Renato Canova on Strength Endurance and High-Intensity Circuits

Renato Canova is a famed Italian running coach who specializes in training mid-distance and long-distance runners. He is credited with helping world-class Italian and Kenyan runners achieve phenomenal success. After hearing about Canova during Jay Johnson’s podcast interview with Nike running coach Steve Magness, we sought to learn a bit more about Canova and his training methods.

One of the bits that caught our ear during the Johnson/Magness podcast was that Canova prescribes so-called circuit workouts to his runners (and apparently so does Magness). It sounded as though these workouts contain a mix of high-intensity running intervals and bodyweight exercises designed to simultaneously increase strength and stamina. As you can imagine, this piqued our interest.

After some cursory digging on the web, we discovered this paper on a Russian triathlon website that appears to be written by Canova. The paper, entitled “Development of Strength Endurance: The Key to Improvement in the Middle and Long Distance Events,” appears to explain some of Canova’s training methods and the thinking behind them. It is unclear when the document was written, but it appears it was written at least as recently as late 2004, maybe more recently.

The paper itself is a fascinating read and we won’t dissect the whole thing here. But we will share some of the highlights. Among other things, Canova tells us that:

  • The most important type of training for a distance runner consists of “very fast” runs of 5km to 15km.
  • This type of training is effective because it helps increase runners’ Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS), their capacity to sustain maximum performance accompanied by high but stable levels of blood lactate.
  • The best African runners develop “natural power–endurance” by running like this during their first 12–15 years of life. Caucasian runners from western countries do not run like this early in life and may be limited because of it.
  • Speed is strictly connected with strength, therefore runners must develop strength to provide biomechanical support.
  • Endurance is strictly connected with enzymatic development, therefore runners must also develop aerobic power and capacity for better enzymatic support.
  • To synchronously train for strength and aerobic power (or, put another way, to develop both biomechanical and enzymatic support), he sought “to train the nervous system and the muscles to recruit the greatest number of fibres under conditions of strong acidification.”

Based on the last three points above, Canova borrowed from and adjusted what he refers to as “modified circuits.” He summarizes three different types of these circuits, each uniquely suited to a different type and period of athletic development.  One such circuit type, Extensive Strength – Resistance Circuit, is characterized in the paper as follows:

Extensive Strength – Resistance Circuits

In this type of Circuit, which we can consider as a ‘Basic General Circuit’, we have the goal of increasing MUSCLE EXTENSIVE RESISTANCE, carrying out exercises at middle intensity connected one another with runs at Aerobic Threshold pace.

We use this type of Circuit during the Preliminary and Fundamental Periods with, of course, some differences depending on the event to improve the capability of working longer using the same percentage of maximum strength.

This Circuit is quite Aerobic and builds up the base of Endurance that later we have to develop into Strength-Endurance

Examples of Modified Circuits During the Fundamental Period

Extensive Strength – Resistance Circuit  (1500 / 5000m)

(900m uphill, gradient 7-10 %, + 700m flat)

  • 300m fast running uphill   (duration  55.0 >< 60.0)
  • 10 squat jumps   (duration  15.0 >< 18.0)
  • 60m sprint uphill   (duration  10.0 >< 12.0)
  • 20m skipping with strides 50cm long   (duration  30.0 >< 40.0)
  • 200m moderate running uphill   (duration  45.0 >< 50.0)
  • 20m heels-to-buttocks   (duration  30.0 >< 40.0)
  • 300m fast running uphill   (duration  55.0 >< 60.0)
  • 20 sagittal – splits   (duration  20.0 >< 25.0)
  • 200m moderate running on flat land   (duration  45.0 >< 50.0)
  • 30 even hops with blocked knees   (duration  20.0 >< 30.0)
  • 500m fast running at 85% of max. speed  (duration  1:25 >< 1:40)

Duration: 7:00 >< 8:00

Recovery: 5:00 >< 6:00

Repetitions: 4 – 6 times

Hmmm.  Varied, moderate to high-intensity hill runs interspersed with hops, skips, jumps, and squats to recruit the greatest number of fibres under conditions of strong acidification and simultaneously increase runners’ strength and aerobic base? Sounds oddly familiar.

Though it would be premature for us to draw conclusions about Canova’s overall approach to training runners, this portion of his methods jumped out at us. It seems to rest on the same physiological footing as some of the other high-intensity and strength-based approaches we have discussed on this site (and archived in our Research Library).

If we learn more about Canova that becomes relevant here, we’ll be certain to share. In the meantime, for a good read, go check out his paper.

Update: We could not help but notice, and several experienced strength and endurance coaches have independently commented, that the principles Canova describes resemble training concepts famously espoused by the late Yuri Verkhoshansky (about whom we’ll write more another time). Interestingly enough, Canova was asked about this just last year in the Let’s Run forums. About Verkhoshansky, Canova commented:

Verkhoshansky came several times in Italy, and was a collaborator of Italian Athletic Federation (FIDAL) about methodology. … The real problem is that all the top methodologists from Soviet Union didn’t have any advanced knowledge about the BIOENERGETIC system. Their periodization was the base of the development of STRENGTH in all the expressions (fundamental, explosive, balistic-explosive, reactive elastic, eccentric, etc…), but never they had really knowledge about the action of mitochondrions and their transformation with tough training of endurance. … [I]f some principle is the same we find in Verkhoshansky, the methodological base for training endurance is, practically, very much different.

Though Canova doesn’t deny the influence of Verkhoshansky, Canova clearly feels he’s developed something different. When we write more about Verkhoshansky on endurance training later, you can be the judge.

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