Interview With Steve Magness
In the last couple of years blog by Steve Magness “Science of Running” was more than the source of casual reading ~ it was (and still is) source of tremendous knowledge and critical thinking skills, not only in running but for coaching and training in general. I have been quoting, referencing, linking and stealing (cough, cough) Steve’s material heavily in my writings and practical applications. I cannot recommend his blog highly enough for anyone interested in no B.S. approach to endurance training and understanding of energy systems and metabolism.
Steve was kind enough to do the interview for Complimentary Training blog and share his viewpoints and insights to the readers. Enough of my rant and enjoy Steve’s answers.
Mladen: Thanks for the opportunity to interview you Steve. I have been huge fan of you writings on endurance training and sport science in general. Can you expand how all of it started, what are you doing at the moment and what are your future plans?
Steve: Thanks a lot Mladen. I really appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed. I’m a big fan of your site so it’s always nice to contribute to sites where people are doing good work. I’ll give the quick answer. I’m a former prep phenom distance runner, who didn’t live up to his potential in college, who caught the bug of wanting to understand why not. And along the way decided that there had to be a better, smarter way to train then the options that were available at the time. All that being said, I started my Science of Running blog around the time I started getting interested in combining my own running with coaching and exercise science. It really took off once I went to Grad School at George Mason University. From there I did some work with Nike and then found my way to my current job as the Cross-Country/distance coach at my alma mater the University of Houston. We are currently building a great program and have 4 guys at or under 1:50.2 for 800m on the squad right now, plus some stud distance guys, so it’s been a quick turn around job in getting the program where I know we can.
In addition to my college coaching, I coach a few professionals to satisfy that itch. As far as what’s in store for the future, you never really know. I always have that itch of helping out the best of the best, so I’d like to continue to develop the professional side of things, but the sport of track and field at the professional side is pretty poor. I don’t think people realize how bad off it is in terms of funding and fans across the globe. It’s funny, when I was spending time with the Australian World Champs team this summer, some of them would remark on how well track was doing in the U.S., and how the U.S. had all these sponsored groups and funding to athletes and how it must be popular. And I was sitting here thinking, ‘ummm track is not doing so hot in the U.S.’ I think in the U.S. we look to Europe and think that track is doing great over there, but it really isn’t. So anyways, one of my longer-term projects is to try and look at innovative funding and marketing ways. To me, track funding/marketing is stuck in the 20th century.
Beyond that, I have some really exciting developments in regards to my work on the blog. Not quite ready to reveal it soon, but pay attention to the site over the next month and I’ll have some pretty cool developments and will hopefully present some good thought provoking ideas.
Mladen: Thanks for the introduction. Let’s start with the “nasty” questions. What are your thoughts on volume vs. intensity debates in endurance training? How is that related to the level of the athlete (beginner, intermediate, advanced, elite), context (time available, resources, facilities, support, recovery options) and objectives (fat loss, health, performance, competition)?
Steve: Personally, the whole volume versus intensity debate misses the boat. It’s your typical polarizing, one-dimensional, argument that really doesn’t accomplish anything. Of course, you need both, and the answer isn’t at either of the extremes. It’s practically an impossible question to answer. For instance, when people ask if I run a high or low volume program, I always answer with both. I have some runners doing 40mpw and some doing 90+. It depends. And that’s really the jist of training. It depends on the event you are training for, the individual you are training, and their goals. So if someone, like Crossfit, tells you that you need very little volume to run a good marathon, well they’re wrong. That’s an extreme view that goes against everything we know. But if you’re asking me if we you should do speed intervals 2x a week or 3x, well it depends. We’re arguing over where that middle ground is. And that middle ground shifts.
I know I’m talking in circles here, but to summarize it plainly. You need the right amount of volume and intensity to adapt. You want to press one of them, or any other variable, to continue adaptation in the desired way. That’s the long and short of it. Do what you need to adapt. Decide whether you need to endure a quality (and increase volume), or if you need to qualify something, by increasing the intensity.
Mladen: What are the ‘components of success’ (determinants of endurance performance) in endurance running and how should those be addressed in a training block (sequential, parallel). Can you explain more regarding the ‘funnel’ periodization?
Steve: I like to break it down simply. We can look at the race demands and add that to how our individual’s characteristics shift those demands, and come up with what is important to reach their goal. It’s almost like you create this model of what the race or event consists of. Simplifying it further, we need a base level of endurance and speed for each race. In a funnel periodization scheme, you’re essentially building the base of speed and endurance. And as you go along in your training plan, you try to convert that base of both qualities into something more specific. So we are working from the extremes, such as just easy running and pure sprinting, and bringing those towards each other as we get closer to our race. So that the most important work, the specific work is reaching it’s peak before we begin to taper. So it’s a process of building up qualities, the translating them. So as an example if we get really good at doing longer work, what does that do for a 5k runner directly? Not a lot. It acts as a supporting mechanism. So we take that longer steady work, and once we build that up, we might introduce more threshold paced work to translate that steady work into something more specific. Then we might do more 10k paced work and so on until we build up our specific 5k work. I guess if I could put it simply, it’s just general towards specific, progress the qualities we are trying to develop during that period, and never leave anything behind, meaning don’t just build up pure speed and then forget about it for 2 months because the emphasis shifted. Maintain it.
Mladen: This is bothering me for some time – how should endurance training be based: on physiology or performance? By physiology I refer to various thresholds and intensities associated with physiological profiles (LT, VO2max etc) and by performance I am referring to race or hard training performance like 5K pace, 10K pace, 1.5K pace, MAS. How are they related and what are the pros and cons of both approaches? Can they be complementary?
Steve: I prefer that they are based on the real world, with knowledge from the physiology. So you use the physiology to know what is going on in the body. And to come up with models of what you are trying to do. So, I might know that at around threshold we are at a steady state. So to improve my high end aerobic endurance, I might work just above or below that threshold intensity. Or I might come up with a model knowing that fatigue in the 1,500 occurs because of the brains reaction to the build up of certain by-products. So to combat this, I create a situation of ever increasing by-products, but design the workout in such a way so that the person emotionally handles it, so that next time he’s learned that he can withstand that much pain/build up.
But when you train, I almost see the paces as a bit mathematical. It sounds simplistic to say, but if I just did 5xmile at 5:10 with 3min rest. Then next time I need to adapt in that direction, I change something. It’s stimulus and adaptation. I might change the speed, the volume, the rest, the rep length, whatever. Something changes, and in what direction it changes depends on what way I’m trying to adapt.
It sounds simplistic, but it’s all applying a stimulus and adapting. What we don’t do is use certain physiological zones. We aren’t training to have better zones. We train to improve performance. What we get caught up in doing is saying I do X workout at VO2max speed. Why? If your VO2max speed is 2:15 per mile, will doing them in 2:14 versus 2:18 be different? According to the zone scheme, if this fell in the same VO2max zone, no. So we could have someone doing 6×800 and going 2:14 first week, 2:15 2nd, 2:17 the 3rd, etc. Is he adapting? Nope. What I’d rather see is that if he did 6×800 in 2:15, that we look at it in terms of challenging the body. We’re looking to “embarrass” the body so that it adapts slightly.
Mladen: Continuing on the previous question, there seems to be distinct adaptation variability among runners who performed same training program (e.g. runs at 70% VO2max) – there were responders and non-responders in performance and also responders and non-responders in various aerobic and metabolic parameters. Taking this into account how do we know what is a stimulus for a given individual and how do we go about improving aerobic performance? How do we know that, for example, training at LT will improve LT?
Steve: The truth is we don’t actually know. As coaches we make our best-informed “guesses” based on experience and science. I mean look at the research on altitude or any training parameter, and the variation from doing the EXACT same protocol or training system is all over the map. That’s why I think it’s so important to change how we frame training. It’s got to be individualized, and we have to frame it as trying to apply the correct stimulus to get that one person to adapt in the direction we want them too. If we frame it as stimulus and adaptation, then figuring it out becomes easier. We shouldn’t just say to improve LT we do threshold runs at X percentage of pace. Instead we look at the individual person and say we want to improve his high end aerobic abilities. How do we do that?
We reach into our tools of the trade and think of threshold or tempo runs first, but if we realize that this guy is a fast twitch monster, we know that he probably won’t be able to sustain the intensity needed to get the adaptation. So instead we do shorter intervals, not too fast but faster than a tempo run, with really short rest. We accomplish the same goal, but in a different manner. There’s no one simple way to attack the same adaptation. That’s what kills me. Be imaginative. Use your brain and figure out the myriad of different workouts done in slightly different ways that accomplish the same adaptation. Because the reality to me is that it isn’t a responder or non-responder thing, it’s about applying the correct stimulus or not. If I challenge someone to do 5xmile in 4:40, and he kills himself to do it and may barely survive using a race effort, then I shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t adapt after doing 5 weeks of this workout once a week. It’s not that he’s a non-responder to mile repeats. It’s that the way they were done wasn’t the right stimulus.
So the point is, in order to know how to improve aerobic performance, you use experience combined with some science. It’s not that hard to realize that if we want to improve our threshold, or our ability to be comfortable at half marathon pace, that we need to do longer work at similar paces. Any coach can figure that out. But whether we do 5miles at 5:30 pace, 2x4miles at 5:40, 6xmile at 5:20 with 1min rest, or any other combo depends on the coach figuring out what is the correct way to do it.
Mladen: What are your thoughts on HRV and other monitoring tools?
Steve: HRV has a lot of promise. I don’t think it will ever be the defining measure that people want it to be. But I don’t think that defining measure exists. I mean I’ve done work with ground contact off a drop jump to look at neural fatigue and it can be useful. Similarly, you can do simple tests like a repeated finger tapping test to look at neural fatigue. But the reality is that the best test is one that is useable day in day out. For the vast majority of those, it’s just learning to read our athletes and having them communicate with us how they feel.
I’ve gone through a lot of monitoring systems, and the one that worked best for me and made an actual impact was simply by using a simple 3 part color coding system on an athletes training log. If they looked good and reported they felt good, they’re block for the day was colored green. If it was okay/average, yellow. If it was bad or they felt bad, then red. The almost Christmas color scheme would stand out on my training logs and let me know visually and instantly how the athlete was progressing. It was instant, easy, feedback. So it made a difference because it translated from monitoring to practice. You’d be surprised, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see if an athlete is on or not by just watching them and talking to them before a workout.
So to me, the best monitoring/recovery tool is the one that is usable for you.
Mladen: What about altitude training and the novel heat training?
Steve: This might sound repetitious, but altitude and even heat training are simply a stressor. They are a different kind of stimulus. They are a stimulus in a completely different direction, but nonetheless a stimulus. And I think it’s best to look at each the same way. If you look at it in terms of being a stressor, then you can understand a bit better why some don’t adapt. A recent study showed that responders to altitude aren’t necessarily responders all of the time. That means sometimes they go to altitude and don’t get the benefits. If you look at it in terms of a stressor, then the answer becomes maybe it’s because they went to too high of an altitude, or trained to hard, didn’t recover enough this time, wasn’t nutritionally prepared, and so on.
Living and coaching in Houston, we always get a lot of crap about it being hot and humid, which it is during the summer (but the winter it’s the best place to train!). Whenever I do coaching clinics, people always ask if it’s possible to train world-class distance runners in Houston. Of course it is. Jackie Areson ran a 5k PR of 15:12 doing all of her training in Houston. More recently, Becky Wade, coached by Jim Bevan, ran a 2:30 marathon doing all of her training in Houston. Frank Shorter used to a bulk of his training in Florida. I’m always amazed people think like that, but the reality is that heat/humidity is a great training tool just like altitude. So you can’t do longer work as fast in 90deg weather, well you can’t run as fast at 8’000 feet either. It’s a trade off. At 8k feet, you are taking in less oxygen. But in 90+ your body is shifting more of the blood flow from your muscles to cooling. So you get a huge bump in plasma volume if you do it right.
Both are stressors. Altitude is the sexy training thing to do. Heat works as well, but it hurts a heck of a lot more, and doesn’t have the huge following, so people don’t flock to the south.
Mladen: It seems that runners are catching on strength training. Do you think high-rep approach or low-rep approach should be preferred? How do you integrate the two in the training cycle?
Steve: These things work in cycles. Go back 40-50 years and the strength training that Percy Cerutty emphasized heavily in his program wouldn’t be too bad today. He got it mostly right. For us, strength training is another piece of the puzzle. You have to realize that it’s not the most important factor, running is, but it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t play a vital role. The first step is movement with any program. The program should be designed to develop better movement patterns and act as an almost prehab program. Once good movement is established then you start doing strength training for performance.
As far as the program specifics, I think you look at what the goals of the strength program are. As I said, first off is movement and injury prevention, but when we move towards training for performance that shifts. In distance running we’re looking for a few basic things, first is reactivity off the ground and creating a better spring like system. So we have to get the lower body ready for eccentric loads and rapid loading and unloading of force through simple plyos. The other big thing we’re looking for is increasing power without adding mass. So if we can learn to recruit more muscle fibers and translate that into more force production potential, then we become more efficient every stride and we have a larger muscle fiber pool to draw upon. So to me, we have a mixture of movement based systems with some more explosive and plyometric work once they are ready. In the end though, I always ask what’s the most specific strength work we can do for runner? And the answer is simple, it’s sprinting. So even if you don’t lift, go sprint as a distance runner. You get a high plyometric effect with a huge muscle fiber recruitment and power output. Can’t do much better.
Of course this all depends on the goals and type of the runner.
Mladen: What books and web sources do you suggest as a must read?
Steve: I’ll go outside the box and suggest some that have nothing to do with training first. First, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a must read. It teaches you how we process information, what our natural bias’ are, and so much more. I’m a big reader in neuroscience and psychology because I think coaching 101 is understanding the person so a lot of my recent readings fall into that category. For injury prevention for runners, the best book is Jay Dicharry’s Anatomy for Runners. It’s simple, yet useful. As far as training books go, I’m pretty hard on training books. In the running world, they all seem to say pretty much the same thing. For those reasons, I’m a big fan of Renato Canova’s Scientific Approach to the Marathon, and Jan Olbrecht’s Science of Winning. Both make you look at training in a slightly different way.
As far as websites go, there are so many. Alex Hutchinson has a fantastic blog at runner’s world that I highly recommend. But really, in the date of information overload, it’s about organizing the good material. So I recommend setting up an RSS feed that coalesces relevant journal articles. And then follow impactful people in your field on twitter. If something new or thought provoking comes out, you’ll see it first on social media. It’s a great way to stay up to date easily on the latest research and training trends.
Mladen: Thank you very much for taking your time to do this interview. I wish you all the luck in the future endeavors.
Steve: No problem Mladen. Thanks so much for the opportunity