Monday, 16 March 2009

Jack Daniels Primer #1 and P-K Profile #2-- Emily Tallen

This week: Some thoughts on Jack Daniels and the enduring appeal of this emeritus professor of American distance coaching; and, another P-K profile, this one featuring Emily Tallen.

Daniels for the Ages

As it happens, I had been re-reading sections of senior U.S. coach Jack Daniels’ 1998 classic Daniels’ Running Formula (2nd Edition in 2005) and thinking about starting a regular section here in the blog dedicated to explicating some of the key elements of his approach to training, when someone sent me a link to a series of video interviews with the man himself that have been running for the past month on the running website Flotrack, entitled Thirsty Thursdays with Jack Daniels. This was all the extra impetus I needed to get down to it. I want to be begin by saying a little about Daniels’ unique approach to periodization and conclude with a comment about his personal style as revealed in the charming little Thirsty Thursday segments.

Approaches to periodization (i.e. the yearly cycling of training emphases used by coaches to promote the continuous, all-round development and timely peaking of athletes) have been changing somewhat over the past few years, but there remains a fairly widespread and long-standing consensus among coaches—one that probably has its roots in the ground-breaking theories of the great New Zealand coach, Arthur Lydiard—concerning when to introduce faster paced training (i.e. at mile race pace or faster). In most programs, particularly school-based ones, faster running is typically introduced immediately preceding and even during the main racing season. The reasoning here is fairly intuitive: You run your fastest speeds in training around the time you want to run your fastest speeds in competition. As it happens, the only coach I’ve ever discovered who has systematically challenged this common sense is Jack Daniels. Daniels programs typically recommend that majority of the faster running be done during the earlier training phases (during the winter months in most of North America), with longer and slower tempo runs and less intense “cruise” sessions during the actual racing season. The time in between is taken up with the most intense kinds of training-- longer intervals. But, why would a runner what to run faster in training at a time of year when his important competitions—the ones he wants to be most “sharp” for—are still months away; and, why would he choose to train less intensely at a time of year when intensity would seem to be at a premium?

To understand Daniels’ answer to these questions one needs to understand his famous “formula” itself. The genius of Daniels is that he has been able to, with considerable accuracy, isolate the physiological adaptations associated with training at particular speeds for given durations. For practical purposes, he isolated four different running speeds that, in general, provoke four different types of adaptations in the trained body. (In the interest of brevity, I’ll leave it to the reader to pick up his/her copy of the book or go on-line to get the details here.) According to Daniels, the benefits of faster running are that it encourages the development of optimal biomechanical “running economy” through the promotion of strength, balance and relaxation. For Daniels, then, faster running—which must necessarily be done with longer recoveries, in order to prevent fatigue from reducing one’s speed— is best used as a basis for the most intense and race-specific kinds of training that runners will do—i.e. “interval” training, which involves running at around 95% of maximum aerobic capacity for up to 15 minutes total in a single session. Ideally, he reasoned, a coach would want to position a cycle of faster running before a period of more intense interval training in the yearly scheme, so that an athlete enters this most difficult and potentially risky phase of his training with optimal bio-mechanical economy; thus, faster running should seasonally precede interval training, and less intense "cruise" training should be the mainstay of the competitive phase.

To this imminently sound bit of reasoning I would add the following argument for keeping faster running out of the racing phase, particularly for school-age runners, who are typically competing at the middle distances: Racing itself involves faster running. During a racing phase, runners don’t really need any additional familiarization with the feeling of trying to run fast, and adding yet more faster running into the program while athletes are already running all-out once or twice per week--and tend as a result to be feeling highly charged and motivated to compete-- risks compromising their racing performances, and may put them at greater risk of injury. My approach is to allow the races themselves to provide any necessary re-familiarization with the feel of faster running (or, “sharpening”), keeping the workouts less intense. Ideally, by the time the racing season arrives, most of the benefits of both hard and fast training will already have been realized (the “hay”, so to speak, will already be safely “in the barn”), and there should be no need to worry about fitness loss through reduced training intensity. While ideal for age-class runners, who typically have a well defined competition phase, I've found this general approach to be highly effective for older runners training for the longer distances too.

It has therefore been my practice for years to break with the conventional approach of assigning longer and slower training in the winter and shorter and faster training in the spring and summer. For younger athletes and middle distance athletes in particular, the period December to the end of February is taken up with faster hill repeats and track sessions at mile/1500 race pace, which immediately precedes the hardest training of the year—the six to eight weeks from early March to late April, which are taken up with longer track interval sessions and tempo/fartlek workouts.

In a rare section in the book on youth development, Daniels even suggest that this “speed before intensity” approach to periodization is perhaps the best basis for the macro-cycling of young athletes. What holds for a single season, he suggests, might also hold for an athlete’s early years as a whole. It is perhaps best, he argues, for young athletes to spend greater periods of their early years trying to run fast than trying to go long and hard. Coaches of young athletes, he suggests, might consider keeping total running volumes and intensities low in the early years and increase them step-wise as an athlete matures.

Anyone who reads Daniels book, or watches him in any of the above mentioned interviews, however, will discover that, with him, there are few hard and fast rules. Daniels has firm and well supported opinions on most running matters; but, at 76, and after more than 40 years of total immersion in the science and culture of distance running, he has developed a gentle and patient touch (perhaps this was always his style). When asked in one of the video interviews about his main goal as a coach, he answers, in effect, that he would simply like to encourage athletes to want to train by creating an appealing environment within which to do so. It would seem that, after all these years, he has come to realize that the genius of coaching resides less in the details of program construction and more in the ability instill a enthusiasm for the training process. As a career exercise physiologist, he clearly would not want to discount the value of sound methods; but, he seems to have realized that a welcoming environment, social and otherwise, is perhaps just as essential for keeping athletes committed to the longer term-- a vital consideration in this most demanding and patience-testing of sports. In these interview segments in particular, Daniels exudes a personal warmth and self-effacing humour that belie his now great authority in the sport. At the very moment when demand for his advice is at its peak, and when he could, if he chose, wield his influence with considerable force, he appears content simply to gently advise, and to speak only when asked. He appears, at his great age, simply to enjoy the privilege of spending time in the presence of runners. To my eye and ear, he offers a model of aging gracefully and well, and presents a living testament to the benefits of a life driven by intellectual curiosity and intense social engagement. He just happens also to be one of the world's foremost authorities on running.

P-K Profiles# 2—Emily Tallen

For those familiar with women’s distance running in Canada, Emily doesn’t require much introduction. (For her P.B.’s and other vitals, see the “Athletes” section.) Emily started in the group in 2006 following a very difficult attempted transition from high school to collegiate running which ended with her more or less abandoning the sport. Emily won a full scholarship to Providence College in Providence, R.I., which was and remains one of the premier small schools in the NCAA, with a consistent—indeed multi-decade—record of top individual and team performance under head coach Ray Treacy. Providence also now boasts a top-notch post-collegiate group under coach Treacy, whose members are among the very best in the U.S. Thus, while she was certainly not the only runner in the school's history to experience difficulty—no program, after all, works for every runner— Emily’s experience at Providence was something of an anomaly; she ultimately failed to flourish there, eventually done-in by a hail of injury problems that beset her almost from the moment of arrival.

After relocating to Kingston following a year at teacher’s college in London, Ontario, Emily met group member Pat McDermott when both were working in a local high school. Pat, the subject of P-K profile # one, and an enthusiastic promoter of both serious running and the P-K group, set to work encouraging Emily to take another shot at racing. Being fellow artists, and in similar running shape at the time, Emily and Pat would become regular training partners following his successful efforts to get her to contact me and join the group in the spring of 2006.

Emily’s experiences at university had made her reticent about establishing new goals and risking renewed disappointment and heartbreak should things fall apart again. My sense at the time was that she had all but resigned herself to the loss of her identity as elite runner, and had become content to pursue other life interests, such as her art and teaching. I wasn’t entirely sure why she decided to throw her lot in with the group and make another attempt at exploring her potential in the sport; but, knowing her better now, I think her pride, competitive drive, genuine love of the sport (she is a fan as well as a competitor), and her memories of junior stardom, combined to induce her back into the fray one last time.

As an age-class athlete, I would describe Emily as something of an over-performer. In spite of, in my view, questionable coaching, Emily had managed to win several provincial high school titles and one Canadian junior title. The limits of her high school coaching were revealed, however, in her style of racing-- which involved charging the first part of her races, whatever the distance, races at speeds close to her 800m race pace and attempting to hang on for the win (which she could often do in weaker fields)-- and in the fact that her personal bests where set in her second year of high school. Through no fault of her own, Emily would enter the collegiate ranks somewhat unprepared—both physically, and in terms of her knowledge of high level training—for the reality that would await her. It is conceivable that she might have found her bearings and prospered in some other university program; but, this would have been at the indulgence of a coach prepared to thoroughly re-educate her as an athlete. At the vast majority of top NCAA Division One programs, this is a luxury that no young runner should ever expect. Athletes who are talented enough to win scholarships to these programs are expected to know the rudiments of high level training, and to hit the ground running, literally and figuratively. It was Emily’s misfortune at that time to have the proven talent to win an NCAA D-1 scholarship, but not the broad-based preparation for training and competition required to prosper at this level.

I was to conclude all of this after a year or so of watching Emily train and race, and after having come to know her better personally. What I saw and during this time was a healthy looking and powerful runner with a smooth and beautifully balanced stride. In her now three years in the group, she has yet to sustain an injury requiring more than a few days down-time, and very few of those to boot. It was inconceivable to me that a runner like this could have sustained four stress fractures in as many years of running. And the athlete I came to know on a personal level was intelligent, determined, and highly coachable, albeit not as knowledgeable about running and her own responses to training as I would have expected from an athlete with her level of experience. I was not in the least surprised that, on less than a year of very moderate but consistent training, Emily had reached the rank of national level, with 6th place finishes at the nationals in track and X-C. In this short period of time, she had turned back the clock and placed herself once again in the competitive mix— just about where, had she been better prepared, she should have found herself during her first or second year of collegiate running.

Like most working runners her age, Emily has had her share of minor setbacks—an ill-timed virus here, a bad bout of asthma there—that have forced some detours in her progress over the past two years. But, like the vast bulk beneath the visible tip of the iceberg, there has been substantial progress in her fitness, and flashes or real brilliance in training, beneath the surface of her race performances, which have still remained very steady (and include a commanding win at the provincial X-C championships last fall, a 5th place at the nationals, and a 1:16:40 Half Marathon in Florida in January of 09).

As Emily prepares for her first marathon this spring in Ottawa, my belief that the best for her is yet to come has never wavered. I am often impatient when well-meaning observers comment positively on her race results to date. What they see is a former high school star who came back from the precipice to enjoy a successful senior elite career on the roads, track, and trail. What I see, on the other hand, is an athlete with the potential to perform shoulder-to-shoulder with the top Canadian women over the longer distances (5k to Marathon), and with the potential to win national championships and represent the country at the highest levels internationally. It seems only a matter of time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you going to continue posting your thoughts on the Daniels method as you go? I noticed you called it Jack Daniels Primer #1, and was hoping it was the first of several.

25 March 2009 at 10:24  
Blogger Steve said...

Yes, that's certainly the plan. I'm not operating from any particular schedule, but I may do another Daniels primer next Monday. There's really no shortage of things to talk about in Daniels.

25 March 2009 at 10:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful! The last episode of the Thirsty Thursdays series is up today.

26 March 2009 at 11:25  

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