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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Marathon speed Chapter II: Why Paula runs 2:15, and South African men don't

So last Saturday, we did a post looking at how the track events, and in particular, the 'golden era' for track running of the mid-1990's because the catalyst that has reshaped your typical marathon runner-profile. In that period between 1993 and 1998, the world record over 10000m was broken 9 times, bringing the best time down by 45 seconds! It was inevitable that when this generation (the likes of Tergat and Gebrselassie) stepped off the track and onto the roads, there'd be fireworks!

And sure enough, it's not unusual to see four or five guys racing like track runners over the final kilometer of the marathon, at a pace of sub 2:08. And our point from our previous post was that the physiology of the elite marathon runner has evolved - no longer are they the steady "tortoises" with all the slow twitch muscle, they are as comfortable in a 5k race as a 21 km race as a marathon. The example of Paula Radcliffe is even more emphatic - here is a runner who, in years gone by, has been Commonwealth and European record holder over 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, and 10 000m! A competitor for many years over the track distances, until eventually, she stepped up and raced the fastest marathons ever seen. But we should have seen it coming...And our message was that there is a lesson to be learned from this for all of us mere mortals. And that is what this post is all about...

The example of South African marathon mediocrity...

Here's a hypothetical example, which comes from South Africa, my (Ross') home country. Perhaps you have examples of this wherever it is you are reading this, but it's something close to home:

Sarah is a 16-year old girl, capable of running a 10km race in 34 minutes. That's not bad, when you consider her age, and that she can win, or at least get top 3 in most local races. So what she realises very soon (with the right 'guidance' from greedy agents and coaches) is that there is a little bit more money running marathons, and she'll be quite successful over that distance too.

So she races a few 21 km races to pass time until she's 18, and her 21km performances are also not bad - with her 10 km best of 34 minutes, she can run 21km in about 74 to 76 minutes, good enough for the win and some more prize money.

So time passes and she steps up to the marathon - here, with her best 21 km time of 75 minutes, the best marathon she can possibly run is 2:40, and that's pushing it. But that's good enough, in the smaller races, to at least win some prize money, and there's more money here than there was for running a 34 minute 10km race and winning it. So she sticks to the marathon, until her 22 year old legs are either injured or unable to sustain the pace of racing a marathon twice a month (seriously, it happens here in SA) and she 'retires' into anonymity, only to be replaced by the next talented 16 year old who can run 34 minutes for 10km.

The logic behind speed for the marathon

So what does this have to do with Paula! And what does it have to do with you?

Well, you have to remember that there is a logical, natural progression in time as you move from 10 km to 21 km to the marathon. In otherwords, if your best 10km time is 34 min, you CANNOT run a 21 km race in 70 minutes - that's a faster pace, for double the distance! And if your 21km time is 70 minutes, you WILL NOT run the marathon in under 2:20 - it's just not possible! So you run 2:50, and your first response is to say that you "need more training", so your training runs get longer and longer, which means slower and slower. And you start to think of 10km races as warmups, which means your 10km best time gets worse and worse, until eventually, your marathon is hitting three hours, and other 18 year olds are running past you!

And for the men - comparisons with Paula Radcliffe expose the problem

And what is worrying, and embarassing even, is that this is what is happening to South African men. Our best male runners are winning money by running 10 km in 30 to 31 minutes. They then run 21km races, finishing in about 65 to 67 minutes, and then jump to marathons at 21 years of age, finishing in about 2:18 to 2:20. Note that these are almost exactly the same times Paula Radcliffe is running! So the problem for these guys is not that their marathons are slower than Paula's, it's that their 10km times are too slow! They need to get their 10km time into the 28-min range, and then they can begin to compete in 2:10 marathons.

Paula Radcliffe - the RIGHT way to engineer a marathon

So what Paula Radcliffe did with great success was to delay stepping up to the marathon for as long as possible, focusing instead on getting her speed developed. And she was successful on the track, make no mistake, but she was not the greatest. This must have taken enormous foresight and discipline.

You see, what Paula Radcliffe lacked was the ability to kick. So when you look at her major champs performances, she was a regular 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd place finisher. What that does not tell you is that she probably ran in the lead for about 9600m of a 10000m race, or 4700 m of a 5000m race, only to be dusted over the final lap. But she stuck with it...Her reward - a 30 minute PB over 10km, a 14:30 PB at 5000m, and a 1500m PB of 4:05! Most of these times were recorded between 2000 and 2002, part of the buildup to what would become the greatest period ever for a woman marathon runner.

So the take home message for all of us, and for administrators in South Africa (and no doubt other countries) is that marathon success starts with speed. In the men's division, you simply cannot hope to compete in a race at sub 2:07 pace unless your 10km PB is 27 minutes, and preferably, you have the ability to run 5000m in under 13 minutes.

So you're not a potential record holder - what does this mean for you?

What does this mean for the rest of us, who have targets of 4 hours for the marathon? Well, the same logic applies. If your 10 km best is only 50 minutes, then your 21 km best will be no faster than about 1:50, which means your marathon best will be 3:50, at best. More likely, you'll be running 4 hours. So if you want to get your performance over the marathon down, it's not more endurance you need, it's more speed.

At this stage, a disclaimer...there are of course people who can sustain more or less the same speed. I recall once meeting a girl who had a 10km best of 38 minutes, and a 21km best of 80 minutes! That's the same time over twice the distance!!!! She said it was because her endurance was her biggest strength. My interpretation would be that her speed was inadequate, and if she spent a couple of months on it, her 10 km time could come down to 36 minutes, and then with some more training, her 21km best would drop to 78 minutes.

So practically applying this should tell you that one possible secret to success over the marathon is to be patient, work at speed, realise that the natural progression from 10 to 21 to 42 km means that a faster runner over the shorter distances means a faster performance over the 42 km distance. So your next question is "OK, I'm prepared to be patient, now how do I go about improving my speed over the shorter distances?" And for that answer, join us again over the coming weeks, where we'll talk about training and speed work for everyone, whether you're Paul, Paula, or just hopeful!

R & J


Anonymous said...

While it is true that you cannot run a marathon at a pace that is faster than your 5 K pace, I do not think that focusing on the 5 K will do much for your marathon. The success of Paula Radcliffe is merely a result of consistent training that brought her overall fitness up. A slow-twitch runner will get faster on shorter distances as well by focusing on aerobic development. I have personally experienced this in my training. When I focused on the 5 K, I did not do as well in the 5 K, as when I focused on the marathon. I also PR'ed on a 5 K at the age of 31 after having run about 30 marathons. That year, I also PR'ed in the mile and in the 400 meters.
It is true, though, that an extreme focus on the marathon may produce more stress than your body can handle, which leads to injuries and/or structural/biomechanical deterioration, which permanently damages one's ability to race well on any distance. I think that is what is happening in the case of the athletes you described above.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Sasha

Thank you very much for your visit and your comments, your points are well-taken.

However, I would like to just point out that we are NOT saying that a marathon runner should focus on their 5km running in order to run a better marathon - our message, using Radcliffe as the template - is that a runner who lacks the basic speed over shorter distances needs to first improve those before moving up to the marathon.

Once that move is made, and the athlete commits to running a marathon, then of course, their training will be different to that of a 5km runner - we did mention this in our posts. So it's not a case of saying that marathon runners should abandon the aerobic base and long distance training. It is however a case that in order to be a successful marathon runner, one must be patient, develop the necessary speed over the shorter distances and then step up the training to complete a successful marathon.

This article is the companion article of the Saturday post, where we discussed how a marathon runner has changed over the years - I am positive that a runner with a PB of 29minutes over 10km will never be able to compete in a world class marathon - they are just too slow.

With regards to your performances, I'd be interested to know what the training was for your 5km when that was your focus. I suspect that if you had gone back, and trained differently, that performance would be faster than it is now, as a marathon runner. But the error that many people make is that they assume that a 5km runner does not need big mileage. This is not true. If you look at the top 5km runners, they are doing 120km or more per week. Even Sebastian Coe, an 800m runner, was doing 90 to 100km a week in peak training volume phases. So I think that what has probably happened is that your 5km times benefitted from increased mileage as a result of marathon training, but there is no way that these performances are better than what could be achieved on specific, speed-oriented training.

So the message from this post that we are trying to put across is not so much that marathon runners need to do hours of speed work, but if they cleverly integrated speed into their marathon training, it would benefit their performance. But even more than this, we're saying wait before stepping up, and get yourself as fast as possible over short distances, and then graduate to the marathon - you need to be a fast athlete (fast is relative) in order to be a good marathon runner.

Thanks again for your comments!

Φλύαρος said...

Very interesting article! Speaking for myself I have a goal to go sub 3 for the Marathon. So this year I switched my training focus and tried to get more speed. I managed to get a 19:21 for 5K and 40:40 for 10K (track). According to the experts this is equivalent to a 3:05 so I still have a lot of work ahead. But while the long runs and high millage weeks are always part of my schedule one session per week will be an interval or a tempo run. By the way I have run 7 Marathons, PB 3:12(this year), being running races for 4 years now and I am 43 years old. Your thoughts are more than welcome and thank you for your great blog!!!

Andrew said...

Another top quality article guys! A quick question, as you know, my ultimate goal is Comrades, but I'd also like to run a sub 3 hour marathon. My PB for a 5km is 18:02, and 10km 38:34, do I need more speed to get that goal? And will Comrades slow me down?
If it does, is it possible for me to do 2 comrades, (Up and Down), then come back and focus on speed, half-marathons, marathon etc?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George and Andrew

Thanks for the positive feedback. It's always great to hear positive responses, so keep 'em coming!

This particular post was interesting to write, because I (Ross) feel very strongly about the fact that not enough young runners do speedwork and focus on the track and cross-country, especially in South Africa. So the post was 'conceived' in response to that particular problem, but I really do believe there is a physiological basis for our observations and opinions. The problem is that people sometimes read into it things that they shouldn't - they see us saying "focus on speed" and their immediate response is that we are saying they should forget about distance! Nothing could be further from the truth, because obviously, to run a good Marathon, you need to have sufficient endurance base and mileage. But it's difficult to write and get the key point across without sounding this way, so I understand why there is confusion.

Having said that, i don't believe either of you is confused - and I have very strong convictions that improving the speed of a marathon runner (through a period of dedicated training, not while in the marathon programme, because that would immediately affect the marathon performance) will translate into better marathon performances SOMEWHERE DOWN THE LINE.

So in your case, George, you're exactly on the right track. You seem to be doing the necessary mileage, which is important, but your speed and emphasis on that for this period is also beneficial. I'm sure from your reading you'll have seen that if you can get that 10km down even by 1 minute, to the low 39's, then, assuming your training progresses well from then on, you'll be good to go sub 3.

The difficult part of all this is sub-dividing the training up right. In otherwords, you can't hedge your bets and say you want to be a good marathon runner and a good 10km runner AT THE SAME TIME. That's why a programme is usually periodized, so that there is a phase of focus on endurance and building distance, and another for speed. My personal advice to people, which is emphasized in this post (and Saturday's) is to spend a period of maybe 2 or 3 months working at the speed, getting as fast as possible. And then transition into marathon mode, which means longer running, slower running, but still with the one or two speed sessions a week. That way, you don't lose the gains from earlier completely, but still do sufficient higher distance training to see benefits. Hope that makes sense?

And then Andrew, your situation right now is very much the same - your shorter times are probably about right, suggesting you have enough speed to do the sub3 marathon, but you'd need to develop endurance. I know you've been injured and that obviously is a major factor, because it means that those PB's are 'historical', so you'd have to get back into that shape again. That would be my focus for the rest of the year - a 10km and 21 km goal, and then next year, if Comrades is the goal, you can do the mileage work.

Whether or not you can come back down is another question. I believe you can, as Sasha's case has shown - you can still run fast after doing Comrades. But again, you can't hedge your bets - you won't, for example, be optimizing Comrades and 5km performance on the same programme. If you are running PB's for both (as Sacha was), then I would put my head on the block and say that one of them is still an underperformance...

Anyway, hope that makes sense. This is quite a confusing thing to put across - it's not simply a case of more speed, less endurance, because the two play off each other all the time. So feel free to email any other questions...

Thanks again, keep visiting!


Andrew said...

Thanks Ross, that makes sense. I'm actually feeling rather positive as those PBs were achieved after about 4 months of between 50km and 70km weeks with no real speed work. My speedwork was simply the 5km time trial. So once I'm up to full speed on the ankle, I'm really sure a more structured program will me see me to those times, and possibly quicker.
However, everything is a little unknown at the moment for me, so it's just a matter of patience, and building slowly.
Another question, do you think more 5km and 10km road races, with a higher prize money, could solve the problem. I have a few other ideas, but that's for another day.
Thanks again Ross, and keep it up!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey again Andrew

I think what I will do is write a post tomorrow on what I think the answer to our lack of running talent is. Part of it is to focus more on shorter distance races, but this is only part of the problem. I think tomorrow I'll write a relatively short post on the topic.

I think that for your training, you're right to see how it goes in the next while as you regain strength. And then become the best possible 10km runner, and go from there.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Andrew,

Re your last comment about more 5 km and 10 km races with more cash incentive. . .Ross and I had countless discussions about this very state of affairs in South Africa. This Nedbank series is a very small first step, but unfortunately it is half-marathons and nothing shorter.

The ultra culture still dominates the South African running scene, and with serious prize money for Oceans and Comrades, why shouldn't it?

The one solution would be for the sponsors and ASA to create a series of 5 km and 10 km races with major prize money (i.e. winner takes home R50,000+). In the beginning the winning times will still be below an international standard, but one would think that in time, as the competition increased, the times would fall and South Africa would be soon be competitive on the world road racing and track circuit.

Currently we have Ramaala, but guys like Sinque, Gert Thys, and Thugwane are past their prime, and once Ramaala stops being competitive it is unclear who, if anyone, will fill his shoes as there are no outstanding (read, "internationally competitive") runners for SA at 10km or above.

Great point, though, thanks for keeping the discussion going!

Kind Regards,

Φλύαρος said...

Ross and Jonathan

thanks for taking the time to respond. You got the reading part about me right. I do read a lot but I always try to read from trusted sources and scientists such as you. Your fellow South African Dr Tim Noakes has written that a solid time for the 10K is the criterion for a fast half Marathon, Marathon and even an ultra distance event such as Comrades. Since IMHO I consider
The Lore of Running one of the best books written about running (and his theory about the Central Governor is fascinating) I would have to agree with you 100%.

What I did was train for the 5K and 10K (focus on speed) in between training cycles for the Marathon. And as the old motto says to run fast you need to run fast (in training) so the interval sessions and/or tempo runs are always there in my current training cycle.


I read about your surgery and I hope everything goes well for you in the future. One little question your PB times seem to decline as the distance increases, your 5K is better than your 10K and much better than your half Marathon. Where these PB's set during the same year and in races of similar condition (weather, road or track, elevation)? If they were close and under similar conditions I would suggest you have to focus your training for endurance and you can easily break 3 hours for the Marathon (my guess is a 2:55 as soon as you recover fully)

Regards to all

Andrew said...

Hi Guys, thanks for your responses. George, thanks for checking out my site. A bit of info on my times, my 5km & 10km times were set in Dec 06, 21km in Sept 06, and 30km in July 06. I just never had the chance to run a fast 21km, as my injury hit me late Dec 06, so that's why they look a bit out of sync. Endurance training is definitely a must though, but I still feel I have more to come in terms of speed, so I'll have to give the 10km a proper go, once I've regained my strength.