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Staying the Course

Marathon legend, Bill Adcocks was at a recent England Athletics workshop, and Dr Matt Long was there to report on the findings.

In his address to the workshop audience, 71-year-old Bill Adcocks, a former gas fitter said: "Look at me, l am nothing special." The workshop was centered around a man who 44 years previously had set a course record of 2hr 11min 07sec in the Athens 'Classic'.

His historic journey over the undulating course from Marathon to Athens was immortalised in his book 'The Road to Athens.' On April 6, 1969, the Coventry Godiva runner secured his place in history with victory and joined the all-time greats such as double Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila on the roll-of-honour. His course record would remain his property for another 35 years before two-time European champion Stefano Baldini of Italy removed 12 seconds from the standard in the process of grabbing Olympic gold in 2004 over the hallowed course.

A guided discovery

Finishing in fifth place in the thin air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympic marathon (2:25:33) behind winner Mamo Wolde, Adcocks admitted that "I learned through a process of trial and error." This is compatible with the 'guided discovery' mode of learning, underpinned by the belief that where appropriate exploration and experimentation may lead to enhanced self-awareness and discovery by the athlete. This is not surprising, as Adcocks was guided by Midlands Area National coach Lionel Pugh until 1964 before embarking on his marathon career and becoming self-coached as were his contemporaries: Jim Alder, Basil Heatley, Ron Hill, Jim Hogan, and Brian Kilby.

Training group

The man who first wore the famous Coventry Godiva vest with distinction as a 13-year-old back in 1955 was keen to credit Kilby (1962 European and Commonwealth marathon gold) and Basil Heatley (former world marathon record holder and 1964 Tokyo Olympic silver medallist) with engendering his success along with other Godiva notables such as Dick and Juan Taylor and Colin Kirkham. Adcocks started training with the main group at the club on Tuesday and Thursday evenings as well as Sunday mornings at the age of 20. With humour, he recounted the story of a night in Coventry in the late 1950s whereby the aforementioned Kilby and Ian Cassidy were forced to abandon a road run due to the appalling foggy weather. Undeterred they proceeded to stage an impromptu indoor training run by lapping around the club's changing rooms!

Long-term athlete development

Adcocks who took a Commonwealth Games silver medal behind Jim Alder in 1966 was by his admission not a high achiever in his early years of competition. He recalled: "I was 48th in the 'National' as a first-year youth. It went from bad to worse. As a second year, I think I was 78th." This is why it is important to distinguish between (a) chronological age; (b) biological age and (c) training age. Inevitably, in junior races, athletes are categorised on how old they are, but chronological age is a poor indicator of both biological maturation and how long someone has been training for. Alder was a comparatively late developer who got it right when it mattered to him in the senior ranks.

Progressive overload

Progressive overload of athletic training can be split into (1) frequency, (2) intensity, and (3) duration. In terms of the latter, notably, when he began running in 1959, he covered around 30 miles per week. It wasn't until nine years later that he regularly surpassed 90 miles per week in training. From 1967 onwards, there were regular weeks of 120 miles and more.

Threshold pace running

With a comparatively modest mile best of 4min 15.2sec, Adcocks explained that most of his work during his marathon career was conducted away from the track and on the roads and over the country. “Almost all of my runs from 1965 onwards were done at a good pace. I never ran slower than 6 minutes per mile regardless of the distance, and usually, it was closer to 5 minutes.” This utilisation of threshold or ‘T-pace' running should according to Daniels (2005) be conducted at about 83-88% of VO2 max, or 88-92% of vVO2 Max to achieve an “elevated, yet steady state of blood lactate accumulation.”

Tapering and rest

The 1965 AAA marathon champion utilised a reduction in the intensity of training rather than complete abstinence as supported by Shepley et al. (1992)[2]. With a twinkle in his eye he told the audience, “For those who say they need a complete rest, I ask how many days they think Sir Ranulph Fiennes had off on his way to the South Pole!” He continued, “Athletes are not rational people. I ran the day before the Mexico Olympic marathon, and Derek Clayton ran on the same morning before he set his world marathon best in Japan.” In terms of rest, he was categoric that, “I was in bed, lights out by 9 pm” when in training.”


Setting a European best performance of 2:10:48 at Fukuoka, Japan in 1968, Adcocks bemoaned the wider cultural shifts of late modernity by stating that, “Racing was our social activity – it was our day out.” He implored athletes to remember that, “it's the race that is the examination, not the training.” In 1968 he took part in 25 races of which four were marathons.

Date pace versus goal pace

The Coventry man recalled: “There were very few clocks out on courses in my day. I ran how I felt- I had an internal body clock.” This is both significant and ironic in that he was the first man in history to run four marathons in under 2hr 14min. It was the legendary Oregon-based coach Bill Bowerman, who introduced the notion of ‘date pace' and ‘goal pace'. The former is underpinned by the fact that an athlete cannot run a personal best every day of the week and therefore, athlete perception of pacing predominates in subjective terms. The latter is objective in that it represents ‘goal time' on race day.

Adcocks advocated that the athlete embraces the ‘here and now' and the ‘feel' of the race, rather than a slavish adherence to the stopwatch. Psychologists, Apter and Smith (1975)[3] have conceptualised this binary as ‘paratelic' (process) versus ‘telic' (goal) focus. Both are needed within the duration of the race, but a preoccupation with the latter can be counter-productive. 


Some of the roles that Adcocks has held are secretary, club chairman, and team manager and he continues to wear some of these hats in tirelessly giving back to the sport which gave him so much. After serving as Information Officer for BAF/UKA for 10 years, he concluded that “Everybody seems to be looking for the easy way to succeed these days. The message we give to athletes has to be steeped in both work and focus. Don't ‘over-think' things. Get out there and do it!”

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Long (2013)[1] with the kind permission of the authors and Athletics Weekly.


  1. LONG, M (2013) Staying the course. Athletics Weekly, April 4th 2013, p. 36-37
  2. Shepley et al. (1992) Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athlete, J Appl Physiol 1992 Feb, 72 (2), p. 706-711.
  3. APTER, M. and SMITH, K. (1975) A theory of psychological reversals. Chippenham. Picton

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LONG, M. (2014) Staying the Course [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Matt Long is a British Athletics Coach Education Tutor and has lectured and coached at the British Milers Club Academy.