Reading Noakes, Part Two: The Daniels Program

You can read the second book of Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running without reading the difficult part one section on the physiological science of running.  The second part of his book is “practical training advice and is particularly written for those who have just started running.”  This includes, therefore, basic information on how to choose the right running shoe, as well as the advice to record your training in a log book.  For a coach reading the book, this is not advice that I need.  But as he outlines a fourteen step plan on how to start running—some steps not necessary for a more experienced runner–and provides fifteen “laws” of training, Noakes emphasizes one key point:  Avoid overtraining.

In a long chapter of more anecdotal as opposed to scientific research, he presents the stories of many of the greatest runners in modern history, beginning with Deerfoot, the American Indian who travelled to Great Britain during 1860s and became an international running sensation.  Deerfoot set a record for the one hour run of 11 miles and 970 yards which stood for 90 years.  Asked how he trained, Deerfoot said, “I have never trained” (Noakes 363).  This is not the advice that Noakes himself gives, but I think it is a hint for his overall approach. Note below Law 6:  “Achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training.”

Noakes presents stories of the early heroes of distance running like the “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi, and then offers the training secrets of some of the modern greats like Herb Elliott, the Australian world record holder for the mile and Olympic gold medalist at 1500-meters who never lost a race at those distances, and American Frank Shorter.  Shorter’s  Olympic marathon victory in 1972 set off the running boom in the United States, and he is notable especially because he was really a quite unremarkable runner until after he had finished college at Yale and because his VO2 max was a quite unremarkable 71.3 ml O2 per kg per minute.   Noakes presents information about the development of the African runners in the 1960s, profiling Kenyan Olympic gold medalist Kip Keino, in particular, but also considering the social and physiological factors to explain the emergence of African runners as the world’s best over the last 50 years.  He profiles Norwegian Grete Waitz, arguably the greatest woman runner of her generation in the 1980s.  Finally he profiles ultra endurance athletes like Ironman Mark Allen.

Noakes’s mantra throughout:  avoid overtraining.  And if you didn’t get the message, he has a chapter dedicated, as its title insists, to “Avoiding Overtraining.”

Interestingly, he also has a chapter on “Training the mind,” which begins with a discussion of Roger Bannister’s physiological research in which he and his friends would run to the breaking point on a treadmill to determine whether oxygen or a mixture of air and oxygen would produce a better running performance.  It might be interesting to speculate that Bannister’s personal research into exercise physiology gave him some advantage in his quest to run the four minute mile, Noakes suggests.  But this is an incorrect assumption:  “I think success came first to him because he, better than anyone, perceived that the battle for the 4-minute mile was fought in the mind, not in the body.”  Bannister, Noakes hints, was exploring the workings of the central governor.

Most importantly, as well, Bannister had great success with comparatively little training, literally the training he could fit into his daily lunch break as he pursued his medical studies.  But it was carefully planned and intelligently conceived training, and much of the credit for that planning goes to Bannister’s coach, Franz Stampfl.  Noakes nods to Stampfl as one of the pioneers for the ideas behind base training and peaking.

Among the 15 laws of training that Noakes lays out, there are none that are a big surprise.  In my earlier post on coaching I suggested that I was lucky to have been coached in fundamentally sound programs by good coaches.  The 15 laws of training are probably as good a list as any in terms of defining those general fundamentals that all good coaches would probably agree upon, to greater or lesser degree:

Law 1:  Train frequently, all year-round

Law 2:  Start gradually and train gently

Law 3:  Train first for distance, only later for speed

Law 4:  Don’t set your daily training schedule in stone

Law 5:  Alternate hard and easy training

Law 6:  Achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training

Law 7:  Don’t race when in training or run at race pace for distances above 16 kilometers

Law 8:  Specialize

Law 9:  Incorporate base training and sharpening

Law 10:  Prevent overtraining

Law 11:  Train with a coach

Law 12:  Train the mind

Law 13:  Rest before a big race

Law 14:  Keep a detailed logbook

Law 15:  Understand the holism of training

But even if all good coaches basically follow these rules, we also do some things differently.  The details are important, even if the big schemes are similar.  In his discussion of Law 9, Noakes edges into territory where expertise begins to take over—and where the differences between coaches perhaps emerge most definitively.  He begins with a discussion of Arthur Lydiard’s approach and his work with New Zealand’s Peter Snell.  Beaten in races a month before the 1964 Olympics, Snell was unbeatable in both the 800 and the  1500 at the Olympics.  Following Lydiard’s system of base and then peak training, Snell was the dominant middle distance runner of the early 1960s and the Olympics of 1960 and 1964, setting world records at 800 meters and the mile.  Noakes notes other runners who seemed to be always at their best at these kind of big moment races—notably Kip Keino, a gold medalist at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and Finland’s Lasse Viren, winner at 5000 and 10,000 meters in both 1972 and 1976 Olympics.    Bringing an athlete to that peak performance is where coaches, it could be argued, should make their money.

Noakes presents details for two such training programs—those of former Nike Athletics West coach Jack Daniels and then the program of former United States Olympic marathoner Peter Pfitzinger.  Both programs have book length treatments by their designers, with Pfitzinger sharing the author credit with Running Times editor and writer Scott Douglas.  As it happens, Pfitzinger and Douglas are old acquaintances of mine, and perhaps I can even call them one-time running buddies.  Both programs are grounded in what Noakes describes as an old school approach in terms of exercise physiology.  But Noakes recommends them not in terms of the principals upon which they are founded, but because of their evident success in practice.  Future scientific study, Noakes suggests, will explain why these programs get results—since according to Noakes the VO2 max and anaerobic threshold explanations for running performance have flaws.

Lore of Running in fact takes up these programs twice—first in the Law 9 discussion, and then again in what might be called book three, in which he presents specific training programs for specific distances.    Both programs focus on training intensities, mandating specific pacing for specific training activities at different periods of training.  Coaches and athletes determine these intensities based upon physiological parameters–percentages of VO2 max or maximum heart rates.  Both programs target optimal performance in races from months away, and then build carefully toward that peak performance race.  Both programs are moderate in terms of their mileage expectations—in the range of 100 kilometers per week, or 60 to 70 miles maximum.

The Daniels program spells out a 24-week buildup, represented in a chart reproduced in Lore of Running from Daniels’s own book.   There are four phases in Daniels’s program.

For three weeks, in phase 1 of the Daniels program, the athlete does steady, easy running, and then for three more weeks, more of the same with the addition of some short stride sprints on a few days.  The second part of phase 1 also introduces an element of the future weeks—a longer run of up to 25 percent of the weekly mileage at the start of the training week.

In phase 2, weeks seven to twelve, some quality running is introduced.   One workout each week, on day four, is either repeat 400s at race pace, or repeat miles at a tempo pace and with a short recovery (1 minute).  Keeping that tempo pace for the mile repeats, even when the runner feels he can go faster, is key; presumably the short rest helps police that pace.  A second workout, on day seven, are intervals of on and off again running, 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00 runs at 5,000 meter pace and then easy running for recovery.  Another definition of Daniels’s “interval” pace is the pace a runner could maintain for 15 or 20 minutes of competitive running.  These weeks also include a day or two of some strides or even 200 and 400 meter sprints.   The rest of the week is filled with the long run on day one, and then easy running on other days to complete the mileage.  In summary, a typical week of phase two would be a long run, two workout days of quality running, and then easy running.

Phase 3, weeks thirteen to eighteen, is the hardest training of the program.  Day one is a long run and day two an easy run.  But the midweek program includes an interval day, repeats of a kilometer or a mile at 5,000 meter pace, on day three.  Day four is an extended tempo run of 20 minutes, with some 200 meter race sprints included.   After easy runs on days five and six, day seven is a race or another interval day.  The races are important because they establish a race pace which in turn establishes the pace of an anaerobic threshold—about 88 percent of V02 max or at about 90 percent of maximum heart rate.   Phase three, then, includes three hard days out of the seven.

Phase 4 training, weeks nineteen to twenty-four, is the final quality phase of intense training, combined with rest and recovery before the big race.  It reduces the day one long run to 20 percent of weekly mileage.   It moves the 20-minute tempo run to day three.  Day four becomes a day for a sharpening workout.  First, some tempo work, repeat miles, even, introduces fatigue.  A couple one-kilometer ntervals at 5,000-meter pace train the runner at the anaerobic threshold.  And then four faster 200-meter repeats at race pace complete the workout and approach top speed efforts.  Easy running fills days five and six, with a race or interval pace workout on day seven.  The final race week drops the day four workout.

What struck me immediately, looking at the Daniels program, was how neatly this twenty-four week program, in fact, fits the Illinois high school cross country and track schedules.  For cross country, summer running covers phase 1 and the beginnings of phase 2.  The hard month of September fits nicely into phase 3, as the cross country racing season heats up and the weather breaks.  Phase 4 is October, with the state meet in the first week of November.  Track season fits nicely, as well.  The dreary running in the cold and snow of January and February fits phase one.  The somewhat more serious indoor racing of March covers phase 2.  The serious training and racing of April fits phase 3.  The mid-May conference meets and the IHSA series and state meet at the end of May fit phase 4.

That neat fit of the Daniels’s program, it seems to me, makes it a good one to use in evaluating what we have been doing at Ignatius.  In broad outlook, as with Noakes’s laws of training, our programs are alike.  His phase schedule fits the rhythms of our schedule quite naturally, as I have suggested.

But as I have worked on the tweaking of our programs for cross country and track, the puzzle for me has always been two questions.  How hard do we work and how long do we keep working hard, would be question number one.  Number two:  How do the workouts of a period like phase 3 differ from those of phase 1 and phase 2, especially in terms of recovery times and pacing?

Daniels’s program, it seems to me, provides some answers—and also some critique of what we do.   We start our early cross country season and our track season, as suggested, with some easy running that fits Daniels’s phase one program.   But once we begin to introduce more intense training, we generally do a timed workout over prescribed distances—a so-called “interval” type of workout, for simplicity of description– twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays.  As Daniels’s suggests, these would often be repeat 400s or repeat miles, but in our case, we would do both workouts in a week.  Then we use our weekend races early in the season, for both cross country and track, as another quality workout.  In cross country season, especially, we also put a lot of emphasis on doing some quality distance running—five and six mile runs on the watch, at a somewhat demanding pace.

Quite simply, as I weigh it against the Daniels program, it strikes me that we work too hard, especially in cross country season.  In his phase 2, he trains hard twice a week; we’re already doing three days of hard training in our phase 2 during cross country season, and one of those days is already a race.  As I evaluate the Daniels pacing chart, also provided by Noakes, the easy long runs of my best boys should be in the 7:00 per mile range; in fact, I’m often guilty of pushing them to go quite a bit faster than that.  No wonder they sometimes resist my encouragement to do so.   Those “easy” days of running, in fact, have become pretty hard in our program, as well.

It has always been my sense that we did better in terms of bringing our boys along slowly and carefully during five-month track season, with a big pay-off at the end of May, compared to our three-month cross country season, which seems to have a lot more urgency.  In track, we always say, we can take boys who haven’t been running much at all and after five months we can really have them running well.  Those same boys would be the ones who come to cross country without having done any training in the summer, so we only have three-months to get them ready.  Our most serious cross country boys do train in the summer, now.  But still, too many boys do not train enough.  So that cross country urgency—we have to get ready to race and we only have so much time—is hard to escape.  Perhaps that explains our tendency to work too hard in cross country.

The blueprint of the Daniels program, when laid over our program, suggests that we should think about making some changes.   Given that we are working with younger athletes, Daniels program probably needs some adaptations.  Racing earlier in the season and with more frequency, for new runners, I would argue, is important just in terms of keeping their interest.   And perhaps his 24-week program might truncate for a younger athlete into shorter phases—again, partly to provide variety and interest.

But we should certainly de-emphasize our early season phase 2 racing.  It is worth noting, perhaps, that many programs already race less than we do those first weeks of September, especially.  Perhaps we need to make a stronger distinction among our boys between the serious summer trainers and those who do not.    The non-Summer trainers might need more of a phase 1 to start the season.

Most importantly, perhaps, especially if we are going to race early in the season during phase 2, we need to cut back on the hard days from three or four to only two.  And in phase 3—September in cross country season—we need to take it easy on our easy day distance runs, rather than forcing the pace.  Another way to make the change would be to cut out one of our weekday interval workouts and let the boys do one their shorter distance runs at a little bit better pace—closer to a tempo run as Daniels lays it out.  That would limit the damage in those phase 3 September weeks to a workout, a tempo run, and then a race—much closer to Daniels’s prescription.

Put more simply, we should no longer run 20×400 repeats on Monday and then come back and run 4×1600 on Wednesday.  It should be one or the other.

Finally, Daniels’s quite specific pacing recipes for his prescribed workouts are extremely helpful.  Again, I have always felt we did better with this in terms of track season than in cross country.  In track, quite naturally, we start doing workouts with many repeats at a strength or anaerobic pace in March and April, at a pace much slower than fast races, and then we progress to workouts with fewer repeats at race pace in May.  This is a program that basically fits the Daniels model.  Cross country, for whatever reason, has never seemed to move as naturally from early to late season.  Coming off a strong season of summer training, boys often seem anxious to start running fast and hard at the end of August and even in September.  It has often been hard to hold the best boys back.  The boys who have not prepared well in the summer, on the other hand, are anxious to catch up with those who did.  They push too hard, too.  Daniels suggests that it is important to follow a measured approach.  Those early season workouts are supposed to be tempo repeats–no faster.

One last change, subtle, but important:  I have known coaches who held practice on Sundays, even coaches from Catholic schools.  We never do so.  But an important part of the Daniels schedule, it is clear, is that long day one distance run—Sunday, in our Saturday race day schedule.  I will have to figure out a way to push my top runners, at least, to take that Sunday run seriously, even if they have to do it on their own.  Most of them run, but do they run 10 or 12 miles on Sunday?

I still put the changes I will make to our cross country program this fall in the category of tweaks, as opposed to an overhaul.  Our workouts already look similar to those of the Daniels program.

But it is interesting to discover that even compared to such an advanced and demanding program, perhaps we have been overtraining?



Filed under coaching, running

4 responses to “Reading Noakes, Part Two: The Daniels Program

  1. Ed, thanks for this great write up of Noakes work. I have only read segments. A couple thoughts on training ideas. Maybe you do this already. Use the early season races as practices. De emphasize times or even team results. Decide on a strategice goal. Like top 5 guys through mile at 5:15, second mile real easy, then finish as hard as you can. Also on summer training, I had hug breakthroughs using a three week cycle (easy, medium, hard) For me that used to be 60,70,80. Do 3 cycles of that and you will feel like a champ. Those were college years flr me. I also found I had to have some sort of up tempo work regardless of phase, whether that was fartlek, hills, or some kind o tempo. Just accumulating miles never worked for me.

  2. Thanks, Patrick. De-emphasizing those early races is definitely part of the plan. The idea of varying mileage week to week is something Noakes brings up, and it is definitely part of the Pfitzinger program. But what would really be interesting to get from you would be, “this is how we trained Peter Callahan”–even if only for his senior year. Maybe that kind of detailed account of your program with him would actually work better in this blog as opposed to your own? It is an idea I have to try and get people to share a little bit here that way. I think I have talked to you in the past about my frustrations at training 800 meter runners–although I’ve been less frustrated in the last couple years. It would be interesting to ask a few coaches how they do it.

  3. Ed, I am going to put something up eventually on One of the things I have become recently interested is the idea of muscle stiffness, Frans Bosch — author of Running — calls it muscle slack. But what it really means is are you a super ball or are you a tomato. Peter was a super ball — a lot of it was natural. But there were certainly elements that we emphasized in training. My worry in watching most high school training is the over emphasis on lots of miles have led to too many tomatoes. You certainly need miles. But you need lower volume weeks — but never losing some speed — to encourage your muscles need to be a super ball. That’s why I love the cycling. There are certainly individual differences and differences for races. I think the Bannister model is what we need to look at more closely. Bannister trained 5-6 days a week for an hour at lunch. He focused on the the race demands. Talented sure — but also efficient. There are secrets there we could use to help our runners.

    • Patrick–
      At one point, I think we had 10 guys on my high school team who could run under 10:00 for 2-miles. I was number 12 my senior year in cross country. We ran around 30 miles a week. There was lots of talent, yes, but presumably a lot of superballs. We’re doing 50-60 miles with my best guys in cross country now, depending on whether they are long on Sunday or not. Our summer mileage, even for the best guys, is not much more than that. But I still worry that compared to the big suburban powers, we are low. I am going to stop worrying about that.

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