Saturday, June 13, 2020

Bertl Sumser: The Scientific Approach to the Endurance Race.

East German coach Bertl Sumser was a pioneer in taking a scientific approach to training. He continued the Woldemer Gerschler tradition in the design of his training with strong support in the knowledge of the physiology of his time. In a 1962 article published in Fred Wilt's book Run, Run, Run, Sumser claims that the basis of his training was to increase the supply of oxygen to neutralize the effects of lactic acid. He was an early godfather of what we might call the physiology-based model of exercise, allowing science to guide and inform his training.

It is important to understand the history of this approach because in many ways the training has not changed. In a variety of sports, resistance training or modern conditioning is based on the same model, with a bit of an update in science. So let's dive into it.

Sumser outlined six different types of runs or training exercises to be used in training:

1. Endurance Race.

This was defined as the typical easy race to take on a variety of courses. These races can be up to an hour or more in time. Sumser was careful to note that during the base training phase this is an excellent training medium which, " unfortunately is used by us all too infrequently during this time of year. (Perhaps because it is too easy ?) ".

2. "Game of Speed" (Fartlek)

This is a form of continuous running where the rhythms vary throughout the run for any specified or unspecified distance, interspersed throughout the run. He suggested that distances should be long and the rhythms fairly easy at first. For example, during November and December, he recommended: "2000-3000-3000-2000 meters with recovery jog, with time for 1000 meters of about 4 minutes." Then throughout the year, the distances decreased to 1000, 1600, and 2000, at a rate of 3 minutes per 1 k. He stressed that the fartlek should never be an exhaustive run and that sprints could be added towards the end, always with adequate recovery. The purpose of the fartlek was "an adaptation of the heart and circulation, regulation of the respiratory process, improvement of the capillary transfer process ".

3. Interval Endurance Race.

This type of training, according to Sumser, was performed to improve the adaptations of the heart and circulation. It was a large volume of short repetitions that were not more than 300 meters in length. The intensity was not very high and there was a decent amount of recovery between each repetition. Some examples during base training for a runner with a target of 3:45 for the 1,500 are 30 x 100 meters in 17.5-16.0 seconds with 50-60 seconds of recovery jog. Progression is key in these workouts as they move slowly to a faster or more competitive pace (15.0-14.5 seconds for the 100).

4. Repeat Races (Speed   Races)

Sumser, like many during that time period, differentiates the intervals from the repetitions. While today we use both terms interchangeably, they had different distinctions in the past. For Sumser, the aforementioned intervals focused on the athlete's conditioning from a physiological point of view. The goal was more moderate-pace work, designed to provoke aerobic adaptation.

In repetitions, the focus was more on intensity and speed. Sumser divided her repetition workouts into two classifications. The first group was intense training with incomplete recovery. Some examples he gives of these are 8 × 200 at 27.0 with 2-minute recovery, gradually progressing to 8 × 200 at 26.0 with a 60-second recovery towards the end of the year. He claimed that there is a great need for progression throughout the year so that recoveries become shorter under high load. In fact, he said he often started with repetitions over 500-600m in length at slower speeds and worked up to shorter and faster repetitions.

The second group is very high-intensity repetitions with almost complete recoveries. Some examples of these are, for a 3:45 runner in the 1,500, 500 in 68-69 with a recovery of 6-8 minutes, 600 in 84-85 with a 10-12 minute recovery, then in 1: 55- 1:56. The purpose of these repetition runs was "an adaptation of muscle metabolism, entry to high oxygen debt, increased reserve and energy alkali, and adaptation to high hyperacidity products (121)".

5. Sprint races.

Sprint Training is just what it sounds like, sprinting. Sumser divided it into two categories: pure speed and speed resistance. The first is for the development of pure speed. For this, he suggested performing sprints at maximum speed with full recovery. The example given is 10 × 100 meters with a flight start of 10.8 11.0 seconds with a 3-4 minute recovery walk. The other type of sprint training is done for speed endurance, or the ability to maintain high speeds over a long distance. This is accomplished by doing high-speed reps with shorter recoveries. An example of this training is 10 × 50 meters at a speed of 7/8 with a jog of 50-60 meters in the middle.

6. Special Conditioning.

This is not well defined but says it is used for training the entire muscular system. Later he says that it consists of several exercises done with light weights, such as medicine balls and gymnastic exercises.


Summer obviously relied heavily on periodization. One can see the influence of his time on the way he sets up training. It was regulated and mathematical, with a constant and systematic progression. It was a fairly strict periodization model.

We are going to take you through the season. In November, he suggests that you train 4 days a week alternating days of endurance running and interval endurance running. On two of these days, the workload should be reduced to 1/2 and the other 1/2 should be done with a conditioning routine. Interval endurance runs are repetitions of 100 or 200 m at relatively slow rates. In December, he begins training 3 days a week with a four-day-a-week endurance run, a fartlek, and two interval resistance work sessions, along with conditioning work. Times are still slow at about 36 seconds for the 200s and 11 minutes for the 3000m portion of the fartlek. These two months serve as the foundation job in the Summer program.

In January and February, there are 5 days of training per week with a fartlek with slightly shorter distances than in December, two interval resistance races, and two-speed races. The pace of the interval endurance races drops to 34s and the fartlek pace drops to a rate of 3:10 - 3:20 per 1,000m. Speed races consist of longer repetitions of 400, 500 and 600m for an 800-meter runner. (For a 1,500 runner, sprints are longer, up to 1,000m in length) In March, hit the 6 days of training per week, with an endurance run for recovery, 3 sprints, 1 endurance run interval, and 1 sprint workout. The distances of sprinting vary every day, between short, long, and mixed distances. The rhythms gradually increase 1-2 seconds for every 400m of what was being done in the previous periods. April is similar to March except that the rhythms become faster. Summer plans the start of the competition season in May. During this time 5 days a week are used in training, with one day of sprint training, one day of interval resistance running, one day of recovery endurance running, and two days of speedrunning. After this period, he says that he cannot show a planning scheme, due to the different requirements of each type of competition. However, the rhythms become faster in sprinting, and the number of repetitions decreases. For example, you would run from 10 × 400 in 66s in January to 8-10 in the 60s in April to 5 in 56s in July.

The difference between the 800 training and the 1,500 training is that endurance running and fartleks are longer (up to 1:30). There is more emphasis on interval resistance running. Between January and April for each speed race you do per week, you must do an interval resistance run. Then, starting in May, sprinting takes precedence over these interval resistance runs.

Examples of speed racing progression work throughout the year for a 3:45 runner in the 1,500m (taken from Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt, 1964)

Analyzing Sumser from a Modern Perspective.

The first thing to note is the six different types of training that you define. In the modern context, some are very similar to the types of training we do today.

Sumser Endurance Run is our normal aerobic workout going from recovery to long steady running. It is interesting to note that he says it is used infrequently, which means that during that time period people put a heavy emphasis on different types of interval training. Swinging the pendulum back and forth between endurance and speed is a common theme in training. It just so happens that during the 1950s, when Sumser was a coach, the pendulum was in the direction of speed. With the arrival of Lydiard's training on the scene, this certainly changed, but if Sumser were to see today's training, he would probably say that many people now use intervals too infrequently.

His fartlek training serves several purposes in view of the current training. The early fartleks fill the role of end limit aerobic running, then gradually work toward what some call cruising intervals, which would be a variant of lactate threshold training and may even progress to aerobic capacity (or weight training). VO2 max) but I'm not sure how fast they ended. However, it's safe to say that, based on some of the observed times, they were done at a high-end aerobic pace, and sometimes more likely at a UL pace.

His next training category was interval endurance racing. These were used as some people today use race pace work, but they serve the purpose of actually building aerobic capacity. They were a high number of repetitions with a decent amount of recovery at moderate speed. This type of training is not really used today, but it was prevalent during this period with the likes of Gerschler and Igloi. As I said, this has actually been replaced with VO2max or aerobic capacity training.

His 4th type of training was speed racing. It is interesting to note the progression of these races throughout the year. The ones he does at the beginning of the year are VO2max or aerobic capacity workouts, while the ones he does in the middle of the year seem like lactate tolerance work and then end with anaerobic capacity workouts. He names them all the same, but since he uses a progression throughout the year the real benefits and purpose of the workouts changes. These are remarkably similar to modern training progressions, ranging from aerobic capacity workouts to lactate tolerance workouts to anaerobic capacity workouts.

His next group of workouts was Sprint races. This is the typical maximum speed sprint workout with or near full recovery. These workouts worked on her creatine phosphate energy system, pure speed, and recruiting her fast-twitch muscle fibers.

As you can see the program contains many similarities to modern-day training today. The main difference seen today is a stronger emphasis on the easy and threshold / stable job type than there was in the Summer system. Which makes a lot of sense. We are products of our time, and while Sumser was reversing the trend by including a number of easy runs and aerobic fartleks, it is still in short supply compared to what we do today.

The key to take from Sumser is that progression matters. He recognized the need to increase stress in the athlete through changes in speed, length of repetitions, and recovery as the athlete adjusts. In addition to this, Sumser relied heavily on mixing types of workouts. He never did days in a row of the same training category. Every day a different system worked. This may seem like a no-brainer now, but during that period of time when it was common to do interval sets 5 days a week, alternating training emphasis was new at the time.

Looking back on Sumser's systematic approach to training, you can see the innovation for the time. His training had a purpose that is rooted in the science of that day. She seemed to understand the importance of progression and alternation of stress applied to the athlete. Much can be learned from Sumser's approach and compared to where we are now.

In general, it is a reminder that we are a product of our time and the context that surrounds us. I'd be willing to bet Sumser thought he had a well-balanced approach, separating himself from the interval-dominated approach that was favored by mid-distance runners of the time. A few years later, the emphasis on training would shift, thanks to Arthur Lydiard's success with Peter Snell.

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