Learning from History: Emil Zátopek and Roger Bannister’s intervals
I recently read Today We Die a Little, a biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith. Zátopek was arguably the best runner in the post-WWII era and perhaps even the best the world had ever seen. While he led a very interesting life in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation and later under Communist control, he is far better known for his running accomplishments. At the 1948 London Olympics, his first and the first one held since Munich in 1936, he won the 10,000m and took the silver medal in the 5,000m. He started refining his training, and at the Helsinki Games in 1952 he took the gold in the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon while setting new Olympic records in each event (it was his first marathon). After a dismal performance in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne due to an injury, he retired from competitive running the following year.
So what was unique about Zátopek’s training method? Among the many things he did in training, there was one thing he really focused on. He took the timed interval method of training used by Paavo Nurmi, the great Finnish runner of the early 20th century, to a higher level. He started by doing 20 or more 400m timed intervals on the track with 150m recoveries in a single session. Later he increased the load up to as many as 100 such intervals in a workout – and he did this every day. There were no easy recovery days. It was always hard, day after day. He was fortunate to have a strong body as a young man. But this excessive training eventually led to his downfall as he aged.
About the same time Zátopek was racing at his highest level, the Brit Roger Bannister was training for the mile under the tutelage of his Austrian coach Franz Stampfl. Stampfl was also known for his interval approach to training, especially for the mile. He primarily had Bannister doing 10 x 400m at race pace with one-minute recoveries. It worked. On May 6, 1954, Bannister ran 3:59.4 to become the first person to run under 4 minutes for the mile. This became the training routine that milers used for the next several years.
“Intervals ‘Til You Puke” Can’t Last Forever
What’s all of this got to do with my training routine? Well, my college track coach in the early ’60s had apparently known about the repeat 400m method. My first spring as a college runner was only 6 years after Zátopek’s retirement and 9 years after Bannister’s sub-4 mile. Daily 400m intervals were still a popular way of training. So we did that workout every day – what I used to call “intervals ’til you puke.” We ran 440-yard repeats (most US tracks in those days were measured in yards rather than meters) until people started throwing up. Then Coach might mercifully end the session. Or not. And unlike Zátopek and Bannister, we never knew how many 440s we were going to run. It could be 6 or 16. We also didn’t know how fast to run them. But after each one, Coach would remind us that we weren’t yet fast enough. Nor did we know how much recovery time we’d have between them. We just stood bent over with our hands on our knees panting until he decided we were ready to go again. And we did this every day with the exception of weekends, when we were often racing. Could I do such a workout 5 days in a week now? There’s no way. You can certainly get away with doing a lot of stupid things when you’re young. I was 19 my freshman year on the track team. I recovered fast. But as the years have gone by I’ve frequently asked myself how many times a week I think I could do “intervals ’til you puke.” As you can imagine, the number kept getting smaller as I got older. By the time I was 50 I figured I could probably do it twice in a week, so long as those two days were widely separated.
My 5-2 Training Method: Hard-Easy-Easy
Out of such soul-searching and trial and error grew my aging athlete personal way of training. I do 2 hard sessions each week and 5 easy ones. This is remarkably similar to the 80/20 method that’s quite popular now. Over the years the hard sessions have varied by the season while the easy workouts have remained much the same – zones 1 and 2 only. The 2 hard days, which can be high intensity or high duration or both, are separated by 2 or 3 easy days. For example, I might go hard on Thursday and Sunday and easy on all of the other days of the week. “Easy” includes a day off on occasion. It seems to work about right for me. I’m generally ready to go when a hard day is scheduled. I train like this for a little over 2 weeks before taking an active recovery break from training for 3–5 days. Then I start over again.
In my book, Fast After 50, I describe a different training routine for aging athletes based on a 9-day “week.” It essentially follows a double, repeating pattern of hard-easy-easy, hard-easy-easy, hard-easy-easy followed by a brief active break from training. The 2 easy days following a hard one allows for recovery – the real challenge of the aging athlete. The downside of this method is that our lives typically revolve around a 7-day week due to work, school, family, and other commitments. If you’re retired and live alone you can probably make it work. Given my lifestyle, I didn’t have much luck with it, but I’ve had athletes tell me it works for them.
From my training experience with this 5-2 routine, I finally decided to create some Base period training plans for over-50 cyclists and triathletes. You can find them at the links below where you can see sample weeks and a more thorough discussion of what’s involved. Also, in every week I’ve included “Coach’s Comments” to make sure, among other things, that the easy days are kept easy so that the hard days can be truly hard. Here are the plans I currently have uploaded to TrainingPeaks. Look for more down the road.