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The History of the Interval and World Records in the Modern Era


A review of the evolution of the interval training systems as  it relates to world record breaking peak performances, especially middle distance running, may be  helpful for a full understanding of  the method’s potency. Usually, when there was a vast improvement in events such as the 800, and mile run, it was the result of a new interval training discovery. Except for the emergence of the East African distance runners, who also use forms of interval training, the history of middle distance record breaking can be tracked to the science of interval training. It is the techniques of middle distance oriented methodology within which the RIS formulas are built. Moreover,  this advancement was usually accomplished with a small group of athletes trained by a progressive thinking coach. A biography of these interval trained athletes and the means of the coach’s discovery is foremost in this overview of interval training and why it is the method of choice for record breakers.

Everyone who admires Olympic history will recognize the name Pavvo Nurmi, the most prodigious middle distance runner of the 1920’s. .  The leader of the group known as ‘The Flying Finns’ Nurmi trained on  the frozen trails of his native land by alternating slow and then fast running  to increase his stamina and endurance. Next, during World War II the nation of Sweden remained neutral, and they took this opportunity to expand their nation’s athletic performance. Interval training was still somewhat non precise, however Coach Gosta Holmer and his two athletes, Gunder Haegg and Arne Anderson,  came very close to breaking the four minute mile. They used a technique of speed play which is called fartlek in Swedish.

The terminology of fartlek remains a staple of modern day, athletes. It is used by runners to define sequential fast followed by slow running. Holmer used the technique on a 2 mile forest loop where he instructed Anderson and Haegg to run fast when the instinct moved them and slower to recover. He recognized the heightening of their heart beat on the faster part of fartlek and stipulated this acceleration  to the reason they ran near 4:01 for the mile on various occasions.

While Germany was motivating their nation to take over the world in the late 1930’s , there was a brief period of history where athletic training and research gained attention. Two physiologist named Reindell and Gerschler were studying the human function of the body and applying it to track or athletics.  Many of the concepts used for exacting interval training can be traced back to the laboratories of Reindell and Gerschler. During the 1930’s they placed their athletes on the running track for precise workouts which were carefully monitored. It was a golden age where the best physiologist in the world and best track coaches were working simultaneously. To their credit was the development of the concept of the Exercise Heart Range and exact rest periods for the heart to return to a particular levels before the next bout of interval. With this interval method, the world record in the 800 meters was improved 2 seconds by  the pre-war German Rudolph Harbig to 1:46 in 1938. He died on the Western Front during the World War. Reindell and Gerschler remained working in somewhat obscurity until after the war and then  produced  another 800 meter  world champion named Brian Hewson in the early 1950’s.

Post World War II was a period of expansion and progress. The nation of England took center stage in this new sensibility of adventure and noblesse.   Edward Hillary climbed  the highest mountain in the world Mount Everest, and the target of the first four minute mile was being challenged  in England but also in the United States, Australia and Hungary.

Roger Bannister, an Oxford medical student, had only 40 minutes a day to train to attempt to break four minutes. However, assisted by coach Frantz Stamfl and a group of fellow Oxfords Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway they trained for the record attempt. Stamfl believed that if Bannister could run 10 times 400 yards under 60 seconds with a timed 2 minute rest he could run the first four minute mile. As history can profess, once he made that training goal, the trio made lasting history by pacing Bannister to run the first 3 something mile. In my first book, Beyond Jogging: the innerspaces of Running, I placed on the cover a picture of bespectacled Chris Brasher pacing Bannister at the half way mark of the fabled race. I believed such as the Grecian urn in which the warriors chase each other, always in pursuit but never catching that this magic next two minutes of the four minute mile attempt would be a lasting historical moment. It was and is a verification of the power of interval training that was applied in the classic sense of one distance and a standard timed rest period.

Directly after Bannister broke the first four minute mile my mentors entered the running scene. Mihlay Igloi, the master of the short interval in sets, and the legendary Percy Well Cerutty, the finest motivator of runners ,and developer of interval resistance running took center stage.  Cerutty’s John Landy was the second man to break the four minute mile as he did in Tuku, Finland only a few weeks after Bannister’s record run. . Interest in the four minute mile hit its peak when Bannister and Landy met each other at the 1955 Commonwealth Games. In one of the most classic mile races of all time, Bannister passed Landy on the closing stretch as John inadvisedly looked over one shoulder as the victorious Bannister zoomed by him on the outside lane. . It was the first time two men had run under four minutes for the mile in one race.

In the next few years, my mentors took center stage in the evolutionary history of the application of interval training for peak performance in running. Mihlay Igloi perhaps more than any coach in history understood the physiological reactions  of every aspect of interval training. He wasn’t a physiologist but understood intuitively what was occurring in the athletes body. His concepts evolved from the work of Reindell and Gerschler and was originally known for the University of its origin- the Freiburg Interval System.  Training with Igloi meant a total commitment with workouts being twice a day and upwards of 5 hours a day. In 1955 his trio of Hungarians who also served in the national army of Tabori, Rosevogi and Iharos used his method to break every world record from the 800 to 10,000 meters.  He could usually name the day when they would break the record. The Russians invaded Hungary and destroyed the sport infrastructure of the nation. Not one of Igloi’s runners even made it to the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games. Shortly thereafter, Sports Illustrated brought Igloi to America where he founded first the Santa Clara Youth Village team and eventually the Los Angeles Track Club.

From 1958 to the early 1970’s Igloi’s athletes were the best in the United States.  He could take a group of 40 runners break them up into separate groups, join them together for certain aspects of the training and then separate for individual training. He would have groups finish at the same time and his m ethological mind would just laugh to itself. His finest runner, Jim Beatty, was the first runner to break the indoor four minute mile. More significantly for our work, the world class and local residents came for training. And Igloi’s terminology like fresh swing, good swing remain part of the RIS lexicon. When I trained with the master coach I was a college graduate student, and would go to breakfast with the master coach when the others were off to work. He mentored me on napkins in the diner and although I never ran under four minutes for him, grew tremendously in my understanding of the principles of his method interval running.

During these same years the golden age of middle distance running under legendary coach Percy Wells Cerutty emerged in Australia. Like Igloi, Cerutty developed his own style of teaching which included a philosophy called Stotanism and use of sand dunes as a means of interval conditioning. His finest runner, and maybe greatest miler of all time, Herb Elliott, ran 43 intervals up the big sand dune while training to break the world record by the largest margin in modern history. Michael Murphy of Esalen brought coach Cerutty to the States in 1974. We had workshops for Cerutty all over the country, and I was his personal assistant and student. He would tell our group how Landy did not fulfill his promise but the running and style of Elliott was his fulfillment. I have the original picture of Cerutty leading Elliott up the large sand dune, and am one of only 20 who he endowed with a Certificate to teach his principles and techniques. He was truly a pioneer.

During the 1980’s the middle distance record book was rewritten by the East Africans such as the Kenyans and Ethiopians. The typical workout for records is to live in the training camp and train three times a day. Within this structure were many different kinds of interval training. For instance usually two or three times a week there is an interval session. These are derived from traditional interval types, and supported by massive amounts of distance work and competitive trail running.

The pioneering physiological advancement is not yet completed. In the early 2000’s a new phenomena entered the scene and was rarely defeated. His name was Hichman El Gerrouj of Morocco. His coach figured out a way to flush  lactic acid through his blood stream during the interval workout.  For instance, instead of doing many 400’s with a timed rest in between, his coach had him do a timed jog for a particular distance. From this manipulation of the energy system he was able to bring the mile down to 3:42 seconds.

In summary, as you can see, the many derivations of interval training has brought about world records and we are utilizing this knowledge for people of all levels of health and fitness to improve their cardio capacities.


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