Training down the ages

We look at how training for running has evolved over time


The basic principles of training have been long established, although back in the 1800s it’s all about continuous running rather than interval training. Henry Fazakerley Wilkinson in the book Modern Athletics (1868) says the four primary points of training were ‘diet, sleep, clothing and exercise’, but specific training advice is sparse.

Early 1900s
Lauri Pihkala, coach to the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, pioneers interval training. It typically consists of several flat-out sprints over 150m, followed by a longer-distance effort of up to 3km.

Swedish greats Gunder Hagg and Arne Anderson employ ‘speed play’, which is ad-hoc interval training over various distances. Soon after, German coach Woldemar Gerschler becomes the first to use heart-rate training.

Emil Zatopek puts volume back on the agenda. He runs more than 140 miles per week, although with a massive amount of miles from intervals.

New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard promotes building an endurance base through volume, focusing on speed only in short spells known as ‘periodisation’.

Athletes like Seb Coe bring interval training to the fore again, with lower mileage and speedwork being key. Sports science is increasingly playing an important role too.

Kenyans and Ethiopians start to dominate distance running. One of the theories behind their success is good conditioning from a young age – such as walking to school every day.

An active daily lifestyle doesn’t catch on worldwide, but the Africans’ training approach does as the tide ebbs back slightly towards volume.

GPS devices, pilates and probiotic yoghurts all become commonplace as running hits an ever-growing
mass audience. High-intensity interval training also becomes recognised as a great option for general fitness.