you do 4 x 400m in 52 seconds, the pulse will take longer to come down than it will after running 8 x 400m in 62 seconds. Fox and Matthews upped the recovery rate to 130 bpm. Some of the old Soviet greats used declining recovery periods, as do I. For example, 16 x 200m starting with 90 seconds rest and reducing by 15 seconds a time to 15 seconds, and then starting with 90 seconds again. Igloi advocated jogging half the distance of all reps, irrespective of the speed involved.

In my book Obsession for Running, I try to make sense of the recovery period problem which Seb Coe adopted.

Table 1: Recovery periods adopted by Seb Coe

Distance of Rep
Number of Reps Jog Recovery Time & Max Time
Double (400m/ 3 min)
Equal (400m / 3 min)
Half (500m / 3 min 45 secs)
Quarter (375m / 3 min)
Eighth (200m / 90 seconds)
Sixteenth (125 / 60 seconds)

The table is for those who subscribe to the start-slow-get-faster regime. Aouita, who claimed to train in the same way as Coe, said that the table was too severe for him and he doubled all the recovery periods. It’s a good plan to experiment with this table by adhering to it one week and doubling it for the same session a following week and comparing the result. For example, an athlete wishes to do a session at 800m speed and does 8 x 100m in 14 seconds with 100m jog in 45 seconds, 3 minutes rest, then 4 x 200m in 28 seconds, jog 200m in 90 seconds, 3 minutes rest, 2 x 300m + 1 x 200m with 300m jog in 135 seconds, 3 minutes rest, 2 x 400m with 400m jog recover in 3 minutes. What will happen the following week when all the recover periods are doubled? They will, of course, be much faster.

So we can say the first method is to develop speed endurance and the second develops pure speed.