The Case for Distance Training

By David

When Arthur Lydiard set Snell, Halberg and McGee the task of running 100 miles a week the athletic world was in awe. Fifty years later there’s not a world class middle distance runner anywhere that doesn’t run that mileage – as a minimum.

The reality of the distances run by athletes today was highlighted in a recent Track & Field magazine discussion with the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor. She is also the American record holder for the marathon (2:19.36) and the half-marathon (1:07:34). Kastor was asked, “How much mileage have you been putting in?” Here’s her answer, “We haven’t really focused as much on mileage this time around as we have on quality workouts. I was typically getting up to 140 miles per week and keeping it up there for a few weeks in a row in the past. This time, I’ve gone to about a 120 miles and feel great doing it.” Imagine that, she’s cut her mileage by 20 miles and is still running 20 miles further than Snell ever did.

Nick Willis is New Zealand’s best 1500 meter runner. He won the silver medal in that event at Beijing and is known as a short distance, sprint trained athlete. And yet here’s what he told Track & Field a few weeks ago. I’m, “currently enjoying a deserved end-of-season break but will soon return to training 90 to 100 miles a week.” There you have it – even the short distance guys are running 100 miles these days.

The greatest distance runner in the world today is Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia. He holds the 5000 and 10,000 world records and, in case you think that isn’t good enough, he won both those events in Beijing. He regularly trains 150 miles a week and does most of it at 7000 feet. He makes Arthur’s distances look like an afternoon sprint session.

The same thing has happened in world class swimming. When I first got Toni Jeffs to swim 100 kilometers a week it was unusual anywhere in the world. Brett Naylor, New Zealand National Coach, told me these distances “would never work in swimming.” In 1992 I was asked to give a talk to a New Zealand Swim Coaches Conference about the reason for swimming 100 kilometers a week. I suspect the only coach in the room who agreed with my reasons was the visiting Australian National Coach.

Even in the United States there are unbelievers. It’s usually coaches who are too lazy to be at the pool the hours needed to swim 100 kilometers who deride the reasons for swimming that far. At one Club I had a parent – her name was Julie – who was forever sending me emails complaining about the “empty miles” her son was being asked to swim. I wrote carefully crafted replies, I gave her copies of my book and included explanations on distance training in the team’s weekly newsletter. Sadly, nothing worked; in her mind 100 kilometers was a disaster. The same mother was breathless with excitement when she heard Ryan Lochte was visiting a local pool. She pleaded with me to send our swimmers to hear him talk. I agreed and arranged for one of the swimmers to ask Lochte how far he swam each week. “Between 90 and 100 kilometers,” he replied. I already knew that would be his answer. I once spent a valuable 20 minutes at a swim meet in Ft. Lauderdale talking to Lochte’s father and coach about the training distances he used. The mother’s next email waxed eloquent about how wonderful the Lochte’s visit had been. A week later she was back complaining about the dangers of swimming 100 kilometers a week. For some people reality is what they want it to be.

The world’s best swimmer is Michael Phelps. How far does he swim? Here is a quote from his website. “Bowman actually started training Michael Phelps when the Phelps was still 11 years old. He pushed Phelps to swim at least 90 kilometers each week. According to him, kids at that age, are able to increase the size of their hearts and lungs in ways that are no longer possible later on; the larger the heart and lungs, the bigger the aerobic engine. Phelps has been training almost 5 hours a day and 7 days a week without any rest day.”

What about Alain Bernard, the magnificent French 100 meters freestyle Olympic champion? Here is what Swimnews Online recently said about his training. “The big date was January 4, the moment when a tick-over, keep-fit rate of 5km of training a day since September 2009, post-Roma09 world titles, stepped up to 14km a day (100km per week). “Of course, I am not going to say that it is easy. I lack endurance. But I am happy to be back,” said Bernard”

Swimming and track are beginning to show a similar picture. Distances that everyone once thought were extreme a few years ago are becoming normal. And it’s not going to stop at today’s distances. Bekele runs his 150 miles per week at an incredible 5.40 per mile pace. He is showing us the way of the future. Just ask yourself, is a 150 miles per week at 5.40 pace man going to beat a 70 mile, 6.30 pace athlete? Yes, of course he is. The aerobic equipment he brings to the problem is so vastly superior.

Swimming needs to pay close attention to the lessons being learned in track athletics. One hundred kilometers a week was cutting edge stuff in 1992 and is normal in 2010. But to prepare swimmers for 2016 it will not be nearly enough. For that task swimmers should already be swimming 120/140 kilometers per week. Not only will 120 kilometers be the new norm, like Bekele, the distances must be swum at faster speeds. Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman is reported as saying, “We continue to develop Michael as a complete swimmer. That means some emphasis on the distance freestyle. On Halloween, he whipped off a 5,000 yards free for time in a 46:34. That’s under a 9:20 per 1,000 yards average. I was impressed with that. In fact, it is probably the most impressive thing he’s done, and it might be one of the most impressive things he ever does.”

It also offers us a glimpse of the future. A swim pace that was exceptional for Michael Phelps must be the norm for 2016 champions as they work their way through each day’s 20 kilometers. In Swimwatch we have often reported the quote from Lydiard, “I never invented a long slow distance method of training. I invented long fast distance.” Looks to me like he was right again.

  • Brent

    please tell me – what does 20,000 or even 14,000 yards a day do for a sprint swimmer? Why would someone racing for less than a minute need to train aerobically so much? you’re comparing runners that run for four minutes to swimmers, but how many swim races last that long? only a few. This idea that more is always better is very flawed.

  • Swimwatch

    I’ll let the author answer this more fully, but if it’s good enough for Phelps (who won a gold medal in the 4×100 medley relay in Bejing) and, from 10 years ago, Popov and Klim, it’s good enough for me.

    Unless you’re better than they are, of course.

  • Brent

    This article talks a lot about who is training with this much yardage, but not about why they do it or why everyone else should do it. Also, the examples given might be taken out of context to some degree. It states that Phelps was trying to become a more balance swimmer when he was training distance free. He wasn’t training for the 100 free at the time, but to become a better distance freestyler. Apparently Bernard was swimming 14,000 a day in January, but was he doing that seven days a week? And maybe he was in a basal yardage phase of training and will get back to more intensive sprint training closer to competition.
    Another example taken slightly out of context is the suggestion that Bakele and Kastor are doing the always necessary in raising the milage bar. These are distance (10,000m and marathon) runners being compared to Lydiard’s middle distance runners.

    I am not saying that lots of yardage is never good, but it isn’t for everyone.
    Fact: distance training decreases maximal stroking power.
    Fact: maximal stroking power is continually shown to be very highly correlated to maximal swimming velocity.
    In my opinion, the benefits of lots of yardage (which, for a sprinter, may not extend far beyond faster time to recover) are not worth the loss of power in sprinters. I tend to favor training sprinters with a lot of sprinting, a lot of power work (dry-land and resisted swimming), and a LOT of technique work.

    I’m not trying to bash anyone’s oipinion, I just think we should focus on why things are done instead of just doing what the best are doing. As coaches we shouldn’t look at what the fastest swimmers are doing and automatically mimic it, but we should say “why is this done and how will it help my swimmers?” Sometimes we don’t get the whole truth about what others are doing. We can always learn and improve the way we do things. Right now I feel like quality trumps quantity for sprinters.

  • Swimwatch