Staying fit in a pandemic: Vol. 2

As I wrote yesterday, I do not want anyone to feel that I am trivializing the plight we are currently in. With athletic events cancelled around the world, sports is way down the list of daily priorities. But outside of personal sanitation habits, I think we should be encouraging the routines of health and well being and that for many is some consistency of training. So before I get into today’s topic, I thought I would share a story that has some parallels to what we are currently experiencing.

In 1956 after graduating from the University of Oregon, Bill Dellinger joined the US Air Force and soon found himself in a remote radar station on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. His track and field coach was the legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman would mail Dellinger workouts and Dellinger would write back the results. The only problem was there was no track within any reasonable distance to do the workouts on.

Dellinger did have access to a hard sand beach and knew his stride was about 6 feet long. Dellinger described the experience of training for the 1960 Olympics in a remote area this way, in Kenny Moore’s great book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.

“Bill [Bowerman] mailed me interval workouts to do – so I did them. I would count to myself each time my right foot touched down until I reached ten. I’d put one finger out to keep track. Twelve fingers would be 440 yards. I ran up and down that beach doing everything from 220s to 1320s by counting, for eight months, without ever stepping on a track or knowing how far I was running or how fast.”

When Dellinger finally returned to the University of Oregon, he ran 4:05 for the mile in his first time trial. That year he broke American records in the 1500, 2 mile, 3 mile and 5000m.

Dellinger also discovered that his calculation was off. “The funny thing was when I got onto the track it took me only ten fingers and two strides to do a 60 second quarter. I’d been running everything 15 percent too far.”

Dellinger was a three time Olympian for the US eventually winning the bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo games in the 5000m.

This training story has always meant a lot to me as a coach. Yesterday, I realized for many of the athletes I coach, our current situation was almost exactly like being suddenly placed in a remote location miles and miles from anything familiar. You can train, but likely solo. You cannot meet with your coach and in our community the track is locked!

For the runners I coach, it became clear yesterday that I needed to simplify instructions and many of them needed effort based training.

I first learned about effort based training towards the end of my own competitive running when I joined a club coached by American Olympian Jim Spivey. No matter what the workout was during the year, there was always an effort attached to each workout. And lots of workouts used a range of efforts.

The efforts were signaled by words that ranged from Very Fresh, Fresh, Good to Hard – four words or phrases that described how he wanted runners to feel in every rep of every workout.

It took me several months to adapt to this training method as I was used to aggregating everything in the more commonly used training zones. But when I adapted I found effort based training liberating. No longer was I judging my workouts based on paces that never factored in conditions like training surface, weather, or how I felt. Effort based training allowed me to once again focus on the most important principle of training – consistency. Lastly when I got into races, I had this feeling of control and less tension that I never had felt to the same degree before. During races paces change and I could control my ability to adapt to those race pace changes better than I had before because I had a deeper understanding of what my effort meant. Effort based training helped me become a more intuitive athlete.

Here are a few examples of the workouts that I learned from Jim Spivey that I still over 20 years later share with athletes. Since they are based on effort and time they can be done anywhere: grass field, bike trail, or treadmill.

Remember the code is:

  • VF = Very Fresh
  • F = Fresh
  • G = Good
  • H = Hard

Short Intervals

  • 14 Minutes WU VF
  • 6x100m Strides
  • 14-18×45 5F, 3G, 2F, 3G, 5F (1 minute recovery jog)
  • 5-15 minute Warm Down VF

Medium Intervals

  • 20 minute progressively faster Warm-up (VF progressing to G)
  • 6x100m Strides
  • 3×3 Minutes F (1:30 jog between reps) [3 Minutes after set]
  • 8×30 G (:30 jog between reps) [3 Minutes after set]
  • 1-2 x 3 minutes Fresh (1:30) Do 2 if feeling strong Only 1 if not
  • 5-15 minute Warm Down VF


  • 13 Minutes Warm-up VF
  • 6x100m Strides
  • 1×3:30 minutes Fresh (1:30 recovery Jog)
  • 1×2:00 minutes Fresh (1:00 recovery jog)
  • 1×1:00 minute Good (1:00 recovery jog)
  • 3×30 Seconds GFG (30 second jog between reps) 2 minute jog after this set
  • 1×1:00 minute Good (1:00 recovery jog)
  • 1×2:00 minutes Fresh (1:30 recovery jog)
  • 1×3:30 minutes Fresh
  • 5-15 minute Warm Down VF

Using these workout examples you can convert any track workout to an effort based workout an athlete can do anywhere.

There is a long history of effort based training. Just google Mihaly Igloi or the Igloi method and you will find much more comprehensive explanations than I provide here. However, I believe effort based training is the basis for lots of athletes to have a performance break through because effort based training is based on one human organ sports science seems to only be starting to recognize the importance of – the brain. The next big training frontier seems to be our brain. Getting your brain — which is center of the feeling of effort — to cooperate is the key to running fast in my opinion.

Now back to our current dilemma. Besides staying healthy and avoiding illness aren’t our athlete’s feelings what we really need to support right now. Definitely for me and maybe for you, yesterday was a new reality. We all have far less certainty of what the future will hold. And many of us are now required not to be physically present with athletes we want to support. But we can still share ideas and some of those may help an athlete keep their routine and come out of this pandemic more adaptable and resilient than before. I suggest trying effort based training over training zone paces. If nothing else, this philosophy of training may help your athletes train more consistently during a time of uncertainty.