TRAINING: Lydiard and the hill-running audience

When Arthur Lydiard proposed his system the Scandinavian model of interval training had reached its zenith riding high on a wave of popularity fuelled by Roger Bannister. There were few joggers then and the biggest problem you faced as a coach was trying to get the runners of the tracks where they’d be labouring away during interval work day after day.

Flash-forward to the noughties and the jogging movement created by the same Arthur Lydiard dominates the world and the biggest problem you’ll face with your average runner is probably that they’ve never learned to run fast.

This strange disparity between the world of the 50-70ies, when Arthur’s system rose to the fore, and our present day sometimes makes it difficult to properly interpret what Arthur tried to say and Nobby made this point on the Lydiard Foundation message boards recently. In the 2002 book “Jogging with Lydiard” with tackles training for complete beginners, there are a number of “time trials” during the aerobic phase.

What does this mean? Doesn’t it fly in the face of doing aerobics training during the conditioning phase? No, because these “time trials” are really strong aerobic runs like, say, 5 kilometres at marathon pace. The idea behind these was to ensure that “joggers” go a bit faster every now and again and learn how to “really run”. It’s an example of the coach adapting his training and his language to his audience. Just as recanting “long and slow”, “long and slow” to the athletes of the 50-70ies rammed home the point to get off the track. It’s just that long and slow for athletes of Snell’s calibre was 7-minutes per mile pace.

Hill Runners

“Hills, not mountains! Undulating, undulating,” is how Arthur described his favourite training terrain. He was wary of terrain that slowed the athlete down too much and this made sense given he mainly trained track and road runners.

For my own program for next year’s hill-running season, I’ve thought about how to make Lydiard’s program more specific to hill-running on the one hand and to generate runs and sessions that would fill a hill-runner with maximal confidence before the race-demands they will face (to steal a recommendation from Matt Fitzgerald’s latest “Run by Feel”).

For the aerobic conditioning phase, there is no escaping strong mileage: Some general principles apply to all and if anything hill runs demand a premium of endurance and stamina.

Hill runs are demanding on the legs, so the runs around them have to be easier than if they were road runs. On the other hand, the aerobic phase should have some “quality” once the runner has reached a level where he is no longer struggling simply to run a distance (when I started running 40km per week was hard at any pace, never mind trying to increase it).

Personally, I’ve now handled up to 140 hilly kilometres (whether this was too much is a topic for another day) so I know just going the distance is not the challenge. It’s also important how, or to paraphrase Eamonn’s elegant way to put it from yesterday’s session: “There may not be junk miles, but there are better miles.”

A Hill Running Program Sample

This is how I envision my standard hill-running conditioning week:

· Mon: Aerobic Run - recovery (1 hour)

· Tue: Hill Sprints - hard

· Wed: Aerobic Run – easy hill (1:30)

· Thu: Aerobic Run – marathon pace (1 hour)

· Fri: Aerobic Run – easy (1:30)

· Sat: Long Uphill Run – steady (50-60 minutes) with Downhill Jog (45 minutes)

· Sun: Long Hill Run (2:30-3:30) – easy

The above would include warm-up and cooldown for the hill sprints session and a slow implementation of as many 30-60 minutes morning jogs as I can fit in.

Let me first explain how to use the above week in context of the overall system and then go into the individual session types.

Week on week

The first thing I plan to change in my approach is to take the above week and simply repeat it. That is, for each of the key sessions I will have 1 or 2 set courses (for instance, the 90 minutes run may be from Glendasan to Clara Vale and back). If I run faster, the course doesn’t change and I don’t add on extras to run 90 minutes.

I have a good reason for this: I estimate that the above running schedule (not counting morning jogs) would yield a weekly mileage of anywhere between 110-120km (68-75 miles). This is enough aerobic volume (perhaps even a bit too much) for an athlete of my current level, so rather increase “volume” by improving the quality.

The added benefit will be very tangible proof of when I’m doing well and when I’m getting stale by tracking my progression on the set routes. Heart rate and effort need to be monitored at all times while doing this to ensure I’m not “cheating” by pushing too hard and into the anaerobic.

For the “Long Uphill Run”, I will select a few climbs that are long and consistent such as Camaderry or the climb up Wicklow Way Leg 5 to Mullacor from Glendalough and so on. Sessions such as the “Hill Sprints”, which I’ll explain the purpose of below, will need to improve not just through time (you can only take off so many seconds in a sprint) but by increasing the number slightly week on week. Say, I believe 10 to be comfortable (because I’ve done so before), so could start at 10, increase to 12 then 14 and then perhaps take it back a notch or increase the difficulty of the gradient etc.

The Session – Walkthrough

Let me start with the hill sprints: My idea with these is to insert them as an “early preparation” to the actual “Hill Circuits” which are to follow later in the program (after conditioning) and to ensure an early activation of the big neuromuscular connections required to run uphill fast as well as to maintain good running form and strength during the conditioning phase. Short hill sprints of 10-30 seconds duration can do this with a very minimal risk and no cost to aerobic conditioning as the exercise is not strictly anaerobic but rather alactic (the word defines it: No “lactic” acid is produced as a by-product and little of the stress thus associated by normal anaerobic exercise).

As a final bonus, I believe this session will be a nice mental diversion during weeks of mainly slower mileage the effect of which should not be scoffed at.

Next is the marathon pace run which serves to ensure that not all running becomes plodding and that good running form and the postural muscles necessary to good running on the flat are maintained. This session also builds “stamina” on top of raw endurance (e.g. the ability to go harder longer rather than just longer). It’s the least hill-specific session, however, and would be the first to be scaled down to a slower run if the body so recommends

The Long Uphill stands as the most interesting session for me and one I have designed to attempt and answer the specific weakness of my current climbing ability. This run replaces a stronger aerobic effort on the road (say a half-marathon to marathon intensity 1-hour run) and will be run a good steady effort (just bordering on the unpleasant) and with a climb of no less than 50 minutes (unless I get blisteringly fast in which case I shall not complain). The benefits are plentiful: First and foremost to condition the body to accept running uphill at a stronger pace for extended periods making actual racing less of a shock to the system. Next is confidence again: If I can see times drop off for set routes to the top of climbs between 5 to 8 km, most Leinster League climbs should, in time, start to seem like mere trifles. I consider this my “key session”, although Lydiard will say it’s the following days’ work that’s the most important.

The Long Hill Run is a necessity for most hill-runners and I had some of my best results during the time when I regularly did 30k hilly runs out the Wicklow Way from Dublin. By running very long and very slow you don’t only get the benefits you would get from any long run (extreme fatigue teaches the body to be very creative in how to use its energy) but also forces your weakest muscle fibres to become “hill strong”. These fibres are the cheapest and having them conditioned enough to call on them in races provides a tremendous benefit. The only trick is not to let the heart rate and intensity drop so low that it’s no longer stimulating exercise. Luckily on most hilly terrain this is difficult to do…

I plan to do a few “overdistance” runs every 4-5 weeks to take advantage of my natural aptitude for very long distances. These would be “exploratory runs” into deep mountains of 4-6 hours duration and a very easy pace with an eye also on the Bob Graham some years down the line.

For the remaining aerobic and recovery runs these will generally be flat or only mildly undulating and as easy as is needed. If tempo increases a bit, naturally without pushing, then so be it, but the key for these sessions is to build fitness while staying fresh for the more important runs above.

What Next?

I have not fully decided how to map out the Hill Conditioning, Anaerobic and Peaking phases as I believe it’s premature but here are some preliminary thoughts I’ll return to later:

· Hill Conditioning: This phase will remain pretty much as Arthur designed it as the Hill Circuits are ideal conditioning for mountain runners. One of the session may be replaced by a continuation of the Long Uphill run (the pace of which may increase towards the 10 mile pace realm) to keep tracking progress.

· Anaerobic: A standard Lydiard anaerobic phase would have three key sessions and three leg speed sessions in addition to the long run. To make this more hill-running specific, I would personally turn just one session into a session of long hill reps leaving a day for short track repetitions (400s) and a time trial/tempo over 1500-5000m.

· Peaking: Similar to the anaerobic phase except that sessions are now much shorter and quicker. I would keep Arthur’s “wind-sprints” as their ability to test your breathing apparatus and local leg stamina to the maximum is ideal for hill runners. However, I would replace one of the two time trials with a hard uphill effort for a time comparable to the time trials run in Arthur’s system (e.g. if planning to learn from a 3k or 5k time trial, my hard uphill effort should be 10-20 minutes).

· Racing: The racing and peaking phases are very similar only that a period of taper may come into play.

Currently I’m considering whether to embark on this program already as part of the cross-country season or stay with my original plan of rebuilding a reasonable base and then using Arthur’s race-week/non-race week approach until I enter my winter break in December.

My mind currently sways to trialling my new base period for a few weeks before starting the race-week/non-race week approach (simply for the reason it would be good to test if it works ahead of future cross-country seasons) and then moving fully into this hill-specific program when I start 2010 training in late December.

In any case, I’m setting up an appointment with UCD for physiological testing on a quarterly basis so I can ensure I once again have more data to work with so I can avoid another repeat of the 2009 and 2010 hill running seasons.