Thursday, July 19, 2018

Canova Marathon Training VS. Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning

 I thought I would take some time to get very specific about how Canova's marathon training varies from the traditional American system.  The best example of that system for the marathon to my mind is Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas.  This book to my mind represents the american marathon training system done about as well as it can be done.  To be clear I think that the best individual group/system from the USA for the marathon was that of Bill Squires in the late 70's and early 80's but sadly his system is not what has inspired the training of most Americans in the last 30 years.

  My understanding of Pfitzinger's system comes entirely from my copy of his Advanced Marathon book, the first edition.  I  have not yet bought the Second Edition so if they made any updates to the system in that edition they are not reflected here. 

  For the Canova side of things I am mostly using Marathon Training: A Scientific Approach by Renato Canova and Enrico Arcelli which they originally wrote for the Itilian Athletic Federation and which the IAAF published  in a bunch of languages.  I am also using the PDF Marathon Training Methods by Renato Canova which can be found here: Marathon Training Methods by Renato Canova  Additionally I reference a schedule Canova published in a german running magazine which I have used google translate for and you can view here: Canova 2:09 Training for the European Athlete

 It is not my intention to do a detailed analysis of both systems.  Instead I want to highlight how they are the same and how they are different.  My basic thesis is that Canova's system is a natural progression from Pfitzinger and by extension the training most serious american marathoners are doing.  Both men are scientists and approach the training from a scientific perspective.  I would say that Pfitzinger seems to me more influenced by the traditonal Lydiard model, which would make sense given his connections with New Zealand and Canova tended to take from a much wider array of sources. 


  The first and most striking similarity comes in the physilogy of marathon performance.  They both essentially dedicate a chapter to this, which makes sense given their shared science background.  What is striking is how similar they are.  Honestly you could swap these chapters from the two books and not have any change in either book.  Really the only difference is the quality of the writing which is much better in Advanced Marathoning.  They both say that in order to excel in the marathon you need to build on five basic areas.

1. Aerobic fitness- broken down into improved mitochondrial activity and quantity in the cells, improved blood profile, improved heart performance, improved capillarization in the running muscles. 

2. Improved use of lactate as fuel in the muscles. 

3. Improved lactate threshold speed.  

4. Improved glycogen storage and lipid consumption

5. Improved VO2 max

  The key thing I take from this agreement is that Canova has not found a new area of fitness to develop. Nor does he view the physiological needs of the event differently.  So the difference must be in either the types of workouts that he uses to improve these physiological areas or in how he combines the workouts for them in his training system and in fact we see that he has made, sometimes subtle but always important, adjustments in both areas. 

  The next similarity that I was drawn to is how they both approach mileage.  Which is that athletes should be running high mileage but to not be particularly committed to a number that represents high mileage.  Instead putting the focus on specifics elsewhere.  Essentially they are both saying you should be doing high mileage for you but that mileage is different for different people and that it should not be the major focus of your training. 

  Another similarity is the pace of long runs.   Both Pfitzinger and Canova believe that in order to get the physical adaptations you are looking for in your long runs your ideal pace range is genenrally from 80% to 90% of your marathon pace.  However they differ greatly in exactly how this is accomplished.  Pfitzinger likes to view all long runs as a very light progression where the early running is done around 80% marathon pace and the latter stages are done around 90% marathon pace.   Canova is much more structured.  In the base phase he generally starts with shorter, 10 to 12 miles, long runs at 80% of marathon pace building them up in distance over the early part ot the training cycle to being very long, 22 to 25 miles, then reducing the volume and increasing the pace to the 90% range.  To be clear both these systems are using these long runs as a means of improving fitness but Canova does not see them as or use them as specific prep for marathon racing and here we find a large difference.  Canova moves his long runs in the specific phase to being much more specific workouts involving a huge amount of running between 95% and 105% of marathon pace and additionally incorperates a lot of running in the 90 to 95% of marathon pace as recovery portions in long run workouts.   Pfitzinger does incorporate some marathon paced running in his specific phase long runs but not nearly with the same frequency as Canova and there is essentially no running in his prescribed training where the athlete runs between 91% and 99% of marathon pace.  That is a KEY difference that we'll get to in a bit. 

  The final similarity I would like to highlight is the use of periodization.  Though both use different names and have some differences in how exactly they break down the training phases they both use distinct and in the end very similar periods of training with specific physiological goals in mind as stepping stones to their final phase of training which is focused on maximizing marathon race performance. 

Key Differences 

  Often times when discussing differences in training I think people have a tendency to focus on minutia or differences that are unimportant and miss the really big differences.  I.E. Looking at two workouts of quarter mile repeats I often see a lot of focus on the quantity of the reps.  "Well group b did 10x400 at 5k pace and group B did 12x400 at 5k pace."  When in reality the number of reps is generally a flexible and somewhat inconsequential peice of information.  More importantly changing the number of reps does not change the physiological goal or effect of the workout.  However changes in the pace of the reps, or the type, pace or length of the recovery, and the difficulty training in the days leading into and following the workout can make huge differences in the physiological effect of the workout.   It is with this perspective that I am approaching these two programs.  I am not looking for differences in style, vocabulary (a tempo run by any other name is still a tempo run) or technique.  I am looking for differences in the physiological adaptation that is being targeted, the amount of focus that is put on each physiological adaptation and how each system attempts to induce those physiological adaptations. 

  Key difference number one we already talked about.  Workouts that involve running at paces ranging from 91% to 99% of marathon pace.  There is exactly none of this prescribed in Pfitzingers training which is not to say that an athlete following this program would not ever run this pace but it certainly would be limited.  In Canova's system running in this pace range shows up in a number of different ways.  It is used in long specific runs of goal race time to goal race distance, it is used as recovery between blocks of running at marathon pace during specific marathon workouts and sometimes as recovery during either VO2 max or lactate threshold paced running.  This pace range is seen by Canova as one of the key marathon training paces with two goals of physiological adaptation first and foremost this pace range increases aerobic lipidic power, the amount of fat that can be burned for energy in a minute.  If you are buring more fat then you are burning less glycogen and since in terms of marathon performance glycogen stores are a key limiting factor and fat stores are essentially inexhaustible, a 100lb runner with 4% body fat would have enough calories stored in fat to run at least 10 marathons, that is an awesome trade to make.  The second goal is increase aerobic fitness.  This pace offers no special benifits in this departement that running at 90% of marathon pace or 100% of marathon pace can't offer so this is not an advantage I see over Pfitzinger's model except that it increases the total volume of running that works on this very important adaptation. 

  The second key differences is quantity of running at marathon goal pace.  Pfitzinger's more than 70 mile a week 12 week training schedule only calls for a total of 14 miles of running at marathon pace in the whole program.  A 12 mile run at marathon pace fit in a 20 mile long run, a great specific marathon workout by anyones standards, and a 2 mile dress rehersal run at marathon pace as part of the taper.  In comparision, though Canova doesn't get into specific detail in his book about how much of this to do in the specific phase, though it is literally the ONLY workout pace he specificly references in his section ton training during the specific phase, in a schedule for athletes attempting to run a 2:09 marathon that he wrote for a German running magazine he included a 9 week training cycle that called for 174 kilometers, which is about 109 miles, of marathon paced running.  This is almost an order of magnitude greater than what Pfitzinger is calling for. 

  In fact during the Canova specific phase essentially every workout that an athlete is doing includes either marathon paced running or some running at 90% of marathon pace or faster.  This comes in many forms.  An athlete could be doing repeats that are faster than marathon pace but with recoveries that cause him or her to average marathon pace.  They may be doing a fartlek that involves many different paces including marathon pace.  They may be doing repeats at marathon pace or they may be doing a long run at 90 to 95% of marathon pace.  Other paces, lactate threshold and VO2 max most often, do show up during the specific phase but always as part of a workout that includes marathon paced running or running at 90 to 95% of marthon pace. 

  It is my personal belief that in these two differences we can boil down why athletes training this way have been able to take world class marathoning from the 2:07 to 2:10 range that it was essentially stuck in from the late 1960's until the early 2000's and suddenly blast into a realm where the new world class is the 2:04 to 2:06 range. 

  However it does leave us with an important question.  If Pfitzinger is not doing all that marathon specific work in his specific phase what is he doing?  Certianly if Canova was just having his athletes add a hundred plus miles of marathon paced running on top of what Pfitzinger was suggesting all he would be getting them would be injured.  So what is the trade off?

  First athletes attempting Canova do get hurt much more than those on a Pfitzinger plan.  Canova calls for a lot of very hard workouts and this increases the risk of injury.  To reduce this risk Canova puts much greater modulation of effort into his schedules.  So yes the hard days are much harder but the easy days and easy runs are much easier and much shorter. 

   Second Pfitzinger calls for a lot of workouts in the specific phase that are VO2 max or lactate threshold workouts, five and six respectively, in the 12 week schedule.  Many of these are in the last 8 weeks which would be the specific phase in a Canova schedule.  To my mind this almost makes the training schedule more of a 5k schedule than a marathon schedule.  I mean if you have done one real marathon workout and five 5k workouts which event do you think you'll be more adapted for?

  This is not to say that no running is done at VO2max or lactic threshold pace in during the specific phase in the Canova system but it is instead mixed into marathon focused workouts.  An example of this would be a session of 10km easy, 5km of 1min hard 1min easy (that is your VO2max pace), 5km easy, 5km marathon pace, 5km max effort.  A slightly more attainable workout from a different program would be 12 miles easy, 5km marathon pace, 6x400m at 5k pace with 100m jog recovery.


 So if I have convinced you that Canova is the way to go or you were already convinced of that before you read this but you just don't know how to go about it or you have already injuried yourself in attempting Canova in the past.  Or perhaps you have had good success with Pfitzinger and you're wondering if a switch to Canova could lead to even more. What the heck are you supposed to do?  Canova schedules are not easy to find and they are almost always designed for athletes at the absolutly highest level who are training full time.  Frankly the average or even well above average athlete has no prayer of completing them even if they correctly adjust them to their own pace.   The great advantage of Pfitzinger is his schedules.  They are so well written, so balanced, so accessible.

  My suggestion would be to use the Pfitzinger schedule that fits your mileage needs and input Canova style workouts on the workout and long run days, in the specific phase, from 8 weeks until 2 weeks to go, of the schedule to change the balance of your training from 5k focused to marathon focused.  Now these marathon workouts are much longer than the lactate threshold and vo2 max workouts in the Pfitzinger schedule so you can take miles off the days after your workouts and long runs to balance this out.  I'll do an example week below to show you exactly what I mean.

Pfitzinger week 
Monday AM 6 miles PM 4 miles
Tuesday AM 6 miles PM 4 miles
Wendsday VO2 max 11 miles with 6x1k at 5k pace with 2minute jog recoveries.
Thursday Medium long run 15 miles
Friday AM 9 miles PM 4 miles
Saturday 8 miles and 6x100m strides
Sunday 20 mile long run 
87 miles for the week, zero miles at marathon pace, one VO2 max workout, runs at easy, moderate, vo2max, alactic paces

Pfitzinger adapted to Canova week
Monday AM 3 miles easy PM 3 miles easy
Tuesday AM 6 miles PM 4 miles
Wednesday 2 mile warm up, 12 miles of 800m at 105% marathon pace, 800m "recovery" at 95% marathon pace
Thursday AM 3 miles easy PM 3 miles easy
Friday medium long run 12 miles progression from 80% maratho pace to 90% marathon pace
Saturday 8 miles and 6x100m strides
Sunday 3 mile warm up, 5x3 miles at marathon pace with 1 mile recovery at 90% marathon pace (22miles)
 80 miles for the week. 27 miles at marathon pace, kept the easy, moderate, and alactic running, added some running at lactate threshold, lost the VO2 max running.  Lower volume.  Probabaly a harder week. I would be careful to make the midweek workout a bit easier the following week. 


Finally I was obviously very lax in my sourcing of this with no footnotes or use of AMA formatting as such I figure the least I can do is provide links to where you can buy these great books for your own use.  Advanced Marathoning

I have no idea if you can buy the Canova book anywhere.  I got mine by sending a check to the IAAF in Switzerland and it came in the mail which kinda shocked me apparently as late as December of last year you could email the IAAF your credit card info and get one see the 9th post in this letsrun thread.


Mike G. said...

Hi Nate,

This post is very informative for me, as I just completed by 3rd marathon on the Pfitzinger 55/70 schedule and all three ended up with me not quite reaching my potential based on shorter distance races (2:56, 2:53, 2:54 - if that matters. Earlier this year I ran a 60 min 10mi so was aiming for more like sub-2:50). In all cases I had a pretty bad fade in the last 5-7k. Next year I hope to incorporate some more Canova style workouts to combat this.

Just one thing I wanted to confirm - do you suggest only swapping in Canova workouts from 8 weeks to go until 2 weeks to go, or also including the workouts earlier in the schedule? I wonder if you feel there would be a benefit from adding more MP work earlier in the schedule. Pfitzinger only has 3 runs with MP in the first 10 weeks, and the rest is LT.

Mike said...

I think it is key to add way more of the Canova style specific workouts in the last 8 weeks. But if it was me I would also do some, not all, of my long runs before that at around 90% mp and I would do at least a few sessions of something in the range to 12xmile to 8x2miles at marathon pace with half mile jog recoveries in the weeks/months before getting to that specific period.

Mike G. said...

Makes sense. Looking forward to trying it. Thanks!

domd said...

Hi Nate,

I know this was a while ago but just wanted to thank you for taking the time. Its invaluable to have the comparison. I haven't read Pfitzinger and have glanced at casanova on letsrun but he seems to be barely intelligible. Something to do with language and also he seems to invent his own terms of reference. You have done a great job of clarifying. I will however approach with caution, as a late starter now aged 49 I'm wary of too much heavy training.

I trust coaching is making you happy,

Cheers dom said...

I think that heavy workouts are ok as you age but the recovery after and the time between these sessions needs to be much more than when you are younger or if you had a time when you were more bullet proof so I think your caution is a good plan.

JP said...

Finding this after your interview with Mario. Really enjoyed the podcast and similarly enjoyed this blog post. Thanks Nate. said...

JP- Thanks! I'm glad.

peteleg said...

Again, I know this was from a while ago, but really enjoyed this succinct comparison between the two. I’ve just finished reading Charlie Spedding’s book (last to first), Olympic bronze medalist 1984. One of his regrets was not to run enough at ‘race pace’. Common sense and logic suggest Canova is where marathon running has to go. As Canova says - you can’t expect to run fast if you are either running long and slow or short and fast- you have to run long and fast!!! said...

I think, at the top level anyway, it is where the marathon HAS already gone. There have been two big jumps in marathoning since the turn of the century after a period of 25 years with only small incrimental improvements. The first bringing world class marathoning from the 2:07 to 2:10 range to the 2:04 to 2:07 range was this shift to doing way more long fast running. Both at marathon speed as well as at 90 to 95% of marathon speed. The second of course has been the shoes. That brought us to this world of world class being 2:01 to 2:05. Charlie's book is great. He really didn't have a lot of natural talent but he was a genius in terms of mindset and always a HUGE performer when it mattered most. As a slower sprinter he was probabaly a pure marathoner so doing more specific work may not have helped him as much as some of the runners from the era who really under performed in the marathon, Mark Nenow and the like. But still I'd guess he would have run 2:06 or better. Still times are always realitive to the time and will fade in luster. Medals, wins,national teams these things last forever untarnished. I think Charlie was under respected in his time. When athletes look back now you can't help but see him for the giant he was. As an aside he also wrote an interesting book on diet. I'm not as big a fan of meat as him but it is worth a read. I don't agree with all his conclusions but he outlines the problems in the modern diet very clearly and very well.