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Next to cross-country skiing, running is the best type of fitness training for all sports

Frank Horwill explains why running is considered to be the best form of fitness training.

A famous Cuban boxing coach told me many years ago, "A man can be the most skilful performer in the world, but if he runs out of steam halfway through a contest a less able opponent who is fitter will always win". He went on to add: "If you have two contestants of equal ability, I always back the one who has done the most road-work".

The critical question we have to ask is - what amount of total muscle mass is used for any particular sport? Cyclists use 40%, runners 60%, and cross-country skiers 80%, double the energy cost of cycling. We can safely say that in any sport where it is necessary to propel the body at speed for most of the game, about 50% of muscle mass is used. Theoretically, then, the best type of fitness training for all sports is cross-country skiing, where V02max readings of 85mIs/kg/min for top performers have been recorded.

However, a lot of time is needed to learn to ski efficiently, and what happens if there is no snow? Therefore, we are left with running. Over the past 35 years, I have been asked to assist with fitness programs for various sports, including the Army. An early influence on me was the coach of the Australian men's national hockey team, who divulged to me at Crystal Palace that each member of the team had to do 40 miles a week carrying his hockey stick!

Energy Pathways

D. Matthews and E. Fox, in their revolutionary book, "The Physiological Basis of Physical Education and Athletics", divided the running requirements of various sports into the following "energy pathways": ATP-PC and LA, LA-02, and 02.

  • ATP - Adenosine Triphosphate: a complex chemical compound formed with the energy released from food and stored in all cells, particularly muscles. Only from the energy released by the breakdown of this compound can the cells perform work. The breakdown of ATP produces energy and ADP.
  • PC - Phosphate-creatine: a chemical compound stored in muscle, which when broken down, aids in the manufacture of ATP. The combination of ADP and PC produces ATP.
  • LA - Lactic acid: a fatiguing metabolite of the lactic acid system resulting from the incomplete breakdown of glucose. However, Noakes in South Africa has discovered that although excessive lactate production is part of the extreme fatigue process, it is the protons produced at the same time that restrict further performance
  • O2 means aerobic running in which ATP is manufactured from food, mainly sugar and fat. This system produces ATP copiously and is the prime energy source during endurance activities

These energy pathways are time duration restricted. In other words, once a specific time elapses that specific pathway is no longer used. There is some controversy about these limitations, but the consensus is:

Duration Classification Energy supplied by
1-4 secs Anaerobic ATP
4-20 secs Anaerobic ATP + CP
20-45 secs Anaerobic ATP + CP + muscle glycogen
45-120 secs Anaerobic, lactic Muscle glycogen
120-240 secs Aerobic + anaerobic Muscle glycogen lactic acid
240-600 secs Aerobic Muscle glycogen + fatty acids

Here is an energy pathway classification for some of the more popular sports:

Sport ATP-PC and LA LA-02 O2
Soccer (defence) 80% 20% 0%
Hockey 60% 20% 20%
Tennis 70& 20% 10%
Basketball 85% 15% 0%
Volleyball 90% 10% 0%
Rowing 20% 30% 50%

Translated into action

How do these findings relate to practical fitness training sessions? Let us take the sport of volleyball - 90% ATP-PC and LA, 10% LA-02. The majority of training sessions could be 16 x 200m fast strides with three times the duration of the run as recovery. For example, 4 x 4 x 200 in 30 seconds with 90 seconds recovery, or 8 x 400 in two sets of four with twice the time of the repetition as rest, e.g. 2 x 4 x 400 in 64 seconds with 128 seconds rest.

The recovery after each set is dependent on how long the pulse takes to drop to 130 beats a minute. The LA-02 pathway used in volleyball is small. For every ten training sessions done using the ATP-PC and LA pathway, one is done at LA-02. This can be 5 x 600 fast stride, with double the time of the rep as recovery. For example, 5 x 600 in 105 seconds with 210 seconds rest or 4 x 800 fast stride in two sets with the same recovery time as the rep, e.g. 2 x 2 x 800 in 2.5 minutes with 2.5 minutes rest. In contrast, it will be noticed that rowing is predominantly aerobic (02) and LA-02. For the first, there are several options:

  • 35-minute steady runs
  • 25-minute fast runs
  • 3 x 1 mile fast (4.5-5.5 minutes) with half the time of the run as a recovery
  • 5 x 1000m in under 3.5 minutes with half the time of the rep as recovery.

Alternative methods

I use a more psychological and empirical approach to the team's sports fitness. The basic plan with all team sports, except for cricket, is:

  1. Do a long slow run once a week the same duration as the match. If the match lasts 90 minutes, the run is 90 minutes. Once this is mastered, it has enormous psychological implications.
  2. Do a faster run half the duration of the match. This would be 40 minutes for a rugby player.
  3. Carry out speed sessions, which mimic the conditions, found in the competition. For instance, a rugby player will run up to 15 metres carrying the ball at a good pace, then sprint 30 metres full out x 10. A popular competitive speed session, commonly known as zigzag sprinting, is where each player runs for 15 metres in a straight line, then does a right-angled turn and runs another 15 metres, then another turn, and so on. The overall time for each player to negotiate four turns (75m) while carrying the ball is taken and compared. No one wants to be disgraced as the slowest; everyone tries to be the fastest!

Flexibility and ingenuity are required when compiling fitness programs for sports. For example, the professional boxer has to contend with 12 three-minute rounds. That calls for a minimum long run of 36 to 72 minutes. He also has to work at a high rate of energy for three minutes in every round with a minute's rest. I have found that 12 x 3 minutes of fast running with a minute's rest after each rep is specific to that sport. A whistle is blown every 20 seconds to ensure the 400m laps are covered in 80 seconds and the distance of 900 metres in 3 minutes. As fitness improves, greater distances can be covered.

Quantum leaps in fitness

One of the benefits of possessing a heart-rate monitor is that numerous different exercises can be performed where the propulsion of body weight is the main factor, and the training threshold is recorded. Attempts have been made to carte blanche this threshold by many physiologists.

Karvonen's threshold was popular for many years. For this, you take your resting pulse before training and deduct it from 200, then take 60% of this figure and add it to your resting pulse. The result is the pulse rate to be achieved throughout the training activity. Example: resting pulse is 70, 70 from 200=130, 60% of 130=78 + 70=148bpm.

This is close, but not close enough since the maximum pulse varies with age and sex. A 30-year-old man in fit condition would have a maximum pulse rate of around 214 minus 0.8 for every year of his life, giving a maximum of 190bpm, and in the example given his threshold would be 142bpm. A 20-year-old female is allocated 209 and 0.7 for every year, giving a maximum of 195. Using the same example, her threshold would be about 142bpm. This means that any work below these readings is not very productive.

Many of the training sessions listed for the various energy pathways listed will take the pulse rate past the magic figure of 90%. That is when fitness begins to make quantum leaps. A simple team fitness test is the total distance run in 15 minutes. Men need to record a distance of 4000m and women 3600. Any athlete who fails this test is potentially a weak link in the team.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HORWILL, F. (2003) Next to cross-country skiing, running is the best type of fitness training for all sports. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 5 / September), p. 5-6

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  • HORWILL, F. (2003) Next to cross-country skiing, running is the best type of fitness training for all sports [WWW] Available from: [Accessed