Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No-Man's Land

One of my first really big coaching influences was Jack Daniels. As a young coach I would stay up late at night with a bottle of fine Tennessee Whiskey, pour glass after glass, and the next morning I would have a top notch training schedule that I didn't even remember writing. It was like the cobbler and the elves. Just kidding! Obviously I refer to legendary inventor of the phrase VDOT and for all intents and purposes, father of the modern tempo run, the man who Runner's World once called "greatest coach in the world." Years before The Daniels' Running Formula was ever written, I would use his lecture notes from The Olympic Training Center's coaching education as a basis for many of my schedules. Later on I got a chance to meet him and subsequently traded some letters and phone calls and soaked up whatever I could from the exchanges. To this day I still think of training templates in my head that have foundations in what I learned from Daniels in those days. If you actually saw the schedules and workouts my athletes run over a season, however, you might never know this.

One of the cornerstones of Daniels running formula is the pace charts. Everything is based on the percentage of your VDOT pace. (For those that didn't run cross country at Glastonbury High School and thus haven't had the term crammed down their throats a zillion times per week) VDOT refers to a number that estimates a runner's VO2 max based on race performances. I actually personally never used VDOT as I found it extraneous. I used VDOT's brother, VVO2, which had a more practical application in estimating the velocity at which VO2 max first occurred. Either way, this pace is estimated to happen at the max average speed you could hold for a fifteen minute race. Once you know this VVO2, you train at pace zones that are a specific percentage of this pace for for all training and do not deviate in the slightest lest you destroy an entire season's hard work. I have actually offended people who swear by The Daniels Running Formula with my maverick usage of other training zones. I used to try to debate the whole idea of pragmatic training with them but in the end conceded that obviously, I must not know Jack... or do I?

As I said, I was reading lecture notes and talking to Daniels long before the book ever came out. I remember little things he said like, "tempo runs say 88% but that's just for the masses, a decently conditioned athlete should run more like 92%." What about the recoveries, which are probably the second most dogmatic principles of The Running Formula? Well, I'm not looking at a book right now, it's on loan to someone who I think will get more out of it, but I recall that all VVO2 workouts were supposed to have roughly equal work to rest ratios. All "Repetitions" (about mile pace) were supposed to have around 3:1 work to rest ratios, tempo intervals (88% VVo2) got sixty seconds recovery. Well, I remember Jack talking about - and I'm pretty sure this is in his first book - one of favorite workouts being a fartlek workout on the cross country course that included intervals of 30, 60 and 120 seconds followed by recovery runs of no more than sixty seconds for the duration of the course. He mentioned sometimes his athletes would set personal records for the course while doing this workout. For this to happen, not only would the intervals have to be faster than "I" pace, but the recoveries, at least on the 120 second surges, were not only cut to half of the work time but must have been done at quite a brisk jog. I also remember a workout he mentions of 10x400 at mile pace (R pace) with sixty second recoveries. Once again, far less than "The Formula" called for.

So I think we've established that there is some flexibility to to the program. You can't teach someone how to coach in a book. The best you can do is give them guidelines that they will follow, in my opinion, in reverse proportion to how confident and competent they are as coaches. The least confident will hold up the formulas as sacred and the more confident will have more say according to how their and more importantly their athletes' experiences dictate. There are obvious exceptions to this. I once debated a coach who swore tempo pace for high school girls was actually faster than VO2 pace. ( I actually made him repeat this twice as I thought for sure no one could possibly think this). He had some fast runners so thought that proved he was right in making this change. Of course he had answers for why his runners were always getting injured and why they seemed to peak at random times rather than at the end of the season. They were "soft." Yes, that is a quote. I think the last thing I pointed out was that they seemed to become soft at the exact time he got to that school because the team was more successful and far less injured before he got there so they must have gotten "soft", coincidentally upon his arrival. But insanely stupid people aside, coaching is an art of not only following formulas but in reading athletes and learning how to best utilize training principles such as Supercompensation, SAID, Progressive Overload, and of course Law of diminishing returns. Yeah, I'm big on law of diminishing returns and here is where the title of this blog ties in.


This comes with Daniels' book along with the admonition:

"No man's land of training. Training intensities that fall into 'No man's land,' are either too easy or too hard to reap the benefits you want. You are not, as may sometimes be assumed, achieving the purpose of training the two systems on either side of the chosen intensity. What you are doing might be termed, "Quality-junk" training. At the least, it is training aimed at accomplishing an unidentifiable purpose. Always have a purpose for every training session; ask yourself the following questions: 'What system do I hope to improve by doing this workout,' and 'What am I really trying to accomplish?"

I have a few issues with this. The first is related to the law of diminishing returns. If I spend season after season, year after year, focusing on these systems exclusively, I will maximally adapt them in a few years at most. I guarantee I will gain more from training new systems that are in "no man's land' than beating the dead horses that are my specific "Daniels Formula"systems. There is a logical conundrum as well. Daniels allows a special dispensation for marathoners to train at "MP", or marathon pace, which falls below the "T" zone. This is to allow for race specific training. Ok, so specificity is important after all then. What about 95% for 10k runners? Beyond that though, there have been some great crossover marathon/10k runners in history. If a 10k runner should never run at MP, only true marathon specialists, how can all of these marathoners have done so much work at MP and still rocked the 10k. How did Frank Shorter run 27:51  for a 10k in an Olympic final five days before winning gold in the Olympic marathon? Oh yeah, he also ran 27:58 at the same Olympics to qualify for the finals. Compare that to the runners of today who run a single 10k and seem to need three months of no racing to recover. That is, if they can recover at all. I'll bet Shorter trained all over the no man's land zones.

But beyond law of diminishing returns, beyond specificity, can anyone really believe there is no benefit to the zones listed as no man's land? Let's look at these zones. 

  • All Out = "Too Fast": Really? So flat out 30-50 meter sprints serve no purpose. Hill sprints serve no purpose. ATP production has no value. A single, flat out time trial of 200-400 meters or a big close to a quarters workout won't help in a race. I have used all of these in training schedules and would never want to abandon them.
  • The space between Reps and Intervals: This is 3k pace for most runners. Again... really? No 3k/3200 pace running. No 6x800 at 3200 pace. No early season 400s at slightly slower than mile pace but faster than 5k pace (or VDOT)? To repeat, no way would I give these up.
  • The space between I and T paces. We have touched on the value of specificity training for a 10k runner. Even for a 5k runner, or a miler though. Why not hit some mile repeats at 95%? Because it's "quality junk?" I don't believe it. One of the best base schedules I ever wrote, as far as the results it produced, was a 10k paced workout once per week. No way I give these up.
  • MP training for non-marathoners. The first thing I do when I get a Daniels' Formula trained athlete is add in what I have coined the "Sub tempo." Either shorter daily runs at 80-85% or longer tempo runs (6-10 miles) at 80-85% VVO2.  Once again, some of the most profound results I have seen, even for milers and 800 runners, have come from adding these in to a schedule. No way I give these up.
  • Below 70%: "Junk Mileage?" Maybe. Viva le Junk! All I needed was one girlfriend who was a runner to learn that, when mixed into the rest of a training plan, junk mileage is awesome. All the way to 55%, maybe even lower, has it's place. Greater fat burning efficiency and some of the most enjoyable, mentally and emotionally stimulating and rejuvenating  running there is. If I had to, I'd give this up but I'd be pretty upset about it and doubt my teams would run as well. Long live the "sprinter shuffle!"
So to reiterate... I have the utmost respect for Jack Daniels as a coach and a mentor to other coaches. He might be second most influential coach in history behind Arthur Lydiard. But just as actual training logs from guys like Peter Snell look nothing like what most people consider "Lydiard" training, I seriously doubt Daniels trained athletes spend no time in No Man's Land zones. If i had to, and I might do this as my next training experiment, I would happily train exclusively in No Man's Land zones and feel very confident as to the outcome. While I wouldn't want to challenge Jack Daniels to a coach-off, I would take on the vast majority of his pseudo disciples using only the forbidden zones. (Ooh that's an idea... "Training in the Forbidden Zones" I'm writing a schedule with that title.) 

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