"The most significant advance in running training since the original interval training."

"If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday." Pearl Buck

History of New Interval Training

Read the history below or click on any topic above to go directly to that section.

‘Kenyan Intervals’ – my response to the Kenyan style

As I moved to Eugene, Oregon in the mid-1970s, I started introducing what I called ‘Kenyan Intervals’ into the training I was giving to the distance athletes at the University of Oregon. The concept was simple and reflected what Brendan Foster had observed about Kenyan running in races. I introduced deliberate variable pace training into the track repetition running so that instead of running, for example 15 x 400m in 68 seconds with 90 seconds recovery, I asked the athletes to achieve the same 68 seconds but run the straights at 66 seconds pace and the bends at 70 seconds pace with, over progressive sessions, a reduced recovery.

In other sessions it might be that I made the Kenyan Intervals slightly faster on the bends with the straights slightly slower or other variations such as changing rhythm every 200m. At this time I only introduced the Kenyan Intervals after a general preparation phase of even paced track repetition running but then continued the varied pace for the remainder of the macrocycle. The athletes enjoyed considerable success using this system, most noticeably in championships settings where they could more readily respond to others’ tactics and apply their own.

These ‘Kenyan Intervals’ were actually ‘Kenyan Repetitions’. But at that time I, like many coaches, incorrectly used the term ‘Interval Training’ interchangeably with ‘Repetition Training’. Now the ‘Kenyan Intervals’ have become a type of New Interval Training and are true ‘Intervals’.

The Kenyan Interval concept was supported by much that I saw in the USA and around the world in the mid-70s. Brendan Foster and his coach developed sessions to prepare for championships where he would, for example, in training run 1600m with alternate very fast 50m and a ‘float’ 50m, developing an ebb and flow of pace, and running ‘miles’ in sub 4:12. At the University of Oregon, which produced a raft of world-class distance athletes at this time, Bill Dellinger developed many ‘foundation’ sessions.

One of these Dellinger sessions was the ‘Oregon 30-40 drill’. In this session the athletes would run 12 or more repetitions of 200m in 30 seconds, with a recovery of 200m in 40 seconds, where the athlete would do only the number that they could hold both the 200m in 30 seconds and the 40 seconds recovery 200m. If the times slowed, the athlete would take a break and then continue to achieve the total repetitions required. But both of these examples had a very sharp distinction between the faster and slower paces whereas the ‘Kenyan Intervals’ I had developed usually practised a more subtle change.

During this period I begun, more often than not, to break the repetitions I was giving to athletes into sets of repetitions to provide a psychological and physiological re-focussing and this would be the case whether it was traditional repetition training or Kenyan Intervals. But then came 1978 and a day which would reinforce some things in my mind but challenge, again, much of the knowledge I had been taught about the physiologists recommendation of the superiority of even-paced running.

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Henry Rono and the 1978 NCAAs

Henry Rono

Henry Rono

In 1978 I was privileged to view one of the most amazing and, for me, influential exhibitions of distance running that I have ever witnessed. It was in the late Spring that the National Collegiate Championships came to Eugene, Oregon and with them there came, from Washington State University, a young athlete named Henry Rono. Rono had already set two world records that year, running 13:08.4 for the 5,000m in Berkeley on April 8th and 8:05.4 for the 3,000m steeplechase in Seattle on May 13th. Later that summer he would go on to achieve world records of 27:22.4 in the 10,000m in Vienna on June 11th and 7:32.1 in the 3,000m in Oslo on June 27th. Four world records, in four different events, in the brief span of 81 days.

But the NCAA Championships in Eugene were an interim point before the ‘storm of achievement’ was completed and Henry Rono was ‘just’ a highly respected collegiate runner. He had come to Eugene with the aim of winning the 3,000m steeplechase, the 5,000m and the 10,000m. On June 1st I sat with friends, perched in the back straight stands of historic Hayward Field and witnessed Rono on the track, now running a qualifying heat of the 5,000 metres. This same day and only three hours earlier I had watched him run the qualifying round of the 3,000m steeplechase, playing with the field and the race to set a NCAA record of 8:18.63. Asked why he had run so fast, Rono replied that his foot was sore and that it just felt easier to run faster.

In the 5,000m qualifier he established a commanding lead from the gun by essentially running it as a workout, each lap running easily on the bends and almost sprinting, the straights. After a first lap of 65 seconds doing this varying pace, he ran splits of 61, 59 and 63 to come through the 1600m in an incredible 4:08. And, remember, this was a qualifying heat.

“What we are witnessing is not taught, and it is not learned."
- Bill Exum, 1976 Olympic track team manager

At 10 laps he was under world record schedule and deliberately eased off to finish in a NCAA record of 13:21.29. This 5,000m did not exhibit the subtle changing of pace that Brendan Foster had spoken of but a full-blooded, intermittent assault on the self and the others in the race. It was the rhythmical continuity and remorseless nature of the effort which impressed itself on my thoughts while all the time Rono had appeared to be ‘elsewhere’. What would the physiologists say now of even-paced running being the most efficient for producing the fastest times? Obviously, some other factor was at play here.

Rono decided two days later to save his sore foot and run just the 3000m steeplechase Final, forsaking the 5,000m and 10,000m Finals. He won the steeplechase comfortably and in so doing established another NCAA record of 8:12.39. The results that followed later that June came as no surprise to those who had been in Eugene but it took a few years before I started to fully understand the implications of what lay behind what I had witnessed.

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The Human Potential Movement

Along with the radiation of hard sport science research in the 1970s there was a shift in the thoughts and actions of society as a whole. Coming out of the initial experimentation of pushing personal and society’s boundaries in the late 1960s, the 70s heralded an explosion of interest in exploring what the human body, mind and spirit could achieve. This exploration was all loosely bundled under the term, ‘Human Potential Movement’. It embraced themes about ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘being the best you could be’. It was a natural consequence that this movement should contribute within the sporting context, where achieving your potential and unlocking ultimate performance levels was, and is, so keenly valued.

At this time and again in the early 80s, I was studying at the University of Oregon and encountered the work of many authors who influenced and shaped, and continue to influence and shape, the philosophy and processes I involve with my coaching. These included writers such as Abraham Maslow, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Timothy Galwey, Bengt Saltin, Albert Bandura, Hans Selye and Gunnar Borg. As an example, Borg’s work on the rating of perceived exertion, RPE, was particularly influential on the way I had begun to structure training sessions. His research, supported by others, showed that the psychophysical function of perception of effort was more closely correlated to blood lactate levels than was heart rate or some arbitrary target time. If athletes were to run relative to their lactate threshold, it would be more accurate to do this from perception of effort than with a heart rate monitor.

This use of perceived exertion had the powerful added value of involving the athlete directly, developing their awareness of what was happening as they ran and giving them control over their actions. I used perceived efforts for the athletes through all their runs, from stressor sessions to recovery runs. With the growing awareness of the importance and role of the perception of effort came a natural development of rhythmic running and pace changes. I was to reflect later that my running training and coaching had moved to emphasise the process of running rather than the outcome. Time became feedback to aid and develop the athlete’s awareness of rhythm, not an outcome target in and of itself. Outcomes were and still are important but the best and most consistent outcomes are the natural result of a stable process.

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