Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 28 Jan 2002 08:30:33 -0500

Simple Success


My February column in Runner's World carried the title "Simple Times." It started and ended with the story of Ed Whitlock, the oldest marathoner to break three hours (in 2000, he ran 2:52 at age 69-plus). At 70 the British-born Canadian came within 25 seconds of breaking three hours.

But Whitlock's times didn't amaze me as much as the training that supported them. He simply put in two hours every day, always running the same course at a pace he called "a glorified shuffle." That was two to three minutes per mile slower than his marathons.

Rich Englehart, a sharp-eyed web-searcher, introduced me to a retired coach whose methods are as simple -- and successful -- in their way as Ed Whitlock's are in his. Until Rich pointed me to Jack Farrell's writings, I'd never heard of him.

"Surfing around the web a few days ago," Rich told me, "I came across an article by a high school coach in California who's won a couple of state cross-country championships. He says he has given up on 'hard-easy' training and has his kids do aerobic runs of essentially the same distance every day."

Rich pointed me to Farrell's writings ( I learned there that he has retired as coach of the girls' and boys' teams at Thousand Oaks High School in southern California. That's too bad, because the sport needs coaches like him.

To learn how well his simple program worked, I only needed to read the name Kim Mortensen. She was a national cross-country champion in 1995 and still holds the U.S. high school 3200-meter record.

More on Mortensen later. First let's hear from her coach.

About 10 years ago Jack Farrell returned from a coaching sabbatical with new ideas to try. During his time away he'd studied what had worked and could work better for his young runners. He mainly came back convinced that their old hard-easy training pattern had to go.

"I spent a good many years working with young runners and assigning killer workouts followed by easy recovery runs," he writes. "A good number of my runners got fairly fast using the hard-easy approach, as did the teams they were on. But one result had troubled me.

"The athletes using this approach seemed to run too hard on the hard day (far in excess of the stress of an actual meet) and then were relatively 'trashed' on the recovery day. Often I observed an athlete in more discomfort on the easy day than on the hard day. I began to question the deliberate disparity in these training sessions."

Farrell smoothed out their efforts. Runners now went the same distance nearly every day.

For his new runners this was as little as two miles. Team veterans ran more, but no one bumped up the basic distance by more than one mile per day per month. The most anyone averaged was eight miles a day.

Farrell's team took no planned days off. "Our runs averaged only 45 minutes a day," he says, "so we already were resting 23-1/4 hours in between. Over-rest has just as negative an impact on development as over-training."

Races were these runners' speedwork, and they otherwise did little training of this type. They took one "long" run a week -- just one mile longer than their basic distance.

The Thousand Oaks team simply ran the assigned number of miles. Nearly all running was done at a pace Farrell calls "comfortable."

The paces he will quote later sounds to me like they might better be labeled "moderately hard," or "tempo-run," or "aerobic-threshold." But his point is that the young runners backed off from their current 5-K race pace by 45 to 60 seconds per mile.

He expected that pace to improve for each runner during a season and throughout a high school career. This happened as a natural result of better fitness, and not at the cost of greater effort.

The training goal wasn't to push hard on any one run but gradually to bump up the "comfort zone." This let a runner go faster (and farther) without seeming to try any harder.

Farrell explains, "Theoretically a runner beginning in June with four miles a day, running comfortably at 7:30 pace, should by the end of the summer be running about six miles a day at about 6:30 pace. His intensity level should have varied only marginally, but his fitness level should have improved dramatically."

That's the theory. Next week we'll see how Jack Farrell's simple plan worked in practice.

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