Train Like The Kenyans: A Discussion of Canova Training with Nate Jenkins

The nature of the beast is you’re going to end up getting to do some really crazy hard workouts that are just kind of wacky, and you go “Oh my God!” but it’s sort of a Yoda thing. You’ve just got to do them.

Nate Jenkins was a strong but not precocious runner as a youngster, not blessed with much natural speed but determined to make the best of his talent. His best 5000m as an undergrad was 15:22 - respectable but unremarkable.

He ultimately made himself into one of the best marathon runners in the US, finishing 7th in their Olympic Trials in 2007.

Athletes that are able to make enormous breakthroughs as mature athletes are always worth listening to, and Jenkins is an especially analytical - “I teach Math, I’m a Math guy!” - and passionate runner.

As far as he is concerned, the influence of the training methods employed by Italian coach Renato Canova are responsible for a great deal of the leap forward in elite marathon performances over the last decade, and adjusting his training to this style directly resulted in the biggest breakthrough of his running life.

At the time, I had run a 1:07.30 half. I came out the other end of it and I ran a half marathon in 1:03.44. I was nearly four minutes faster. … I split a 10k PR, I think I split the second fastest 5 miles I’d ever run in my life - and at that point was still at talking-effort.

Prior to Jenkins adjusting his approach, he had been an adherent of Lydiard style training, wherein he sought to build a substantial aerobic base before progressing through a hill running phase, an a aerobic training phase and then a competition phase. Arthur Lydiard was arguably the most successful distance running coach of the last century, so there was certainly merit in training like this. But after a succession of injuries, he started to look at changing things. Lydiard, for all his astonishing results coaching 800m to 10,000m, never had great success coaching the marathon.

I found a guy named Bob Hodge, who’d gone to the same college years before and had run 2:10.59 himself, and he had - has - a little website… One of the things he had was different training schedules from different people. I was struck by Rodgers Rop’s [Kenyan distance runner] schedule, which was a [Renato] Canova schedule.

The idea that Italian coaches, particularly Canova, were and are onto something, makes sense to Jenkins from a broad performance perspective.

Look at running in general, look at the times run in the 1990s - which were heavily influenced by EPO! - if you look at those times, you look at the track times, we're actually running about the same times today at a world class level ... But if you look at the marathon, not just the fact that you would win Chicago or London or Berlin in 2:08, but also if you look at what the 100th fastest time, or the 400th fastest time is, the marathon is completely reinvented.

The big thing that has changed is that a handful of Italian coaches spent a lot of time in Africa and really convinced [athletes there] particularly the Kenyans, to change how they were preparing for the marathon.

Jenkins modified the plan for his ability and paces and just followed the “specific portion” (Canova’s plans consist of a base phase, followed by a fundamental phase, followed by this event specific phase) but nevertheless he saw his performances improve enormously.

Six months later I got to meet Canova and talk to him about this, and as I was describing the breakthrough I had made, and I told him I had run 1:03.44 and then 2:15.28, he stopped me and said, "You didn't do my base phase."

Jenkins, the Italian guru explained, should have been able to run around 2:14 at the longer distance if he’d followed the whole plan. Sure enough, Jenkins had been running a little under that pace until the last couple of miles when his lack of full preparation resulted in him slowing.

Jenkins is now an accomplished coach, and offers the following in explanation of a Canova marathon build up:

The big thing is that during your base you're going to work on general aerobic fitness. You're going to run.

The other big thing with the Canova base phase is he does want you to do some LT [lactate threshold] work. And lastly some speed work. He's a real big believer in doing some speed in the base phase before you do your marathon training. How you approach that depends on what type of athlete you are, and some of it's what you mentally prefer to do.

Then, you're going to try to develop each of your areas of fitness that will get you ready for your specific workouts. You're going to do what Canova qualifies as a "fundamental" tempo run, which is essentially just an up-pace run at 80-90% of your marathon pace.

That builds up to doing your long "extensive" specific work, which is your volume work that is close to marathon [pace], and Canova generally does that in terms of time.

And the other specific work, "intensive" specific work, which is referring to on-speed specific work.

The corollary of this is that “some of the workouts are far more exhausting than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.” As with all successful training, recovery is key. If you try to force it through, “it’s a recipe for disaster.”

It's important to be honest with yourself. The biggest thing is staying healthy.

Regarding staying healthy, Jenkins is an advocate of consistent conditioning work:

I like, at a basic level, doing the John Cook/Dan Pfaff general strength circuits, or something similar. For me those are the most bang-for-your-buck.

I have never felt stronger than when I was doing that stuff. You felt like a freak.

It's funny because you don't lift a weight, you don't use any equipment at all... It is highly effective.

In the end, it comes down to making yourself strong so you can withstand hard and relevant training for your event, and then doing that training:

The mileage is secondary. It's getting through the big workouts, in that specific phase. It's much more important to be able to do the workouts than hit the miles.

You prepare more specifically and you do really really well.