Spice of Life

The Case for Multi-Pace Training
By Kevin Beck

As featured in the November 2003 issue of Running Times Magazine

By the time they reach their early 30s, most elite runners-at least in theory-are immune to broad-based training revelations. But when Keith Dowling was preparing to train for the 2002 Boston Marathon, poring over the logs of some other top runners led him to something of an epiphany.

Dowling, after a solid showing at the Parkersburg Half Marathon the previous August (1:03:59), had locked into a traditional training program for the New York City Marathon in November. In the final six weeks before the race the program had him doing threshold work to the virtual exclusion of other types of hard workouts. In the Big Apple, Dowling struggled to a 2:19:09.

"Before Parkersburg, I'd done training that included repetitions, threshold, no VO2 workouts but some short races like 8Ks and 5Ks," says Dowling. "It was only when I moved into the next phase of primarily threshold training that I got stale."

Dowling's sub-par New York effort led him to look at his own training from 1996, 2000 Olympic marathoner Rod DeHaven's training, and "pretty much anyone's training that I could find," he says. "I noticed most elite long-distance runners rarely followed a strictly periodized program like Lydiard. That's when I realized that a mixture worked better. In fact, the earlier phase before Parkersburg seemed to work better because it included a little bit of everything."

Variety Under Any Name

The type of training Dowling adopted goes by a variety of names: Multi-tier training, complex training, or, perhaps most commonly, multi-pace training (MPT). Far from a new "invention," it was first codified by British coach Frank Horwill in 1970 and applied with aplomb across the pond to top middle-distance runners. Peter Coe, a champion of Horwill's "five-pace training," used the system to coach his son Sebastian to four Olympic medals and 12 world records in the 800m to mile range, one of which, the 1,000m (2:12.18), has stood for 22 years. Horwill based his original plan on the "four-second rule"-the observation that top runners typically slowed down by four seconds per 400-meter lap when moving from a given race distance to twice that distance, and believed that runners should train not only at the pace of their chosen distance, but at the two "above" and the two "below" it as well, with due emphasis given to the athlete's own race pace.

Hence, a 3,000m specialist capable of 8:45 (70 seconds per 400m) would train at 62, 66, 70, 74 and 78 seconds per lap during interval training. (Though the term did not then exist, the latter pace probably corresponds quite well with such a runner's anaerobic threshold or tempo pace.) Rest jogs also followed a mathematically precise scheme: twice the repetition distance when training at 400m pace, equal to the repetition distance at 800m pace, half at mile pace, and so on.

Not surprisingly, advocates of this "non-traditional" system, once attuned to its efficacy, adapted it to the longer distances. It is here, in the 5K and above, where training is perhaps most commonly marked by strict phases that often emphasize training at one pace during harder workouts in a given period to the exclusion of all others.

Dowling cites Australian great Rob de Castella (2:07:51 at Boston in 1986, then a course record) as a marathon specialist who was a classic exemplar of MPT and eschewed the traditional periodization. "I think the Aussie way is pretty cool because the athletes learn the system early on in their careers and then fine tune it for the marathon later with few changes," he says. "That philosophy of complex training is interesting because it's designed to be repeated over many years. You'll notice that Deek, [Shawn] Creighton and [Steve] Moneghetti all lasted well into their 30s."

Although multi-pace training now encompasses methods outside the strict five-pace system, one implication of using a Horwillian approach for road distances is that as an athlete's specialty creeps up in distance, he or she winds up doing an increasing fraction of his or her "quality" work at or near threshold. In any case, the key lies in not neglecting speedwork at any one time as well as in ensuring the paces of the workouts are appropriately varied.

Lydiardian Roots

Runners and coaches who defend the notion of distinct training phases, each with a special emphasis on a certain type of speed and some lacking formal speedwork altogether, frequently make mention of Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand great who produced Olympic medallists and world record holders from 880 yards through the marathon. Lydiard is regarded as an advocate of a "peaking" approach in which a tremendous aerobic base is a prerequisite for all programs and a distinct sharpening period precedes a goal race or a series of goal competitions.

But many runners and coaches lack a complete understanding of Lydiard's philosophy. While Lydiard stresses the need to build aerobic endurance through high mileage before endeavoring in other forms of training (not, as many say, through long slow distance but through "high-end" aerobic running, some of it likely classifiable as threshold training), he also notes the importance of anaerobic training and advocates a modicum of speedwork of various kinds in each training phase. These range from short, "alactic" 50-meter sprints to repetitions of over 200 meters designed to incur lactic-acid build-up. His methods predated the invention of the term "multi-tier training," but Lydiard's famed "one-quarter effort," "half-effort," and "three-quarters effort" workouts employ, in practice, a juggling of speeds virtually identical to that favored by contemporary MPT advocates.

Greg McMillan, a physiologist, runner and online coach, says, "Ironically enough, Lydiard is where I first encountered multi-pace training. When I started coaching, I found that not only could I create programs that included the usual phases of training, but I could offer athletes a variety of workouts within each energy system that involved training at a variety of paces." McMillan found that his athletes not only became better conditioned and performed better, but stayed highly motivated owing to the variety of their routines. And as he points out, MPT is not incompatible with the use of training phases: "I think the phase system creates the structure of the training cycle and the multi-pace system fits within it to provide the nuts and bolts of the workouts. Some paces will be emphasized more extensively in one phase than in others, but no pace is ever excluded."

The Base

Still, there are key differences between a Lydiard marathon program and an MPT-based one. Says Dowling, "My fear of Lydiard was his priority of speed before the big races rather than protection of aerobic conditioning that I feel is important for 10K on up to the marathon."

Some runners, wed to their notions of Lydiardian ideals, may initially be concerned that such a scheme is incompatible with base-building. However, since the focus of an MPT-style program for distance runners is overwhelmingly aerobic, such concerns are-no pun intended-baseless. "[Even before starting MPT] I had never done just base," says Dowling. "I hope that I've accumulated aerobic base from years of repeating the same cycles of training. When I moved to the marathon, I did notice that my track season would always be better, so Lydiard was on the right track. The difference is marathon training is still more than just getting in base work. It's high-end aerobic training. Plus there's the goal of the actual 26.2-mile race at the end to keep you motivated. After you've done a successful build-up, you race, recover, and you continue building."

Adds McMillan, "In the way I use it, MPT plays a role in base-building but differently than in the other phases of training. In the initial 8-12 weeks of base-building, I've found the best results when the runner focuses on just two paces-the regular aerobic-building/conversational pace and very fast, short (less than 30 seconds in duration) repeats." In the last four weeks of base-building, he'll include other paces that challenge the spectrum of energy systems. McMillan has found that this scheme wards off staleness, helps prevent injuries, and eases the transition into more intense phases of training.

Newer runners, of course, should simply become familiar with the act of running as locomotion and establish an idea of a manageable workload before undertaking a specific MPT (or any, for that matter) training plan involving directed speed workouts.

Versatile and Comprehensive

Many popular "American" programs aimed at the long-distance-running masses smack of MPT. For example, two-time Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger's programs in his book Advanced Marathoning include a careful blend of VO2 Max, threshold, and ultra-short-distance (i.e., strides) workouts as well as build-up races at a variety of distances; these efforts are rotated regularly, with no one type given priority during any stretch of the training build-up.

McMillan hastens to point out that different coaches can put MPT concepts to use in different ways, yet still enjoy success. "I find that there's a pace range for each energy system," he says. "If, for example, you want to train your lactate-threshold system, you need to determine a minimum pace and a maximum pace; training between these extremes will improve that system." McMillan can thus prescribe a variety of different paces just for lactate-threshold workouts and achieve the desired results; these, from fastest to slowest, are cruise intervals, tempo intervals, tempo runs, and steady state runs.

The same principle applies to each energy system (McMillan terms these endurance, lactate-threshold or stamina, speed, and sprint). So across a training cycle, McMillan can offer his athletes a host of varied workouts and can design them with particular athletes' likes and needs in mind. Within a given week, he'll add paces for several energy systems, again using a variety of workouts.

Joe Rubio, a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials participant and a California-based coach of the Asics Aggies and others, lists five essential elements of training: intervals in the range of 400m to 1600m, progressive pace "tempo" runs, a weekly long run, race-specific speedwork, and a consistent recovery day each week. Moreover, he says, these elements are the cornerstones of training programs for milers, marathoners and everyone in between, a concept he says many athletes have a hard time accepting. "Get these (five elements) right and rest assured you are training as the Olympians do," says Rubio. "But miss even one of them and you're missing half the puzzle."

Looking at Rubio's "quintet" more generally, it's easy to see the distinct benefit of each element in any distance runner's program. The first is designed to bolster VO2 Max, the second to boost lactate tolerance, the third to improve fuel utilization and overall endurance, the fourth to better running economy, and the fifth to ensure runners don't succumb to overtraining. Regardless of the specifics, a program that regularly cycles through these elements and doesn't neglect any of them is considered by many to be a near-guarantee of success. See the sidebar for a sample program.

Variety has been described as the spice of life, but simple analysis reveals that it might just be the perfect flavoring for your training and racing recipe too.

Multi-Pace in Practice

Following is but one of countless permutations of multi-pace training. The schedule repeats itself every three weeks; a 21-day period allows for both adequate recuperation from workouts and the inclusion of a broad spectrum of paces. Days marked "recovery" imply anything from easy distance to a day off, depending on individual runners' needs.

Week One

  • Monday: recovery
  • Tuesday: recovery
  • Wednesday: short intervals (400m-600m) with full recovery
  • Thursday: recovery
  • Friday: "cruise intervals" (threshold pace 1000m-2000m) on grass with 30 second to one minute recovery
  • Saturday: recovery
  • Sunday: long run

Week Two

  • Monday: recovery
  • Tuesday: recovery
  • Wednesday: short (3-4 mile) threshold run
  • Thursday: recovery
  • Friday: medium intervals (VO2 Max; 800m-1600m) with 50% to 90% time recovery
  • Saturday: recovery
  • Sunday: medium-long "cut-down run (last 2-3 miles at martathon pace plus 5-10%

Week Three

  • Monday: recovery
  • Tuesday: recovery
  • Wednesday: long (5-8 mile) threshold run
  • Thursday: recovery
  • Friday: "pure speed" repititions (200m) with full recovery
  • Saturday: recovery
  • Sunday: long run

Kevin Beck is the editor of Run Strong, Human Kinetics' latest training resource for distance runners. A senior writer for Running Times Magazine since 2001, Kevin has run times ranging from 14:58 for 5,000 meters to 2:24:17 for the marathon, and was second in the 2004 USATF 50K Road Championship. A coach at both the high-school and private levels, the New Hampshire native's writing has appeared in Marathon & Beyond, Men's Fitness, and numerous newspapers and regional publications. If you enjoyed reading this article, you may want to read Run Strong by Kevin Beck.