Interview with Steve Magness
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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 6x800 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 6x800 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
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
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
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
Steve: No problem Mladen. Thanks so much
for the opportunity
Labels: energy system development, general vs. specific, HRV, interview, monitoring, periodization, Physiology, runnings