The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

US Long Distance Track Woes

Dan Grimes, former USATF long distance chairman, wrote an opinion piece about it at In a nutshell, he says US men are not now, nor have they been, competitive at the 10k because a) our 10k runners have inferior speed and b) "our training programs are focusing too much on distance and not enough on speed, power, and biomechanics".

Where have I heard this before? Oh yeah, Arthur Lydiard. He got an undeserved reputation for megamilage due to his insistence that it is impossible to do more with less, but in fact the basics of his training ideas require athletes to maximize all their abilities--endurance, strength, power, speed and technique.

We hear so much about the ten weeks of high milage runners like Peter Snell did, but forget the six weeks of plyometrics that followed. Many of Lydiard's distance runners did sprint races in club meets. They were complete athletes, and you won't find a world-class 10k runner who isn't.

In a talk he gave in Japan in 1990, Lydiard told the Japanese they overdo the marathon-type training, and excoriated their runners, women in particular, for horrible form. This argument sounds very much like Grimes'.

Like Grimes, Lydiard thought the essential limiting factor for any runner was his basic speed. Looking at the same idea in different terms, Dr. Tim Noakes has said that if you can't beat someone in the mile, you're almost certainly not going to beat him in the marathon. This is why I'm so excited about German Fernandez. You don't get many athletes who set age-group records in the mile and then put their indoor track season on the back burner in favor of the World Cross Country championships. It's the kind of thing only Kenyans and Ethiopians do...and they're the ones who dominate long distances on the track.

Different modes of training go in and out of style, and getting the word out about the right balance of endurance, power and technique work is possible. As for getting athletes with speed to run long track distances, that's another problem entirely. Much of it is because of the American system. When I went to a presentation Lydiard did three weeks before he died, I suggested to him that our team orientation is a big barrier to getting top athletes into distance races.

Let me give you a theoretical example. Suppose an average, ordinary high school track team has a 17-year-old who not only can run 48-flat in the 400, but can run that several times in one meet without tiring. He can also do duty on the 4x800 and/or 4x200. Most average, ordinary track coaches see this kid as the centerpiece of their average, ordinary track team, scoring big-time points.

But this theoretical 17-year-old's combination of speed and endurance might be suited to someday being a national-caliber miler, or an international-caliber 5k/10k man, as both Grimes and Lydiard suggest. The team-points system does not reward high school coaches who would have such a boy become a distance runner (since he couldn't run as many races), and teenage jock culture sure doesn't encourage him to think of going that way either. Ditto for a great high school 800/1500 runner becoming a 5k/10k man in college, for similar reasons.

Contrast this with Steve Ovett's career in the British club system. He started off as a great long sprinter in his youth, but moved up to longer races as he got older, eventually became one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time.

Unless something is changed to encourage our best runners to move up, it won't happen by itself. So we need to do what we can to make the long distances attractive to the real athletes? That's where promotion of professional athletes comes in, and yet another reason why USATF needs to assume a greater leadership role. Another issue is that, according to Tony Reavis, most shoe contracts reward making a US team more than doing well at an international championship. In other words, there are serious financial rewards for thinking "small" (make the national team) instead of thinking "big" (beat the world). Again, USATF could take a leadership role.

Grimes' arguments are not new. But we need some new thinking to fix the problems.

1 comment:

nobby415 said...


I probably shouldn't have gotten myself in volved in that thread at letsrun... I just cannot believe so many people just don't get it! Oh, well, that's letsrun I guess... Anyways, I didn't know your e-mail address. I think I used to have Zat0pek's. I would like to start a thread at our website at Lydiard Foundation on the same topic and would like to invite you and Zat0pek there (when I find his e-mail address...). Join us if you would like.