Energy Management 101 for Runners

I posted a short item recently with a link to a wonderful article by Arthur Lydiard, in which he summed up his training methods.

Lydiard is special. Whether you regard his methods as antiquated (they aren’t) or “nothing but LSD” (“long, slow distance” – nope, wrong again), there really is no choice but to respect his results.

Lydiard’s methods are still used by the Kenyans today – sufficient proof that they work. Except that also worked for Olympic medalists and world record-setters from New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Mexico, and the U.S. And they’re equally fresh and valid for runners of all abilities, from joggers to elite marathoners.

My enthusiasm for Lydiard is due, in part, to the fact that whenever I’ve been completely baffled about the best way to train, I’ve always found my way back to Lydiard. The first time this happened, I wandered into a used book store that I’d never visited before and discovered a ragged copy of Lydiard’s Running the Lydiard Way. The day before, feeling utterly confused about my training, I’d prayed for guidance: “What should I do?”

That was 15 years ago. And for years now, once again, an intelligent cosmos has been calling: “Yoo-hoo! – listen up! – You really need to get back to running the Lydiard way.”

This time around, I started getting answers in 1996, when I read John L. Parker, Jr.’s fine book, Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot.

Parker’s training advice is mind-numbingly simple: “Do nearly all of your running at just under 70 percent of maximum heart rate, calculated by the Karvonen formula (explanation follows). Throw in a some speedwork – any kind will do – and watch your race times fall.”

If you know your maximum and resting heart rate, calculating 70 percent of max per Karvonen is easy,:

Maximum heart rate, minus resting heart rate, times .70, plus resting heart rate.

I’ve always been skeptical of numbers-based heart-rate training. For starters – nobody agrees. The books on heart-rate training by David Martin, Joel Friel, Sally Edwards, Roy Benson, and John Parker all define the optimal training “zones” differently. Also, maximum and minimum heart rates vary wildly among people of similar ability.

As exercise guru Covert Bailey puts it, some people have big Cadillac engines that turn over slowly, while others have little VW motors that “go like hell.”

Nevertheless, I found Parker’s book persuasive, because of the stories of runners who got impressive results using his methods – for example, a recreational runner who trained the “70% way” and set more than 20 PRs at 5K to 10 miles in two years.

Still, I had a big question: Where did the 70% figure come from? I asked Parker about this, and his response was vague. I expected a scientific explanation, but none was forthcoming. At the time, I considered this a major strike against the method.

Yet when I began running at the 70% pace, it felt exactly right. And here’s a strange thing: it was faster than my previous training pace, yet the runs were more enjoyable – so much so, in fact, that I ramped up my mileage by 40% in just two weeks.

Of course, I got overtrained, because I tried to stretch the good feelings past the point of diminishing returns. At a certain point, ego took over and I was racking up the miles more for pride than fitness, even as my fatigue soared and my enjoyment vanished. My family crest shows a staggering runner and the motto: “Everything to excess – nothing in moderation.”

Still, Parker offered much food for thought. The energy and enthusiasm that the 70% pace generated were powerfully convincing. So it didn’t come as a great surprise to find Lydiard, in the article linked above, cheerfully and optimistically saying that runners can easily increase their mileage by training at the “high aerobic” pace every other day, with gentle recovery jogs on the days between.

(Lydiard was talking about 20-year-olds. For old putzes like me, his hard/easy system translates to alternating hard/easy efforts every four to seven days.)

Seventy percent of max heart rate worked out, for me, to about 78% of max, calculated as a straight percentage. Running at just under 80%, after a decent warmup, felt completely, wonderfully, almost magically right. I could immediately tell, without glancing at the heart monitor, if my heart slipped a few beats above 80% – the feeling of “rightness” evaporated. It felt as if I was no longer improving my aerobic system, but running a “slow race.” And if I ran faster than 80% on my long runs, even for relatively short stretches, my endurance decreased accordingly.

But I’ve digressed. Back to Lydiard.

Arthur Lydiard recommended training at a high aerobic pace, and as near as I can tell, 70% per Karvonen nails that pace.

Does the 70% rule apply for elite runners? Probably, yes.

Treadmill studies conducted by David L. Costill, PhD at Ball State University showed that elite marathoners have a unique ability to run aerobically at a very high percentage of their maximum heart rate. Thus, former marathon record holder Derek Clayton was able to run at 4:50 pace for a half-hour while holding a conversation with the staff in the lab.

Does this mean that elite runners should train at their “highest aerobic pace” most of the time? Hardly. Elite marathoners are able to improve their aerobic condition by running at a pace substantially slower than they could run. For example, Frank Shorter ran approximately 120 of his 140 weekly miles at around 7:00 pace, which, for him, was well below his aerobic maximum. (Shorter ran the marathon at sub-5:00 pace.)

Of course, part of the reason the elites don’t run at maximum aerobic pace all the time is that they need to log high mileage. Lydiard believed that 100 miles was optimal for marathoners, and even for 5K/10K specialists. He felt that high mileage develops “endurance at speed,” and that runners with big miles in their legs are fresher at the end of a race.

In the years when I was training at ultramarathon pace, crawling over hill and dale for up to 7½ hours, I never felt much enthusiasm for increasing my mileage. (I ran about 40 mpw.) Yet when I began training at the faster 70% pace, my enthusiasm for running longer soared.

Why? What strange magic was at work? I suspect it’s simple. Training the Lydiard way, I was cranking out more energy – and energy is a buzz. Energy was the magic ingredient. The fresh energy that I was pushing through my system expanded my awareness at all levels – my body felt more alive, my mind was more alert, my feelings were deeper, and my spiritual practices while running were more focused and awake.

So, why didn’t I take up Lydiard again when I recovered from overtraining? The botched Lydiard experiment coincided with a knee injury that took six months to heal, and by then I’d become interested in Phil Maffetone’s training system. (Maffetone’s periodized training has worked well for many athletes, but not for me. I tried running for six months at the slow, Maffetone base-building “180-minus” pace, equivalent to about 70% of my MHR as a straight percentage, and found it physically and emotionally deadening.)

In a recent article, I described how my running “came alive” after a landmark run with a wise running buddy. In fact, it was my friend’s snarky remark about slow-paced training that helped me understand that my first priority as a runner should be energy. The cosmos had called, the phone had been ringing, and I had finally answered.

But it took time to interiorize Lydiard’s teachings. I could find no scientific documentation to support the notion that training at a high aerobic pace is the most efficient way to improve aerobic fitness.

As often happens when it comes to training methods, all of the evidence was empirical – the “scientists” were runners who had performed “experiments” over thousands of miles with the “instrument” of their bodies in the “laboratory” of the open road.

Lydiard tested his ideas in the lab of his own body, running up to 300 miles per week in a variety of patterns and paces in search of the ideal training system. Is it purely coincidence that the optimal system not only produced impressive results, but felt right?

Lydiard said that a runner should finish each run feeling “pleasantly tired.” He believed that runners should always leave a little energy in the tank at the end of a run – they should stop at a point where they felt they could have run farther. He urged runners never to tap into that spare “margin.”

This agrees with the classic research of Hans Selye on stress. Selye, a researcher at the University of Montreal, found that the body is only capable of adapting to stress if there is a sufficient supply of “adaptation energy.” If the adaptation energy becomes depleted, the body can no longer recover from a workload, and it enters a state of glandular exhaustion.

Lydiard discovered the key: the best training is about managing energy wisely – building energy with regular, moderate running that nudges the body to improve, and always leaving enough energy for the body to adapt and get stronger.

It’s been said that great truths are always simple and intuitively satisfying. On both measures, Lydiard’s ideas score a perfect 10. At all levels – physical, emotional, and even intellectual – Lydiard’s ideas are beautiful.

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3 Responses to Energy Management 101 for Runners

  1. Matt Metzgar June 2, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    This was a very nice article. Lydiard’s ideas have stood the test of time.

  2. hum March 27, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    well, I’m no lydiard but I always thought that you should stop running with the feeling you could turn and run the same distance and pace again.

    my real problem with the idea is that it is too subjective. where is the point beyond which your body won’t cope? how will you know BEFORE it happens?

    and unsure what moderate running means. will it make me feel all day as if I had done nothing and could go out again to do a few more workouts if I wanted to because I have enough energy for that? or will it make me feel I have to rest for a few hours and then have my energy back to be able to go out again if I wanted to? which of these two?

  3. runbei March 29, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Not sure I understand your points, but let me try to respond. I always get clear internal signals when I approach the point where further running won’t benefit my condition. I feel it as a clear loss of enthusiasm, where I running becomes a drudge, a trudge, a drag.

    On my more lucid days, when I’ve taken my meds, I always find that if I back off and jog or even walk home, my body rewards me with wonderful feelings of “rightness.” Hard to explain, but there’s a very clear sense of happiness that comes with doing the right thing. I’ve made that feeling, to a very large extent, the key to my training.

    Now, of course it’s subjective. But there are two kinds of inner feeling: one is emotional and unreliable, influence by personal wants; but the other is calmly impersonal. In other words, I know I’m in the right kind of feeling when I have no personal stake in what it’s telling me. I’m not trying to override it and pretend it’s telling me something it’s not. I’m absolutely committed to doing what it says. Call it a kind of “reasonable feeling.” In fact, I find my training goes best when I hold feeling and reason in a calm, clear balance. Not always easy, but I’ve found it to be quite reliable.

    Lydiard never said that you should be able to do the same workout over again. What about a 21-mile run over tough hills? What he said is that a runner should finish each outing feeling “pleasantly tired.” In other words, with a reserve of energy that the body can use to start recovering, adapting, growing stronger. That would be a smaller reserve than might allow us to repeat, say, a 15-mile midweek run as included in Lydiard’s ideal schedule.

    I’m amazed how, after 40 years of running, I still feel at the start of every run that I must assume nothing, but run as if this run is a unique experiment that I must monitor carefully. Each run is, in fact, unique. My point, in the book and these articles, is that the body will tell us what it can safely and efficiently do, if we listen for its signals. And the best way I’ve found to “listen to the body” is by cultivating a certain calm, impersonal, unexcited inner feeling, with focused attention, persistence, and determination to follow the advice I get. It’s a discipline, but I find that if I submit to it, the rewards are always wonderful.

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