06 August 2007

Daniels Running Formula

Part 1: Long Term Athletic Development

Alan Couzens, MS (Sport Science), CSCS, PES

The most frequent quandary I have witnessed as a coach and an observer of elite coaches over the past 10 years relates to the fundamental questions of ‘how much?’ & ‘how hard?’. The best coaches that I have seen seem to have an innate sense of appropriate volume and appropriate pace based on the developmental level of the athletes that they work with. Still, this unique skill of determining appropriate workloads is something that seems to, as a best case scenario, take many years, many trials & many errors to develop. So, where does the committed athlete turn in an effort to determine some reasonable, concrete parameters in determining appropriate workloads for themselves? Certainly, hiring one of these accomplished coaches is a good starting point. Another option is to review some of the literature written by these great coaching minds. Frequently, however, it has been my experience that the very best coaches only understand their decision making processes on very abstract levels. They just have a “feel” for what their athletes should be doing. A notable exception to this can be found in the formulae of running coach and scientist, Jack Daniels. Jack is renowned in the running community as the “numbers guy”. He revolutionized the way that we determine appropriate running pacing with his V-DOT table and has left several implications on the table that have a direct impact on your long term planning as a triathlete.

1. If you want to train faster then prove it by racing faster.

The crux of the Daniel’s approach is that there is a narrow band of optimal training paces/intensities that train each physiological system. The clear implication for this is that while you may be able to do your intervals faster or harder than what your own respective VDOT recommends, if you do so, you will not be training the physiological mechanism that you are targeting for that workout. In short, the only way to move up a level in your pace recommendations is to prove that your VDOT has increased via race results.

2. If you want to train more, then prove it by racing faster.

In the second edition of Daniel’s Running Formula, Daniels takes a look at fitness programs for beginners, recreational athletes & sub-elite athletes. While he doesn’t directly relate these programs to VDOT, he does provide recommended mileage and time guidelines for each program. This approach to training, i.e. using fitness/competition level to determine training volume and intensity has also been epitomized in the New York Runners Club programs written by Bob and Shelly-Lynn Glover (Glover, 1998).

I find this method particularly applicable to long-course triathletes, who often take the complete reverse approach to this, i.e. I want to race faster therefore I have to train more. No, if you want to train more, you must prove it by racing faster. For every individual, there is an optimal volume (& speed) that will lead to improved racing performance. This optimal volume is related to their own specific limiters, their biomechanical idiosyncracies and their specific lifestyle constraints. However, within these factors, there exists a general range of optimal training volume for various performance levels.

So, what is this optimal volume? A few guidelines from Daniels and others to consider:

In Daniels’ Red (intermediate) plan, for runners who can complete a 20 mile training week under 3hrs (which, for the numerically obsessed out there, works out to a flat base pace of <9:00 per mile or a V-DOT of 47), he recommends building from 20-35 miles per week before racing anything up to half-marathon distance. This program has very limited training beyond tempo intensity. In other words, if you are not running 40-52mi p.w. at a base pace of 8:20 or better per mile, in Daniels opinion (and mine), you are not ready for focused speed work. Importantly, he also points out that runners of this ability level are not ready to target a marathon, which provides some pretty interesting implications for Novice triathletes who sign up for an Ironman with similar fitness numbers

In the Blue (advanced) plan (for runners with a base pace of ~8:20/mile or better/VDOT of 51), Daniels recommends 40-52 miles per week (over the course of 16+ weeks or ~2% increase per week). This phase of development represents more of a focus on speed work (interval training/VO2max sets). In my opinion, this may still be a little early for the use of VO2max sets if the athlete is concerned with developing to their ultimate potential. For instance, former Aussie National Swim Coach, Bill Sweetenham, did no focused VO2 max training for his swimmers until after they had reached National Qualifying level (In Daniels-speak, this would equate to a VDOT of ~64). Daniels also continues to point out that this level of training is not really optimal for Marathon preparation

In the Gold (sub elite) plan (for runners who can complete a 60 mile run week at or better than ~7:45/mile, representing a VDOT of >57), Daniels recommends 60-75 miles/wk of running and asserts that when a runner is of the calibre to handle this training program, they will be prepared for the specific training necessary to prepare for competition of any distance. This level of fitness ties in nicely with Sweetenham’s recommendations of attaining a VDOT of 60+ before engaging in ‘specialized’ training (i.e. race-specific speedwork).

After completing the Gold level of development, the athlete will be ready to undertake any of Daniels’ specialized elite training programs (ranging from 800m-Marathon), presumably in accordance with the personal strengths that they have discovered in the course of the general developmental programs. This form of long term athletic development, moving from a general to a specific focus over a long time period is reminiscent of the plans espoused by periodization guru Istvan Balyi (2005). It is Balyi’s contention that an athlete should be progressed very gradually over the course of 10 years (or 10,000 hours) if they are to achieve their full athletic potential.

Interestingly if we look at a case study of 1, based on Gordo’s rate of development in his July blog entry, his theoretical pattern of training development, based on Daniels programs, would have looked like this:

Based on the training data that I have from Gordo, these mileage numbers look pretty right. For instance, 60 miles @ 6:54/mi = 7hrs/week of running. Gordo’s current run volume is 5-8hrs per week, 5hrs for the easy weeks & 8 for the basic weeks, leading to an average of ~7 per week. If you look at Gordo’s basic week as a working athlete back in 2000, the numbers (4 runs for a total of ~5hrs) seem to line up with the above recommendations pretty well also.

So, pulling all of this together, here are a couple of key observations from the data that you can apply to your own long term plan:

1. It still takes a long time to get good.
That is, it takes a long-term commitment to appropriate, consistent, moderate training to even get close to approaching your potential. We are talking about net mileage increases of ~6-7 miles per year (not 10% per week)!! Setting up a basic week that changes slightly every 6-8 weeks is, in my opinion the best way to apply this progressive, gradual overload long-term.

2. You need to get fit before worrying about getting fast.
If 13 year old kids can swim 4:37 for a 400 with no speed-work, then you really need to question how appropriate speedwork is for you as a sub-elite long course athlete. As Gordo’s progression shows, the key to continual improvement in VDOT (& VO2max) is a consistent application of aerobic volume, not “bleed from the eyeballs” intervals. G’s fitness reached Sweetenham’s criteria for the inclusion of focused speedwork in 2003, when he was an 8:46 Ironman!

3. If you want to be a better runner, run.
If you want to become a faster runner, to a very large extent, you have to run. While the Daniels plan is specific to running, if you take a look at the VDOT values of triathletes, it becomes apparent that you don’t get to discount a whole lot of run mileage in the name of cross training!

One important caveat: That is not to say that the vast majority of Iron Distance athletes out there cannot significantly improve their running split with appropriate bike volume and race execution. However, there comes a point (AFTER these factors are maximized) that the only way to improve your run split is to become a faster runner.

The implications on long-term development for non-elite athletes are certainly something that struck a chord with me when reading the 2nd edition of Daniel’s running formula. As illustrated above, for the most part, the numbers tie in very well with both real life athletic development and proposed developmental plans from some other proven sporting coaches, including Bill Sweetenham and Istvan Balyi.

A couple of fascinating questions that arise from looking at talent identification and long-term athletic development are:

  1. Once the general developmental period is over, how does the athlete know what events suit their natural strengths?
  2. During the specific preparatory period, how does the athlete identify physiological weaknesses that need improvement?
Daniels sheds some interesting light on these 2 questions with his 2.2+6 seconds rule, as do David Martin and Peter Coe (coach and father of Sebastian Coe) in their landmark book, Better Training for Distance Runners. Stay tuned for an upcoming article that delves into what these authors have to say on these two very important questions.

On a related note, stay tuned to my Blog for an upcoming article on how to interpret a lactate curve and how to use the information to identify & address your own personal athletic limiters.

For comments and questions, please contact me at alan@endurancecorner.com.

References available upon request.