Jack Daniels
Daniels’ Running Formula

Daniels’ Running Formula

by Jack Daniels, 320 pages

Finished on 21st of July, 2023
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One of the most well known books about running training. The author is a highly educated and successful running coach with a number-focused approach and lots of interesting and proven ideas to further the fitness levels of a huge variety of athletes.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

There’s so much wisdom and content on the same level of importance, squeezing it into three sentences doesn’t make much sense. But here’s an attempt.

  1. In order to improve endurance running, training at different speeds is mandatory.
  2. For each run, ask: “What is the purpose of this run?”
  3. Don’t overdo it, stay at a level of fitness for a few weeks before increasing the stress.

🎨 Impressions

This successful running coach with his confusing name has nothing to do with the Whiskey brand, just to put that to the side. He’s a proper PhD and has trained a bunch of Olympians in his career. His approach is highly number-focused and no-nonsense. He developed a smart system consisting of five major running paces, which can be used as a foundation for everyone’s running improvement strategies.

In contrast to a few other similar works by other coaches, I found that his analytical style and disregard of belief systems was refreshing and different, but I still found myself hoping for more reasoning in favor of his system. It’s a common theme that coaches don’t explain the reasons well, but instead just argue from the viewpoint of “I’ve been doing this with my trainees for years now, and it seems to work” – which is fine in and of itself, but leaves me feeling like everyone is just guessing what works. Shouldn’t we be more advanced by now?

There are lots of numbers in the book, which, again, is also fine and desired, but in order to really make use of them for yourself, you need to get a PhD yourself, it seems. All the conversion of units, switching between miles and kilometers, switching between pace measured in miles per minute and seconds per 400m lap, as well as what he calls the VDOT tables which need to be taken into account for all calculations require computing power. Thanks to some developers, there are apps available which do the calculations and make around 150 pages of this book obsolete.

Speaking of his VDOT term, which he coined. I thought this is a bit pretentious to rebrand the ubiquitously known VO2max, but basically meaning the same thing. Most serious runners are aware that it’s the maximum amount of oxygen which the body can utilize during exercise, measured in milliliters per minute per kilogram of body weight. It’s a simple number which is perfect for comparing one’s fitness improvements. Daniels says there’s a difference between the measured amount (done on a treadmill while breathing into a tube hooked up to a special machine) and the calculated amount, which you can do based on a training race result. Sure, he’s basically right, but come on. For all intents and purposes, this is the same thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he trademarked his VDOT.

There are a few more sensible ideas, though. For example, many runners know that heart rate and general running performance is very difficult to compare. So he prepared a table of all the most important factors impacting performance and suggests you use them in addition to your exercise journal. You’re supposed to give measures like last night’s sleep or today’s physical stress a rating between 1 for outstanding and 5 for terrible, and that will make training efforts easier to rate.

He advises for a 180 steps per minute cadence, which I’ve heard many others state as optimum, too, but I still don’t know how to do that during an easy slow run without getting the heart rate to high up. Regarding the foot strike, though, he opposes general wisdom and doesn’t say that striking with the balls of the feet is best, but that this can be different for every individual and one should land on that part of the foot which feels most natural. He gives a few examples of successful runners who heel strike.

There is an extensive chapter about altitude training. From what I’ve seen modern athletes do, this seems to have fallen slightly out of fashion. And this also corresponds with Daniels’ own conclusions: apparently the gains are negligible. And besides, which ambitious amateur would have the capabilities to travel to Mexico City for a six week altitude training camp before running Boston marathon at sea level, for example. This is some elitist stuff, I think. While the effects of altitude training are basically interesting, it takes up much too much space in the book.

The latter half of the book is getting less and less interesting and is filled with tables and training plans which all require you to do lots of math for every single session. And, I’ve found, the plans are astonishingly hard, when I compare them even to the tougher ones I am familiar with. For example, starting a marathon training cycle with a 20 kilometer run at marathon race pace is tough to do, even when it’s at a later stage of the cycle. One of the more interesting training plans is the so-called 5-Week Cycle, a plan which can be done without a break ever. But when I calculate the intensities of each session according to my current VDOT and weekly kilometers, this would be much to tough. I don’t think it would be the most efficient solution to improving my fitness, therefore. But maybe for some others, it would.

All in all, the book provides a huge amount of information for ambitious runners who are into numbers. I think of myself as someone who likes numbers, but I learned that I don’t love them to death while reading this book. That healthy amount of just following one’s own nose shouldn’t be neglected, either.

🔑 The System

E asy: 59-75% of VO2max, 30-150 minutes per session, 25-30% of weekly miles

M arathon Pace: 75-84% of VO2max, 40-110 minutes per session, 15-20% of weekly miles

T hreshold: 85-88% of VO2max, 5-30 minutes per session, 5:1 work-rest ratio, 10% of weekly miles

I nterval: 95-100% of VO2max, 5 minutes max, 1:1 work-rest ratio, 8% of weekly miles

R epetition: 105-120% of VO2max, 2 minutes max, 1:2-3 work-rest ratio, 5% of weekly miles

The VDOT Tables

I’m using myself as an example. At my most fittest, and coincidentally also roughly right now, I’m somewhere in the range of 52-54 of a VO2max. That’s calculated from race results, and therefore technically a VDOT, like Daniels likes it. A 54 VDOT would lead me to my long desired result of a 2:59 hour marathon – provided, of course, I put in the weekly miles and proper long runs, too.

Regarding the tables, I can now look up the training paces corresponding to that 54 VDOT. Here they are:

  • Easy: 4:38-5:10 minutes per kilometer
  • Marathon: 4:14 min/km
  • Threshold: 95 seconds per 400m lap, 4:00 min/km
  • Interval: 88 seconds per 400m lap, 3:41 min/km
  • Repetition: 41 seconds per 200m, 82 seconds per 400m

📔 Highlights & Notes

Part I: Understanding the Formula for Training

In terms of the runners who fit in group three (lacking in ability but high in motivation), I’ll take a team of them any day. They may be frustrated with their performances, but they are fun to have on a team and will usually be very supportive of teammates. They will also do anything the coach says.

A good approach to avoid overtraining is to always stick with the same amount and intensity of training for about four weeks before demanding or taking on more. Let the body adjust to one level of stress before introducing a harder stress.

Some runners progress rapidly and others not so rapidly; understanding and positive thinking can provide a desirable environment for runners.

For example, a runner who feels weak in the area of speed but great in endurance should spend early and even midseason time working on improving speed, but in the latter weeks of training, put more emphasis on endurance to take advantage of what works best for this individual.

If you regularly eat and sleep well, one bad meal or poor night’s sleep will not have a negative effect on you. Also, if you regularly eat poorly or seldom sleep enough, one good meal or good night’s sleep won’t help much.

An approach I suggest for runners is that whenever you are not sure which of two training sessions to take on at any particular time, select the less stressful of the two. You are admitting you aren’t sure which would be better, so why not eliminate the more demanding one?

It is not a good idea to change more than one of the training variables. A lot depends on the total mileage currently achieved;

Training intensities should be determined by current fitness, which is best measured by race performances. With this in mind, my standard answer to a runner who thinks his training needs to be speeded up is “Prove to me in a race that you are ready to train faster.”

Remember to always try to achieve the greatest possible benefit from the least amount of training rather than getting the greatest possible benefit from the hardest training possible.

Most accomplished runners breathe with a 2-2 rhythm, especially when running fairly hard, because it is comfortable and allows a sizable amount of air to be breathed in and out of the lungs.

If the purpose of a specific workout is to spend time at a specific speed of running, then it might be necessary to not let heart rate be the guide, but if intensity of effort is the most important thing being sought, then heart rate can be very useful.

As a runner, probably the easiest way to determine your maximum heart rate is to run several hard 2-minute uphill runs. Get a heart-rate reading at the top of the first hill run, and if your heart rate is higher the second time up, go for a third time and see if that is associated with an even higher heart rate.

Waking heart rate can also indicate a state of overtraining, and if your morning heart rate is considerably higher than what you normally measure, you might need a rest or to get a health checkup.

I also suggest that your longest steady run (unless preparing for ultraevents) be 150 minutes (2.5 hours), even if preparing for a marathon.

For those who are accumulating 40 or more miles per week, I suggest that L runs not exceed the lesser of 25 percent of weekly mileage or 150 minutes, whichever comes first.

In summary, E runs help build resistance to injury, strengthen the heart muscle, improve the delivery of blood, and promote useful characteristics of the muscle fibers that will help you run at your best.

I also suggest limiting an M run to the lesser of 110 minutes or 18 miles (29 km), whichever comes first.

During some long, steady E runs, it is suggested that you do not take in energy drinks so your body learns to conserve carbohydrate.

The intensity of T (threshold) runs should be comfortably hard, which means you are working fairly hard, but the pace is manageable for a fairly long time (certainly 20 or 30 minutes in practice).

The all-important purpose of T runs is to allow your body to improve its ability to clear blood lactate and keep it below a fairly manageable level. It is often best to think of the purpose of T runs as being to improve your endurance—teaching your body how to deal with a slightly more demanding pace for a prolonged period of time, or increasing the duration of time you can hold at a specific pace.

However, if you cut the recovery time, you may not be adequately recovered to run 400s at 70 seconds with good mechanics, and struggling is not accomplishing the purpose of the workout.

For distance runners, I suggest a recovery time that is about two or three times as long (in time, not in distance covered) as the faster R pace runs they are performing. Another way to determine recovery time in an R session is to do an easy jog as far as the fast run just performed. For example, when running R 400s, jog an easy 400 between the faster runs, perhaps walking the final 10 or 20 meters before the next fast-run 400.

The term VDOT was originally used as a short form for the VO2max value, to which it is related. When a person refers to VO2 (whether in reference to a submaximal or maximal value of oxygen being consumed), it is correctly pronounced “V dot O2” because there is a dot over the V indicating that the volume, which the V represents, is a 1-minute volume.

When I asked the 80-laps-per-day guy why not fewer laps at a little faster pace, he said, “No, the purpose of my running isn’t to get in shape; the purpose is to have some time to myself, away from my studies.”

As you read through the white plan, you will notice that I have not indicated you must run every day, but there is no problem with daily running, and those who have adequate time may want to run more often.

Research has shown that performing half-squats with relatively light weights can improve running performance.

I tend to favor 2 weeks as the minimum time for a planned break, with about 6 weeks being the maximum, provided you plan to continue with serious running.

Certainly, it is important to schedule time for running, but often little or no time is set aside for other activities that may also lead to better running. These nonrunning activities include such things as stretching, resistance training, massage, ice baths, and yoga.

When running downhill, it is important to avoid overstriding; instead, concentrate on a light, fast leg turnover. Make downhill running feel as if you are “rolling” down the hill rather than bounding down, and it may help to land rear-footed, rather than up on the balls of your feet.

Part II: Applying the Formula to Competitive Events

Both the 5K and 10K are primarily aerobic events, with most 5K races performed at about 95 to 98 percent of VO2max and 10Ks at about 90 to 94 percent of VO2max.

It typically takes about 10 minutes for the running muscles to start increasing their temperature. A couple of degrees will aid performance, but increasing muscle temperature more than a couple of degrees can lead to subpar performance.

If not using VDOT units, choose a realistic goal M pace. Then, final T pace will be 15 seconds per mile faster than goal M pace. Final I pace will be 6 seconds per 400 meters faster than T pace. Final R pace will be 3 seconds per 200 meters faster than I pace.

For the first 6 weeks, use training paces that are 10 seconds per mile (6 sec/km) slower than your goal and final paces, and for the middle 6 weeks, bring the paces to within 4 seconds per mile (2.5 sec/km) of your goal and final paces (which are then to be used during the final 6 weeks of the overall 18-week program).

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