Frank Horwill's 5-Tier System
Dr. Matt Long argues that in order for British middle distance and endurance running to move forwards, much can be learnt by looking back at some older established ideas and evaluating them in the context of coaching today.
The early 1970s saw British Milers' Club founder Frank Horwill MBE introduce the 5-Tier System of training which now has a well-established global reputation. This article aims to do the following:
- Articulate the fundamentals of Horwill's 5-Tier System as a theory
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the system in practice
- Assess contemporary coaching understandings of the system
Frank Horwill's system
At the heart of Frank Horwill's specific system are two interrelated principles, namely multi-paced training and the four seconds rule.
Sometimes referred to as '5 pace training' or 'multi-tier training'. This system involves progressing athletes through 5 different paced sessions over a specified cyclical training microcycle.
The Four Seconds Rule
Horwill made the assertion that the pace of an athlete slows by about 4 seconds per 400m for faster athletes and 5 seconds per 400m for slower athletes, as the race distance increases from 400m all the way to the marathon. The system was primarily developed to combat what Horwill (2011) referred to as the "illogical use of recovery times".
Horwill's Four Seconds Rule in tabular form
||Pace per 400m
(4 seconds per lap differential)
|Pace per 400m
(5 seconds per lap differential)
||4 x 1 mile
||6 x 1000m
||6 x 600m
||4 x 400m
||8 x 200m
|Adapted from Frank Horwill Obsession for Running, 1991
According to internationally acclaimed coach and coach educator Peter Thompson, "These small differences are the order of variation we should observe in training paces when coaches are assessing the running rhythms of their athletes". This system had the principle of specificity at the heart of it by involving the following:
- One workout at projected race pace
- Two workouts over distances shorter and pace quicker than the targeted race distance and projected pace
- Two workouts over distances longer and pace slower than the targeted race distance and projected pace.
These sessions would take place over a 10-14-day period, being interspersed with recovery days of lighter running.
The success of Horwill's system
This system received acclaim in the mid-1970s from Peter Coe, who praised "a reasoned theoretical base for a training system that would be comprehensive and would maximise both speed or stamina". (Horwill, 1991). The system was proven by Horwill himself, who coached and continues to coach numerous world-class athletes. These included two-time world cross country silver medallist and 1984 Olympic 5,000m 4th placer Tim Hutchings.
In a recent interview, Hutchings credits his 13m11s PB in Los Angeles to prolonged use of Horwill's system. He told me that he found it to be, "a comprehensive programme which covers all bases" and that, "if used diligently and intelligently it ticks 98% of the boxes and is great for young athletes", adding that he refined his workouts only later in his career with the use of pyramid work whilst training with Seoul Olympian Steve Binns. During the 1980s and 90s Horwill's system began to have a more global appeal and was utilised by the great Olympic 5,000m and multiple world record holder Said Aouita.
Frank Horwill's system viewed in the context of coaching today
If we examine Horwill's system in light of modern coaching practices, we can identify the following benefits:
Athlete-centred goal setting.
Target times in races for the athlete are able to be set for distances between 400m and the marathon and endurance events between. Athletes and coaches are able to see which event(s) they are strongest at and which they need to work at in developmental terms. In the words of elite level coach and British Athletics National Trainer, Jeremy Harries, "Frank Horwill's system allowed me to structure activities and effectively gave me a spreadsheet with target times". The use of Horwill's system as a motivational tool cannot be underestimated.
A benchmarking tool for both athlete and coach.
It is because both the 5-Tier System and the four seconds rule provide both athlete and coach with quantifiable targets, that the system is an excellent benchmarking tool both in training and in racing.
Ability to educate the athlete in terms of pace judgement.
Horwill's system makes explicit target pace times and this can be reduced to both lap times over 400m and even to pace-setting over 100m subsections of a training session or a race.
Adaptability throughout a 12-month macrocycle of periodisation.
Whilst some coaches advocate predominantly off-track training for the middle distance and endurance athlete, Horwill espoused the benefits of an athlete operating at or at least close to race pace out of season. This inevitably involved the use of the track to achieve sessions based on both speed and aerobic endurance. This effectively means that Horwill's system can be adapted throughout a 12-month macrocycle and used explicitly in both preparation and competition periods before the recovery based transition period.
The problem's through misapplication of Horwill's system
Can stifle communication between coach and athlete
Having endorsed Horwill's system, the aforementioned Jeremy Harries warns that it can, "can take the coaching aspect away". Lorimer (2011)
argued for the fundamental importance of good communication between coach and athlete. Horwill's system is underpinned by a reliance on quantitative data in the form of target times and an over-reliance on this system can result in a lack of qualitative discussion between athlete and coach. The system offers both athlete and coach feedback about extrinsic performance but there is a danger that the intrinsic feelings of both the athlete and intangible perceptions of the coach can be ignored because of a pre-occupation with the numerical.
The four seconds rule is not cast in a tablet of stone
Whilst offering a degree of scientific objectivity, Horwill himself was the first to acknowledge that this rule should not become fetishised. In revisiting Bowerman (1991)
concept of 'Date Pace' originally introduced in the 1960s, Peter Thompson, for example, advocates on his website www.newintervaltraining.com a more fluid system of 'running rhythms', based on the perceptions of the athlete, rather than slavish adherence to target times.
Failure to adhere to the coaching principle of individualisation.
This occurs when coaches fail to consider the interrelated variables of chronological, biological and training ages for each athlete. The system has a variable application over a 10 to 14-day microcycle but in practice, coaches may fail to set an appropriate time frame for the said microcycle and may fail to achieve progressive overload with the athlete.
Focus on short-term gains at expense of long-term athlete development.
Peter Coe categorically stated that the system could produce long-term sustainable improvement as it had with Sebastian, in addition to short-term gains. "The length of (Seb's) career, some fourteen years at the top shows, that if properly applied, it is not a recipe for 'burn out'". The utilisation of Horwill's system requires the athlete to have a good level of aerobic fitness prior to the commencement of repetition or interval training. It additionally requires both the athlete and coach to consent to long-term sustainable development.
Coaches understanding of Horwill's system
In my decade as both an endurance coach and more recently a coach educator with British Athletics, I have noticed that coaches tend to fall into one of four categories in terms of understanding Horwill's system. These categories can best be understood by utilisation of the work of Noel Burch and his notion of the conscious-competence learning matrix. (Adams, 2011).
The Conscious-Competence Learning Matrix
The unconsciously incompetent coach.
This type of coach talks typically of the need for endurance athletes to engage in 'speed work' but in practice fails to adequately distinguish between aerobic and speed endurance workouts. He or she has a limited understanding of Horwill's 5-Tier System.
The consciously incompetent coach.
This type of coach has read the work of Horwill over a number of years and does possess an understanding of the 5-Tier System. Whilst these coaches acknowledge the need for variable pace workouts in practice, very rarely is the 4-second rule applied and there is very little attempt to work through the 5 paces within a clearly defined microcycle
The consciously competent coach. This type of coach is aware of Horwill's work, making a conscious attempt to try and follow the principles advocated through the systematic planning of training diaries and by committing to a proactive athlete-centred approach.
The unconsciously competent coach. This type of coach is a rarity. He or she is well versed in practicing the principles advocated by Horwill and has done so over numerous years. This being said, the 'unconscious-competence' means that rather than treating the work of Horwill as 'gospel truth' these coaches are happy with an eclectic mixture of coaching philosophies. They acknowledge that Horwill's work has a valuable application and can be adapted to the challenges of working with athletes in the twenty-first century.
Conclusion: Frank Horwill's 5-Tier legacy
Peter Thompson articulates, in a nutshell, one of the greatest legacies left by the work of Frank Horwill by stating that, "Today most top runners follow some variation of a multi-pace system. What Frank stated in the early 1970s may appear obvious now, but it takes an enquiring and creative mind to say something for the first time. When Frank first outlined his 5-Tier System it was ground-breaking".
What this article has hopefully encouraged us to do is:
- Acknowledge there is merit in revisiting some well-established ideas articulated four decades ago
- Consider the difference between coaching ideology and coaching practices
- Think about how conscious or unconscious we are in terms of both understanding and applying the ideas and concepts of one of Britain's greatest endurance coaches
- ADAMS, L. (2011) Learning a New Skill is Easier Said Than Done. Gordon Training International
- BOWERMAN, W.J. (1991) High-performance training for track and field. Champaign, Ill.: Leisure Press.
- HORWILL, F. (1991) Obsession For Running. Lancashire. Colin Davies.
- HORWILL, F. (2011) Recovery. BMC News. 8 (1), p. 33.
- LORIMER, R. (2011) On the same level. Athletics Weekly, August 11th, p.34-35.
- LONG, M (2012) Multi-paced System. Athletics Weekly, October 6th 2011, p. 50-51
If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:
- LONG, M. (2012) Frank Horwill's 5-Tier System [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article080.htm [Accessed
The information on this page is adapted from Long (2012) with the kind permission of the author and Athletics Weekly.
About the Author
Dr. Matt Long coaches endurance athletes at Notts AC and is Director of the Burton Track and Field Academy. He is a trainee British Athletics Tutor and was shortlisted by the British Milers' Club for the 2011 Frank Horwill scholarship for his work on this paper.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: