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Posted: February 3, 2006

Athletics: Training All Systems of Your Body

By Alberto Salazar

A few months ago I was asked by the editors of Peak Running Performance if I would be interested in writing an article or two discussing my training programs and philosophies. My response was that while I could easily accomplish this, one or two articles would never allow me the space and time to clearly explain myself and the training methods that I would address. My proposal was to instead begin with an article that outlined the main components of my training programs, and then follow this introduction with articles to further clarify each component and the workouts necessary for success in running.

I was fortunate to be influenced by some of the great minds in the history of distance running from a very early age. In 1972, when I entered my freshman year in high school, I began to hear about the University of Oregon – Bill Dellinger and Steve Prefontaine, from my older brother Ricardo, who was a freshman on the Naval Academy’s cross country and track teams. His coach, Al Cantello, was a former world record holder in the javelin and had been an Olympic teammate of University of Oregon coach Bill Dellinger. Al Cantello used to get distance training ideas from Bill Dellinger, and those were passed on to me through my brother during his time at the Naval Academy.

The next influence on my high school running career was Don Benedetti, the Wayland High School coach, who was successful while not overtraining his athletes. Equally important, he allowed me to train with Bill Squires, coach of the Greater Boston Track Club, starting my junior year. At the time, the Greater Boston Track Club was the preeminent distance club in the country. It included Bill Rodgers, who was soon to become the world’s dominant marathoner of the time. After graduating from high school, I was coached directly by Bill Dellinger during my tenure at the University of Oregon. My training programs and philosophies are a culmination of what I learned from all of these great coaches, as well as the knowledge I have gained in my capacity as a Nike employee. Since 1992, I have had direct access to all of the top Nike distance runners in the world and their coaches. Through them, I have continued to learn and modify workouts and overall training regimens for my athletes.

People often ask me what the biggest change is in training from my era in the 1970s and 80s, to the training that takes place in the 21st Century. My answer is always that the primary reason why the athletes are running so much faster as a whole is not a result of drugs, but rather because of the advances in training knowledge. The training programs for the most elite distance runners in the world is not just one of higher volumes, but programs of much greater complexity, breadth, and scope. In the old days, running high miles, fast intervals, and small amounts of weight work were considered to be the only necessary components of a successful distance training program. We now know that there are dozens of different elements, exercises, and activities that one must incorporate if optimal performance is to be achieved. Training for two to three hours a day was once considered to be a maximum amount of time that could be devoted to one’s career. However, it is now known that an athlete can clearly spend five or more hours per day doing all of the possible and necessary activities to maximize their performance. The object of this first article will be to briefly outline the different systems of the body, and the different training programs and activities necessary to fully develop the body as a whole. Obviously, the majority of the people reading this article probably will not have the time to fully engage in the training of all the systems in the body and complete all of the necessary workouts that I am outlining. However, all runners can decide which of these components they have the time, energy, and inclination to develop. It may be that within the time available for training, the reader may be able to incorporate another 4-5 exercises or programs that they can use on alternate days to get better results.

Looking at the body as a whole
Twenty years ago, when I was competing, the primary emphasis was on the cardiovascular system. The main concerns were to strengthen our hearts, increase blood pathways, and make our bodies more efficient at transporting oxygen to our muscles through training. Success in distance running was a function of a continuously improving cardiovascular system. Doing sufficient amounts of aerobic work meant high mileage run at a slow pace. The anaerobic work consisted primarily of long or short intervals at race pace or faster. Even tempo runs played a much smaller role than they presently do. The concern was with simulating the exact cardiovascular requirements of races through one’s training. The heart rate, lactic acid levels, and oxygen consumption had to be driven up to match the levels that they would reach during a race. The key was to find the right amount of short and moderate length intervals to allow one to run long intervals, ranging from 1200 meters to 1600 meters at a pace just faster than race pace for 5000 and 10000 meters. Once that was accomplished, it was believed that by doing more intervals at that pace, or more mileage, one would encounter great improvements. Now we know that there are many systems within the body that need particular workouts to optimize their individual performances and your overall running performance. Similar to an Indy racecar, there are several systems in the body that need to be evaluated, monitored, and trained in order to have optimum performance on race day. An Indy racecar’s mechanics might be concentrating on the fuel system, the engine’s horsepower, aerodynamics, chassis, suspension, tire pressures, heat regulation, hydrolics, and a myriad of other systems in the racecar. Like the systems of a racecar, all systems of the body must be honed to their optimum level and compatibility. Having too much power without adequate flexibility can lead to injuries.

1. Musculoskeletal System: Often I have heard and used the analogy that the cardiovascular system can be likened to the engine of a racecar, while the musculoskeletal system is similar to the chassis, suspension, and wheels of the car. As I detailed earlier, we at one time were mainly concerned with the “engine” and paid little attention to the car “body.” Rather than constantly trying to improve the cardiovascular system to handle higher workloads, why not also try to improve the musculoskeletal system so that a given workload, such as race pace intervals, will cost less energy because the musculoskeletal system is strong? Using the car analogy as an example, this can be done by improving the suspension, drive-train, and wheels, as well as ensuring that they are properly maintained and aligned so that the car will be more efficient at a given speed. Specific types of musculoskeletal training can include weight training, flexibility enhancement, plyometrics, core strengthening exercises, agility drills, and power drills. Distance runners, contrary to athletes in other sports, often train only by running straight ahead. This can lead to great increases in strength in the primary movers for straight ahead motion, but can subsequently cause an imbalance due to the weakness of muscles used in lateral movement. The result is often tightness and injury. It is necessary to keep the entire body flexible, supple, muscularly balanced, coordinated, and athletic. Throw a basketball to many distance runners and they will embarrass themselves on attempting any sudden movements or change of direction. Becoming a better all-around athlete by concentrating on the above indicators of musculoskeletal health will make a runner much more efficient, quick, and powerful.

2. Cardiovascular System: The cardiovascular system is comprised of the heart, lungs, and blood pathways. The cardiovascular system also is involved in the subsequent ability of the body to transport and utilize oxygen, as well as process and remove lactic acid. Specific measurements of the system are maximum heart rate, sub maximum heart rates, max VO2, sub max VO2, maximum lactate levels, and sub max lactate levels. Max VO2 was felt to be a culmination of years of training, in terms of the amount of miles one has run, and wasn’t considered to be exceptionally changeable in the short term. Sub max VO2, however, was felt to be very quickly effected by the type of interval training within a season, because that training could rapidly affect one’s efficiency at different paces. Lactic acid levels were similarly affected in the short term through specific training methods. If one was more efficient, they would develop less lactic acid at a given pace.

3. Anaerobic System: The anaerobic system is an energy system which is primarily focused on the use of glycogen to fuel exercise. There are limited glycogen reserves in the body, so it was felt that by training the anaerobic system as frequently as possible, one would enhance their ability to use less glycogen while running. More was considered to be better, as long as injury was avoided. Recalling the car analogy, the anaerobic system can be compared to the use of high octane gas, or nitrate laden fuel by a racecar. There is a limited supply, not a full tank.

4. Aerobic System: The aerobic system is the energy system that focuses on the use of oxygen and fatty acids, which are both plentiful in supply. The idea was that through the use of long, slow mileage, one would enable the aerobic system to function for a long period of time, delaying the use of the limited anaerobic system. While this technically was correct, we did not realize that more mileage at a slower pace did not effectively enhance the aerobic system. Using the car analogy once again, the aerobic system can be likened to diesel fuel: it is very efficient but does not facilitate the faster speeds that are needed for optimum performance.

5. Lactic System: The byproduct of anaerobic metabolism is the production of lactic acid. Lactic acid is very much vilified as being the cause of race “slow downs” and feelings of pain, discomfort, and soreness. Whether it really causes those symptoms is still widely debated among knowledgeable people involved in the sport. Instead, lactic acid should be looked at as a necessary byproduct of intense training and race performance which the body reprocesses back into energy by means of the Krebs cycle. Therefore, rather than viewing lactic acid as an enemy, one should look at it as an ally if the body is trained properly to utilize it. If the body is not trained properly, lactic acid levels will rise drastically during training, revealing that the short supplies of glycogen are quickly used up. Lactic acid does not necessarily cause any muscular damage or hurt performance; it is simply the body’s reaction to losing all of its glycogen stores. Back to the car, lactic acid would be the equivalent of excessive smoke leaving the exhaust of a car, indicating that fuel was being consumed too rapidly or inefficiently.

6. Psychological System: One of the most neglected systems of the body is the psychological, mental, and emotional systems of the body. Back in the 70s and 80s, it was felt that one’s mental toughness, resilience, and ability to focus were God given and could not be enhanced. This, however, has been proven otherwise by athletes and coaches at the highest levels of all sports. Psychological training can always enhance performance and make even the most naturally tough performers even better. We felt that the only people who completed psychological training were those that did not have natural mental gifts, and were “head-cases.” Now, common sense tells us that even the naturally toughest competitors can become more relaxed and more focused through the use of mental and psychological training.

7. Nutrition: One of the greatest advances over the last 20 years has occurred in the application of a healthy diet. In the old days, us distance runners felt that we could eat anything we wanted because we would always burn it off during training. We did not understand that just because we weren’t gaining weight, regardless of what we ate, that eating better would allow us to train harder, recover faster, and ultimately perform at a higher level. The main focus on nutrition had to do with adequate carbohydrate intake, especially prior to competition. Protein was considered important, as long as one took in the amount normally advised for the normal population. We now know that even distance runners, not just sprinters, need a higher protein intake than the average person. This is necessary to help the muscles recover from and rebuild after strenuous exercise. For power athletes, the rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. For distance runners, however, .75 grams of protein per pound per day is recommended. In today’s world of fast food and junk food, it is not uncommon for a distance runner to fall quite short of the recommended daily amount of protein. For a 160 pound distance runner, an intake of 120 grams is necessary (this is about the equivalent of 3 full size chicken breasts). In sports drinks, the importance of having a glucose/glycogen drink was only starting to be realized in the 1980s. In all of my New York and Boston races, I drank whatever was handed to us by the race management or even more unbelievably, by people in the street! It is now accepted that at the elite level, a proper sports drink of about 6% glucose with a smaller amount of protein included can give a runner approximately a 2 minute boost at the marathon distance. Equally important is the post-workout drink. Again, a 6% glucose solution with protein and other essential amino acids and electrolytes can hasten recovery significantly if taken within a half hour of a completed workout. This has been proven by numerous studies and even more significantly, through the results that most top athletes get with this protocol. It has been said that you are only as good as the food you put into your body. Using our car analogy, fueling yourself properly can be likened to using the correct grade of gasoline in your car. Your car may run on several different types of gas, but it will only run optimally on one specific grade.

8. Hormonal System: There are numerous hormones within the body. The stress hormones, such as cortisol, are most affected by exercise. However, all these hormones are so interrelated that fluctuations in one can cause many changes down the line. It has been learned that the actual physiological reason for “burnout” is due to the adrenal glands losing their ability to react to stress any longer. After a long season of training and racing, the adrenal glands have reacted so often to the fight or flight syndrome that they become fatigued and are no longer able to provide “the lift” necessary for competition. After an adequate rest, the adrenal glands recover and are once again able to produce the adrenal hormones necessary for top level training and competition. It is therefore necessary to give your body the downtime it needs at least twice per year to allow the hormonal system to get back to normal. Even though one may feel healthy, uninjured, and ready to train hard, it is necessary to have at least a month per year of very little or no exercise where the heart rate is low and the production of adrenal hormones is limited. In addition, although adrenal hormones allow one to train and compete at a higher level, cortisol in particular is catabolic. If it is at a raised level too often, the destruction of muscle tissue is accelerated.

9. Blood Chemistry: It is generally accepted that even the average person should have a general blood chemistry workup done every year as part of a physical checkup. So a distance runner pushing to the limit should have blood work done 2-3 times per year. Often, problems can be directly related to deficiencies only identified through a blood test. This can range from hormonal imbalances to ferratin deficiencies. When a problem occurs in a runner’s health, one can compare the current blood tests to previous tests to identify differences. If one only gets the blood work done while sick or injured, it is hard to determine what the normal levels are when healthy. I have been shocked to learn that in the last year, after talking with 2004 US Olympic team members, that they had not had a single blood test in over a year. Even among our best runners in this country, the importance of monitoring an athlete’s blood chemistry is still not understood by all.

Training Each System
If you’re going to be serious about distance training and racing, it is important to realize that there are several systems in the body which are important in influencing results. You have a limited amount of time, energy, and interest that you can invest in your running. By knowing all of the above, it will allow you to pick which systems you are willing to try to optimize. The more of the systems that can be addressed and controlled, the better your results will be.

All of the preceding information can give you an idea of how beautifully complex the human body is and subsequently how extensive, comprehensive, and varied the training can be in the quest to maximize performance. My future articles will cover these different systems of the body more extensively and in depth to further reveal the keys to a successful training program. Until then, good luck and we’ll see you on the roads.

After leading Oregon University to the 1977 NCAA Cross Country Title, Alberto went on to become an American Running Legend. A member of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, Alberto competed in the 1980 & 1984 Olympics, Won the 1982 Boston Marathon, Won 3 New York City Marathons, and went on to set 1 world and 6 American records.


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