The secret of the world's top marathoner: It's not how far; it's how fast

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Women Outside, Fall 1998

The secret of the world's top marathoner: It's not how far; it's how fast
By John Brant


FITNESS: Longevity | STRATEGIES | Regimens

A Running Start

"Tegla will never run a workout just because it's written down," says her coach, Volker Wagner. Neither should you. But to rebel against a prescription, you must first have one. What follows is a modified version of Loroupe's own outline for a midseason training week. Study it, learn from it, and then ignore it. Wagner says that if you run once a day, you should plan for two hard runs (by which he means intervals, sprints, and competition) a week. Loroupe's is a good all-purpose regimen, applicable to athletes across a wide range of sports and fitness levels. She herself alters this blueprint constantly, increasing her mileage as she approaches major competitions and easing up afterward. "If you want to be faster or just better," says Wagner, "these are the elements. You can't not do these things." Unless you just don't feel like it.

Monday: LSD (Long, Slow Distance)
For Loroupe, this means two runs a day of seven to nine miles at a loping, "conversational" pace. For the rest of us, one run a day is fine. Try to cover a distance equal to about a quarter of the week's total running mileage. If you want to be scientific, wear a heart-rate monitor. Keep your beats per minute below 140; at that level you'll be huffing but not gasping.

Tuesday: Intervals
The day you're mostly likely to pick to skip. "But no one gets faster without speed work," says Wagner. Begin by marking out a mile on your usual course. Warm up with a two-mile jog. Then run six mile-long repeats with five minutes' rest between. Go as hard as you can; if you use a monitor, keep your heart rate between 160 and 180 bpm. Finish with a 10-minute cool-down. As you become more fit, decrease the distance (aim for 200-meter repeats) and increase both the repetitions and your pace.

Wednesday: Recovery
You'll need it. Speed work is noticeably more painful the day after. Loroupe "recovers" by jogging for an hour, but the same effect can be achieved, Wagner says, by running only long enough for your leg muscles to loosen. A half-hour should suffice.

Thursday: Tempo Training
In other words, intervals that never end. Tempo training entails long workouts done at rigorous speed, typically just below race pace. Loroupe's version is about 11 miles at 160 bpm. With your heart roaring at that rate, you will not be able to grouse with your running partner about Ally McBeal. You'll be focusing on getting enough air into your lungs. Ratchet down the distance and speed to suit your fitness. But do cover about a sixth of your total weekly mileage.

Friday: Shopping
Both Loroupe and Wagner believe in recess. This means that on this day you should run errands, not intervals. "If you don't rest, you will get injured," Wagner says. "There's no question."

Saturday: LSD Flashback
Another session of long, slow distance. The day before a race, Loroupe runs about an hour, keeping her heart rate below 140 bpm. Then, Wagner says, "to get a feeling of power in your head," run three or four sprints of 50 to 60 meters. If she's not racing on Sunday, Loroupe runs for 90 minutes, keeping her heart rate below 150 bpm.

Sunday: Race
Racing provides two unique training benefits: It nudges you to push yourself (who wants to finish last?) and it's fun, unlike many a solitary workout. In the months leading up to a major marathon, Loroupe races a succession of half-marathons and 10k's. (Wagner recommends that you race every other week.) Begin with a 5k. After several of these, graduate to 10k's. From there, keep your eyes on the prize: 26.2 miles in two hours and 20 minutes.

— Martha Corcoran

World records come and go, but stress fractures of the vertebrae, chronic leg problems, and yes, menstrual cramps can forge an icon. Such is the case with four-foot-eleven, 86-pound Tegla Loroupe, presently the fastest female marathoner in history: Last April in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, she bested Ingrid Kristiansen's 13-year-old world record. Loroupe, a 25-year-old Kenyan, lowered the standard by an impressive 19 seconds, to 2:20:47, bringing her closer than any woman has been to shattering the elusive 2:20 barrier in marathoning. How she got there in seven weeks is where the icon-forging comes in.

Last November, at the start of the New York City Marathon — which Loroupe won in 1994 and 1995 — she unexpectedly began her period. Beset by excruciating cramps, she managed to finish a disappointing (for her) seventh. And the cramps didn't fade. Days later, she consulted a physician in New York who concluded that cramps weren't her problem; rather, stress fractures in her spine were. He told her to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day for several weeks.

Loroupe took about three weeks off from training, but the leg problems started to take their toll; for the next three months, she was not her running self. In late January, she ran a marathon in Osaka, Japan, eight minutes behind her personal best — an eternity in this sport.

The regimens of most elite runners can seem overwhelming, even nutty. On one end of the spectrum, Uta Pippig, Loroupe's rival for most-decorated active female marathoner, runs as many as 170 scientifically calibrated miles a week. Loroupe, on the other hand, has always been much more blithe. "I run because I like to, not because I am forced," she says. She's so loose that she can't easily quantify her training program, though it seems she typically does about half of Pippig's weekly routine. Her constants are an easy run of nine miles or so each morning, followed by a breakfast of a porridge called uji (Kenya's national carbo-loading secret); once a week, she'll run 15x1,000-meter intervals. If her training can be defined at all, it's by the flexibility with which she views it.

So when Loroupe decided, only seven weeks beforehand, that she wanted to defend her title in Rotterdam, her solution was typically inventive. Under the guidance of her coach, Volker Wagner, she focused not on endurance, but on speed work: lots of intervals, lots of sprinting, a long run only twice a week. And from her lowest point as a runner, Loroupe rallied in spectacular fashion, without sacrificing her health, sanity, or abiding joy in her sport. "We didn't increase her total mileage that much," Wagner says. "She just ran those miles hard."

At the race itself, Loroupe was still 40 seconds off world-record pace with only 12 kilometers remaining. So as the crowd roared its encouragement and approval, she began running ... hard. She made up the time, finished with tears in her eyes, and realized that her ambitions have not yet begun to crest. "The last few kilometers," she says, "there was a very strong headwind. Without the wind I might have run 2:18." Her next chance to do so: the New York City Marathon in November.

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