Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


In the 1970’s, training knowledge was expanding rapidly, thanks to innovative coaches such as Bill Squires, elite runners searching for a world-beating edge such as Bill Rodgers and Olympic Gold Medallist Frank Shorter, and exercise physiologists such as Jack Daniels, PhD. Through trial-and-error, these athletes, coaches, and scientists added to the foundation built by Arthur Lydiard during the 1960’s. Since then, long distance running has become a worldwide phenomenon, and training methods have been further influenced by runners and coaches from Japan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Italy, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Morocco, and many other countries.

The most noticeable change in training over the past 25 or so years, of course, is that in the 70’s less than 25% of the running population was female. Back then, although the number of women runners was growing exponentially, no one knew what the female body could (or should be asked to) tolerate, and there were no generally accepted training regimes for women. In the post-Title IX years, the boom in high school and college running programs for young women created a huge talent pool, and knowledge of training methods for women distance runners evolved quickly. Coaching the women’s cross country team at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, I found a group of women willing to work hard, and that the best guidance on training was not in a book but gained by observing the top women runners and coaches of the day.

The prevailing training philosophy in the 70’s was “more is better,” and weekly mileage was the stuff of competition. If Derek Clayton was quoted as running 160 miles per week, then someone else would try 175 miles per week. Runners tended to put in as many hard days in a row as possible before their bodies made them take an easy day. This approach to training may sound harsh, and it was, but it reaped rewards. Distance running in the U.S. was improving markedly, and although there were a few casualties along the way, pure hard work generally paid dividends.

During the 90’s there was a bit of a backlash against the more-is-better approach to training, and a preoccupation developed for avoiding “overtraining.” Unfortunately, in the running press, the normal day-to-day fatigue associated with training was often misrepresented as “over-training.” This over-reaction thankfully missed most elite runners and appears to have waned in the past few years.


In the 1970’s, the conventional wisdom was that the benefits of long runs were obtained by simply accumulating “time on your feet.” LSD (long, slow distance) was frequently touted as the best method to develop the stamina for races longer than 10 km. The best runners, such as Tom Fleming, Don Kardong, and the aforementioned Frank and Bill, however, knew that LSD would only prepare them to run a long way slowly. They did their long runs at a variety of paces depending on the goal of the workout. Elite women runners such as Joan Benoit and Patti Catalano followed suit, and LSD became the realm of those whose goal was simply to finish the marathon.

Intervals get longer

Another key component of training a few decades ago was 400-meter or 440-yard repeats (tracks were only starting to be converted from yards to meters). Running hard once around the track was handed down from the 1960’s when the U.S. running scene was dominated by milers Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori. Coaches discovered, however, that while 400’s may be excellent preparation for the mile, they do not simulate the demands of the longer distances. Research in the labs backed up the coaches’ observations, and 400’s have been largely replaced in distance runners repertoires by 800s, 1000s, 1200s and repeat miles (1600s).

Tempo runs fill a gap

In the early 1970’s, tempo runs had not yet entered the typical runner’s vocabulary. In between long slow running and fast intervals lay a no-man’s land. By the late ‘70’s, runners and coaches had developed several types of training involving sustained efforts at anywhere from 10-mile race pace to a bit slower than marathon pace. Jack Daniels and others verified the benefits of these workouts, and tempo runs have become a vital component of distance runners’ training.

Cross-training has its place

One area that has changed considerably since the ‘70’s is the approach to cross-training. Back then, runners were runners, rare was the elite runner who did anything more than run, stretch a little, and perhaps occasionally lift weights. A bit of cross-training hysteria hit the running scene in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps as a reaction to high injury rates among the recreational runners from the first running boom. Cross-training has now found its place as a useful way to improve recovery, avoid injury and enhance general aerobic fitness.

Training Accessories

In 1976, I remember driving from my home outside Rochester, New York to Toronto to buy a pair of nylon running shorts. This advance in technology reduced chafing, and that pair of shorts was treasured for years. Today, technology for runners has mushroomed, and a wide variety of tools and trinkets are available. One of the most useful items is the heart-rate monitor. Hundreds of thousands of heart monitors have been sold and are an excellent tool for monitoring training effort. Heart monitors are most useful for ensuring that recovery days really do lead to recovery, and that tempo runs are done in the correct training zone. This advance has helped many runners to train more scientifically, and hopefully more effectively.

Twenty-five years from now, most of the training advances will likely have developed through trial-and-error by a coach and a dedicated group of runners.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)