DIARY: Be wary of the left-brain coach

“You can’t get too analytical about this stuff René,” was one of Keith Livingstone’s parting salvos to me during one of our many long talks about training during his stay. It sounded familiar, something Tony has been saying to me repeatedly over the last year. But only a bit later Keith left me with some cool spreadsheets and the admonition that he too is “a real left-brainer”. Let’s face it, I own a “I love spreadsheets” tea mug (I did not buy it in case you wonder), so the analytical part of my brain rarely ever rests. Where I feel I have acquired a distinct advantage is in the realisation that the left-brain has its limit and that if you try to apply it too strictly to your training – both technical and physical, your results will suffer.


When a scientist performs a study, he usually tries to isolate one or two variables and see how they behave under certain conditions. But, often forgotten today, this is not the only way science progresses – in fact the power of observation, whether aided by tools or not, has long been the driving force for progress. As Keith, a respected expert in the area, would say himself “physiology is still a very immature science” so we need to be very careful how we use it. 50 years after setting an 800m New Zealand record that still stands today, Peter Snell, now a professor in physiology, says of his training methods under Lydiard that “he would not have changed a thing, except perhaps included a relaxed faster workout once per week”. Keith Livingstone goes a bit further in his book and says he’s synthesized several of the best insights about how to perform the more race-specific work. Arthur Lydiard’s understanding of this was intuitive, and he considered it (rightly) “the least important part of training”, but it is still important. But the methods have largely been advanced by coaches with science being used in the way it should – to add some data by which to make better decisions rather than dictate approaches.

VO2max and threshold pace – effective but watch it!

The classical problem is the old issue of VO2max pace. Isolated studies will show you that the greatest improvements in VO2max depends on the time spend in at VO2max intensity (roughly 3000m or 8 minute pace). However, we know from experience that it is safer to exercise to at 95% VO2max (5k pace) and it will yield most of the same benefits and we also know that while studies may show this, it does not mean it is desirable to be training VO2max at all stages of the season because it has implications on the development of endurance which is generally not captured properly in short-term studies with groups of athletes whose background is uncertain. Only through long-term trial and error by expert coaches, does true clarity arise on this matter.

An even better example was the lionisation of “threshold pace” as once again studies showed us that this was a zone were you’d get “the most bang for your buck”. Unfortunately, training in this zone also has negative implications such as leaving you quite glycogen depleted (meaning more fatigued – especially mentally) and often unable to complete a quality workout for days after. So while “threshold running” may be more effective, a skilled coach knows that during the build-up it is better to train at “sub-threshold” paces and be able to run consistently well, day by day, throughout the week. 

Intuitive training

So my advice: add this filter to your left-brain when dealing with information about the physiology of running. Nothing written in the face of experiment alone should be taken seriously until it has been trialled by serious athletes and coaches “in the field” – simply ignore it as “informative – and perhaps interesting for the future” but stick to tried and trusted principles in the meantime. The training systems applied most successfully through history has passed this litmus test.  A final piece of advice brings us back to the advice on not “being too analytical”. There are many ways to achieve the same training effect and many depend simply on your life situation, the sentiment of your athlete or myriad of other factors. If you starting point for understanding a system is reading training schedules, you need to step back from that and instead understand the underlying principles and accept that you can apply them in many different ways and still get a good athlete out on the other side. Some athletes will not tolerate strong glycolytic work, no matter what any book says about it, but may operate perfectly well on a diet of slower intervals in their specific preparation phase. The job of a coach is to make this distinction rather than becoming just a “mile counter” and the job of a self-coached athlete is to gain enough awareness of what he is trying to achieve and what training principles will get him there to deviate from plans given to him when necessary.

Good training, no schedule

As an example: if I tell you I want you to spend the coming week maximising your endurance while keeping your training fun and varied. I also tell you that I’d like you to ensure you can recover from day to day and that you introduce a mixture of different intensities, including very fast and short sprints, but I don’t want you to be huffing and puffing. I tell you, you should finish all your runs pleasantly tired. Finally, I tell you to try and get as much volume as you can handle in during the weekend when you have more time to recover and that you should try to make each week a little bit more challenging than the last. So I’ve just described a Lydiard training week during the conditioning phase without needing to show you a schedule and if an athlete followed those instructions, they would probably see a consistent improvement and have no major issues.

The beauty of such an approach is that if given to ten different runners, I would get ten different training diaries back, even if they were of similar ability. But that does not mean that most of the approaches would not be perfectly effective.

This does not mean paces, heart rates and mileage targets don’t have their place – these things are useful as gauges and measures of improvement as well as “stretch goals” to help us improve – but only once the basic principles are understood first. They are also helpful because a lot of modern runners genuinely have lost the ability to “run by feel” and need some yardsticks to show them what they should be doing and what they are really capable of doing.