Sunday, May 10, 2009

Coach Knudson

From a favorable article on Lyle Knudson recently appearing in RT
Marilyn Weiss, a former athletic administrator who hired Knudson at both Utah State and Florida, says, "He'll push all his athletes to the limit and then if he sees they don't want to go any further, that's fine. He's got other things to do. But Lyle's not going to coddle anybody. If you were supposed to be on time for a trip but you didn't show up, Lyle would leave you."

His formula began to take shape in 1978. Knudson, a doctoral student with four Olympians already on his coaching resume, was taking a class called Physiological Kinesiology, probing the depths of the human body. He was fascinated by the way
the Europeans improved performance in world-class athletes by studying structural and enzymatic proteins in their muscle fibers; it seemed vastly superior to the American way of putting the general population on treadmills and measuring gas exchange, like VO2 max. He had seen Oregon coach Bill Bowerman succeed by alternating hard days with easy days, which maximized muscle recovery. And he knew all about the failures of LSD training, subscribing instead to speed-intensive workouts. Most fundamentally, Knudson believed in training young athletes in multiple events before allowing them to specialize -- a strategy he picked up from the Russians, who, he points out, "had 5 million kids competing in the pentathlon in any given year. It stuck in my mind."

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Where others sought polish he sought lungs on legs -- raw meat.
He recruited runners nobody else wanted, then taught them his new program. In two years the Gators cracked the nation's top 10. No-name runners were winning SEC titles, chopping 3 minutes off their high school 5K times.

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The program usually works in two-week cycles, though it may be changed to a week when competitions mandate. Everything is based on a "training distance," or TD -- 1600m for the purposes of this explanation. The athlete alternates three easy days with three hard ones, finishing with a Sunday run that is much shorter (about 30 minutes) than a comparable program. On hard days, Knudson's runners begin (and end) with 12 minutes of easy running. Then they will do a sequence of what he calls "dynamic leadups," 20-30 minutes of sprint-related exercises increasing in both speed and range of motion. Next comes the meat. During a two-week cycle, there are six hard days, each designated by a different pace and volume. The paces include an "over over distance" (5,000m), "under under distance" (400m), "over distance" (3,000m), "under distance" (800m), and the TD. The final hard day will be run at a pace determined by Knudson based on where he feels the athlete needs the most work.

He uses a predetermined multiplier to get the volume of each hard day. So on the "under under distance" day, for instance, the runner will run about 1200m at a 400m pace. The key is to understand that they never run based on distance; they run based on time. So if it takes the runner about 60 seconds to run 400 meters, Knudson assigns a certain number of reps that last a certain duration apiece to reach the prescribed volume. The reps can be uniform across a workout (running 24 reps for a time that equates to about 50 meters per rep, with 1-minute recoveries) or they can vary (start short and progress to longer reps, with increasing recovery times). Either way, the volume and pace remain the same. On days when the predetermined pace is slower, the runner runs greater volumes, and vice versa. "The instruction that they are given," Knudson says, "is to
run the entire workout as fast as you can. Not run every rep as fast as you can, but the entire workout." For the six easy days in a two-week cycle, the runner ideally trains alone, completing 6 minutes of easy running, then 12 minutes at anaerobic threshold, then 6 more easy minutes.

Knudson never allows his athletes to run on a track -- and for those training at altitude, he often has them run downhill to simulate sea-level speed. He never times them. "
Stop watches are for people at the meets," he says, an opinion his athletes always appreciate.
"With Lyle's program, you don't have any psychological limits on exactly how fast you can run," says Kris Ihle Helledy, a former Nike-sponsored pro who trained under Knudson in the late '90s. "I had a season under Lyle where I either set personals or was within seconds of personals for eight months straight. I would even set them in training."

And yet the majority of college coaches -- charged with bridging the crucial gap between high school and international competition -- still employ the pyramid model, building high mileage with less speed. This has always driven Knudson crazy. In 2004, at one of the last national meetings he attended --a pre-Olympic gathering of athletes, coaches, and scientists -- Knudson couldn't hold his tongue any longer. "I got fed up when they were talking about speed training for the last lap. And I stood up in the back of the room and said, 'Hey, the problem isn't the last lap.
The problem is maximizing pace throughout the race.'"

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