Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Training characteristics of world class distance runners with Øyvind Sandbakk, PhD | EP#363

 November 7, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Oyvind Sandbakk - That Triathlon Show

Øyvind Sandbakk, PhD, is a professor at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology and director for its Centre for Elite Sports Research. He is also the editor-in-chief for the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. In this interview we discuss a few general science and coaching topics, but mostly we dive deep into a recent review paper on the training characteristics of world class distance runners. 

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Going beyond just the published literature when gathering data on results-proven practice of world class distance runners for this review
  • Training periodisation and racing schedules
  • Training volume, intensity, and types of workouts
  • Altitude training and tapering strategies
  • The importance of the "art of coaching" 

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Øyvind's background

02:56 -

  • I grew up in Norway as a cross-country skier and also did athletics.
  • Then, I decided to focus more on cross-country skiing and pursued my skiing career until I realised I would attempt World Champions.
  • I attended some World Cup events, but taking the next step was challenging.
  • I studied exercise physiology in the meantime, and I coached some excellent athletes.
  • I also joined the national team and became the helping coach there.
  • I started working with the Olympiatoppen Norwegian Sports Centre, collaborating with a University, and that is where I started my PhD.
  • We looked at the demands of cross-country sprint events and how to train to become a good sprint skier.
  • From that moment onwards, I combined research with working with athletes and coaches in the Olympiatoppen for 13 years.
  • For some years, I was head of research and development there. I was also doing my research at the University of Sciences and Technologies.
  • Now, I am a professor and the director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research.
  • I also collaborated with a school where we developed a project for female endurance athletes.
  • When I started, I was primarily researching cross-country skiing.
  • We often look at the sport's demands and the demands of sprint cross-country skiing.
  • Then, we looked at distance cross-country skiing, and the mass starts. I had PhD students working on sex differences, also looking at women.
  • After, we applied similar methodologies in other sports, like nordic combined, biathlon, cycling, and triathlon, with the same thinking process. (meeting the demands of the sports with training optimisation) 
  • With this, we did descriptive studies on what the best athletes are doing and intervention studies where we went into the effects of different training types.
  • We also did some studies examining molecular mechanisms associated with different training typologies.
  • I was lucky to have many PhD students and postdocs and collaborated with many professors.

Training characteristics of world-class distance runners

Introduction to this study

08:04 -

  • First, I want to acknowledge Thomas Haugen, who had the initiative for this study. We did several studies together and joined a group of four researchers.
  • First, we looked at sprint training, then middle distance and finished this trilogy with long-distance running.
  • The best coaches/athletes are ahead of science, meaning literature should look at what they are doing and their philosophies and provide an overview of what information is available. In this approach, we could have some new ideas, develop new hypotheses and move ahead.
  • We looked in Pubmed and Google Scholar for the literature to get an overview of what is there. Then, we moved to "results proved in practice". (non-scientific public available information)
  • That information is from podium athletes and national coaches from the most prominent marathons.
  • Then, we tried to grasp the primary content and common factors among excellent distance runners.
  • We also search some running books.

Strengths and limitations of using non-peered-review information to do these studies

11:58 -

  • It is challenging to research these athletes because they found a formula that works for them, and they want to keep that the same.
  • So, you cannot go over and interfere.
  • However, we can gather information on what seems to work for multiple athletes.
  • On the other hand, you might have a confirmation bias because those who fail do the same. (something we need to be aware of)
  • You must be critical of the data you collect and be reasonable about the observations.
  • In these non-peered-view documents, there is not so much research on women.
  • Some Training groups are open about their training, while others do not share information.
  • Moreover, they use different intensities and terminologies, which we tried to put in the same framework.
  • There might be a difference between the prescription and execution, not taken into consideration.
  • It is not the training program that is crucial but what athletes do.
  • We also have a history of doping in long-distance marathons. Although we exclude those case studies, that is another limiting factor.

Examples of runners included in the dataset

14:47 -

  • Yalemzerf Yehualaw (Olympic Gold and World Record holder)
  • Kenenisa Bekele, Joshua Cheptegei, Haile Gebrselassie, Eluid Kipchoge or Ingrid Kristiansen
  • We also have famous coaches like Jack Daniels, Renato Canova and Joe Vigil.
  • We have 16 coaches and 59 leading athletes.

Training periodisation and competition scheduling

16:52 -

  • We have a preparation period where you build capacities. (maintain some aspects and further develop parts they want to improve)
  • Afterwards, you have a specific period of preparation for the competition, characterised by high volume (aerobic foundation) and a progressive shift to race-specific sessions.
  • Then, you have a 1-4 weeks competition period with less training (or no training) to recover after the competition.
  • In track runners, athletes have high training volume, around 80 % at low intensity (but they still run fast - low metabolic intensity).
  • They also do a high volume of sub-threshold endurance training.
  • They transition to more race-pace training but are careful to use it sparingly or introduce it too early.
  • You only shift focus to what capacities you want to maintain.
  • In the preparation period, athletes might do some races.
  • In the racing period, athletes might maintain the volume and sub-threshold training.
  • They only change the factor they want to develop.
  • There are no extreme changes in their training.
  • Marathon runners have different patterns.
  • They might focus on race-specific efforts earlier in the preparation phase (long-endurance sessions).
  • Track runners do more high-intensity sessions as they approach racing. Marathon runners compete at sub-threshold intensities.
  • Marathon runners also need speed, but they introduce it earlier in the preparation and do the specific sessions (longer sessions) as they approach the race.
  • If a marathon runner comes from the track with high-speed capacity, he might have a different way of periodising marathon training.

Examples of sub-threshold sessions

22:03 -

  • These sessions are often intervals but often extended with short rest periods.
  • You can also do these sessions as progressive long runs, where you run at that intensity at the last part of the session.
  • Fartlek is also another method. (varied terrain 30-60min)
  • In Kenya, they do fartlek systematically.
  • There are different ways of doing this training.
  • Different athletes with different physiological profiles might use different tools.
  • It will depend on what they need to target to succeed.

Perceived exertion of these workouts

24:22 -

  • Athletes control their efforts because they do a high volume of training.
  • Going all-out in one session will affect the subsequent 3-4 sessions.
  • If they can keep it at a controlled intensity, they will accumulate more work and training volume.
  • So, you do not see max efforts often, so they avoid setbacks and injuries.

Competition scheduling

26:13 -

  • It depends on the periodisation athletes are doing. 
  • Some athletes might focus on cross/indoor season, while others only focus on summer.
  • On average, we found nine competitions per season, but some only use competition as part of the training.
  • Most athletes only do a few primary events, compared to other sports.
  • Marathoners often do Spring and Autumn marathons.
  • It is rare to see more than two marathons and some shorter-distance events. (six competitions for marathon runners)

Training volume

27:56 -

  • In the preparation period, they do 130-190 km per week and more for marathoners (160-220 km).
  • You have periods where athletes go extreme (250+ km).
  • Some also do alternative training (some weekly strength training sessions).
  • I will also depend on the terrain and surface. (flat vs hilly)
  • It is not only about km but also about what you add on top of that.
  • You can have methodologies where you will prioritise not having high mechanic loading and do more training volume.
  • The most prominent limitation is mechanical loading, especially on hard surfaces.
  • In Norway, we have runners skiing in the Winter because they do not want to get injured and can train more.
  • If athletes are injured, they might run on the water or use elliptical machines.
  • For some athletes, cycling is boring, but you only do the work. (in Sweden, Van der Poel used cycling to prepare for speed skating)
  • In countries where you have snow, cross-country skiing is a classic cross-training alternative.
  • However, we need to find out the crossover effects of alternative training modalities on running performance.
  • We might have athletes with limitations in the central aerobic system who can get additional benefits from doing other sports.
  • Other athletes limited by their running economy must train more.
  • Training volume during competition is lower, but athletes maintain training throughout the year.
  • Some athletes say they take four weeks off training, while others take 1-2 weeks but still do 100 km per week.
  • We see the most prominent differences in how people "offloaded" during the transitional period. 
  • You will see athletes tapering only close to the race. (7-10 days)
  • Athletes maintain volume longer compared to literature regularly.
  • It will depend on the competition schedule. Athletes competing closer to the championships must reduce volume because they must balance races with training.
  • Athletes prioritising training can increase training volume but only reduce training load in the last 7-10 days. (deviate from research)
  • Tapering in the literature is behind what athletes are doing, and there has yet to be a discussion on what tapering is.
  • You want to taper so your capacity is maximum on race day.
  • You need to have trained to be as fit as possible, and then you must use that capacity.
  • You need to train to optimise your capacities for those distances and have sufficient time to recover physically and mentally.
  • Then, you need to mobilise.
  • You need to train as well as possible. Then, you have to prepare your body and mind for the race, and you need to mobilise for the competitions.
  • If you only recover towards a competition, you will lose tension.
  • It is a delicate balance that athletes need to be careful managing.
  • One method that works in one season might not be optimal for the next. (you could catch a cold, or you did not respond so well to the training period, or you have an injury or competition that changed your training)

Taper training characteristics

40:54 -

  • Most athletes maintain their training frequency well.
  • The reason is to maintain the daily rhythm and intensity and shorten sessions.
  • If athletes train 180 km per week, they go down to 110-120 km in the last week before the competition.
  • Some have resting days, but typically athletes do 11-12 sessions.
  • Some athletes might do a morning session. So they could do three sessions a day.
  • The most common pattern is to have two sessions a day and a rest day every week or two.
  • It is different from cycling, where you do extended sessions because of the nature of the sport.
  • In marathons, you have more extended sessions once or twice a week.
  • However, competition events are short enough that you do not need those extended sessions.

Training intensity distribution

44:15 -

  • You often see three heavy days during the week that are moderate or high-intensity sessions with easy days in between.
  • It is not something new to have two challenging sessions per day.
  • The Ingerbritsen brothers do what some athletes have been doing throughout history. However, it is not the pattern we found.
  • Sub-threshold sessions are the most common in the preparation period.
  • There is a trending shift to add higher intensities for 1500-5000m runners.
  • These runners organise training smartly. If you do 25x400m with 30-second breaks at 5000m speed, you can accumulate race-specific time without accumulating metabolic fatigue.
  • Threshold sessions focus on metabolic efficiency, and speed-focused sessions are higher-intensity sessions.
  • One thing is the speed you run at, and another is the metabolic fatigue you want to induce.
  • 10000m runners would do more sub-threshold metabolic sessions with extended intervals and lower speeds.
  • However, there are differences between athletes.
  • Generally, 80 % would be low-intensity, 5-15 % sub-threshold and 5-15 % at higher intensities.
  • The 15 % of sub-threshold athletes are outliers.
  • The pattern is different for marathon runners because they build the week around these long marathon-specific sessions in the 10-15 weeks approaching the marathon.
  • They might have fartlek sessions once or twice per week.
  • Some athletes might run reasonably fast in their lower-intensity sessions. In contrast, others might be more polarised (doing less intensity on easy days) and can do more on high-intensity sessions.
  • It is here where the primary differences are.
  • These differences could be because of their physiological profile.
  • Athletes have different backgrounds (1500 vs 5000m runners doing 10000m), so different training sessions for those athletes.

Paces of athletes' fastest workouts

51:45 -

  • It will depend on the period in which you will do the session.
  • In the preparation period, much of it is about sub-threshold work.
  • You might have some sessions (hill repeats) in which they do not run at higher speeds, but their work is pretty high-intensity (5000m pace).
  • They also do some stride work and 100-200 m sets with spikes. They do not call it high-intensity sessions but do over-speed work to prevent injuries. If athletes do not do these sessions, the likelihood of injuries increases when they introduce this training again.
  • Therefore, consistently running fast with strides is a method for preventing injuries.
  • Other athletes do 10s hill sprints regularly to mobilise, trigger speed, and improve running economy.
  • You do not need too much "over-speed" work.
  • During specific training, more athletes do intervals faster than they compete in racing.
  • However, at this point, you need to have longer breaks and shorter intervals. 

Strength training

55:15 -

  • There are variations in what they do.
  • Kenyan athletes have their flexibility programs, so the gym training they do might make them better or not.
  • Strength, speed and explosiveness are tools to have an overcapacity of strength and power that can make athletes more economical or more fatigue resistant. (it costs less when you have more capacity)
  • However, this fatigue needs to be specific to running.
  • It also depends on what the athlete lacks. (strength or power)
  • Moreover, strength training is culture-dependent.
  • They may do strength training because it is part of the culture or if it makes them better.
  • Athletes might do strength training to avoid injuries, which is much more debated.
  • We know some exercises that can reduce injuries. (Specific exercises towards the running pattern and the athlete's individuality)
  • There are also core exercises, but there is a discussion on if it is beneficial.

Altitude training

59:13 -

  • Most athletes live in altitude for most parts of the year.
  • Other athletes use it systematically in both parts of their training periodisation with 3-4 week camps at around 2000 m.
  • In the running, there is a tradition of doing altitude training camps.
  • Scientific literature has limitations because we might talk about 1 % differences in performance. (minor effects, so there is not strong evidence for altitude training)
  • Some studies show no effects, but we can argue that it does not effect because there was no optimisation of nutrition or training)
  • Moreover, you have the training camp effect of being able to train in "training-friendly environments".
  • You can run with less mechanical loading and get metabolic loading at a slower speed. (meaning you can train more)
  • The ultimate effect of altitude training still needs to be fully understood by scientific literature. (however, if there were no effects, athletes would not do it)
  • In runners, they do more extended altitude training camps.
  • In 3-4 weeks, you can have some effects on the blood, especially in optimised training programs. Moreover, the reduced mechanical loading can benefit runners during that period.
  • Therefore, training at altitude can have more positive effects than sleeping in an altitude tent at sea level.

Additional training characteristics from athletes

1:04:17 -

  • Training quality is essential, and each session interacts with the next one.
  • Organising each training session in a micro-block can make them more effective and increase the training quality.
  • We looked at the work of the most successful coaches in endurance sports, and we see that the interaction between the coach and athlete plays an essential role in training quality. (daily decisions made at the right time - coaching art)
  • Moreover, these coaches learnt how to do great sessions.
  • We can talk about intensities and durations, but what coaches do is learn from each training session to build a database and know how to respond to training.

Takeaways from the study

1:07:33 -

  • Higher running volume is what we see the best marathon runners doing.
  • Athletes do much training at the sub-threshold intensity in the preparation period before shifting to more race-specific training approaching the goal race.
  •  This aspect is what distinguishes marathon runners from track runners.
  • Marathon runners focus more on their sessions' increased duration, while track runners will do more sessions closer to race speeds.
  • Athletes try to have consistency and avoid setbacks and injuries.
  • Athletes should improve their training quality and build towards higher training loads at race speeds.

Common mistakes amateur runners do

1:09:28 -

  • Amateur runners should focus on learning how to do a good session.
  • You should progressively build up training volume to avoid injuries and get a training effect.
  • It is only training more but building that training durability daily while improving the quality of training sessions.
  • Moreover, amateurs have to adapt their training regimens to their lives.
  • Your life and training philosophies must align because the effect of training and the adaptations will matter.

General Questions

If you could go back in time, what would you tell 20-years-old cross-country skier Øyvind Sandbakk?

1:11:12 -

  • I would say: "Listen to your body because it tells the truth! So do what is right daily because it will get the best effect for you."
  • You should adapt your training to get the effect. You should not aim to do as many hours and intensity as possible but focus the effect on tolerating more load and increasing the intensity and duration.
  • You would use standardised training sessions and lab testing to evaluate the physiological adaptations to training.
  • You need to look at competitions and races as a learning arena. So, go out and learn about yourself and ensure you get the most out of it.

Common attributes that the best coaches exhibit

1:13:44 -

  • The process of coaching is coached-driven but athlete centred.
  • Coaches with good competence have a clear coaching philosophy and understand the sport well, but focus on the athlete to build trust and not take ownership of the athlete.
  • Coaches get so much experience that they can better support the athlete.

Topics that Øyvind changed his mind about

1:14:55 -

  • Training periodisation is much clearer to me now at a macro and micro level.
  • Training progression is more important now, and we have control over it.
  • We want to control it so we can better understand how to make the body adapt. If you have changes in the training stimulus, decide what areas you want to develop, but continuously help the body adapt.
  • New training stimuli will allow you to adapt, but you must also offload to maintain training body adaptability.
  • You should change your focus throughout the year because you might saturate adaptation in one area. You may need to change the focus slightly to continue improving.
  • With offload, you can have more control over your body because you can have too much training for too long. You might taper and improve, but this means the training process and training load was too high.
  • Therefore, tapering should be part of the training periodisation.

Rapid-fire questions

1:19:06 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson 

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

My training diary and use it as a learning tool. And I applied this with a work diary. (using the same protocols athletes and coaches use in my daily job)

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

Bjørn Dæhlie was the hero of cross-country skiing in Norway, and it was the starting point of trying to learn from the best in the world.

My father was also an influential figure, and that helped me throughout my career.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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