May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness '97, February 1997


Heed the Ironman's mantra: Going slower can make you faster.

Are We
There Yet?

Two decades of fitness grail-seeking, including a misstep or two from the master himself
To Load or Not to Load, the Prologue: Nathan Pritikin opens the Longevity Center in Santa Barbara, California, and sets a widely accepted dietary standard in which at least 75 percent of calories come from carbohydrates, less than 15 percent from protein, and no more than 10 percent from fat.
We jog, therefore we're fit: Jim Fixx's Complete Book of Running stays on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.

Mark Allen swims for the University of California at San Diego; later will describe himself as a "pretty mediocre" backstroker who "hated distance."

Grete Waitz breaks 2:30 women's barrier at the New York Marathon.
We jog, therefore we're really fit? Study in New England Journal of Medicine shows that the more people run, the higher their levels of HDL cholesterol-new evidence that exercise may help prevent heart disease.

Really, it works! The Trendmark Corporation patents a weight-loss device designed "to reduce consumption by one bite per meal." Dieter keeps track by pressing a button before each bite.

No, honest, it does work: Richard Simmons, self-proclaimed Pied Piper of Pounds, prances onto best-seller lists with his Never-Say-Diet Book.

Sales of running shoes more than double from 1977 levels, reaching $328 million annually.

The New York Times declares health clubs "the singles' bars of the 80's."

To Load or Not to Load, Chapter One: Scientists discover that cutting protein intake in half greatly lengthens the lives of lab rats and speculate that same results will occur in humans.

California surfer Julie Moss collapses 15 feet from Ironman Triathlon finish line, crawls across to place second. Millions will later watch taped broadcast on ABC-including Mark Allen, who decides to take up the sport.

We jog, therefore...? Nielsen survey indicates that 34 million Americans run at least once a year, but studies show that fewer than half of American children can meet fitness standards that should be attainable by the average child.

Allen, training with low mileage and high intensity, finishes fourth in his first race, behind Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Scott Tinley; quits job when local investment firm sponsors him; becomes a vegetarian.

We jog, therefore...we're nuts? New England Journal of Medicine reports that marathon runners have a "pathological" personality disorder similar to that of anorexic women.

No, seriously, it really does work: Mark Allen begins drinking wheat-grass juice.

Just back from a quick jaunt up the Pacific Coast Highway, Mark Allen unhitches an entry gate, breezes through the small garden, and steps into his two-story stucco in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Standing in his living room, he's smiling, thoroughly happy after his blip of a run. "Exactly 20 minutes," he says of the three-mile outing. His pulse is a mere 120 beats per minute. This is the workout of an Ironman?

For years, Allen says, he hewed to an outrageously ambitious workout standard. Then he became a parent. "When Mats was born, I no longer had all the time in the world for training," he explains. "I'd find myself not bothering to step out the door, because I felt it was pathetic to go for 30 minutes instead of 50 minutes. Five days would go by without a run because I could never find that 50-minute block--or if I did, I was too tired and unmotivated to do anything with it. So I started experimenting with the minimum time."

What's the least Allen could do? Well, a scant 20 minutes, which depending on where he is in his training cycle might serve as a casual, early-week recovery effort or a more rigorous outing--in the latter he'll grind up and down a hill, pushing his heart rate toward its aerobic maximum. "Do I gain anything aerobically? No," he says. "But I don't want to lose anything either. I've found that if I elevate my heart rate for 10 or 15 minutes, say to the 125 to 130 range, I can maintain what I've already built."

Of course, given his already peaked physique, Allen's aerobic training range is a good bit lower than most. Whereas natural impatience for training would have many of us jamming those 20 minutes with banzai high-intensity work, Allen doesn't let a lack of time muck up his mantra: The key to endurance fitness is prolonged low-intensity training. He goes slow.

Allen's program centers on the notion that a massive block of low-intensity aerobic base-building will alter your metabolism, enhancing your body's ability to burn fat. In practice, you hold your effort below your maximum aerobic heart rate (see "Finding the Right Beat"), which will allow your body to chew up your fat reserves for fuel instead of simply relying on that day's carbohydrate intake. Why? Your body has up to 50 times more energy dammed up in its fat stores than the measly 2,000 carbohydrate calories that can be stored as glycogen. Tap the fat, and you're likely to see improvements in both body-fat composition and performance. "The more aerobically fit you are," Allen says, "the higher percentage of fat you're burning at every level of intensity." Now here's the kicker: The increased efficiency will show up in faster times, achievable at the same heart rate.

But training this slowly requires some getting used to. "It takes an entirely different mental approach," acknowledges Allen. "Most athletes, both recreational and elite, warm up for their workout, get to feeling OK, and then push it into their anaerobic zone so they can go home and say, 'Yeah, I got a good workout.' They don't train hard enough or easy enough, and so they're stuck in a perpetual no-man's-land. The bottom line with this system is, it requires patience: The emphasis is long-term gain, not immediate gratification."

So here's the plan: Allen divides his endurance training into three distinct phases-an approach known by the charming term periodization--which can be carried out over the course of 16 weeks. Within each phase, you'll draw from a palette of core workouts, arranged to meet the specific goals of that period. Recovery sessions--short, easy, and slow--are for maintenance. Tempo workouts, in which you stick to an average distance and heart rate while spending increasing time near your aerobic maximum, work to build your aerobic threshold. Distance sessions accustom your body to the rigors of going long.

Aerobic Base-Building: Weeks 1-10
In this first phase you'll start out s-l-o-w, keeping your pulse about ten beats below your aerobic maximum. Though there will be some variation from week to week, generally you'll be doing two tempo workouts, two endurance sessions, and two recovery jaunts, taking one total-rest day per week. About every fourth week, however, Allen suggests replacing a tempo session with a visit to the track, where you'll do a 15-minute warm-up, work up to your aerobic maximum, and then time yourself over a mile while keeping your heart rate constant. "That's how you build your base," he explains. "It's how you can actually tell the progress you're making." The first time Allen tried this, he could only run a 7:45 mile while staying below his aerobic maximum of 150 beats per minute; six months later he'd hit a plateau, running a 5:20 mile at the same heart rate. How long it takes to plateau depends on several factors, not the least of which is age. A 45-year-old might spend nine months in endurance mode; a 20-year-old, maybe six weeks.

Anaerobic Speed Work: Weeks 11-14
Once you plateau or, if you have an impending race, when you hit week 11, you'll shift into the anaerobic phase. You still follow the same core workouts, albeit gradually reducing their duration, but now you'll drop one tempo session and one recovery effort for two speed-building sessions (see "Speed"). These workouts are designed to improve your performance in those dicey race moments when you have to cross your aerobic threshold, like when you're trying to break from a pack or hold off a pesky rival in a sprint finish. "A lot of people seem to overlook this part of the program. They hear about the long, slow workouts and ask, 'Can't I ever go hard?'" says Allen, who asked the same question back in 1984, when he piloted the regimen with the help of its main proponent, applied kinesiologist Philip Maffetone. "They seem to ignore the fact that the slow training is designed to boost your aerobic fitness, but it's supplemented by speed work to help you get faster."

Tapering: Weeks 15-16
The idea here is to keep your body tuned while easing up the workouts to avoid overtraining. You'll still be doing track work, but venturing into the anaerobic range only briefly, doing easy sprints on the straights and jogging around the curves. Meanwhile, you'll continue to scale back both tempo and endurance workouts to their start-of-the-program durations.

Finally, Allen says it's important to remember that his workout plan has not been handed down from on high--if your body is telling you that you're pushing too hard, adjust your workouts accordingly. "The question to ask yourself is, If I do a gazillion miles this week, will I get out of bed next week?" Allen says. "Really, training is like a race: You come up with a good game plan, but things will come up and you'll have to respond to what's going on around you. If you don't, you can get injured or sick, or just start to go crazy. Let's put it another way: If it's a 50-minute day but you've only got 20 minutes to spare, so what? Twenty minutes'll do just fine."

A B O V E   A L L   E L S E . . .
Allen's long-and-slow approach to endurance training won't work if you violate its main tenet: Stay below your maximum aerobic heart rate at all times. If you find yourself impatient and compelled to cheat by doing more, increase duration, not intensity.

Start each workout extra slow. Rather than simply bolting out the door, Allen actually walks the first two blocks and then does a ten-minute mile before working up toward his aerobic threshold.

Contrary to the old joggers' tale that says that you're within your aerobic range if you can hold a conversation with your training partner (or sing along with the track on your Discman), the most accurate way to gauge your effort is via your pulse. If you have trouble taking yours on the fly, consider shelling out for a heart-rate monitor.

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