Sunday, December 10, 2017

Canova, Sondre Moen and the lack of marathon progress in the USA

  My training is still very much the same jogging 4 miles once or twice a day so it hardly seems worthwhile to post it here so instead I figured I would talk about something else.

   At Fukuoka last weekend Sondre Moen of Norway ran a European record of 2:05:48.  This followed up a sparkling 59:48 half marathon in October.   Sondre has been a successful runner for a few years having run in the 62 minute range for the half marathons each of the last few years and he had run 2:11 before he started working with Renato Canova last fall.  I want to talk about him because of two factors.  First the jump from 62/2:11 to 59/2:05 is shocking and almost unheard of outside of the rift valley.   When I see a jump like this mid career my first thought is sadly drugs.  In this case it is certainly possible.  Despite my personal admiration for Canova I do not know him well enough to say for sure that he and his athletes are totally clean.  I am also aware that some of the released schedules from his athletes have recovery intervals are shockingly short.   That said my personal experiences of breakthroughs with his methods tell me that huge breaks are possible without chemical enhancement.

  It is also not that I think Canova has a corner on great running training, I don't.  In fact I think an argument could be made that the best training for the 1500 to 10k is currently available from coaches in the US.  When you consider the success that USA athletes have had at the Olympics and world championships in those events over the last couple of years and that many of the coaches in charge of those athletes are working with very small stables of athletes thanks to are inability to find a financially viable way of creating large well funded training groups, in comparison to Ethiopia, Kenya and Japan where literally a thousand or more post collegiate age athletes are able to give professional training a go and training groups of 30 or more are fairly common. 

  What I do think is that as a country we have massively underachieved in the marathon. Rupp and Flanagan's wins this fall notwithstanding.   There are a number of factors that I feel have a play in this.  The first is that most americans run marathons in the US and there are very few fast courses with consistently favorable conditions.  According to ARRS Houston is the fastest marathon in US based on race time bias and it is only the 16th fastest in the world and it is one of only 3 USA races considered faster than the average or break even time point.   So often we have great American marathoners who is not viewed as being as successful and fast as they would be if they were running races like Berlin, Dubai, Tokyo or Fukuoka instead of New York, Boston, Twin Cities or, with the dropping of pace setters, Chicago.  Also when Boston gets a tailwind we are quick to dismiss a fast time by an american, IE Halls 2:04:58, while we don't tend to put non-american times under the same scrutiny.  I actually read an article once that made a point in saying that Hall's real PB was 2:06:17 from London and then went on to refer to Gebre Gebremariam as a 2:04:53 man.  This is funny because that time for Gebre was run at Boston the same year as Hall ran his 2:04.
  This judging of americans by time when they generally run on much slower courses means that often very good americans are judged as being less than they are.  To think that calling Meb a 2:08 guy or  Rupp a 2:09 runner, or Jason Hartmann a 2:11 man is a fair assessment of their success as a marathoner is ridiculous.  These men could easily have PB's 3 to 5 minutes faster if they had focused their energies on the very fast pace set races that the africans dominate.

   That said there is little doubt that we are underachieving in the marathon as compared with the track.  I think that a parallel can be drawn between current american running and the level that the Kenyans were at in the 1990's.  At that time many, many kenyans were running under 27:30 and 13:20.  A good number were under 61, 27 and 13.   Yet almost none were running inside 2:08 for the marathon.  In fact only a fraction of the number of Kenyans were under 2:10 as are today.

   What happened.  Well to listen to many in the sports media tell it the Kenyans stopped fearing the distance and started attacking the marathon.  This is to my mind the stupidest assertion I have ever heard.  The kenyans always attacked.  They had been roaring out at fast paces at marathons from the moment they turned to the roads in the mid 1980s.  The question is why did they stop blowing up?

  My arguement is that Renato Canova, and a couple other coaches, started to do professional development with coaches in kenya.  Traveling the country working with athletes and sharing infomation like this,, with coaches.  This lead to a seed change in how the Kenyans prepared for the marathon.  I think the general fitness that came with this kind of work also lead to greater performance in the half marathon but there the difference was far less.  A 61 man was now becomeing a 60 man.  In the marathon however it was stunning.

  In 1998 the 10th fastest Kenyan marathoner ran 2:08:52, this was a great year for the kenyans in the marathon at that time.  By 2008 the 10th best was 2:07:21.  A solid improvement but the bigger difference at that point was up front as the world lead had gone from high 2:06's to 2:03's.  This meant that big improvements were needed to win and so more and more athletes and coaches adjusted their training accordingly.  In 2015 the 10th fastest Kenyan ran 2:06:19.  A startling time that is under 3:00 per kilometer pace and that no man had ever run faster than prior to 1998.

  My personal experience is what makes me believe so fully in this system.  In the fall of 2005 I had never run under 24:30 for 8k.  I had a 1:07:28 half marathon best.  I began training in the most rudimentary way with Canova workouts and systems and by the end of spring in 2006 I had run 23:26, 1:03:44 and 2:15:28.   Later on after the Olympic trials I was able to get Canova to send me a training schedule.  You should be able to view the schedule here,

  I was already struggling with my coordination issues and as such I never ended up racing off of this training.  I did however find myself in the best shape of my life by far at the end of a month of this training.  I cannot say for sure how fast I would have run I can say I felt confident I would be able to run under 1:03 for the half and in the 2:10 range for a marathon in reasonable conditions, not tailwind, at Boston. 

  So what are the Africans, and a guy like Moen doing that I believe that we Americans are not.  I think the four major things are, one, truly specific marathon workouts in numbers.  So not doing one 16 mile long run at marathon pace and otherwise training like you are getting ready for a half marathon or 10k.   In this type of marathon training the athlete runs a lot of marathon paced work every week, sometimes in multiple workouts per week throughout the training cycle with 15 to 30 miles of marathon paced work run each week during the specific phase.
  Second long hard runs of around marathon distance run at 90 to 95% of marathon pace.  These workouts start much shorter, around 20k, in the base phase but build up to around 40 to 45k during the specific phase.
  Third alternation style workouts where the athlete averages marathon pace for 10 to 15 miles but does so by alternating between running slightly faster than and recovering slightly slower than marathon pace.
  Fourth moderate medium length, 10 to 18 mile, light tempo runs at an effort slower than marathon pace but faster than a reasonable training pace.

  Many top american groups are implementing some of these strategies.  The fourth one is very much like Schumachers' rhythm runs for example.  Meb did a marathon paced tempo run pretty much every week during his marathon build ups.  I think in the marathon the big one most americans tend to fall short on is the specific work.

  Finally I think that one area that the Africans excel at and that much of the rest of the distance running world fails at, myself very much included, is the balance between training very hard generally but not fearing to take complete rest or to half ass workouts. 

  I read an article where a 2:05 Kenyan marathoner was asked why he felt the Japanese could not compete in the marathon with the Kenyans.  He said he thought that if the Japanese trained like the Africans  they would be the best in the world.  When asked what he thought the Japanese were doing wrong he said they were training too hard.

  Similarly when I followed the linked Canova plan, which was the first time I didn't have to figure out my own paces for the workouts, I was shocked how EASY most of the workouts were.  In a two week block there were 6 or 7 "workouts" but 5 of them would be barely harder to do than a basic training run.  Then one or two of them would be savagely hard.

  This is not to say that I think we should make a return to the under training that plagued the 1990's.  I think the tricky key is that the athlete needs to train extraordinarily hard in the macro sense but that they need to be able and willing to reduce the effort in the micro sense.  Doing more workouts, and very high volume, but realizing that those workouts might be quite easy and that is ok.

  I watched a documentary following an athlete who eventually finished 4th at the NYC marathon and the thing I found most different about him compared with myself was that when faced with hardship he opted to half ass his training for a while as a sort of compromise.  He skipped the harder workouts, mixed in days off and then when his body came around he got serious again.  My coordination issue has defied all my attempts to solve it so I doubt that a similar attitude would have saved me from it but I do wonder if I had been a bit more like this if I could have run more consistently well both during my short time of being on the national level and fully healthy, 2006/2007 and in the shorter distances over the years that followed.

  Finally I think that the very top americans are making some changes.  Schumacher's ladies have run better in the marathon this year, though sometimes what is effective training for women in the marathon does not carry over to men because we are less efficient with glycogen, and Salazar has obviously had more success with the marathon of late, seen both in Rupp's very effective running but also in Suguru Osako's 2:07:19.   However I think that there is still an opportunity for one of the second tier groups to stun the US distance world and dominate the top of the USA marathon rankings and perhaps take the majority of the spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

  I think that if you are running more than 5% slower than your half marathon best on similar terrain in the marathon you are under achieving and if you have shown a predilection towards the longer events than that conversion should be closer to 3%.  So for a mid 1:01 half marathon athlete, of which there are now a fair number in the USA that means running in the 2:06 mid to 2:08 mid range.  Obviously in good conditions this would likely fall short of what it would take to beat a guy like Rupp but certainly you could take a spot on the team.  Furthermore a group that was slowing like this would expect mid 1:02 half marathoners to run in the 2:09 to just under 2:11 range.  Think of the impact on american marathoning if one of these groups with 3 to 5 sub 1:03 guys got each of them to run in the 2:09 to 2:10 range in the next year.  I also believe that Moen shows that if they make these changes it is likely that athletes will not only race the marathon closer to the equivalent of their existing pb's in the other events but it is quite likely that they will see a jump in general fitness as well.   In which case perhaps some of our consistent 62 minute half men could find themselves running 59:42 and 2:05:48 in a year or two like Moen has.