Steve Magness – The Science of Running – Athletics Illustrated

© Copyright – 2012 – Athletics Illustrated
Steve Magness recently accepted a coaching position with the University of Houston, his alma mater. Previously he was assistant coach at Nike Oregon Project, leading up to the 2012 London Olympic Games. He ran in the NCAA for Rice University and the University of Houston.
Personal bests:
1500m- 3:43.87
1 mile- 4:01.02
10k CC- 29:50
10mi- 50:15
Magness writes training and science-based articles primarily for the website The Science of Running. Below we discuss his new team at the University of Houston and some of his current subject matter on the Science of Running.
Christopher Kelsall: How and when did you discover running?
Steve Magness I played soccer growing up and would always run well in the P.E. physical fitness mile. My grandfather was a low 4:20s HS miler way back in the day in like the 30’s and my dad ran track in HS and they would always try and get me to run. In 5th grade I remember running 6:10 for the mile and I thought if I actually trained and ran a mile each day as fast as I could that in a few years I could set the world record…I tried that for about a week then decided it wasn’t worth it. You have got to love being oblivious when you are young. I didn’t actually train until the summer before my freshman year in HS. That’s when my HS coach essentially told me if I wanted to be great at something I couldn’t split my time, and thankfully I chose running.
CK: Congratulations on your new position with the University of Houston, your alma mater. How is the team looking for this year?
SM: They are doing a fantastic job of buying into the new program and putting in the work. We have a very talented middle-distance group on the men’s side so it’s been exciting to see the progress they’ve made in just a few weeks. It started to translate into our cross-country results, but we’ve got a lot of work left to do.
CK: How does that new program differ from before?
SM: It’s just a completely different point of emphasis. We’re kind of playing a little catch up because I didn’t start until school started, but we’re doing a lot of individualization for the men and women. For the most part we’re working on developing high-end aerobic endurance right now. Long tempos, aerobic intervals with short rest, alterations, etc. While balancing it out with enough speed maintenance. It’s just a lot of different work than what they’re used to. And we have a lot of middle-distance guys who traditionally have been more 800m based guys who have really stepped up and contributed in CC. On the women’s side it’s a lot of the same things. It’s just a different kind of work than they are used to.
CK: When you say you have “a lot of work to do”, how does the team rank in the conference now and what goals do you have for this season?
SM: On the men’s side we’re ranked 10th in the region and probably around 4th in the conference right now. We’ve got one runner in particular who has a shot at nationals or at least getting close if his cards fall right. Tulsa is number 10 in the country right now so they look to be the heavy favorites. But we’d like to be right in there with UTEP and Rice, among others. Really this year is just to take the next step. We want to establish ourselves as threats on the regional level and then progress from there. We don’t have a senior on the team on the men’s side so we’ll bring everyone back. For the women, we have a wide range of athletes who really haven’t been tested before in training. They’ve taken some good steps forward.
CK: Having been an assistant coach at Nike Oregon Project, what did you see as the key training ingredients that propelled Mo Farah to his two Olympic gold medal performances?
SM: There wasn’t anything magical in the training. Mo is a guy with a great attitude towards hard work. He enjoys the training and I think he gets more out of it because of that. What made the difference was Mo’s total commitment to running and the group doing every possible thing imaginable to ensure success.
CK: How about Galen Rupp, the silver medalist in the 10,000m – same attitude and talent level? Clearly the right coach is very important.
SM: Galen’s key to success lies in his ability to recover, plain and simple. Because of that, he can handle more work than anyone else probably in the world. He bounces back faster than anyone, and he can be absolutely dead one day and kill a workout the following day. It’s kind of unbelievable.
CK: Is that a genetic thing – the ability to recover at a kind of unbelievable rate?
SM: It’s probably partly genetic and partly trained. As far as being a trained response, Salazar’s training is very intense, so I think they’ve done a good job of progressively increasing the training load. If you look at it genetically, recoveries are heavily influenced by a number of factors. You could look at hormones that influence recovery like various growth hormones or testosterone and my guess would be that he’d be high in something like those. That’d be my best guess physiologically why he bounces back.
CK: You wrote, “… with recreational runners, you saw big increases in LT after 2-3 months of training at threshold and then no further improvement in LT afterwards with continued training. What this tells me is if they wanted to keep improving the threshold, the stimulus had to change. They had to do some work above LT, some mixed intervals, aerobic intervals, or alternations. Whatever they chose, the stimulus had to change”. Or do you think the next cycle of training should see a continued improvement in the aerobic capacity via primarily more steady state volume?
SM: The stimulus has to change in order to get adaptation. We can’t keep doing the same workout over and over again because the body adapts. So if the body has adapted, then we have to push it in another direction. What direction that goes depends on what the athlete needs. You can increase volume, speed, density, insert “stuff”, manipulate the recovery, and on and on. Each route gives you a slightly different result. For example, if all we did was increase the volume, then we’d build his ability to endure at that pace. So we’d stretch the threshold out, or how long he could stay at that pace under control. This might be useful in training for a half or a full marathon. Another option would be to add some alternating component to the threshold work. Here you’d work on your ability to recover and clear lactate as a fuel. So plenty of places to go, you just got to choose and know why.
CK: It is interesting in your “Fallacy of V02max” article, you talk about the tail wagging the dog in regards to the giant theory of V02max training and that Dr. Timothy Noakes found that the cardiac output lessens, not because of an arbitrary limit, but because of the work – or lack thereof – done by the muscles due to fatigue. This brings around to the fact that the athlete needs to build the aerobic capacity to its highest through steady running mostly running below AT, rather than working on improving V02max, yes (to achieve the higher cardiac function)?
SM: What I think it means is we stop doing workouts designed to improve some specific function like VO2max. Aerobically there are all sorts of stimuli that work. You have to build the foundation with lots of easy to steady/moderate running before moving on. We tend to put too much emphasis on things like VO2max because it’s easy to understand and process. Vo2max is the result, not the goal.
CK: Both of these two answers above speak to the proposition that nearly everyone, at all levels, needs a coach.
SM: A coach is someone who can provide an outside objective look at things. When you do it yourself you can’t be objective. I remember when I was running everyone always thought I coached myself because I loved training, but that wasn’t true. In both my college situations, in my several years running post collegiately, I had a coach. I knew the X and O’s back then to do a decent job, but I know I couldn’t be objective on myself. So I think it’s important to have someone who can take a step back and see the bigger picture.
CK: Did having an understanding of the X and O’s make it more difficult to let go and let someone else’s observations enter the conversation?
SM: Not really because I’ve always been a person to put full trust and belief into the program I was doing. Even my first couple years in college, I just did exactly what I was told because that’s kind of the way I was brought up to be coached. Since then, I’ve always gone with coaches I thought I could trust. Post collegiately, I was fortunate enough to work with Marco Ochoa (2:13 marathoner) who was a (Joe) Vigil guy, and then Scott Razcko who has had more success than people give him credit for.
Stimulus and recovery
CK: Your latest article at the Science of Running website, you discuss Moses Mosop’s training and how he trains at the percentages of 80%, 10% and 10% for zones 1 (easiest) and zone 2 and 3 (most intense). With 52.33% of his overall mileage at “regeneration pace” do you think that this is a telling indicator as to how much recovery athletes need, as much as those paces are about aerobic development and not the maligned junk mileage?
SM: When you train hard, you have to recover. I think what most people think is that the hard workouts are all that matter and the rest is “junk” mileage. The reality is that the mileage helps with recovery and with aerobic adaptation. Think of it like this. If I took one of my athletes, let’s say Sara Hall, and had her do six miles of broken threshold work with a two-to-three mile warm-up and cool-down on Friday morning, will her body be fully recovered by Friday afternoon when she does an easy couple miles shakeout? No. Will it be recovered by the next day? No. The reality is that in the same day or in the days to follow, you’re running with lower glycogen levels, you’re muscle tension is different, you’ve got damage and micro tears in the muscle, and your body is going through a repair process. You start your next run or two in that state. So now you have to use a slightly different fuel ratio, slightly different muscle fibers are activated, a slightly different neural pathway is required to activate stuff, and so on. You’re essentially getting a training effect because you are training in a pre-fatigued state. So, it’s not “junk” when you’re just running mileage.
CK: Not to belabour your point and perhaps to expand on it. If your heart rate is high because you are recovering, then you are getting some cardiovascular stimulus even at slow efforts, yes?
SM: Yes that’s also true. So you’re stressing your central cardiovascular system slightly more than you would at a given pace. So sometimes even those runs where you slog through it might be giving you some sort of training effect.
CK: That leads to the theory that any training provides stimulus, no matter how small it may be. For example the Japanese marathon runners are notorious for walking for hours on end between training bouts. What are your thoughts on their urban hikes that can go on for three hours?
SM: That’s an interesting one. I think here you get in a situation where you ask is the stress worth the pay-out in terms of adaptation. I could see the long walks having some sort of adaptation, and possibly aiding in recovery if you’re adapted to it, but I’m not entirely sure.
CK: You are currently researching more on Galvanic Skin Response, which apparently measures the response of the sympathetic nervous system, pre-workout. Can you give us the lowdown on GSR and what future information you may be posting about it at the Science of Running?
SM: I’ve got a lot of data on Jackie Areson with that. I need to get time and do some actual data analysis of all of the numbers. We might make a study out of it if I get some time to do so. It’s just another simple little measuring device. We can’t put too much emphasis on it just because it measures something we can’t quantify, but it also could provide some interesting data. What I’m looking for is essentially the hour leading up to a workout. I want to see if we can quantify some level of arousal where she nails a workout versus when it’s sub-par or she’s a bit fatigued.
CK: And there should be a correlation with resting heart rate that is parallel? Will you monitor both to measure the two?
SM: Yes, you can definitely tie in resting HR. It’ll give another measure that might be useful. And we’ve also looked at Heart Rate Variability as well which is another easy measure. We honestly are very old school and don’t use many gadgets. The gadgets and little experiments are done to try and see if we can figure out why things are happening. And it’s because I’m a bit of a science nerd and so are some of my athletes so it keeps it interesting.
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