Proven methods to getting faster (and healthier)

by Adam Stuhlfaut, Director of Running

During the last two commutes to work at SHOES-n-FEET I listened to an episode of “The Tim Ferris Show” on podcast that was an interview of a Dr. Martin Gibala, a professor and chair of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. According to Tim Ferris’s blog, “His (Gibala) research on the physiological and health benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has attracted immense scientific attention and worldwide media coverage.”  The tenor of the interview as almost as if interval training was this cutting edge, new form of training with its cool acronym – HIITS and its new protocols for exercise called “intervals.”  

Of course, both Ferris and Gibala, if asked, would agree that interval training is a long-time staple of endurance athletes.  In the interview, Gibala mentions being interested in the history of interval training, and he throws out some basic knowledge of intervals used by Roger Bannister in Bannister’s training to break the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. However, he also mentions, towards the end of the interview, that he wrote his new book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter, because he did not know of a single book out there that was useful in helping people understand interval training.  That statement is, of course, marketing and in-fact the science of interval training has been around for almost 100 years.  In addition, many resources exist to help (I mention my favorite below.)

Sometimes it takes a fancy new acronym and a pop culture influencer such as Tim Ferris to get the word out the world.  

One question that I get asked by runners often is “how do I get faster.”  The short answer is always, “run faster” i.e. do interval training. Most of the time, the asker was looking for some pain-free/easy way to gain speed. “I already run every day,” is the typical response, meaning they jog every day at the same comfortable pace that they do every day.  Another is “I lift weights,” with the implication that building muscle is the key ingredient to gain speed (heavy weight training is so “in” right now). Yes, both a tuned cardio vascular base and strong muscles are needed to perform at high athletic levels.  To gain speed, however, you must work the specific physiological systems that assist with oxygen uptake. The body’s ability to process oxygen at the cellular level is, as measured using the Fick Equation, the key factor in any type of athletic performance.  For a more detailed description, please read a previous blog on the Fick Equation. Without oxygen, the cells cannot function and athletics cannot happen. No matter how strong or how aerobically fit the runner is, once the runner peaks out their oxygen uptake they are done. The good news is that runners have time tested, scientifically verified, methods to improve speed. 

Getting faster requires specific training

Interval training is defined at a workout that alternate periods of high intensity with low intensity rest periods.  For example, running an interval workout might consist of alternating periods of running hard or sprinting for 1 minute and then easy jogging for a minute.  That cycle might be repeated five, ten or twenty times depending on the workout. For any distance that a runner is attempting to improve their performance, the intervals change.  Shorter, faster intervals help with shorter races. Longer, slower intervals help with longer races. For example, intervals of 5 minutes fast and 4 minutes slow. Typically, an advanced workout regimen with be a combination of both depending on the length of the race. 

Interval training dates back almost 100 years

The history in running dates well back in the 20th century with athletes and coaches like the groundbreaking Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zatopek, a six-time Olympic Gold Medal winning athlete from the 1950’s, who prided himself on his intervals run in the woods near his home in Czechoslovakia. Famed New Zealand coached, Arthur Lydiard, also started interval training with his athletes at the same time and is often considered the father of modern interval training.  Many more coaches and athletes have added to the running specific literature on the need to proper interval style training.  Doubling as coaches and researchers, Dr. Jack Daniels and Dr. Joe Vigil have explored the science behind interval training dating back fifty years or more.  My own personal coaches from Wayzata High School, Bill Miles, Princeton University, Mike Brady and after college, Bob Sevene all used scientifically valid interval training during the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s and today.  

Many books are already in circulation that explain interval training for runners

For my training and coaching, the definitive book is the Daniels Running Formula by Jack Daniels, PhD (a real person, not the beverage). The Daniels Running formula has neat tables based off a figure called VDOT.  VDOT is a figure that approximates your peak oxygen uptake at any given time depending on the results of recent performances.  It then predicts your performance for any distance race from one mile to a marathon.  Finally, it gives you the specific speeds to use for specific types of training (interval and non-internal) to reach peak performance.  I have the first edition, published in 1998 – a full 19 years prior to Gibala’s book. If a runner is serious about getting faster, it’s the #1 book I recommend.  

I’m not trying to disrespect Gibala, but….

I do not write this article because I want to strip Gibala of credit for his work.  However, I do feel like his statement, that there is nothing else out there, is not completely genuine and does not give credit to those who came before him. It is clear he is an expert in his field. I look forward to reading his book and learning from his contribution to the field. Mostly, I worry that when anything enters a pop-culture status it will be first taken on by some early adapters, passed onto their followers and then completely abandoned for some other trend.  I like that he ties interval training into other health areas besides fitness.  In the interview, he talked about positive impacts on public health policy.  I do feel he has a genuine yearning to help others live a longer healthier life.  
 

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