Improve your running speed, endurance, and performance with Pete Magill | EP#203
Pete Magill is a running coach, author, and the fastest-ever American distance runner over age 50 in the 5K and 10K as well as a multiple American and world age group record-holder. In this interview we discuss the most important principles of improving your running speed, endurance and performance, applicable for everybody from 5k-specialists to Ironman-triathletes.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Muscle fibre recruitment - how to train all your muscle fibres and make them work for you.
- Balancing hard and easy running.
- The all-important long run.
- Hill running - one of the most versatile tools in your running toolbox.
- Essential strength and conditioning for runners.
About Peter Magill
- I've been running since I was 13 but there was a big lapse period in my mid-20's to late-30's, where I got into a slightly darker lifestyle.
I had a nightclub in the Virgin Islands and then I was a screen writer in Hollywood.
By the time I woke up in an ER at age 39 after years of substance abuse, I was told I needed to change my lifestyle or I would probably not see my on graduate from high school.
- I grabbed my trainers and jogged about 5 miles before nearly collapsing - decided to take it a bit easier and 5 months later I could comfortably run 5 miles.
A year and a half after that I ran my first Masters race - I was just about to turn 41, and I've been running ever since.
- It's 19 years since I started back up with running, and I think it's the key to health and a better lifestyle.
- I started putting together a competitive club, and this Masters club has won over two dozen National Championships in the last 18 years.
- I've personally be a 5 time USA Masters cross country runner of the year, I've set multiple American world age group records - the best of which are my American records of 5km age 45-49, age 50-54, and now age 55-59.
I ran 14:34 at age 46.
I ran 14:45 at age 49.
- I had a nasty achilles insertion injury that put me out from 49 until before I turned 51.
I then ran a 15:01 5km at age 50, and I ran a 15:42 at age 55.
- I broke into writing about running as a blogger in my mid-forties.
Running times was linking with a lot of stuff I did and they brought me on as a columnist and senior writer for five years.
- My first book was 'Build your Running Body'.
I felt runners didn't understand there were all these different components to your body, and we aren't as good at doing run training specifically for parts of the body.
The book broke down the running body into muscles, connective tissue, the nervous system, mitochondria, the brain and fatigue.
It showed all the different components, how each functions when we run and how each contribute to running and can be trained.
- We also put 400 photos in the book so every single exercise could be easily seen.
- The next book was 'The Born Again Runner'.
- My third book was 'SpeedRunner', which looked at speed itself - acceleration and maximum velocity.
From writing this I learnt that the key to running is the force we put into the ground with each stride, and how our runners gait creates that force.
- I think that might be the most important book I've done, even though distance runners often don't think it's as relevant for them.
Studies have consistently shown that the best runners at 5km, 10km, even up to half marathon have the best underlying leg speed.
- 'Fast 5K' is me coming back home to the race that I'm best known for, and the one I've focused the most on since I got back into runner.
I consider it the perfect race because it's the mix of speed that a miler needs, with the endurance that a half marathon or marathoner needs.
I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of top marathon runners were also top 5km runners.
- It's one of the funnest races to train for because you need a wide variety of workouts that gives you leg speed, endurance using all of your energy systems, all your muscle fibres etc.
The race is 9597% aerobic fuel which also demands heavy endurance training to be good.
- The number one thing I like about a 5km race is that you recover within a few days!
Run training for a fast 5K
- Running don't think a lot about muscle fibre training.
They are often aware they use their quads, hamstrings and calves.
- It is a misconception that when you do endurance running you're using the same muscles but less hard.
- There are actually three different types of muscle fibres that make up every muscle:
1) Slow twitch, which is your endurance muscle fibre. It produces less force but works aerobically and can go forever.
2) Intermediate fibres: these are a little bigger and more powerful, they're the fibres milers really like because they give you a little more speed. You aren't using them when you're out jogging or on a distance run, you're only using about 50% when you're on a tempo run at half marathon or marathon pace.
3) Fast twitch fibres: these are big and powerful. Sprinters use them, but you also use them going off the start line, heading up a hill or accelerating during a race. These aren't fibres that get trained in a normal distance run.
- In order to train all these muscles you have to do specific types of workouts that recruit these muscles.
- A lot of runners think if they go out and do 50km a week, they should be in shape for a 5K race.
They get to the race but they don't perform to the level they want, and they wake up sore the next day. It's because they didn't train the muscle fibres they then used in the race!
- If you planted a garden in your yard and water a third of it for a month, at the end of the month one third is growing and two thirds are dead.
It's the same thing with muscle fibres. If you aren't doing the workouts that recruit all these different fibres, they will not be trained.
- Also, we don't just use slow twitch for endurance, and then switch to just using fast twitch when we're accelerating.
The faster we run, or the more force we need (e.g. to get up a hill), we add muscle fibres to the ones we're already using.
- When we're jogging we're probably using 30-40% of our slow twitch fibres.
When we pick that up to a normal distance run, we're using 70% of slow twitch fibres.
When you get up to tempo pace/half-marathon pace we're using 100% of slow twitch and 50% of intermediate fibres to maintain that effort.
When we're maintaining 5K pace, it's 100% slow twitch, almost 100% intermediate fibres, and 75-80% of our fast twitch fibres.
- Once a week, or once every other week you've got to do faster intervals - possibly at race pace or even faster.
30-40 second hard work with a long recovery afterwards.
That recruits all the muscles and you start strengthening them.
- Once you start strengthening muscle fibres you start strengthening the connective tissue involved in those fibres.
This includes tendons, bones, ligaments, and it's where a lot of injuries occur.
- Injuries often occur because muscles get in shape and adapt faster than connective tissue, so your muscles feel good and you up your workout, but then end up with a connective tissue injury 4-5 weeks in.
- All of that training recruits different energy systems.
You have to use your aerobic system heavily to do the distance, and the tempo.
Your anaerobic system starts coming in when you're running shorter intervals. The first 30 seconds of a race can be the most anaerobic of the race because you create an immediate need for energy and you don't have the oxygen needed for aerobic system yet.
- Basically start by thinking about the muscle fibres, from this you will train the connective tissue, and collectively the diversity of this training should training your different energy systems.
Recovering from workouts
- It changes depending on your situation - e.g. it changes on age, or if you're a runner versus a triathlete.
- A young person can handle 2-3 intense workouts , whereas a 50 year old may only be able to handle one intense workout in a week.
- When you run a workout, you don't get in shape while you're running, you get in shape while you're recovering.
The workout is designed to break you down - to injure muscle tissue and connective tissue, to deplete energy sources (e.g. muscle glycogen), to deplete neurotransmitters in your brain that fire the messages to get muscles going.
- Your body then has two stages of repair after each workout:
The first stage is to repair the damage - it takes about 2 days to repair from a typical hard workout such as a tempo or interval session.
It takes about 1 day to replace carbohydrate stores in your muscles.
- In two days, you feel good and you're ready to run again, but I always remind my athlete there are TWO phases to recovery.
The second phase is super compensation, which is the important phase.
Once your body has repaired itself, it makes itself a bit stronger so that same session won't injure you as much the next time.
Your muscles gets a bit stronger, they store more energy - each muscle fibre has its own gas tank and it gets bigger through super compensation.
- For young runners, 2 days is often enough to repair and super compensate.
But for mid- to late 30's and 40's, it'll take an extra day to do that.
For runners in their 50's and 60's, you might need to wait 3-4 days or even an entire week to repair and super compensate from a workout.
- If all you do is hard workouts without super compensation, you won't improve.
You may get a little bump at the start, but you then won't improve and eventually you'll fall off the cliff and won't be able to train properly.
- If you take the time to super compensate, where you end up is amazing! You reach a place you didn't think you could get too.
Slower will get you where you want to go faster because you will get better without stagnation.
Trying to get someplace fast in fitness leads to stagnation.
- I've taken time off to write books, and when I come back I start with walking, then do a week of walk-jogging.
My club mates often laugh at me, but this is how I make sure my muscles and connective tissue are ready.
If I make sure everything is strong enough that it can tolerate when I increase my intensity, I'll get where I want to go.
Different ways to use hills in training
- Hills have mystified me through most of my running career!
- I went to a small high school and we had mountains rising on both sides of the valley that we lived in.
We had the most amazing 800m runners you could imagine - one year we had 12 guys running 1:59 or faster.
When I was running there, we had a 4 x 800m relay team and you couldn't make the team if you couldn't run a 1:56!
- Our coach had us run hill sprints, hill reps, long runs into the hills - so we knew the hills were making us strong.
- Hills have been a big part of my training forever, and I know other runners do the same.
E.g, Seb Coe had a hill route he did, Lydiard had a lot of hill running, and Kenyan runners are famous for the hill training they do.
- So I knew it worked but I wasn't sure why it worked.
I finally figured it out with my book SpeedRunner.
- We know that hills require us to produce more force - we're fighting gravity.
We have to recruit more muscle fibres to produce more force.
- When we run on the flat, half of our force comes from collision force: when our knees are lifted high and our legs come down and strikes the ground.
That force is stored in our connective tissue - mostly in our Achilles tendon - and it's known as elastic energy.
- When your foot hits the ground, the energy of gravity and inertia is stored in your leg.
As your leg passes beneath you, it's returned into your stride to fuel your stride.
About 50% of the energy you use when you run comes from stored energy as your foot hits the ground.
- When you're running up a hill, your foot doesn't get to travel as far to the ground so you have to produce more force because you aren't getting as much collision force.
Your nervous system and muscles learn how to do that, so when you get back on the flat they can create more force more quickly with each foot strike.
It makes you faster, increases your stride length and your foot spends less time time on the ground which gives you a faster turnover.
From this you increase your cadence and the length of travel between each stride.
- Hills are basically the key to success!
- Personally for me I do hill sprints, which are 8-12 seconds sprinting up a fairly steep hill at 90-95%.
- You never want to do a workout where your stride is so altered from what you'd ever use in a run that it won't transfer usefully to a race.
- You don't want to go longer than 8-12 seconds because you're using your anaerobic phosphogen system but it can only work for a few seconds.
This is fuelled within your muscle cells, you burn it quickly and it doesn't have the negative bi-products of the anaerobic lactate system.
- Additionally, you can recruit muscle fibres you can't recruit in other types of running.
- You need full recovery between hill sprints, at least 2 minutes between sprints, but ideally 3 minutes, to let your creatine phosphate system fully recover.
It uses fat from oxygen to rejuvenate these stores, which is why it's a good fat burning exercise.
- You can also do hill repeats, which target the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
These are reps of 30-90 seconds (2 minutes is too long).
- At 90 seconds you can still run it hard enough to recruit all your available intermediate fibres.
If you do that, you're developing the aerobic capacity within them.
You are also energising the aerobic energy production you have within cells, as each have their own energy production plant (mitochondria).
The only way to make them better and bigger is to work the cells - so if you aren't running hard enough to recruit the muscle fibre you want to improve it won't improve.
- With hill repeats you want to run them fast enough that when you finish, you could probably run just one more.
- When you're doing 30 second repeats you can probably do 8-12 repeats.
- When you finish the repeat, stop and walk around, and make sure at least twice the amount of time to complete the rep has expired before starting the next one.
- If you're doing 45 seconds you should do around 8 reps.
- If you go up to 90 seconds, start with 4 reps and build up to 6.
If you're doing more than 6 you won't be doing them at the intensity you need to recruit the fibres you want to train.
- For a 45 second rep you might be 90 second recovery, but possibly up to 2-3 minutes.
- For a 90 second rep, you might need 4-5 minutes between reps.
- The point isn't to turn it into a distance run, you want to recruit as much muscle fibre to stimulate training adaptation, so you need to run them quite hard.
- The last part of using hills is runs with long hills.
If you can go out and find a hill you climb for 5-15 minutes, not really steep, that is ideal.
- Long hill runs build muscle strength and connective tissue strength because you're putting more force on the tendons and bone - not just from going up but also coming down.
Using the long run for run training
- One of the biggest mistakes athletes who are focusing on the 5K make is to think they don't need a long run.
- The 5K is 95% aerobic energy fuelled, and in slow runners even more.
One of the most powerful ways you can improve your body's way of producing aerobic energy is to do a long run.
- When you do a long run, you increase your bodies ability to burn fat and to expand the carbohydrate fuel tanks within each fibre.
- Once you get to about 90 minutes in a long run you start to run out of fuel in slow twitch fibres.
Other slow twitch fibres then take their place - so you are able to recruit far more slow-twitch fibres on a long run than a regular run.
The only other way to recruit those extra fibres is tempo pace or intervals, which put a massive strain on your energy systems.
- You'll be using all those fibres in a race, so if you're not doing a long run you're missing out on key training for those fibres.
- Basically just keep going longer with the run - we say 90 minutes but just keep increasing.
Once you get to 2 hours that's enough for a 5K runner to half marathon.
Strength and conditioning
- Runners don't have to be body builders, but they need strength in order to maximise running ability and prevent injury.
- Injury prevention exercises don't double as injury reversal - you want to get it done before that!
- At a minimum you want to do exercise on your lower body that prevent injury and make you run better.
For hamstrings you can do nordic curls, single leg dead lifts etc.
- If you go to my website, there's videos that takes you through these exercises.
- I had a hamstring problem myself, so did a lot of research on hamstring injuries.
It turned out that stretching etc doesn't prevent injury anymore, but nordic curls can help.
So I started doing nordic curls across four days, and I was suddenly doing my repeats at training faster.
The nordic curls reintegrated using my hamstrings correctly in my running stride.
I went from struggling at 2:25 pace, to running at 2:17-2:18 pace - which is a huge change.
- Step downs and squats are good for your quads, as well as your hamstrings.
- Heel drops are good for your calves, and they strengthen your Achilles tendon.
The stronger your Achilles tendon is the more energy you can store in it and the faster it'll return that energy.
- For core, you can do planks and leg lifts.
One of the greatest core exercises there is is running - every stride uses your core!
- For athletes in base training, you need strength and conditioning twice a week.
Once you've got it down you can get away with once a week.
- When you start any strength or resistance training programme, for about the first 4 weeks almost all the improvements you make are for your nervous system.
It's your nervous system learning how better to recruit the muscle you already have.
It takes a long time before you start building muscle and connective tissue strength.
- Once you build strength you want to reinforce the nervous system pathways.
If you go once a week, you retrain and reinforce your nervous systems ability to recruit the correct fibres in the right way.
- If you are over 50, your hamstrings are most probably not recruiting the way they should be anymore!
Rapid Fire Questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports?
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- OCD forced habit.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
- Everything. Everything I write about with injury prevention and recovery is because I did it wrong when I was younger and paid the price.
- There's not an injury in my books that I talk about that I haven't had myself!
- My new book Fast 5K is everything I wished somebody had told me when I was younger.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Pete Magill
- Fast 5k Running - Pete's website
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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