Olympian and former World Record Holder Aly Dixon tells Matt Long about variational and fractional running.

You will recall the first article in the series, coach Vince Wilson explained how he has adapted Canova’s principles around progression running with the work which he does with Team GB’s Sam Harrison.

The second article featured BMC Coach of the Year Phil Kissi in terms of his approach to ‘Special Block’ training effected with Tokyo Olympian Steph Davis and England international Rose Harvey.

Remember that purpose of this series of articles is not to give a detailed account of the famed Italian Renato Canova’s approach to periodisation. Those who want to understand his approach to the ‘General’, ‘Fundamental’ and ‘Specific’ stages should consult Arceli and Canova (1999).

The third piece in the series explores the ways in which Team GB’s Rio Olympic marathon runner Aly Dixon introduced variety into her traditional long runs.

In order to understand this one has to revisit the work of Canova (1999) in the context of what he referred to as ‘fractional’ and then ‘variational’ running.

Fractional Running

Ever fond of typologies, Canova (1999) has broken Fractional running down into (1) Long, (2) Medium, (3) Short and (4) Mixed.

1. Long Fractions

This is described as being between 15-21 km with the speed of faster fractions (ordinarily effected over 5km) being between 103-107% of marathon speed. Critically as a continuous mode of session, roll on recoveries of between 2-3 mins are typically interspersed with the aforementioned faster segments.

2. Medium Fractions

The total recommended volume is between 12-15 km with the faster fractions being between 3-5 km and effected at 105-108% of marathon speed, with 2-3 mins roll on recovery between each faster fraction.

3. Short Fractions

These tend to be between 10-12 km in volume with faster fractions effected between 1-3 km and between 106-110% of marathon speed, typically with just 2 mins roll on recovery between faster fractions.

4. Mixed Fractions

These tend not to be less volume than shorter fractions but fractions are more randomised being effected between 400m and a maximum of 3 km, with variable roll on recoveries of between 60s and 4 mins. It is because these fractions can be effected over relatively short distances that they can be effected up to 112% of marathon speed.

Photo: Virgin Money London Marathon

Aly’s adaptations

The Sunderland Stroller had a great year back in 2017 clocking a lifetime best of 2h29m06s in placing 14th in the London marathon. One of the sessions she effected in the weeks prior to this would be termed a ‘Short Fraction’ with a 3 x (1k; 600m; 400m) The session was chained at either end with steady state aerobic volume.

Less than four months later Aly went on to represent Team GB in the London World Championship marathon and a session effected shortly before this event of 4 x 2 miles @ tempo, once again chained by steady state aerobic work at the end is indicative of what Canova would assign as a ‘Medium Fraction.’

Somewhat intertwined with fractional running is the notion of variational running.

Variational Running

More simply than with the multiple variants of Fractional Running, Canova (1999) makes the binary division between (1) Long Runs with short pace variations and (2) Long Runs with Long Run variations.

1. Long Run/ Short pace variation

These tend to be between 1hr45m and 2hr 15 min in duration and run at a steady pace of around 80% of marathon race pace. Somewhere in the middle part of the run a block of say 10x 60s would be effected with a roll on recovery similar to the faster surges in duration.

2. Long Run/ Long pace variation

These runs tend not to differ from the above in terms of volume and steady state (80% of marathon race pace) intensity. This being said the longer blocks of faster running may be over distances like 3km, 5km and 7km, there being at least 10 mins recovery at steady state running in between the efforts.

Aly’s Adaptations

As a world class marathon runner who placed 6th in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018 and who went on to set a world record for 50km (3hr 07m20s) one year later in Romania, it is unsurprising that Aly’s adaptation of Canova’s principles meant she leant towards what would be termed ‘Long Run/ Long pace variation’ in the typology above.

She conveys that, “I used to put blocks of tempo into my long runs. I would alternate a good pace which for me was goal marathon pace plus 30 secs a mile for me traditional long run and then for my next long run I would mix it up with some kind of tempo the next. A typical session would be 3 miles easy and then straight into 3 x 5 miles with half mile easy recovery and then 3 miles easy to finish off the session.

I had several other ‘go to’ sessions such as 10 miles easy, 12 at tempo and then 3 miles easy to finish. Sometimes I’d use progression runs as part of my long run- for example 10 miles easy followed by 4 x 5k run progressively faster and once again topped off with 3 miles easy”. With a twinkle in her eye she tells that, “I guess my favourite session of this type would be 14 miles easy, followed by 10k in 34 mins and 3 miles easy”.

This leaves us with the following questions for self-reflection

1. How might I benefit from both fractional and variational running as part of my periodised training plan?
2. Which specific modes of fractional and variational running best serve my long term athletic developmental meds?
3. Why might following Aly Dixon’s willingness to adapt and improvise the principles behind fractional and variational sessions suit my own athlete-centred and individual needs as a runner?

Matt Long has served as both an England Team Manager and Coach and welcomes contact for coaching support at mattlongcoach@gmail.com


Arceli, E. and Canova, R. (1999) ‘IAF Marathon Training. A Scientific Approach’. International Athletic Foundation.