A legend spoke - Arthur Lydiard

Last night I went and saw a talk by legendary athletics coach Arthur Lydiard. It was a book launch (a biography of him) rather than a seminar so some most of it related to him but there was a bit on training. He is 87 and although having had a stroke is still pretty sharp, his forthright manner has never endeared him to officialdom. How relevant some of his ideas are today is open to debate.

Many of you may never have heard of Lydiard so below is a bit about him and his methods.

Peter Snell was the next of Arthur’s runners to win worldwide acclaim when he outsprinted Roger Moens for the 800 meter Olympic Gold in 1960. In the 5000 meter final, Murray Halberg broke away half a mile from the tape for the gold. Barry McGee captured the marathon bronze medal behind Africans, Bikila and Rhadi.

By 1960 and the final proof in Rome, Lydiard was the man who knew all the answers, he knew his methods worked, though he didn’t “know the how.” He had only the basic knowledge of human physiology. He just knew his system worked because he has spent more than ten years making it work. In the 1964 Olympics, Snell won gold in the 800 and the 1500 meters, and John Davies, also Lydiard trained, captured the 1500 bronze medal.

In the early to mid 1960’s, Lydiard began working with coaches instead of athletes. In early 1966, Lydiard accepted an invitation arranged through Bud Winter (ex-San Jose State coach) to work in Mexico. Lydiard stayed about 8 months. Out of his efforts came Alfredo Penaloza (third at Boston in 1969), Pablo Garrido (2:12’52), and Juan Martinez (fourth in the '68 Mexico City Olympics 5000 & 10000).

Lydiard next accepted am invitation from the Finnish Track & Field Association. The Finns, with their misinterpreted concepts of the 1950’s, had become interval junkies. Lydiard stayed in Finland for 19 months to mixed reviews. the finnish wew stubborn and reluctant to accept Lydiard’s suggestions. However, Lydiard’s lessons were not wasted on the coaches of Oekka Vasala and Lasse Viren. They listened carefully and blended Artur’s words with those of Percy Cerruty, Nurmi, and Milhaly Igloi. The results of Lydiard’s visit finally came into focus when Olavi Suomalainem won the 1972 Boston Marathon. The in Munich in 1972, Viren got up after falling in the 10000 to stun everyone with the Olymic Gold and a world record. Viren won again in the 5000 (with the final mile of 4:01, Pekoe Vasala took the gold in the 1500 Tapio Kantanen took the bronze in the steeple.

Until Lydiard arrived, it had been seven years since any Finnsh distance records had been broken. Four years after he left, the Finns again owned world records, Olympic gold medals, and several international championships.

Everything is Important

To put it simply, Lydiard training is to balance all training aspects over a long period of time so you can peak on a given day. “In order to do that,” Lydiard would say, “everything is important.” The Lydiard sequence is to develop stamina by doing lots of running, then strengthen leg muscles by bounding up hills, then develop maximum anaerobic capacity by incorporating interval-type training. Finally, taper, so that you are at your peak on the day you want to race at your best.

Lydiard was one of the first coaches to emphasize the importance of developing high oxygen uptake levels. He had his middle distance men like Snell train with his marathon runners, up to 100 miles a week with a weekly 22-mile run through the mountains of the Waitakere range.

“People think lots of anaerobic training, like intervals, will make you a better runner,” Lydiard says. “They go down to the local track and run around and around the track till [they] vomit. They don’t understand that your anaerobic capacity is a limited factor. You can incur oxygen debt up to 15 to 20 liters, you can keep doing anaerobic training as much as you want—but it’s physiologically impossible to make it any greater. So how do you improve your performance level? You’ve got to bring your aerobic base up. Each year you can improve your aerobic base with marathon type of training.”

Lydiard was also one of the first coaches who realized even marathon runners would need to sharpen their sprinting speed. He used to have his long distance runners compete in the sprint events at the club level. “They didn’t like doing it because they thought they would look like fools,” he says. “But they all benefited from doing it.”

Those who participated in Lydiard camps can fondly recall a myriad of sprint drills; high knees, striding, bounding, run-tall, etc. “Most people misunderstand interval training as speed training,” Arthur preaches. “But the truth is, interval training counteracts speed. When your body becomes fatigued with accumulation of lactic acid, invariably your body tightens up. In order to improve your speed, you need to work on your knee lift, drive off with your back leg, your stride frequency by improving your muscle viscosity, and better overall running techniques by working on drills.”

Looking Down the Long Run
Lydiard training is not a quick fix. It’s a gradual progressive improvement. “What you do this year is really for the next year,” he advises. “It’s not what you do this year or next year but what you do in five to 10 years time that counts.”

Likewise, he warns a group of sensational U.S. high school runners who recently moved on to college: “It has been 27 years since John Walker graduated from high school. Since then, there have been 27 high school mile champions in New Zealand. Where are they now? We’ve had 27 young boys who had just as much potential as John Walker. The problem is, we destroy their potential. That young lad of yours who broke Jim Ryun’s high school mile record [Alan Webb] obviously has a lot of talent. But the important thing is, what will he be doing 10 years from now.”

Lydiard likes to compare his training program to the situation with great Kenyan runners. “They are doing what we did years ago perhaps without even being conscious of it,” he claims. “They do a lot of running! They run everywhere. They are not on the track with that damned stopwatch all the time. By running to and from school at their young age, they are developing fine general cardiac efficiency. And because of their solid general cardiac efficiency, developed by years and years of long easy running, once they get on the track, they start producing great times.”

Populist Principles
So what have these 100-mile weeks of training and hill bounding and sprint drills got to do with you? “It is a formula for elite runners,” you may say. The Lydiard principle, however, is based on a simple theory of adaptation. You give your body certain exercise at the right intensity often enough, your body will adapt to it and grow stronger. “There are individual differences,” Lydiard explains, “but fundamentals are all the same. It can be applied to a four-minute miler or to a four-hour marathon runner.”

“We all know our limitations,” Lydiard always advises people. “You keep within limitations, you’ll keep improving. You can never [train] too slowly. But you can run too fast and get yourself in trouble.” Even though original “Arthur’s Boys” like Snell and Halberg ran a hilly 22-mile course in around 2:10, that was still within themselves. “You should finish your everyday training knowing you could have run more.”

A lot of the criticism of the Lydiard system comes from wasted miles, from what I have read (admittedly limited) he actually focuses on high volumes at moderate intensity. They showed footage from some of his athletes races and Snell in particular just demolished some of his peers.

Here is a comment I found as a review of his book, Running to the Top

Arthur Lydiard’s ideas are “outdated”??? Hardly. Lydiard was responsible for the training that led to world domination by successive waves of New Zealanders, Finns, and Africans. Ingrid Kristiansen’s Lydiard-like training enabled her to set a marathon record that stood for 15 years. Peter Snell’s 4:54 mile time, 30 years ago, would still place him high in many international competitions. As for runners who criticize Lydiard–to quote Peter Snell, “Where are the results?” The basics of ALL distance training is endurance and aerobic development. Lydiard’s advice in this regard remains unexcelled. Let the Africans train at threshold pace. They also weigh less than 118 lbs on average, compared to Americans’ 130+. Let’s see what a 115-lb US runner can do against them on Lydiard’s training regime. Then we’ll talk about “outdated.” This is a great book.

Interesting comments.
For young middle to long distance runners (up to 18 I think he said) avoid anaerobic training he quickly talked about them not having the capacity to cope but it was a quick sciencey answer I couldn’t follow.

Beer is good post run, his reasoning was that nothing quenches thirst like beer. Tea, water lemonade etc nothing compares. He said they used to go on there long runs starting at 11am and go during the heat of the day another way of toughening up.

Nothing changes quickly; it takes 5 or so years to see the true benefits of an effective program.

Strength (of mind and body) is vital. He gave the example of Halberg (I think) who won the 5000m, he said that it was common for them to put in a slower 2nd last lap to save themselves for the final burst. He said his runners never needed that as they were stronger and he actually said for them to increase the pace then as he was stronger, it worked and he blitzed the field.

Watching Snell it was interesting that he competed in a lot of different sports (tennis, rugby, cricket) and was outdoors a lot before specializing in athletics. This is very similar to what the Russians did, get children covering a wide base of activities to enhance overall motor skills before they specialize.

Snell was only the 3rd best miler at his high school but always had good natural speed.

He talked about how he wanted to run a marathon at X time which was Y per mile pace, he measured a mile on the road and ran that until he got the time he needed then he moved the distance out. This is similar to Charlie’s philosophy of focus on speed and build endurance.

If you know your system works ignore critics, especially those that have never done anything of note.

I hope people look at this carefully. Interval training is not really the issue. It’s the speed of the runs. Lydiard understood that you had to go fast- or slow- not in between. It was the in-between speeds that killed top speed- just as I found in the sprints with intensive intervals. Fast or slow is the name of the game.

a session of some 100m shots ^90% with short intervals ( not over 5 minutes ) means nothing to sprinter ?

what is your overall impression of Lydiards system?
This is of major interest to me as I have a 10 year old daughter who loves and shows promise in 800m & 1500m.

There are many modern systems employing the fast/slow approach with success.

The idea is to win the one 100m final. This isn’t best 4 out of 7 in half an hour!

Well that was helpful :confused:

Yours in sarcasm

In other words, a Lydiard principled (or Charlie Francis, if you prefer) program is applicable to the entire spectrum of running events?

Interesting post,

There are some good points in it - This is very good qoute too …

“We all know our limitations,” Lydiard always advises people. "You keep within limitations, you’ll keep improving.

You can never [train] too slowly. But you can run too fast and get yourself in trouble."

Of course he’s not talking completely literally - good advice.

Must try the beer one out sometime too …

Sorry, but distances vary and Lydiard went for VERY long distances, mainly continuous as I understand. My point is that the concept of keeping the main running volume at a low intensity is sound. When you do speed, it is high quality. To do that the speed volume must be limited to well within capacity and the rest periods complete. All work is therefore separated into high and low catagories, trained on separate days, with speed trained no more frequently than every other day.

I am going very high (plyos, neuro-elastic weights, limit strength work) and very low (60% of MAX VO2 with larger volumes) and have got the results

Mohaun Aljabeer- 17:10 -14:52 in the 5k
Agent Smith 18:20- 16:45 in the 5k

we get therapy every week and do two pool sessions on the weekend…high low does work.

Charlie and Clemson,
thanks for that :smiley:

Yours in appreciation

pardon my ignorance but what are neuro-elastic weights?

when working with distance runners hypertophy is not a goal…most of the work uses quasi isos with various patterns and progressions. I figure that a fast mile will make fast marathon (volume of support) but you need to be strong to maintain a speed reserve. If the the Kan man does plyos for marathons then I want in!

Now you cleared my mind,
Tks Charlie

Just a quick little clarification then. At what speed (intensity) does 4 x 4 x 60m take place??? I interpreted that program as 4 reps of 60m @90% intensity with 2 minutes rest between reps. Then the set break is complete recovery of 10 minutes of more. This type of split runs was used during the accumulation phase of the Phase I and then maintained during the intesity phases on the Saturday if your setup was speed m/w/f OR if the setup was speed on m/f and the split runs on the wednesday. That’s how I understood the program to be setup and the workout to be executed. I can be wrong as I’ve been on more than one occasion.


The 4 x (4 x 60) is at 95% of best current time- it’s not an effort judgement. In fact it may feel fairly relaxed and easy for the first few reps.

At pace of 95% i guess we´ll need more than 2 minutes of rest between reps. And i don´t understand what is that first 4, i interpreted that as 4 sets of 4 reps of 60m, sounds a little “extensive” for a speed sessions, isn´t it ?

The 95% is a time assessment of current speed- so it’s not that hard from an effort perspective, and such vols are not unusual for high level athletes, though 3 sets might be more typical. Remember the earlier on in the phase, the slower in actual time 95% is, and, therefore, the shorter the breaks can be. Remember, also that these recovery breaks are incomplete, making this the short to long program equivalent of special end. Also remember that these runs are at below the pace possible for the accel portion of the training at any point in time until breaks between 60s are complete and the numbers greatly reduced.

95% of your PB feels like 80% for the first few reps…