Antonio Cabral
Antonio Cabral

© Copyright – 2011 – Athletics Illustrated

Athletics coach, Antonio Cabral of Lisbon, Portugal may best be known for his distance running method that at first glance harkens back to the 1950s and that of legendary coach, Mihaly Igloi however, if we dig a little deeper shades of another coaching method begin to appear, that of Arthur Lydiard.

Mihaly Igloi’s training method is somewhat unknown and subsequently largely misunderstood. Interestingly the legendary Arthur Lydiard method is pervasive yet is also often misunderstood.

From The Science of Running website (Steve Magness):

The Igloi system of training is misunderstood because it was portrayed as the complete opposite of the Lydiard approach. Lydiard was simplified to “all aerobic long running”, while Igloi was simplified as the “all interval approach”.

Because Lydiard’s approach gained so much popularity and people started to make the connection that intervals equal anaerobic conditioning, the Igloi method got seen as a high-intensity “anaerobic” training system.

Magness writes, “The key to the Igloi method of training is not in looking at intervals vs. distance, it’s looking at what the actual workouts accomplished”. Antonio Cabral, as you will see during this interview, prescribes interval training, with an eye for what the intervals accomplish, just as Igloi had done.

Magness adds, “Igloi manipulated the intervals to create both aerobic and anaerobic adaptations. The basis of the system is running by feel and progression”.

The latter comment is a very Lydiard-like approach, ala, “knowing thyself” or as 4-time Olympian Lorraine Moller recently wrote in an issue of Running Times Magazine, “Becoming a Body Whisperer”. As Moller wrote, “The Principle of feeling-based running, one of the five principles that define Lydiard training…”

Magness continues, “The Igloi system is based on running at different levels of effort (easy, fresh, good, fast good, hard, very hard)”.

What we do know about the two systems are the differences. What is often misunderstood the most, are the similarities between the two often misunderstood methods of distance training.

Cabral, Athlete and Coach

As a master runner, Cabral experienced some success in the longer distances. As a coach he has had greater success, including working with Portuguese Olympian (marathon), Alberto Chaica. Chaica finished 4th at the 2003 IAAF World Track and Field Championships, finishing with a time of 2:09:25.

Cabral also worked with fellow countryman Fernando Couto who participated in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in the 5000m. He moved up to the 10,000m when he competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Cabral also coaches runners of all abilities.

The Interview

Christopher Kelsall: You were a self-coached runner and achieved some success. How did you discover running and recognize that you have some ability at it?

Antonio Cabral: My father was a runner and ever since I was a kid he took me to track meetings, cross and road races. All that old ambiance, the public, the competition excitement, that is what got me interested with passion and enthusiasm towards athletics.

The distance runs were the events that I was most curious, because during the late 50s, 60s and on, the distance run events were seen as the “excellence of the effort” the hard-long kind of effort – the harder events. I did appreciate the distance runner as different from all the other athletics disciplines, with different behavior, other life attitudes, like some say about blues musicians, they got something else, they are different than all the other musician-artists.

In the old days the “culture” of long effort made the winning runner, the champion as an idol and a hero, and the long distance run was seen as something mythical, adventurous.

From Fan to Runner to Coach

CK: And how long was it until you gained a good understanding of the causes and effects of training and how to apply them to yourself and eventually others?

AC: My next step was to move from spectator to runner and self-coach and to coach others. I did have some success as runner in the 70s-early 80s in 800m and 1500m, but then I got one serious injury and I quit training, and some years after when I did have the opportunity to get back to training and competition, I decided to quit track training because I wanted to run just what pleases me most, road runs and some cross.

To be a runner – a self-coached runner, I got all kinds of information that I could about find about coaching. I tried to learn from every means, from self-study to IAAF formal credentials, talk with physiologists, coaches, runners etc and finally to coach other runners. I feel it like it is one logical path that still goes on. Acting as coach, the training methodology is on the top of my coaching interests; but I also am privileged in the act of coaching, to be present and lead my runners in training sessions. I used to say “I´m not a runner, I just run, I´m not a coach, I just help others”. This means I keep the interest I put on practical and technical coaching versus just coach theory.

Staying Motivated

I still run and compete. I try to keep up to date with all aspects of distance running, from science to methodology to real practice. However, actually what´s on the top of my motivation? It´s the progress of the ones I coach, to be able to maximize each runner’s potential, it really doesn´t matter what´s his/her talent. I rarely refuse to coach anyone except if he doesn´t want to accept my training lead. If he/she accepts to follow my training 100% I coach male or female, young or master, from national to international category to the average local runner.

CK: Having been reading training books, blogs and online forums, I see that there continues to be discussion regarding the relevancy of V02max measurement in relation to an athlete’s potential. Do you continue to consider V02max in your assessment of athletes and their progress?

AC: If you take the VO2max of two distance runners – one does for instance 55/ml/kg/min and the other 75/ml/kg/min VO2max. The runner with high 75 VO2max observed will do better performances in middle and long distance events than the low 35ml/kg/min eventually. But what about one with 58 VO2max and other with 62 VO2max?

The Consequence of Time and Space

No one knows who will win and the runner with high VO2max is not the best distance runner necessarily. When it comes to middle and long-distance training, my guide is traditional training methodology rather than training physiology. My knowledge of the history of past and present methods and training contain, as well as my many years of personal experience, have taught me that these are the keys to formulating a training plan. I break the training down into the most basic but objective of training parameters: Time and Space. Space is the distance run and Time is the duration of the run.

The consequence of Time and Space is the pace, the pace of one workout, or race pace referred to one distance event. I guess that race pace is the most important and trustful reference point to elaborate every training program.

I consider the contribution of physiological factors associated with running performance, be VO2max, running economy, lactate and anaerobic threshold, anaerobic energy, fibre type, whatever factor, as well as different aspects such as the brain regulation of exercise performance. However my main coaching lead, my final coach decision is done by training methodology, related to race pace and not physiology.

Something more can be said. It´s proved that many runners did their best performance when their own physiological factors associated with distance run performance do show low values.

It’s not the person with the highest VO2max, mitochondria, the highest hematocrit, whatever physiological parameter, who necessarily wins a race. It is simply the person who covers the required distance the fastest, it doesn´t matter what is the physiological factor that did contribute to that win or that new PB.

In the 2004 Olympic season the Portuguese Rui Silva did several physiological tests in the field in 3 moments:

  • Start of the season
  • Mid-season before the track runs, and
  • After his bronze medal in 1500m in the Olympics.

I trust in the protocols. I know how they were done. After that long season with hard training, the tests he did right after the Olympics show the poorest VO2max of the 3 moments, the poorer VO2 velocity to what he tested in the early and mid-season. When he was in his top shape and condition, the tests did show poor lactate, poor hematocrit, poor aerobics etc.

To Phase or Not to Phase

CK: I understand that you do not put your athletes through blocks of training, but it appears you do have your athletes push their so-called ‘speed from below’, similar to phased training, but keeping their race-specific pace throughout the bulk of the program. Can you differentiate for me the two types of training – is it that your phases are more gradual and smooth in their transitions as opposed to the more so-called defined blocks?

AC: I have one structure of organizing the training periodization, but I take every runner as one individual case. I have my training method and principles, but I´m very flexible and pragmatic. I can´t have one fixed periodization formula that fits every runner or every kind of distance event.

Since I deal with runners with different talent, different potential, different skill, different training facility. The first step: We define the runner´s next target goal.

Might be that the target goal is just the next peak run that takes place in few weeks or the next trimester perhaps one civil year or one major championship or one long-term career. Everything in the training aspect is connected and interdependent.

Every new cycle might be different than the past ones. For example, one runner comes to me with some experience but I see he missed interval training. Probably I advise him to start with interval training sessions immediately. With another runner I see he was following low mileage training and he has a poor aerobic condition. Immediately I introduce him to rich aerobic runs, more mileage training than what we was doing.

As you might understand my type of training is “person-to-person” or “coach-to-runner” if you prefer to say so, as it´s quite individual periodization and the use of training variants.

Something more about the overall definition of my training periodization and the stimuli organization:

My training periodization process goes in frequency of crescendo (gradual increase) from Generic to Special stimulus to Specific stimulus.

By generic stimulus what I mean is the exercise activity is related to running event, but quite distant in specificity.

CK: What do you mean by ‘special’?

AC: By special I mean the kind of effort that is closer to the race pace event and by specific one, the kind of stimulus that is highly connected with the race event in two aspects: the race pace and distance/duration of the event, very close to race pace.

However, when I say “generic to special” and “special to specific” this is just a gradual transition, because my training is multi-lateral, gradual with smooth transitions instead of linear fractional or unilateral. Therefore, for instance, I might use some specific training when the main focus of one phase might be generic or special training. As someone said “we might train every kind of stimulus at any moment, all depends how much dosage percent of every kind of training we need”.

My training periodization goes from quality to quantity (speed from below) but who says it understands just one part of my training. It´s also true that my training periodization goes from quantity to quality either way?

CK: For example?

AC: For example. Imagine one 10k runner that among other training variables, in the first phase of periodization the runner does 15x20secs/all flat-out bouts/sprints or 15×50/hills, up, all flat-out generic efforts. This workout might progress and change to special 10X400m, 110% of 10k race pace. Later this same training moves to 7X800m at 105% of 10k race pace and further up to specific 5X1200m at 10k race pace. Every change goes from the quality to quantity direction: more total volume, less pace intensity.

Meanwhile the same runner during the same phase he does 15x20secs flat-out bouts or sprints or 15x50sec hill repeats up, all flat-out. He does another workout that is 30min tempo run at 85% 10k race pace, and he changes this workout to 12X1000m at 90% of 10k race pace and don´t forget I told you above that during the same phase he was doing 10X400m at 110% of 10k pace and 7X800m at 105% of 10k pace.

When he decides to progress from 12X1000m at 90% of 10k race pace to 3X2000m race pace it´s the moment that he also does the 5X1200m 100% of 10k race pace as I told you above. From 30min/tempo to 12X1000m to 3X2000m, every workout progresses from quantity to quality.

The periodization goes in both directions at the same time, from quality to quantity and from quantity to quality, both run to the direction of the specificity, from faster than race pace to race pace and from slower than race pace to race pace.

The Aerobic Foundation

Finally, two important aspects of my training periodization approach:

The aerobics is the important one of the basic training variables, and it´s why it can never be neglected and shall be trained in every phase of the training periodization.

On the other side of the training need, the specific training is at the top of the interest as a training variable, and can be included when seems effective.

CK: Sounds very familiar. Two things I see an absence of (perhaps I am just missing it) 1.) Alactic strides or any fine, neuro-muscular stimulation that is still aerobic in nature, so very short with light sprints and I also see fartlek training missing. Where do your athletes stay in touch with their neuro-muscular speed when they are doing aerobic intervals in the “general” period of training?

AC: My training does every kind of training stimulus. From anaerobic to aerobic to anaerobic, from alactic to lactic, from all flat-out pace to easy regeneration pace, every workout format, short-strides, hill training, fartlek, in-out, etc. I don´t exclude any kind of training zone or effort, or training format. I might include some flexibility as well. I just miss plyometrics and weight training.

However, most of the training that you ask me about is in the second level of interest related to my essential training. As I stated, since the middle and long distance training is mostly aerobic and the important one factor is resistance, then richest training approach is done by aerobic mileage volume quantity and specific workout quality. When I describe my training I try to figure out the main structure, not the details. If I figure out the intricate details, something important is lost from the message.

Despite the distance training approach it shall be multi-lateral zone of efforts and not fragmented, but also needs to be minimalist, selective and discriminatory. Despite what you wanted, it´s quite impossible to train all training zones during one short period, therefore we need to select among all training variants in what´s most crucial to the training improvements.

CK: What is your opinion on the Igloi method?

AC: I´m very surprised how people don´t understand Igloi training. I don´t want to be arrogant, or say that I know everything about the training method, but Igloi is very easy to understand. The problem is that to understand Igloi, you need to go back (somehow) and learn about 2 types of training that are similar and one is influenced by the other: one is Zatopec training, the other is Freiburg Gersheler and Reindell training. Freiburg is the German city where Waldemar Gersheler and Carl Reindell did most of his interval training method. Aactually it´s named Freiburg Interval Training.

CK: Ironically the Acronym is FIT. Anyway, I understand you are still running competitive now in the 50-plus age-group. How are you doing at the races?

AC: When I was 18 years old I was very thin then. With 1.72 meter tall did weight 50 kilos. During my 30s I got no interest in doing every kind of sport activity, no jogs, nothing. I was one fat individual, some days I did smoke 3 packages of cigars without filter, French Gitanes, do you know? When I was 39 my weight was 90 kilos, almost the double than when I was in my twenties. Then I decide that I would need some exercise, quite smoking, good food and take some rest and do what pleases me most, run and compete.

I start jogging 3 times a day, then 5 times a day, and after one year or so, I did daily training and my weight got back to 55kilos and I got back to road run competitions. In my mid-40s my veteran pbs were: 4:40.6/mile (road), 33:20/10k (road), 1h13:40/HM, 2h39:40/marathon.

One of the reasons I think I was able to regain my shape condition as a master it´s because despite I am a master I never give up track intervals instead and I try to be in regular contact with competition instead of building my shape with mainly volume and aerobic runs.

I remember to read one good article from Peter Snell where he says the breakpoint of distance run capacity by aging it´s usually mid-40s and not early-40s. In my case it was late-40s. At this aging breakpoint of running capacity, it´s when the master might readjust his training goals and his competitive schedule to ordinary new challenges.

Actually, I am 56, but I try daily runs and some track workouts still. However after my late 40s my enthusiasm to compete and road runs performance decreases, I will continue to train and compete as far as my body and health will hold it, I don´t like to swim, or walk, or bike, or orienting, every other kind of sport, I just love to run.

CK: Now you just run to stay healthy?

AC: Yes my training target it´s not to enhance the performance, but keep health, without injuries, and I train daily to minimize the inevitable performance decline. It´s my advice for the veteran distance runner. After a certain moment of aging, the master runner might not give up training and compete but keep motivated to train and participate in competitions regularly, from local competitions to enter the top-level of competition too and minimize the performance decay.

The masters, we exist in the life moment so we might try to do what pleases us instead of feeling obligated to run. Run with hard effort but this can provide great rewards and satisfaction as well.