TRAINING: First Lydiard Hill Session

Perhaps the most famous, probably the least used, and possibly the most important part of a Lydiard style programme is the “Lydiard Hill Session”. Much has been written in past years about the exact distance used for the original loop in Auckland that Arthur and his boys employed, but let’s forget that for a moment and let me just say: It rocks!

For those entirely new to the session, it basically has this format: A loop consisting of a steep uphill, a flat stretch, a very fast runnable downhill (not as steep as the uphill) and another flat stretch.

Scouting Locations

I’ve been thinking long and hard about where to put my Lydiard loop and Ireland and have yet to make a choice, but forced by circumstance in Singapore I discovered that you don’t have to be too particular. Let me relay my story of how I found an almost ideal loop on a whim and perhaps it can serve to guide you finding loops to test this session for yourself:

My four weeks of hill training started this week, but I had very low hopes for being able to execute my first session as planned on Tuesday after the disruptions to my flights from the volcanic ash. Waking up the morning of Tuesday I was nervous and edgy, as I had been the Monday before. So edgy in fact that I sneaked in a short brisk run Monday evening instead of the planned recovery day and then woke up early to do 4k at half-marathon pace and have a swim in our lovely pool. This way, just in case, I would have done some running if news suddenly dictated a swift departure to the airport.

Luckily for my hill session, Lufthansa informed me to come out around 20:30 and get the latest and be put on the waiting list. With all my stuff packed, I went to our Singapore Office and scouted the local area for potential places to do the session. The only green area close by was the small “Labrador Nature Reserve” (a park). I decided to jog down there, at around 4 o’clock temperatures were still scorching but I couldn’t leave it later.

Session Explained

A “perfect” Lydiard Hill Circuit progresses like this:

1. Start on the uphill section. Start moving uphill using one of Lydiard’s three standard drills: Steep Uphill Running, Hill Springing and Hill Bounding (I’ll explain those below)

2. Recover on the flat but insert a few fast “windsprints” (50-60m sprints) by feel

3. Hammer down the downhill at full tilt focusing on keeping an extremely high leg-turnover. If you have to lean back the descent is too steep

4. Recover on the flat again, and keep inserting windsprints by feel

Lydiard’s original loop tends to be described thus: 300-400m uphill, 800-1000m flat at top and bottom and 800m downhill. One of the favourite anecdotes is that Peter Snell would generally run about 1:50 in training for the 800m downhill! (His WR time was 1:44). Together the idea was to have the loop at around 2 miles (3.2k) and Lydiard’s world class athletes would often be at this for an hour.

However, Nobby Hashizume has provided several good pieces of advice for beginner’s taking on this session that I believe you should take great note off if you want to stay injury free:

1. The distance may be too intense for beginners, focus on quality. If a loop half the size is enough for you, then start with that

2. Cut down the overall time if necessary. Go by feel, you know when you’ve had enough. Underdo it rather than overdo it in the beginning as the effects of session will come as a surprise to most and won’t be readily apparent as you do it (I can attest to this, below).

3. Focus on the simple “Steep Uphill Running” drill in the beginning rather than springing and bounding. The latter two are more useful for middle-distance runners than long-distance (although good for all) and can be difficult to perform without supervision initially

Also, note that rough terrain is generally a no-no for this session. The point is to move effectively on the uphill (focusing on the drill and not falling may be too much) and moving your legs as fast as possible on the down (unless you're some kind of ungodly descending machine, you’ll be able to move your legs safer and faster on even ground). In other words, this drill is not to develop technical skills for specific terrains.

A Sample Match

It took me about half an hour of jogging around to settle on a usable course. It was not a perfect loop like Lydiard’s, instead it was a steep piece of tarmac uphill with a flat stretch at the bottom and at the top. The uphill had a tiny flatter stretch in the middle (about 30m worth) which was common on Lydiard’s circuit as well (these were used for brief recoveries during uphill drills).

To make this work, I would have to start at the bottom, do my uphill drills, then recover on the flat, turn around at a designated point and sprint down to the flat again after which I’d run to the water station around the corner, take a sip, jog back to the uphill and start all over again. I decided not to do windsprints as the flat sections were very short and the heat was difficult to cope with at intensity.

This course was close to ideal given I just discovered the location. The only two factors that spoke against it was the tarmac (a bit hard) and the sharp bend midway which made it almost impossible not to break during the downhill (although for each attempt I cut off a second, so perhaps it was a good technical session as well!).

The course looked like this:

1. Uphill: 320m, 37m climb, 11.6% grade

2. Flat (top): 300m

3. Downhill: 350m, 37m descent, 10.6% grade

4. Flat (bottom): 280m

5. Total: 1250m

The difference from the downhill and uphill stems from the fact that I cut the corner tight on the uphill and very wide on the downhill.

As mentioned, do it by feel. I stopped after 4 repeats. I could definitely have done five but was a bit nervous on how it would affect me and about missing my plane, so in the end jogged home happy with a session that had taken me just under 26 minutes.

What’s this for again?

Right, first things last this time. The uphill drills are basically exaggerated running movements and therefore plyometric. They can thus be replaced by a well-designed plyometric program for those who prefer but the objective remains the same to build explosive power, flexibility and strength especially in the lower leg.

The windsprints and the downhill section have Emma Cutts suggested a similar session for me in the early days as a way of “shocking” the body into learning how to recruit more motor neurons (and this is no joke, despite breaking for the bend I ran the fastest 350m downhill at 2:42min/km pace (57 seconds). This session will feel quite anaerobic but if done correctly will not be as devastatingly tiring as hard intervals session.

Lydiard considered this phase critical because it is transitory: It prepares a body that has done heavy aerobic mileage for the faster training coming down the road as well as overcoming some of the muscle viscosity that has built up during aerobic conditioning (e.g. you tend to get a bit stiff and your leg speed goes down).

How does it feel?

Firstly, I decided to do just steep uphill running. That is, exaggerated uphill running with heavy arm movement, very high knees and a focus on gaining height and really working the muscles. This didn’t cause the legs to do as quickly as sprinting up the hill would have, but it does put a huge toil on the respiratory system (I breathed like a very hot steam train). That’s part of the idea, the muscles don’t go acidic quick enough for the muscular stimulation to be minimal but the heavy recruitment of muscle fibres puts a big toll on the heart and sets the scene for future anaerobic training.

Finally, it’s much slower to do the drills uphill than running uphill fast (I ran the uphill in 2:00, 2:02, 2:00, and 2:00, which is about 6:25min/km pace). Don’t be deterred, you’re working your muscles and it won’t feel like you’re going slowly! The pace can certainly increase as you go but not at the expense of good form. Increasing leg turnover may also cause your legs to go acidic too fast forcing early termination of the drill.

Running downhill is just, well, wild really. At every step you are trying to push the pace into new territory. I focused heavily on optimal form (e.g. staying balanced, getting my feet of the ground as quick as I could) and retaining almost constant acceleration. There was never a second when the fear of losing control and tumbling into the asphalt left my mind but the legs definitely got a great speed workout.

On the downside, I think the pounding on this descent grade and on asphalt is not sustainable so for future sessions, especially with a longer downhill, a gentler slope must be found.

What I liked most was how complete the sessions feel. Both going up and down you have to work on perfecting your technique and your timing. At the same time both the uphill and the downhill tests your leg strength and forces you to adopt good form. Finally, there’s an anaerobic component and a speed component.

After-effects

Going onto a 12 hour plane ride is not the best way to recover from a hard session and I was nervous about this (and it still is, at the time of writing in Frankfurt). I had heavy stiffness in my calves and ankles during the plane trip. My legs were pretty hammered for 12 or so hours after, but now they are coming back, so my instinct so far is that this session is everything it’s made out to be.

Lydiard, in his later, mellower years, suggested doing 3 per week but pointed out you should do as many as you could handle and if that’s two and not three, well then so be it.

Context

Ok, final word. No session exists in a vacuum and while you can put this session into any quality training period in your program, I implemented the full Lydiard Hill Circuit week practically as is and it looks like this:

· Day 1: Hill Circuit

· Day 2: Aerobic

· Day 3: Hill Circuit

· Day 4: Fartlek

· Day 5: Strides

· Day 6: Hill Circuit

· Day 7: Long aerobic (2 hours plus)

I don’t enter times here as it depends on your training level. Also, you can insert as much jogging as you want around this. The only rule is that once you are done with your aerobic conditioning the focus of your training has to change from chasing miles to completing key sessions. Chasing miles can impede the quality of your key sessions which is counterproductive. So by all means, jog as much as you can around these exercises but only if you are confident it doesn’t prove detrimental to your performance in the sessions.

This session will form the new staple of my coaching sessions once I get time to get them back again, but I will utilise the preparatory exercises before throwing runners into the deep end. Without solid aerobic grounding and strengthening of the connective tissue through at least 10 weeks of high mileage this session would be extraordinarily risky to perform.

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