Saturday, December 1, 2007

Olympic Marathon – Anatomy of a Medal

Olympic Marathon – Anatomy of a Medal
By Joe I. Vigil, Ph.D.


One of the most compelling success stories of the Athens Olympics was the performance of the U.S. Team in the Marathon. These outstanding performances were the result of not only exceptional talent and discipline on behalf of the athletes, but impeccable planning and application of 21st century sports science.

This article deals not only with the application of science and training methodology, but also the athlete/coach interrelationship, vital for the success in any athletic endeavor. Although Team Running USA had two medalists in the Marathon – Deena Kastor (Bronze) and Meb Keflezighi (Silver), this article will deal with the specifics of the training progression of Deena Kastor.

This success was not an overnight achievement. It started 20 years ago when Deena’s involvement in age group athletics first started. From the very beginning, she showed signs of things to come. After winning several California state high school championships, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas. Her collegiate career was good but not exceptional. She earned several “All American” recognitions in both Cross Country and Track & Field, but she never won a national championship. The outstanding talent she displayed as a high school runner was never realized in college.

I first met Deena when she competed for the U.S. Jr. Cross Country Team in the World Championships in Aix Le Baines, France. In our first meeting, we developed an instant mutual respect. I learned that at the completion of her University of Arkansas studies, Deena found herself with a burning desire to continue her training. Like most, she dreamed of one day running in the Olympics and, at the urging of her Arkansas Assistant Coach, Mylan Donley, she contacted me. At first I was reluctant to work with her, but her persistence, hunger for high goals, and willingness to relocate to Alamosa, Colorado (7543¢ altitude) persuaded me to take her on. Hence, a team was formed.

Qualities Necessary for Success
I believe it was the best professional move either one of us has ever made. Her accomplishments the last eight-ten years (1996-2005) have been spectacular. The qualities necessary for this level of success and the progression of her physiologic profile came at a great price.

As with all members of Team Running USA, we required that all athletes strive to:
Improve Personal Relationships
Improve Achievement Motivation
Improve the Quality of Their Mini and Macro Environments
Improve Their Athletic Maturity
Show Integrity to Their Value System
Display a Commitment to Their Mission
Practice Abundance by Giving Back to Their Sport and Team

If I were to operationally define the qualities an athlete must possess to be successful, Deena would epitomize those qualities. She is a great example of mind/body autonomy working in harmony to reach set goals. She truly believes and adheres to the principle of unending improvement and the setting and achieving of even higher goals.

Increases in Volume
Knowing that I had an athlete willing to go the extra mile, we started working on the physiologic variable that would allow her to compete at the international level. Previously, she was only running 40-50 miles a week, which certainly was not enough volume to compete at her desired level. We increased that volume to 70 miles per week (MPW) for the next 15 months. This allowed for gradual adaptation without any resulting injuries or setbacks. At this point, she had a VO2 MAX of 70.2 mls. (VO2 MAX is the maximum amount of oxygen in milliliters your body can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight, i.e. the higher the better). We next increased her volume to 90 miles a week over the next 18 months. Her VO2 MAX jumped to 77.5 mls. During this time period, she was making her mark nationally and had won a national championship in Cross Country. Again, we increased her volume to 100-110 miles per week and, not surprisingly, her VO2 MAX was at 81.3 mls. This level of fitness is attained by very few athletes and is one of the highest ever recorded in an American athlete.

Presently, we maintain an average of 100 mpw ±10 and adjust that volume in accordance with the competitions she will enter. The volume can be as low as 70 mpw for track races to 140 mpw for a marathon. Because of our precise planning, she handles this volume manipulation very well.

We both knew VO2 MAX was important, but even more so was the increase of anaerobic threshold (AT - the point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in your muscles). Since this became an important training objective, we incorporated the AT runs, sometimes referred to as tempo runs. We started with four miles and over a period of time, increased to six, eight, and ten miles. If we were preparing for a marathon, she would run 12-13 mile AT runs. We thoroughly believed that the longer the run, the greater the stress, the greater the consequent adaptation.

A noticeable observation was made over the five-six year period of increased volume; her AT velocity increased profoundly. She went from an initial 5:24 per mile pace to 5:11 to 5:01. I would like to state that volume runs, when combined with a regular diet of AT runs, are the most important workouts for the development of the endurance component. This brought about a profound increase in her running economy.

Equipped with these two remarkable qualities (increased VO2 uptake and increased anaerobic threshold), any athlete can then embark on running and competing at the international level. We must keep in mind that these increases were brought about through gradual adaptation to stress. As we worked together on a day-to-day basis, Deena learned to listen to her body and knew exactly what her perceived exertion was at a given pace.

Training Priorities
After each human performance test, we had accurate information on her velocity at VO2 MAX (vVO2), anaerobic threshold velocity (ATV), lactate max, lactate at threshold, max heart rate (HR Max) and heart rate at threshold velocity. Armed with this information, we got her vVO2 (which was 4:27 for the mile). This figure would help us in determining her goals for the 3000, 5000, 10000 and the Marathon. We also determined that her fractionalization (VO2 at threshold velocity divided by VO2 MAX) was a percent we would like to improve. We followed the protocol below in determining goals:
3000 Meters 7-12 Minute Effort 100% vVO2
5000 Meters 13-17 Minute Effort 95% vVO2
10000 Meters 26-38 Minute Effort 90% vVO2
Marathon 2:06-2:30 80-85% vVO2

This information was deemed extremely accurate, as Deena was only off two seconds in her AR in the 10000 and Meb1.93 seconds in his 10000 AR. After determining their fractionalization (Deena 83% and Meb 81%), we established their goals for the Marathon. Again, Meb missed it by only three seconds and Deena by only 1 minute 16 seconds. Our objective for the future will be to increase fractionalization by utilizing volume and AT runs at the appropriate distance and velocity.

Altitude Training
The record has shown that since 1968, 95% of all Olympic and World Championship medals from the 800 through the Marathon were won by athletes who lived or trained at altitude. It can therefore be concluded that altitude training is necessary for success in endurance events. I have lived all my life at altitude in Alamosa, Colorado (7543¢) and it was easy for me to become a true believer in altitude training. The observations I have made and my background in physiology has shown me that there is a distinct advantage to altitude training.

Over the past 30 years, I have hosted individuals and entire federations for their altitude training. The successes include World records, Olympic medals and personal bests. Most of the distance running world has bought this philosophy. It has, however, been difficult to convince most American coaches and athletes, though there are a few that believe.
When Team Running USA was organized in 2000, Bob Larsen and I were hired to run the program. We both believed in altitude training and incorporated three-four altitude training blocks of one month or longer in our annual training plan. We selected Mammoth Lakes, California (8000-10,000¢) as our official high altitude training camp. We also tried to hold our camps prior to major events so they could go down to sea level with the greatest amount of oxygen carrying capacity possible.

Deena had spent four years (1996-2000) in Alamosa when we made our move to Mammoth Lakes, CA. The next four years (2001-2005) gave her a greater adaptation to altitude and she was capable of training at even high altitudes (9000¢), which she did frequently. On occasion, we would go to sea level to train at ARCO OTC in San Diego. This was also the site for all of our testing protocols. We were, however, altitude-based the majority of the time.
By living and training at altitude, athletes expect to get an increase in their red blood cell mass and hemoglobin, which enhance the athletes’ oxygen carrying capacity. These factors allow the athlete to perform and train more effectively upon return to lower elevations.

Olympic Event Decision
Upon consideration of all the negatives and positives of the geophysical conditions we would encounter in Athens, 11 months prior to the games, Deena decided on the Marathon. I believe she could have done as well had she selected the 10000 meters, but her choice proved to be a wise. We began by running Olympic Trials for protection against injury. This way she would be assured of making the Olympic Team. She decided to dedicate 11 months to the best and most difficult training she ever had, as well as competing a minimal number of times. The focus for the year was to medal in the Marathon. She, along with her three training partners, Colin Steele, Joe Eckerly and Derek Tate, put together 14 weeks (See Table 1) of excellent training that produced a fitness level she had not previously experienced.

Table 1.This table illustrates progression in weekly volume. It can be utilized by more experienced marathoners who can handle the increased volume.

Critical Zone Training
Critical Zone Training (CZT) is a phrase coined to identify training requirements for success at the Olympic Games, World Championships or specific high quality events. The training demands are specific to the event and incorporate the times athletes must achieve in practice to be able to compete at the above levels.

The average times in the Marathon for the previous four Olympic Games and five World Championships were 2:26:45 for First, 2:27:34 for Second and 2:28:16 for Third. Our goal was to medal, so we had to train to achieve these times under all conditions. The topography of the Marathon course in Athens is shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Profile of Athens Olympic Marathon Course

One can observe the torturous eight-mile incline from 18000 meters to 31000 meters. I found a very similar course close to Mammoth Lakes, where nearly all aspects were identical. The one difference was that it was at 7000-8000¢ altitude. We ran it seven times prior to Athens at a pace that was altitude-adjusted. The course in Athens presented no psychological barrier for Deena.

To meet the extreme demands of heat and humidity, we did three things:
We wore extra clothing in practice.
We practiced on fluid intake on our long runs every 15 minutes for 11 months.
We went to Crete two weeks prior to the Games to acclimate to the heat and humidity.

While training in Crete, we encountered extremely hot weather, always around 98°-104°F. We adjusted our workouts by running hard early in the day and easier in the late afternoons. As the days passed by, we progressively moved the intense workouts toward the time that the Marathon was going to be contested. Crete is in the same time zone as Athens, so our circadian rhythms had 14-17 days to adapt to the time zone of the competition. Constant reinforcement in hydration, rest and diet was carried through to the end.

As expected, the temperature at race time was 102° (120° asphalt) and 54% humidity at 6pm. As with other marathons, Deena knew she was going to have to exercise complete emotional control throughout the race. This is a quality she displayed beautifully, as the race results indicated.

Deena’s support team included her husband, Andrew (Physical Therapist) and three training partners. In Figure 1, the last 14 weeks shows her volume and taper prior to the race. The daily sessions of ancillary work (core, plyometrics, strength, flexibility) and agility drills over a number of years made her an exceptionally well-prepared athlete. Our specific training program consisted of the following training intensities:

Training Intensities
Basic Speed/Power: From 60 to 100 up to 400M speed endurance. Below 200M, all out at 300-400M race pace early. Then pick up pace with each repetition. This workout aids in the development of running form, running mechanics and event-specific running economy.
Lactate Threshold: Training runs of 20-60 minutes at 85-87% of HR or 85-87% of vVO2 aids in developing a high level of aerobic threshold.
High-End Aerobic Endurance: Endurance training at 70-80% of maximum HR or 75-80% of vVO2. The duration of runs should be 30 minutes to three hours. The runs should be on soft surfaces and hills. Negative split effort is most desirable.
MVO2: Development of maximum volume of oxygen at 90-95% HR or 90% of vVO2. Three minutes to eight-ten minute duration or repetitions of 800, 1K, 2K and 3K. We use two minute intervals between repetitions at sea level and three minutes at altitude. These runs develop peripheral training adaptations, increase fat metabolism, increase concentration of aerobic enzymes, mitochondria and capillarization.
Recovery: Low intensity runs 25-30 BPM below lactate threshold HR. The runs are from 45 minutes 1 hour 20 minutes and can be run both in the AM and PM. It promotes recovery following high intensity workouts. This run energizes the athlete for the next hard workout.

It is extremely important that the athlete and coach orchestrate the Five Training Intensities so they have proper recovery and maintain enthusiasm for the challenges to come. Table 2 exhibits the plan we employed:

I was not able to go to the starting line because of the traffic and crowd controls. In my last conversation with Deena before race time, she confided in me and said, “I have done every workout you have prescribed over the last seven months. I feel fitter than I have ever felt and I am confident that I will medal today.”

Along with her many supporters, I went to the historic Panathinaiko Stadium, home of many famous marathons, to watch the race unfold. As I sat and watched, I recalled all her training sessions throughout the previous 11 months as well as her volume (40,000 miles of training) the previous eight years. I, too, was confident she would medal. We watched on the giant TV screen as she moved progressively from 28th position to 3rd, running courageously, methodically, with confidence and emotional control.

To work with an athlete of the caliber of Deena Kastor comes once in a lifetime, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Her Bronze medal was certainly a highlight of the Games for the American Team and legions of American distance runners back home. The biggest impact into the future will be the courage, the work ethic, her passion for the sport and the leadership she displayed on her memorable journey.

This showed that Americans, with proper training, are as good as any runners in the world. Young American runners in their developmental stages will try to emulate her and now know that their dreams and visions are realistic and possible, for they too can medal in the Olympic Games. Thank you, Deena.

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