Dr Matt Long assesses the legacy and future challenges of the five-tier system of training which the late Frank Horwill MBE advocated.
According to Moscow Olympic 800m champion Steve Ovett, "Frank and a few other coaches were in my mind solely responsible for pulling British middle-distance running up to a level which matched and occasionally beat the rest of the world."
This article assesses the legacy and the future challenges of Horwill (1991) five-tier training system.
Multi-tier Training Revisited
Progressing athletes through five different paced sessions over a specified period.
The four-seconds rule
Horwill asserted that an athlete's pace slows by about four seconds a lap for men, or five seconds for women, as the race distance increases typically between 400m and 5km.
The principle of specificity over 10-14 days
Benefits of Horwill's multi-tier system
Evidence suggests Horwill was heavily influenced by Franz Stampfl (1913-1995). According to Peter Thompson, "Frank Horwill has 'seen far' and would recognise the giants upon whose shoulders he has stood, while he has also continuously seen things freshly and innovatively". (Thompson, 2011). Although undoubtedly an innovator Horwill's legacy is based on the fact that he could formalise and articulate a system in terms of written discourse.
Race pace specificity
The utilisation of the system requires both coach and athlete to be aware of how close to their race pace they are operating. Bud Baldaro asserts, "The Five tier system is potentially a superb vehicle to use. It's vital to stay in contact with speed all year round." Alan Morris, who has drawn on the system over 15 years, endorses the "predictive value of the four-second rule." It can also be applied to the race situation, Dave Sunderland confirms, "I use it as a racing tool in the early competition phase with races between 400m and 5km." Jenny Harris maintains, "With the rise in the use of heart rate monitors and the availability of physiology testing within the sport, it is easier than ever to work at exactly the right pace to develop as an endurance runner."
Focus on youth development
Harris has utilised the multi-tier system continuously throughout her 13-year coaching career. "I continually advocate mixed pace training above just high-intensity training or high-volume training with young athletes.
Example Training Zone Distribution - Harris et al. (n.d)
While the above is an evolution from Horwill's work, the notion of multi-paced training is evident with Harris et al. (n.d) advocating, "a training plan which mixes different speeds (including training the ATP system) within a single session." As athletes move from youth to junior age groups, she maintains that "The multi-tier system is a great legacy for coaches of today's younger athletes as it ensures the development of all energy systems needed for endurance running."
Utilisation by the club and international athlete
The system can be utilised by both club and international level athletes alike. Nadeem Shaikh plans his mesocycles in six-week blocks for his young athletes at Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers. Having had the personal experience of learning from Horwill himself, he explains, "If the athlete's desired goal is to run at 58 seconds per lap over 800m, then we will practice individual 400m reps in training every five to seven days to mimic that pace. The key is to ensure the correct load and recovery is administered throughout the training session suitable to the athlete in question."
A critical legacy that the system leaves us with is its application in an international, if not global, context. This is unsurprising as Horwill lectured in countries as diverse as Canada, Poland, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Bahrain, Portugal, and South Africa. Horwill's work has been accessible to and adopted by a much wider audience with the internet. An exemplary of multi-paced training, Australian marathon great Robert de Castella commented, "I think the Aussie way is pretty cool because the athletes learn the system early on in their careers and then fine-tune it." (Beck, 2008)
The notion of a 'Horwillian approach' is embedded in coaching discourses. (Beck, 2008). According to Sunderland, "The system has merits and has prevailed over a time which is a good indicator. Therefore, it has a legacy, but it is not a panacea and one of many training systems that the middle-distance runner needs to utilise." Bud Baldaro maintains that "Seb Coe was both a supporter of the system and a user of the system, and that speaks volumes." To this end, the system will forever be associated with the nostalgia of the Coe-Ovett-Cram era of global middle-distance supremacy enjoyed by Britain in the early 1980s.
Integration within a holistic approach
Horwill's system is analogous to moving through the gears in a motor vehicle. To this end, the system was never intended to offer a holistic, complete middle-distance or endurance training method. According to Geoff James, a future central challenge is for the 21st-century coach to integrate multi-tier training with a complete diet of activity that may, for instance, involve core and strength work of the kind used by Horwill himself to complement the system.
Horwill was a keen advocate of completing track sessions performed at race pace throughout the 12 months of training. However, slavish adherence to this philosophy in severe weather could be an incitement to injury. If misapplied, this could result in inefficient utilisation of periodisation in setting appropriate work for the athlete. Dave Sunderland asserts the need to utilise the four second-rule at points in the macrocycle of training, maintaining that, "As a training tool I use it in the pre-competition phase only as a guide to the athlete's endurance (over-distance) and speed endurance (under distance)."
Although specific in terms of the duration of recoveries for both speed and aerobic endurance sessions, Horwill's system was articulated when passive rather than active recoveries were in vogue. Since the early 1970s, and separately, Thompson (1995) has pioneered a method formalised as the 'New Interval Training' in 1995 that is underpinned by the principle that repetitions need to be interspersed with recoveries of a very active nature. www.newintervaltraining.com). This leaves the modern-day coach with the potential key challenge of retaining multi-tier training while integrating the practice of active recoveries. However, Thompson offers the solution to this since he has coached this from the outset.
A potential challenge is how to adopt a system formalised in the 1970s to the demands of coaching today if one is to remain athlete-centred rather than coach-centred. Horwill advocated a system based on distinctive paces being run in separate specific sessions over a tightly defined period. Baldaro's coaching practice with elite athletes such as Hannah England, for instance, appears to be far more fluid. "We tend to use lots of sessions where we mix speeds within one session. For example, my athletes may run at 3km, 1500m, and 800m paces in one workout. This is hard but pretty effective. The key is how you adapt it to both athlete's needs and event-specific needs." Thompson (1994), also working with world-class athletes, has demonstrated the power of his 'Lactate Dynamics Training' that can see athletes running two, three or four distinct different paces in a single repetition.
Horwill's most famous athlete, double world cross country silver medallist Tim Hutchings commented, "Like with the passing of so many of life's most precious things, we only appreciate Frank fully now that we no longer have access to them." This work has demonstrated that the multi-tier legacy is indeed a precious one, that it continues to be appreciated by contemporary coaches and that thanks to its written testimony, both athlete and coach alike have access to a system that has survived the test of time.
Face-to-face, telephone, and online interviews with the following sample of high-profile coaches inform the results of this article:
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education, having delivered sessions at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.