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How Training Methods Improve World Records

by: Dr. Gabe Mirkin, M.D.

In 1900, the world record for the mile was 4 minutes and 15 seconds. Thirty-five years later, it was 8 seconds faster, and now, more than 100 years later, it is almost 35 seconds faster.

Running Training Framework

The fantastic improvement in world records is due to superior training methods. The limiting factor in running long distances very fast is percent VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in and use. Don Lash, the world record holder in 1935, had the same VO2max as the best runners today and he ran only 4 minutes and 7 seconds, 26 seconds slower than the present record.

Today's runners run the entire race near their VO2max because they run so much faster in training. A runner can run the entire marathon at more than 80 percent of his VO2 max, because he runs so much faster in training. Fifty years ago, the best marathon runners ran their very fast interval workouts at a pace of no faster than 4 minutes and 20 seconds per mile with repeat quarter miles at 65 seconds. Now, virtually all top marathon runners run their repeat quarter miles faster than 60 seconds each. It's the faster interval training, even at the expense of reduced workouts and longer recovery periods, that makes the difference.


World record times for women in running, swimming and speed skating sprint events improved so dramatically from 1952 to 1980 that they came close to the times of men. However, after the early 1980s, the gap between women's times and men's times widened, even though the times of women continued to improve (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, March 2007).

The only reasonable explanation for this widening difference between men's and women's world records is the increased TESTING for the illegal use of steroids (artificial male hormones) that started in the 1980s. Adult women are naturally weaker than adult men. Boys and girls who receive equal training are almost equal in athletic ability until puberty. Then boys become larger, stronger, faster and much more athletic. The appearance of male hormones at puberty makes the difference. If female athletes are given male hormones, they immediately become able to take longer and harder workouts, lift heavier weights, and improve in all events that require strength or speed.

Male hormones help athletes recover faster so they can do more hard work and therefore become much stronger. The only reason for the widened gap between men's and women's world records in the last 20 years is the increased testing of female athletes to see if they are taking masculinizing hormones. I do not believe that the recent Olympic swimming time of a female Chinese athlete that was faster than that of men can be explained by just training.

I do know that the world distance running records set many years ago by Chinese women are suspect also.

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