March 9, 2023

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The craziest training program ever to produce a marathon world record

In December, 2018, 70-yr-old American Gene Dykes stunned the marathon world by breaking the age-group record of the legendary Ed Whitlock. Dykes ran a 2:54:23 in Jacksonville, FL. A little more than 3 years later, Dutchman Jo Schoonbroodt, 71, took 4 seconds off Dykes’s mark at the Maasmarathon in Belgium.

And he did it with a training program that seems to have broken all the rules.

But first, a little background. A year after Dykes ran Jacksonville, the New England Journal of Medicine (free full text) published a Letter describing the outcome of laboratory testing on Dykes. Last week, Frontiers in Physiology published a much deeper investigation (link below) of Schoonbroodt’s training and physiology, and directly compared him with Dykes. The contrasts are startling, and perhaps illuminating (Though one can never extract too much meaning from these one-off “case studies.”)

Here’s the “tale of the tape” as comparisons between boxers used to be termed. The two runners weighed almost the same (142/143 pounds). Both were a little taller than I would have expected at 5’ 11’ (JS) and 5’10” (GD). They had nearly identical vo2 max results, 46+ ml/kg/min. Dykes was substantially fatter at 19% body fat vs Schoonbroodt’s 13.6%.

(Medical studies don’t use subject’s names, but they are allowed to say things like “broke the record for the 70-74 yr old marathon in May, 2022.” So it’s not hard to deduce who’s who in these reports.)

Treadmill testing revealed modest differences between the two runners, primarily that Schoonbroodt was about 8% more economical than Dykes. Then again, he wore super shoes during the treadmill testing, and Dykes didn’t. (Both wore super shoes in their record-setting races.)

What made Schoonbroodt more economical? There’s no sure answer to this question, but that didn’t stop researcher Bas van Hooren (himself a 28:41 10K runner) from speculating. He was no doubt emboldened by the rather remarkable 7-plus years of training information that Schoonbroodt provided. This data was backed up by his Strava-logged runs, plus 3 weeks when he wore a heart rate monitor provided by the researchers.

In 2015 Schoonbroodt ran an average of 49 mi/week, which he increased to 58 the next year. Then he got down to work. By 2021, he was logging 83 mi/week. Sounds nasty, right? But quantity means little without a quality factor, and Schoonbroodt was chugging along at a pedestrian 11:30/mi pace. Despite the slow training, he ran his record-setting marathon the following May at 6:39 pace.

A zone by zone analysis of Schoonbroodt’s training found him in Zone 1 for 97 percent of his running. He had no injuries during this period. By comparison, Dykes reports that he was running 40 to 50 miles per week during his buildup to Jacksonville (along with an amazing number of ultra races on weekends.)

Can we draw any conclusions from this side-by-side comparison? Van Hooren writes: “The better running economy [of JS] is likely a consequence of an almost double weekly training distance.” He also has a very high percent of slow twitch muscle fibers--over 90%. Dykes has not been tested for fiber types.

This paper adds to a preliminary amount of research suggesting that top age-group marathon runners maintain performance more through high-mileage training (even if at a slow pace) rather than high-intensity training. More at Frontiers in Physiology (free full text).

What to eat just before bedtime

Just about everyone I know is trying to reduce their post-dinner snacking and calorie consumption. Even if you’re not on a Time Restricted Eating program, you’ve probably gotten the message that consuming extra calories before a long period of inactivity (like sleep) can send your blood glucose out of control. On the other hand, moving right after eating helps control glucose.

But there might be an exception to this nighttime snacking rule for hard-training athletes. A new RCT study has shown that consuming 360 calories of a whey-casein protein snack before bedtime “increases both mitochondrial and myofibrillar protein synthesis rates during overnight recovery from exercise.” 

The study began when the 36 male subjects completed an hour of endurance exercise in the lab 4 hours prior to their bed time. Then, just before sleep, they slurped down a whey or casein protein drink, or a noncaloric placebo drink. Both protein drinks “resulted in greater mitochondrial and myofibrillar protein synthesis overnight when compared with placebo.” The whey and casein proteins produced similar results--neither was better than the other.

The implication here is that a pre-sleep protein drink could increase all the other good things that happen when you are asleep. You get training adaptation, and recovery. More at Sports Medicine (free full text).

A pain paradox. But true. And it feels so good

There was a time when runner’s high was regarded as a quasi-mystical, zen-like state that some athletes experienced while running. Now it’s more often seen as a condition that results from the release of endocannabinoids in the brain. That is, it’s not so much mystical as biochemical.  

The release of these “eCBs” is believed “to alleviate pain, induce mild sedation, increase euphoric levels, and have anxiolytic effects [anti anxiety effects].” In our stress-filled world, many find these an important reward for their running. More at International J. of Molecular Sciences (free full text).

There’s also new evidence, from a study of more than 31,000 individuals, that those who exercise regularly report “lower odds of experiencing pain” in their daily life. In fact, they were only half as likely to report pain as low-level exercisers. This means that regular exercise is a “potential risk factor for minimizing development of chronic pain.” Nice. I’ll take it. I especially like that it’s opposite to the “exercise produces pain” belief that many mistakenly harbor. More at Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

SHORT STUFF you don’t want to miss 

>>> Young runners respond to “extrinsic motivation” (friends and social relationships) to stick with running, but masters athletes use intrinsic factors like challenge and self-competition.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. See you again next week. Amby

NOTE: If you were a subscriber to the complete, full-text version of RLRH for $4/month, you would also have received new articles about:

# How to know when you’re training too hard

# Plus, a simple hack to help you avoid overtraining

# The truth about caffeine and fat burning

# What female runners need to know to prevent knee injuries

# When to consume “energy shots” and when not to

# Why treadmill running is good for your leg muscles

# A surprising stride-analysis tool that fits in your ear

# An inspirational “be happy” quote from Haruki Murakami

CLICK HERE for details about subscribing to the complete, full text edition of “Run Long, Run Healthy.