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Dec 5, 2004
Training Slowly, Racing Swiftly
RUNNING COMMENTARY 548
What's with these Canadian masters? You probably heard that Ed Whitlock from Ontario ran 2:54 this fall -- at age 73. You might not have heard the name Herb Phillips, a 64-year-old British Columbian who recently ran 2:47.
Whitlock isn't a hero of mine for his race pace, which I couldn't match nowadays for a single mile. He impresses me more with the utter simplicity of his training, as well as its relative slowness. Now I've come to feel the same way about Phillips.
When last I wrote about Ed, the British-born Canadian ran two hours a day at "a glorified shuffle" of about nine-minute mile pace. He only sped up in races, run often and at a wide range of distances.
Last year he became the first marathoner 70 and older to break three hours. His latest time was five minutes faster.
I asked him if he had trained the same for this race as for his other sub-threes of recent years? "Basically yes," he replied by e-mail, "but runs were a little longer and a little faster."
More often than not he ran THREE hours at a time. "I averaged four of those a week for the 16 weeks prior to the marathon," he said, "and the odd week I ran seven days at three hours. Other days were for races, rest days before races and somewhat shorter training runs."
Think about what Ed just said. He ran the time-length of his marathon dozens of times between June and September. At, say, an 8-1/2-minute pace he covered about 21 miles a day -- or 140-plus in his biggest weeks.
This training came at an age when recovery between runs is supposed to be sluggish. He can carry this load because he trains almost two minutes per mile slower than he races.
Ed wrote, "The more training one does, the better -- if one can avoid injury, and I was fortunate in that regard. Simple LSD [long slow distance] works for me -- no fancy training routines."
Herb Phillips is younger than Ed by nine years, and faster. When I met Herb about a decade ago, he still ran marathons in the low to mid-2:30s. He was almost 55 then.
Now his main goal is to keep breaking three hours, which he did for the 50th time this spring. Before the Royal Victoria Marathon in October, I asked Herb what he hoped to run.
"Anything under three," he said. That Sunday he ran 2:47, finishing in the top dozen overall.
Later he told me about his training, which is much like Ed Whitlock's. Which is to say it's simple. Herb too runs long and slow, and races fast and often.
"My plan is to alternate days of 10 and 15 miles," he said. "That's the goal, but I rarely meet it."
He asked if I'd like to see what his training really had been this year. I did, and he mailed a day-by-day log.
Except when he races Herb doesn't concern himself with pace. Except for his longest runs he didn't report any training times in the log that he sent me.
In the three months before Royal Victoria he ran 25 miles six times (plus five more 21s). His pace was as relaxed as 8:35 per mile and only twice dipped under eight. This for a runner who averaged 6:17s at Royal Victoria.
"I think you'd be surprised at how slow I train," said Herb. "Eight-minute pace is fine with me, and 9:30 per mile is okay too." The slowness lets him go long, often, without hurting himself.
Where did that speed come from? His races -- four of them during September alone (before the early October marathon), none longer than 10K, none slower than six-minute pace.
Herb Phillips ended with a warning that Ed Whitlock probably would echo: "This is not a recommended plan. It works for me; it won't necessarily work for anyone else. It definitely won't work for an inexperienced or an elite runner."
Don't try to copy the two Canadians' programs minute for minute or mile by mile. Instead let them show you that running can be as simple as blending slow training with fast racing.