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Training With Zátopek: Five Lessons From the Greatest Distance Runner of all Time

18/07/2016 15:04 | Updated 18 July 2016

Emil Zátopek's independence of mind was as central to his rise to athletic stardom as it was his banishment from public life.

Two biographies published this year, Richard Askwith's Today we Die a Little and Rick Broadbent's Endurance, suggest that the Czechoslovak runner was not a perennial dissident. For as long he remained in the army, Zátopek had little choice but to obey his Communist paymasters. But if his responsibilities as a soldier and propagandist meant resisting his instinct for doing things differently, his life as an athlete provided an outlet for it. On the track, Zátopek the officer gave way to Zátopek the maverick: fearlessly experimental and occasionally pioneering.

Zátopek's disregard for received wisdom freed him to train both harder and smarter than his rivals. It would be some time before his competitors caught on to the benefits of his routine. Of course, for Zátopek, nothing succeeded like excess, and it would be wrong to suggest that today's recreational runners could gain much more than an injury from replicating his sessions exactly. But if the specifics of his training diaries are best ignored, the principles that underpin them should be learned by every runner looking to improve.

Don't be afraid to experiment
Zátopek's commitment to trial and error was not without its risks. In an effort to increase his lung capacity, he began covering segments of his runs while holding his breath - until once, taking it further than ever before, he passed out. He recognised that nutrition could affect performance, although we might question the extent to which his favoured pre-race concoction of lemon juice (for Vitamin C) and chalk (for calcium) proved advantageous. In contrast, the experiments he carried out on the track - sessions tailored to replicate in training the torture of the race - propelled him to athletic invincibility. There is no single formula for success, but Zátopek's story suggests we ought to develop and redevelop our routine as if there were.

Practice running fast
When asked why he placed so much emphasis on speed work, Zátopek famously responded, "Why should I practice running slowly? I already know how to run slow. I must learn to run fast." Run fast in training, the theory goes, and the race will feel easy. For the Czechoslovak, practicing running fast meant endless sets of 400m repetitions. Compared to his Belgian rival Gaston Reiff, Zátopek did twice as many intervals each week, all of them at a faster pace than the Olympic 5000m champion. The recreational runner may not have Zátopek's powers of recovery - Askwith lists weeks during which he averages 60 reps a day - but we can learn from the gains he made by training fast.

Run by effort, not pace
Long working hours; an uncongenial climate; a training plan that eschewed rest days: there were many reasons why Zátopek wasn't at his best in every session. Taken out of context, the times he ran in practice are unlikely to have pointed to his potential in competition. Zátopek wisely left his intervals untimed. After all, while there are excuses for not hitting a target pace, there are none for a lack of effort. In an era of GPS watches, heart rate monitors and fitness apps, we often place more trust in our tech than ourselves. Zátopek reminds us that the body will dictate what fast means on a given day. Whether it's a mild, windless spring evening at the track or a blustery day on the moors, we know when we're working hard.

Embrace the race
In the summer Zátopek raced every week, and while his record was exceptional, it wasn't unblemished. As an instrument of Party propaganda, he didn't always have control over his racing schedule, but he was never afraid to toe the start line. Even if there wasn't always hope of a PB or a world record (often the same thing for Zátopek), racing was an essential part of his routine. Low-key races helped him refine his tactics, as well as providing an accurate gauge of fitness and a valuable lung-busting workout. When it comes to local races and park runs, today's recreational runners are spoilt for choice. We should bear in mind, as Zátopek surely did, that there is no better preparation for an A race than the low-pressure dress rehearsal of the B race.

Turn bad conditions into good training
Zátopek didn't just endure difficult conditions; he actively sought them out. "It is better to train under bad conditions," he said, "for the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race." This preference for adversity developed into an eccentric brand of resistance training. At least once, he covered a significant distance with his wife on his shoulders. By some accounts, he even took to running in a gas mask. Zátopek's commitment to self-torture encourages us to do anything but spare ourselves the ordeal of going out in the rain or wind. When you next approach a treadmill, think of Zátopek running through deep sand in heavy boots - and consider where it got him.

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