by Brett Larner
Last month JRN published a comparison of the achievements of American and Japanese men aged 18-22 over the 5000 m, 10000 m, half marathon and marathon distances, part two in a periodic series occasioned by October’s simultaneous NCAA XC Pre-Nationals 8 km and Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km road race. The comparison generated a fair number of comments and emails; my thanks to all those who offered insight and additional data, suggested further ideas and lines of inquiry, or gave constructive criticism. Among the findings in the previous article:
Using a common calculator of equivalent performances to set thresholds of 13:30, 28:03, 1:02:24 and 2:11:36 for the four distances, prior to the outstanding performances last spring by American 18 year olds German Fernandez and Chris Derrick Japanese runners led their American counterparts in speed, range, and to a lesser degree depth at ages 18 and 19. Fernandez and Derrick are exceptional young athletes who may rewrite the American record books over the next few years.
At ages 20 and 21 the very top Americans in the 10000 m, Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein, were far ahead of the best Japanese runners at this distance, but Japan otherwise produced 20 year old runners with superior speed, range and depth. At this age a trend begins to become evident: the U.S. produced more athletes of this caliber in the 5000 m while a larger number of equivalent Japanese runners were seen in the 10000 m and half marathon.
At age 21 American runners had a moderate overall lead in speed over 5000 m as well as far greater depth at this distance. After Ritzenhein’s remarkable 10000 m mark, performances at this distance by runners from both countries were almost equal in quality and depth. The number of Japanese men performing at this level in the half marathon exactly equaled the number of American men in the 5000 m, while the marathon became a significant component of the Japanese range.
At age 22 American performances in the 5000 m were far superior to Japanese performances in speed and depth. Performances at 10000 m were almost equal in quality but Americans led by a considerable margin in depth. The number of Japanese men performing at this level in the half marathon and marathon slightly led the number of American men in the 5000 m.
American performances thus show a clear focus on development of speed over 5000 m during these important years, with a gradual introduction of longer distances as athletes mature.
Japanese training produces young distance runners with comparable-to-greater basic speed than Americans. The Japanese athletes have a roughly equal focus on speed and distance at ages 18 and 19, with the beginning of a shift to longer distances and less emphasis on pure speed beginning at age 20. At ages 21 and 22 the main emphasis for Japanese runners is on endurance over the half marathon and even the marathon. At all ages from 19-22 a larger total number of Japanese runners produced results equivalent to a sub-13:30 5000 m, and at each of these ages the best sub-13:30-equivalent Japanese result was faster or within one second of the best American sub-13:30-equivalent result. Only Fernandez and Derrick at age 18 break this pattern.
With the possible exception of the larger overall number of quality Japanese athletes, the reasons for these differences stem of course from the different focuses of racing at this age and year-to-year training patterns. American men of this age, almost entirely university runners, focus on 8 km – 10 km XC in the fall, indoor track with a maximum of 5000 m in the winter, and outdoor track with a maximum of 10000 m in the spring. Most, although not all, of the Japanese men in this age range are also university runners, and most of them go to school in the Tokyo-centric Kanto region. Their entire year revolves around one race, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, which has stage lengths of 18.5 – 23.4 km. Let’s look a little at the typical year for runners in both countries.
For Americans students the year begins in late August. Coming out of a similarly-configured high school career, and a summer of base-building most men enter the fall XC season. The focus is on racing 8 km – 10 km, in many cases frequently, for the next three months. Being XC the emphasis is not just on speed but on strength, runners needing to be capable of handling the shifting terrain and surfaces of the sport as well as the demands of racing often. The buildup for the XC season typically sees the highest mileage of the year; anyone with better knowledge of NCAA DI training is free to correct me with a better estimate, but in many cases American runners max in the 160 km / week range.
Following XC the indoor track season gets underway. The emphasis here is on speed, pure and simple, as the same athletes who were running 8 km – 10 km races throughout the fall now run 800 m, 1500 m, 3000 m, 5000 m and the like. If one looks at the fall XC season as a large-scale base-building and strengthening period, indoor track serves as a sharpening period leading to the spring outdoor track season. This is arguably the main focus of the year, the time when runners are expected to perform their best. The very talented may race in Europe over the summer and produce great peak performances, but for most the big meets of April and May are the goal. After the end of the school year in May it’s off to higher mileage and summer base-building again.
In Japan the school year begins in April with the outdoor track season. Coming straight out of the post-ekiden doldrums of January – March discussed below, there is no indoor track season and no equivalent to the intense focus on sharpening speed which Americans go through during these months. The regional university track championships, which, needless to say, include a half marathon, happen in May and the open Nationals in June, but for the most part outdoor track itself serves as a sharpening period in preparation for the main meat of the year, the summer gasshuku training camp season.
In gasshuku season most school and pro teams relocate to isolated towns on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido to beat the heat and do nothing but live their training. As Kiwi runner Jason Lawrence related in his excellent account of training with Josai University at their 2006 summer gasshuku, for university runners weekly mileage of over 250 km is common. One thought keeps them motivated: the Hakone Ekiden.
Heading back south in September university men and the few pros in this age range move into ekiden season. The National University Track and Field Championships and National Jitsugyodan Track and Field Championships take place this month, but even more so than the spring regionals they serve little more purpose than to sharpen up legs and racing instincts dulled by months of high mileage prior to the first of the fall ekidens. Many athletes give them a bye in favor of maintaining focus on the longer distances. Although there are frequent track time trials and the relatively short Izumo Ekiden, the focus is on distance and the main races of the season such as the National University Ekiden Championships, Hakone Ekiden-qualifying Yosenkai 20 km and Ageo City Half Marathon build toward the half-marathon distance in preparation for Hakone.
The Hakone Ekiden has no equivalent in American running. Ten stages spread over two days during the New Year holidays attract television viewership ratings of around 30% and millions of courseside spectators. This is where the performances flower, where Kensuke Takezawa, who holds a half marathon PB of 1:02:26, and Yuki Sato, who has never raced a half marathon, ran times of 1:01:40 for 21.5 km and 1:01:06 for 21.4 km, half-marathon national record-level material. Pro men in this age bracket such as Yu Mitsuya also tend to run their peak performances of the year on Jan. 1 in the New Year Ekiden. After these major ekidens there is a relative period of calm through the end of March, a period which includes some other ekidens, the university and corporate half marathon national championships and, recently, a few cross-country races.
To sum up, the American year consists of a period of distance and strength-building followed by a sharpening period directed toward the late-spring outdoor track season. The Japanese year features markedly less large-scale periodization, with the track season mixed in and around the main base mileage period leading into a season of sparse but long races building toward a single intense two-day period.
Applying this to the results of last month’s article, it’s easy to see why the American approach has produced steadily-improving performances over 5000 m as athletes mature while the Japanese system has produced a higher prevalence of quality at the half-marathon and marathon distances. Incorporating results like 18 year old Akinobu Murasawa's 13:30-equivalent 59:08 at October's Yosenkai from other distances such as 3000 m, 5 miles/8km, 10 miles, 20 km and 30 km into those from the four under consideration reinforces this pattern.
Most of the Japanese athletes at this age producing quality marathon results were runners who joined corporate teams straight out of high school, meaning that they had an even stronger focus on distance over this age range. The others were for the most part seniors following the tradition of running a marathon for their last university race before graduation. If anything the faster Japanese performances at 5000 m at younger ages may be the most surprising feature, but this is likely a consequence of the focus race distances at the high school level being from 3000 m to 10000 m.
So what? In the next article in this series JRN will look at the accomplishments of both countries’ runners at the world level and the prospects for the future as each faces changes in the race to adjust to the era of African hegemony.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved