Q: What is the training like for the GTC-ELITE group?
MC: We base our training on many years of experience, sports science and a little bit of voodoo. I was fortunate to have been able to train with some Olympic caliber athletes while running with the Florida Track Club, in Gainesville, back in the early 1970s. Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist Frank Shorter was there as were Olympian and American 5,000-meter record holder Marty Liquori and two-time Olympian and world indoor mile record holder Dick Buerkle.
Whenever you are exposed to such greatness, you tend to add to your body of knowledge. I was working on a graduate degree in Exercise Physiology at the time and my major professor, Dr. Christian Zauner, challenged me to incorporate the science I was learning with the practical training I was experiencing and seeing first hand with those great athletes, among others.
Over the years, I have become more and more sure that recovery is one of the most overlooked components of many training programs. Many very good marathoners think an easy day still can allow a 15-mile entry into their training log. I’ve been adamant with our runners over the years that our recovery days are more in the range of 40-45 minutes of easy running, which might be 7:00-7:30 per mile pace. That may not seem slow to some readers. However to an athlete who can average well under 5:00 per mile for 5K, it is fairly slow.
We incorporate at least three “easy/recovery” days into every week (or 7-day microcycle) alternating between our primary training sessions which include: intervals to increase or maintain our VO2max, tempo efforts that push the limits of our lactate threshold, and we almost always include a long run of 90-120 minutes each week.
Q: That sounds similar to the F.I.R.S.T. (Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training) program developed by Furman University professors and published in their books “Run Less, Run Faster.”
MC: Well, basically it is. I give a lot of credit to professors Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss for developing such a program suited for those business professionals who don’t have a lot of time to train. Their ideas of long run, intervals and tempo runs were obviously not original. We were doing such training back in the ’60 and ‘70s and had learned such from those before us.
However, their idea of substituting cross training for running on recovery days was bold and seems to work very well for many runners. I applaud them for publishing their books and making running more reasonable for so many people.
Q: So why don’t you use cross training instead of running on your recovery days?
MC: That would be nice, except that for the elite or post-collegiate professional runner that we are usually working with, it just isn’t enough time-on-their feet to compete at a regional or national class level. It just isn’t enough mileage for the runners I am used to coaching. You have to realize that most of our competition is running 85-120 miles per week. Imagine trying to run a marathon in the 2:20 range (which is always our goal at this level) on only 50-60 miles per week. The race would be 52-44% of the runner’s weekly mileage. We just don’t feel that it is realistic in most cases.
We do a lot of dynamic movement drills pre and post workouts (totaling 2-3 hours per week), so we really don’t have a lot of available time for cross training. That’s not to say that we would never do such. Sometimes, during our post-season break, we prescribe cross training as part of our “active” rest. It is just that we tend to run easy and work on strength and flexibility on our non-hard days instead of cross training.
In the past year, we have had a couple of athletes join our training group that have different needs and we have adjusted accordingly. One has some inherent issues regarding her gait and we have substituted workouts on an ElliptiGO instead of a second running session on the days we double. So far we have experienced a very positive result with this change.
We also have a young man, who has an excellent cardio-vascular system, but has struggled with musculoskeletal injuries during his running career. He actually spends as much time in the pool as he does running and has been successful in his competitive schedule using such a combination of training.
Q: What is the average mileage for your runners?
MC: It varies from individual to individual depending upon their background, current level of fitness, and racing goals and objectives. While we definitely aren’t high mileage, we are not low mileage advocates either. Most of our athletes average between 60 and 90 miles per week. That is with only two or maybe three days of double workouts—which are on our “hard” days. If we were to double five or six days a week their mileage would be 10-20 miles more per week, but I believe that the recovery days are much more important in our training process. My belief has been to maximize the output with optimal training versus just running a lot of miles.
This concept of stress/recover/adapt and repeat was learned back in grad school when we studied Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Basically, the hypothesis states that an organism becomes stronger when it is stressed and has adequate recovery before additional stress is applied. We have proved this true over years of training and racing.
Q: What is the average speed of your athletes’ training?
MC: Well, that might be somewhat controversial since we don’t actually measure mileage except for interval or tempo sessions. We use the “Badger Miles” system made somewhat famous by former Wisconsin coach Jerry Schumacher (currently coaching elite runners in Portland’s Nike Oregon Project). That is we run for a specific amount of time and then divide by 7:00 per mile. We did this even before Jerry was coaching at Wisconsin, but I like the label he came up with.
Some of our athletes have been a little hung up on measuring their exact mileage run, but after a while they understand that running for time works just fine (with the obvious exception of specific interval or tempo sessions). The body doesn’t really have a pedometer, but at the cellular level time spent utilizing a specific energy system is important.
However, in today's GPS environment, our athlete's do have access to tracking their actual pace and we do use such measurements during our steady-state, tempo or progressive runs.
Q: Looks as if you follow the F.I.R.S.T. program with the exception of replacing the cross training days with running?
MC: On paper that might look true. However, there is as much art as science in the application of training concepts. For example, the long run is much the same as prescribed in their books. The tempo runs are similar, and I tend to favor shorter tempo efforts in the 20-25 minute range at a very specific pace that we monitor on a track or measured course. We like to have feedback every 400 meters to ensure that the pace is at our prescribed target zone.
We sometimes do some longer tempo efforts, but usually our longer efforts are at what we term “steady state” or “progressive.” The former is usually a 75-90 minute run at about 80% effort. The “progressive” starts slow as we get warmed up and then gradually increases the pace (going faster) until our athletes are running fairly fast over the final third of the run.
The major difference between our training and that prescribed by F.I.R.S.T. might be in the speed of the interval sessions. I’ve done quite a bit of research on training intensities and actually published some academic papers many years ago ,which relied on specific speeds of running and the corresponding amount of oxygen used and lactate response. After many years, you get a pretty good idea of what it takes to be able to race at a specific pace and time. I don’t believe the tables for the intervals in the F.I.R.S.T. program are correct at the faster end of the scale. I believe they are somewhat faster than they should be.
According to the F.I.R.S.T. tables, for example, a runner who has run a 15:00 5K would need to run 400-meter repetitions (with appropriate rest intervals of at 62 seconds each. So to cover the goal of approximately 5,000 (actually 4,800) meters of work that would be 12 x 400 at 62 with 200 meters recovery between each. That goal is much faster than is practical for athletes whose current 5K is 15:00. We would probably target somewhere between 68 and 70 seconds per 400 to accomplish work to increase VO2 max. If we were working on speed then we might drop the pace to 65 seconds per 400, but would increase the time of recovery somewhat. Once again 62s seem much more in the wheelhouse of someone running 14:40 for 5K. That may not seem like a big difference, until you try to do it.
If you think in terms of 1,000 meter items, F.I.R.S.T targets at 2:43 seconds each. I have not had a 15:00 5K runner in all of my years of coaching that could complete a workout of 5 x 1,000 (remember we are targeting 5,000 meters of hard work for the session) averaging 2:43 (65 pace).
Oh, I have had runners do such a workout, but they were more like 14:10-14:25 at 5,000 meters. Most runners who can run 15:00 can usually do a 5-6 x 1,000 workout (with 500-meter jog recovery) at about 2:48-2:53 effort, or slightly slower.
To summarize: the concept is right on, however I believe the algorithm for the tables might need some tweaking at the faster end of the performance spectrum.
Q: You mentioned art versus science. Which is best?
MC: Neither works exclusively without the other. I see so many runners getting “coaching” programs from books, the Internet, mail-order (if that still exists) and such. It always sounds and looks so neat. However, the reality of coaching is being flexible and sequencing the right workout for the right time for the right athlete. That’s where the art comes in. You used to be able to buy one of those “paint by numbers” sets and just connect the lines and fill in the appropriate colors recommended and you had yourself a picture. But was it really considered “art”? Maybe it is “art” to the painter, but not to a real artist. A good coach has to have a little artist in them and hopefully be grounded in the fundamentals of exercise science.
One of my mentors once said, “A runner who coaches himself is probably a fool.” While I’m not sure if I would go that far, I will say that a runner who is self-coached will most likely not reach their potential.
Q: Do you believe that you are a good coach?
MC: Well, I might not be the best coach in my own family. My wife (Laura), who ran collegiately at Florida State and professionally for Nike for many years, is an excellent coach. She has an innate ability to observe and understand her athletes and then apply just the right mix of training concepts to allow them to achieve their goals. I watched with amazement when she was coaching high school back in Oregon as she developed those that I might not have had the patience to work with.
Then when we were coaching the middle-distance and distance runners at Furman University, we always bounced ideas off each other before assigning our workouts for the day. It was uncanny that almost 90% of the time we had very similar workouts in mind. That might have been a product of her having me as a coach for her professional career or because we just have many of the same experiences. We both have experienced a lot of success, so I would rate us as being good coaches.
However, most coaches are only as good as the athletes they have the privilege to coach. I have been very fortunate and blessed with some very good athletes over the years. It is our plan to continue to attract and develop more of the same in the near future.
Q: Who do you consider to be the best that you have coached?
MC: We tend to associate “best” with the “fastest,” so I would have to say Benji Durden would be the first to come to mind. Benji was a pretty good runner during his collegiate career at the University of Georgia. We had the honor of competing against each other when I was running at Furman. However, neither of us was near the best in our conferences. While both of us continued our running careers following graduation, Benji began to show promise by placing well at various road races throughout the Southeast.
Eventually, he asked me to coach him since he too believed that even good runners need the advice and monitoring a good coach can provide. I actually lowered his weekly mileage and added more recovery between hard efforts. He listened carefully and the end result, after much hard work, was his personal best of 2:09:57 at the 1983 Boston Marathon, which qualified him for the World Championships in Helsinki.
So as not to get into trouble at home, I would like to add that coaching my wife, also ranks high on my list of personal accomplishments. She was almost the perfect athlete to coach, always listening to not only the “what” of the workout, but also to the “why” and what we were attempting to accomplish. Her athletic resume speaks to our mutual success.
Mike Caldwell is the Director and one of the coaches for ASICS Greenville Track Club-ELITE. For more on Mike please visit his page on this website.