A liberal dose of Old School training wisdom

Runners World.jpgFlipping through the recent issue of Runner’s World magazine featuring Kevin Hart on the cover in full retro mode with short shorts and 70s afro, I was interested to see what the publication would have to say about training during the early years of the running revolution.

The author of an article titled “Go ahead, chuckle” started out talking about photos of shaggy-haired runners in short shorts, and that much was true. But when he got to the merits of Old School training, this observation struck me as the truly funny part: “Still, it’s impressive that so many athletes got it right when it came to training and racing in the “old days.”

The sidebar went on to speculate on what the “old days entailed.”

“THE OLD WAY Every plan featured long runs and simple interval sessions like mile repeats or “quarters” (before the metric system rendered quarter mile tracks nearly extinct.”

THE NEW WAY We add tempo runs, midrun pickups, hill repeats and fartleks to challenge our bodies in new ways each week.

This is a clear dose of revisionist claims about the past. It thus requires a liberal dose of correction.

Because here’s the truth: There is not a single runner from the so-called Old School era of the 1970s and 80s who did not do tempo runs, midrun pickups, hill repeats and fartlek training. We did all that and more. 


A typical training week included all of these training types. It might look like this:

Sunday: 15-20 mile run, 6:30-7:30 pace

Monday: 4 miles am easy. 6 miles hill work, 600m hill repeats down and up 3oo m mile hill. Grass sprints 5 X 100 on football field.

Tuesday: 5 miles easy. If no race on schedule, 6 miles on track with ladder of speed work 200-400-600-800-Mile-Mile-800-600-400-200. 4:55 to 5:10 pace.

Wednesday: 6 miles am easy. 6 miles pm easy. Grass sprints barefoot.

Thursday: 4 miles easy am. 7 mile fartlek pm with 5:00 pace pickups from 400-600.

Friday: Rest am. 5 miles easy PM.

Saturday. 4 miles am warmup. 5 mile cross country race (25:30 to 26:30 depending on course difficulty. 4 mile jog back at home.

High mileage. High quality. 

That made for an 82-95 mile week depending on variance in training. Our objective was to maintain a consistent “tired state” in the legs and cardio system. We ran hard and we ran often.

We also raced frequently. During high school cross-country our schedule consisted of twice weekly (Tuesday-Thursday) racing along with a September through November series of weekend invitationals. That racing load was a bit much, but it certainly taught us how to run fast and compete well.

Programs these days tend to run fewer races. And that’s probably good.  There are many excellent high school cross country runners thanks to the wisdom and training methods passed along by Old School coaches now running programs throughout our state. They’ve reduced the racing schedule to protect the legs and minds of their runners. The results have thus come around again to late-70s and mid-80s levels. Here are this year’s top times in the Illinois state meet:

1Soren Knudsen, Minooka 14:02 2Danny Kilrea, LaGrange (Lyons)14:08 3Dylan Jacobs, Orland Park (Sandburg) 14:10 4Charlie Kern, Elmhurst (York) 14:125 Brian Griffith, Lake Zurich14:14 6Matt Pereira, Lake Zurich 14:247 Vince Zona, LaGrange (Lyons)14:28 8Jackson Jett, Naperville (Neuqua Valley)14:33 9Dylan Zangri, Oswego (East)14:36 10Sean MacGregor, Elmhurst (York) 14:36


In college, we raced only 2-3 of dual meets during the season and 8-10 invitationals between September and mid-November. Even this was a bit much. Some of us were running on fumes by season’s end.


After college, I personally built on these supposedly “Old School” training methods and learned that doing long runs slower was acceptable among elite runners. I also added strength training and during the winter months and stationary cycling to keep aerobic fitness high when really cold weather (below zero with wind chills) made training difficult.


Hard, fast training and short shorts went together in Old School racing.

I was especially keen on the value of tempo runs, especially a workout I branded “unlimited surges” that involved accelerating up to race pace and holding it for ‘unlimited’ periods, usually between 3-5:00 over an eight-mile run. This ‘race practice’ was crucial in learning how to relax during full-on racing.

Using these “Old School” methods, in 1984 I raced 24 times in distances from 5K to 25K. No marathons. My times were 14:47 for the 5k, 19:49 4 miles, 24:47 for five miles, 31:10 for 10K, 53:30 10m, 1:10: 58 HM and 1:25:25 for 25K. The years of ’83 and ’85 were similar, but the peak of my competitive career outside school was 1984.

Yet here’s an interesting statistic. My target distance for racing that year was 10K. It was the ‘standard’ distance for which most runners aimed. And during that year’s training with dips in the schedule for recovery between hard racing, I averaged exactly 6.2 miles of training per day.

Significantly, many of us also raced on the track several times during the year. That meant testing your fitness in an indoor meet or two in January, jumping in an All-Comers meet in May, and finding a quick mile in which to compete in July. Usually August was a bit of a recovery and base training month. Not a lot of racing. Just long runs and lots of water.

More than volume

So it wasn’t volume alone that dictated pace and speed. The biggest weeks I’d done in college were just over 100 miles. But remember, we weren’t training for marathons. In those days, we thought marathons were for runners who either weren’t fast enough to compete on the road or track, or who loved the freak aspect of the event.

Yet when we did run the distance, the times were pretty fast. My teammates from the Running Unlimited sponsored team included Jukka Kallio, whose 10K was in the mid-31s but ran a 2:19 and change, just missing the Olympic Trials qualifying time by twenty seconds. There were also the Macnider brothers, Jim and John, both who ran in the low 30:00 range for 10K and ran marathon times in the range of 2:18 if I recall.

The road racing circuit in the 80s was nastily competitive. It was common to run 31:30 for 10k and place third or fourth in the race. The winning time for the hilly course at the Elgin 10M Fox Trot in 1984 as 49:00 or so. I took sixth or eighth in mid 53s.

So there was no coddling or recompense for those who did not train hard and fast. And that’s the primary difference between “Old School” and the supposed “New School” of distance running.  Granted, there are not many sub-elite runners that can maintain that level of training for long without getting injured or sick. So we took breaks either by choice or by force of illness or injury on occasion. Those were the risks you took.

Simple conclusions

The Runner’s World article comes to something near the same conclusion, saying this about THE BEST WAY. You’ll get fitter faster if you mix up your workouts which is important for racers, but it takes a toll. “High structured training is very effective, but it can also be physically and mentally hard to maintain,” says Mike Norman, cofounder of Chicago Endurance Sports.

The article concludes: “Runners overwhelmed by workouts should take a cue from old-timers: Sometimes it’s okay to just run. Spend a few weeks keeping it simple–a few runs each week at a comfortable pace–to recoup your motivation.”

running-past-houseYa think? That’s just common sense, and there’s nothing Old School about that at all. Just understand that we experimented like mad in the Old School era. During one college workout we did 28 X 400 at 80-second pace with 1:00 rest between.

Some of us also tried racing barefoot. By circumstance of advancing shoe technology, we served as guinea pigs for everything from the Nike Waffle Racer to some of the worst apparel ever known to humankind. But we didn’t feel “Old School” in any respects. We pushed the envelope all the time, doing insane workouts or long runs without drinking a damned thing the entire way. Sometimes we got burned. But when success came along you knew exactly where it came from: hard, fast running.

No substitute

There’s no substitute. The best runners in the world do the same thing these days. They may live more by the metrics of heart rate and blood work and technology, but those methods aren’t all that much better than knowing your resting pulse rate and backing off training that day if your heart rate is elevated by more than 10 beats in the morning.

We used chronometer watches and drank when we were thirsty. That’s about it. There aren’t many more “secrets” to running other than knowing your pace and how to push it. Some of us were too skinny for our own good. I’ll give you that.

But running comes down to a bit of internal liberality in terms of what you need to do to handle the rigors and pain of hard racing. Handle the pain. Our saying in college about pain was simple, “It’s only temporary.”

You can handle a lot of things in life with those three words.




About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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