Keith Livingstone’s Wonderful Book on Arthur Lydiard’s Training Philosophy

Has this ever happened to you?

You got sick or injured, and couldn’t do much running. But, once you passed through the stages of denial, resistance, and grief, you realized that Mother Nature was doing you a favor.

Ten weeks into a bronchitis that refused to go away, I asked a higher power for help, and the thought occurred that I should fast. I’m in the 16th day of a juice fast now, and the bronchitis is nearly gone. The weather’s beautiful, and I’m eager to start running.

Really, the bronchitis did me a favor. I had been doing something quite stupid in my long runs – running very hard for 20 minutes at the end. Initially, the fast bursts were exhilarating, but they took a toll, and soon I wasn’t enjoying them much at all.

With uncanny timing, just as I began hacking my lungs out, the mailman brought two books about Arthur Lydiard.

The first was Lydiard’s Running to the Top, and the second was Keith Livingstone’s Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard.

They were thrilling – a revelation. Healthy Intelligent Training is the best book on training I’ve read. Not only is it based solidly on Lydiard – it’s the Lydiard Foundation’s official training guide – but it’s a darned interesting read.

Something that struck me immediately was how different the “voice” of these authors is, than the usual fact-based, science-based, numbers-based training guide. While both books present compelling scientific evidence for their ideas, they spend far more time talking from personal observation and experience. Rather than use numbers, they’re inclined to tell stories. “So-and-so runner did this, and this is what happened.” “If you do this … then this is what will happen to you.”

I won’t quote at length, because it might spoil the “plot” for you. And, if you’re at all interested in Lydiard, you should read these books. But I’ll share two quick excerpts from Livingstone’s book.

The first gives Lydiard’s thoughts on whether it’s all right to mix speedwork with aerobic running during the base-building phase of a periodized program.

Lydiard was adamant until he died that the base building period should remain aerobic. Here’s what he said a week before he died, to the editor of Running Times, in reply to a query about weekly intervals during aerobic conditioning:

First thing: No. No. Never do anaerobic work in conditioning. Never. Ever. That’s one of the first things: You don’t do it. Don’t even try. Don’t even run fast to the finish. That’s one thing you’ve got to learn.”

For how long?” I asked.

At least 12 weeks…. The whole program takes six months.”

In another departure from the usual practice of running authors, Livingstone invites other coaches to contribute chapters. For example, there’s a wonderful chapter by two-time New Zealand Olympian Robbie Johnston, called “Comparing the Principles Used by John Walker & Hicham El Guerrouj.”

John Walker set a mile record (3:49.08) and won the 1500m at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Hicham El Guerrouj won the 1500m and 5000m in 2004 and set world records in the mile and 1500m.

Although their medals came 28 years apart, their training was similar. In each case, it was Lydiard-like, with an overwhelming emphasis on aerobic conditioning.

In fact, it’s surprising how little speedwork these world-dominating runners did, and how controlled it was. A typical week for El Guerrouj, during his “specific preparation” period (the first speedwork phase in a Lydiard program) included two speedwork sessions: “2000m x 4 (recovery 2-3min) @ under 5km race pace,” and “mile x 5 (recovery 2-3 min) @ 3km race pace.” The rest of the week’s running was aerobic.

John Walker was coached by Lydiard disciple Arch Jelley. Regarding Walker’s training, Robbie Johnston comments:

[Walker’s] maintenance of good aerobic condition – both in terms of volume and quality – through his specific [speedwork] phase allowed him to continue to improve aerobically while “putting the icing on the cake” with his specific race-oriented track work. While other athletes in the USA and Europe blunted their swords by eating into their aerobic capacity with too much over-exuberant track work.

These were the words I needed to hear. I had a wonderful time, coughing, spitting, blowing my nose, and learning from the master.

John Walker and Hicham El Guerrouj did two yearly “periodizations” – one for the winter indoor season, and a second for summer racing outdoors. They “climbed the peak” twice each year, and were careful to descend during the off-season, and replenish the soil with months of pure aerobic running.

I wonder if the over-emphasis on speedwork, among US runners, reflects two characteristically “American” tendencies: a desire for quick results, and a mistaken belief that endless highs are possible, if we only try hard enough.

Lydiard recognized the folly of these notions. He believed that training must be cyclical, and that elite success must be attained gradually, over many years.

Physicist Max Planck, a contemporary of Albert Einstein, said that in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “the intimate union between the beautiful, the true and the real has again been proved.”

That was Arthur Lydiard’s genius. His ideas are based on truth and real experiences. They are simple, beautiful, and profound.

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