ARTICLE: Learning from Lydiard

Arthur Lydiard, OBE, of New Zealand is widely heralded as one of the most successful, if not the most successful, coach of all times in the sport of middle and long distance running. He died of a suspected heart attack while on a lecture toor in 2004 at venerable age of 87.

In my journey to find the perfect training programme to me, I have focused heavily on sources of scientific knowledge. I suspect this tendency of mine comes from an inherent distrust in the power of human observation and human subjectiveness. Tests show again and again that we are very fallible machines when it comes to making correct judgements without the structure of scientific methodology to keep our findings in check.

Our ability to intuitively handle large numbers and statistical logic is shown up short in tests again and again. The ease by which we can be tricked into believing something is equally well illustrated by psychological illusionist Derren Brown and others like him.

Still, I was curious to get a more indepth look at the methods of some of the great coaches covered by Noakes in "The Lore of Running" such as Daniels, Galloway, and, first in my mind, Arthur Lydiard.

Hill runners often have greater fondness for Lydiard than standard runners due to his advocacy of hill running. Unlike many conservative track and road coaches, Lydiard fully understood the value of hill-running and not only in the safe "let's run up and down a grassy slope variety" but of real hills and challenging terrain. Hamstring problems is one of the consequences of the avoidance of hills as runners tend to develop strong quads but weak hamstrings. The force generated by strong quads then tend to create muscle tears in the unconditioned hamstrings. Hill-running almost fully negates this problems (so does, incidentally, triathlon) (Lydiard 2007).

It was thus with gusto that I picked up "Running - To the Top" the new 2007 edition of the 1997 original by Arthur Lydiard. This book not only inspired me due to Lydiard's well-known no-nonsense straight-talking and tremendous practical insights into the sport but also because it raised some pertinent questions on the "modern" training programmes that I use and on when and how to use coaches.

Let me talk about them in turn, first, how does the "ancient" wisdom of Lydiard compare to Fitzgerald's newest programme presented in "Brain Training for Runners", and second, what does he have to say about finding a coach?

Counterintuitive then as now

Everyone familiar with more traditional training programmes tend to take one look at Fitzgerald's new schedule and say "he's got it backwards" (indeed I got a comment to that effect just recently).

Interestingly, Lydiard struggled with this same resistance from all the major athletic bodies he worked with due to his insistence of high aerobic workloads even for 800m-1500m runners (he infamously insisted that 800m runner Peter Snell ran 160km per week including a 35km hill run!). Peter Snell, of course, set a new record on the 800m and won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1960.

This usually happens whenever something a coach or exercise physiologist says that flies in the face of the seemingly commonsensical. Back in the 1950s it did not seem to make sense that 800m and 1500m runners should do high mileage. It was only later that the science caught up with Lydiard's observation and confirmed the benefits aerobic training induces to even short and middle-distance runners.

Lydiard vs. Fitzgerald

Lydiard's book has one noteworthy advantage over Fitzgerald's: It deals with complete novices and with children to a much wider degree. While Fitzgerald's Level 1 programmes in his "Base" phase is certainly not risky for most runners even his 30sec relaxed hill reps and fartlek may be too much for complete novices to handle.

Lydiard points out that one of the reasons for African supremecy in running is the enormous amount of aerobic training most Africans do when they are children (Haile Gebrsselassie mentions the same in the last edition of the UK Runners World when he points out that his children won't be great runners due to the comforts, buses etc., of the lives they now enjoy compared to his own upbringing). By this logic, complete beginners, especially people with no previous exposure to any sporting activity, should follow Lydiard's ultra-simple beginners programme. And as he says: "Three months is minimum. Four months is better, five months is better still but anything less than three months is not enough." (Lydiard 2007)

Apart from this there is little difference between Matt Fitzgerald and Arthur Lydiard's programmes, except for a few minor points:

  1. Lydiard insists on a pretty hefty initial volume, basically what most think of as marathon training, whereas Fitzgerald's is more distance specific, e.g. lower for 5k than 10k and so on (Lydiard has been challenged on his aerobic volume by other notaries, but what science has shown in the intertwening years is basically that Lydiard's figure of 160km as optimal per week is true for some but not for others. In other words, he's right about the high volume, but what it should be varies from athlete to athlete depending on genetics)
  2. Fitzgerald's programmes are shorter (16-24 weeks in general) while Lydiard always takes a more long-term approach (at least in his book). This is inevitable as he was generally preparing athletes for the Olympics while Fitzgerald would be coaching mainly "normal" people
Otherwise they agree on the key points (many of which still today, unbelievably, face resistance in some parts of the athletics community). It should be noted that they couldn't present them in more different ways, the difference in tone between the blunt and forthright coach Arthur Lydiard and the refined fitness journalist, scientist and online coach Matt Fitzgerald could not be more pronounced. It is the craftsman versus the intellectual but their ideas converge on this (it should be noted that Tim Noakes on whose theory Matt Fitzgerald's programme is based also comes to these conclusions):
  1. Enjoyment of the sport is the first and most important determinant to long-term success
  2. Running by feel and being flexible is key to successful and injury-free running
  3. You must work on your running technique actively
  4. Train, dont' strain (my favourite Lydiard quote!)
  5. Use steep hill sprints during base phase for leg strengthening
What's more, the specific technique drills suggested by Fitzgerald and Lydiard show remarkable similarities although both give a different range of total options.

Turning to a coach?
The reason I don't seek out a coach is that I'm not good enough to get full attention from one. To my mind, "little attention is as good as no attention". After all, what can anyone really help me with unless they take the time to learn everything about me as a person and as a runner?

This is my opinion and while some may not agree, I'll stick to it. If the right coach came along and our ideas and personalities converged, I would be willing to give it a try, but until then, I find it more prudent to seek coaching from what the experts wrote.

Lydiard says it best himself: "Look for the coaches who are being successful, not the ones who are not. Training is essentially an individual thing. No two athletes are exactly the same; they have different strengths and weaknesses and only the best coaches can evaluate those differences and set out a programme that will strengthen the good poitns and eliminate the weaknessess."

Emma Cutts of the PeakCentre worked will for me for this very reason. She may or may not have been a particularly skilled coach (indeed she never saw me race). But she measured my strengths and weaknesses at any given time and send me out to work on whatever weakness was the most urgent priority at any given time At the same time she gave me plenty of personal attention and someone to talk to about what was going well and what wasn't. This personal sparing is what I consider the greatest loss to the quality of my training.

This sparing is essential, as Lydiard puts it: "Some athletes display a complete, unquestioning confidence in their coaches but, often, they don't fully understand what they are about, they don't understand the fundamentals. They should question, but they don't, accepting without questioning what the coach tells them. They're training unintelligently because they don't understand what they are doing when they are going out to carry out a certain workload. They'll work to hypothetical figures of distances and repetitions, whatever the coach tells them, without observing their own reaction." (Lydiard 2007).

Emma understood this, and so does Matt Fitzgerald who wastes no space explaining the intricacies of his new training paradigm to the skeptic runner, before expecting you to take it onboard. Whenever Emma gave me a new workout she'd explain exactly what effects it would have and what its purpose was. If I questioned why this was, she'd give me very colourful explanations (I'll never forget the constant talk of "little guys" as a reference to "slow-twitch muscle fibres").

This means you have to be a little bit of a pain to your club coaches from time to time. If they're doing a session, go ask them what the session is supposed to do. When they explain it, go home and check the literature on the matter and see what type of speed someone at your level should be running it at. If its not the session you need at the time, don't do it. More importantly, if the club schedule says 8x1000m and you're dying after 6, go home or go jog the rest. Training schedules are not Biblical, and if there's one lesson to take from both Lydiard, Fitzgerald and the compiled wisdom of running in Noakes' "Lore of Running", this constitutes one.

As the old Rudyard Kipling poem says:

I keep six honest serving men,
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

The what, why, when, how, where, and who questions form the basis for the training design guidelines presented by David E. Martin, PhD, and Peter N. Coe (Sebastian Coe's father and coach) in their pivotal book "Better Training for Distance Runners" (Martin & Coe 1997). David E. Martin serves as the marathon chair of the USA Track and Field Men's Development Committee and the Sports Science Subcommittee. Peter Coe coached his son Sebastian to 4 Olympic medals and 12 world records (among other things). So if you won't take it from me, or from Matt, or from Lydiard, take it from them.

Next up...
Next up on my "Lydiard-series", I'll talk about how his insights as well as my own learning points from using an amalgamation of the Fitzgerald/Sleamaker programmes for six weeks have shaped a slight rethink of the programme I had originally set down in October. I have every reason to believe the new programme is substantially better for me than the previous. I also have every reason to believe that I'll say the same of my 2010 programme...