Why Arthur Lydiard-style Aerobic Training Works So Well

Great ideas are never invented; they’re discovered. I believe that Arthur Lydiard is the coach who most clearly discovered what works in the training of distance runners – both for improving fitness, and for having a good time.

I continue to enjoy my Lydiard-style training. I recently shared my thoughts about Lydiard on the Masters forum at the Runner’s World website. I love the RW forums; they’re a place to share ideas and ask questions in a friendly, civil environment.

The post drew some responses, which I tried to answer. I was pleased with the thoughts that came, because I believe I’ve realized why Lydiard-style aerobic base training works so well. I’ll paste my posts here, edited for clarity and to remove typos.

Here goes:

For years, I’ve gotten hints from a higher intelligence (higher than mine, fer sure) that I should run by Arthur Lydiard’s system. I finally took the “advice,” and am finding it most enjoyable. Those long runs at “medium to high” aerobic pace, as Arthur recommended, feel wonderful, very harmonious and “just right.”

Anyway, I thought I’d mention that two books on Lydiard have been published or re-published by Meyer & Meyer and are available on Amazon: Keith Livingstone’s wonderful Healthy Intelligent Training, and Lydiard’s own Running to the Top.

Both read like conversations with a very experienced running elder, and not as if they were written by a science machine. Livingstone’s book has been adopted by the Lydiard Foundation as its official training guide. Keith was a top NZ runner in the post-Lydiard era who trained with Lydiard’s close disciples.

A runner remarked that Lydiard advocated long but slow training. My reply:

Of course, “slow” is relative. In the early 1970s anything slower than 7:30 to 8:30 pace was considered “jogging,” depending on who you talked to.

I’m sure you already know this, but just to clarify for readers who might not – Lydiard is not about long, slow distance. During the base-building phase his runners did all their mileage at a “medium to high aerobic pace.” That isn’t “slow,” especially not for them.

At the start of the base phase, they began their 22-mile long runs at 7:00 pace. Toward the end of the base stage, which typically lasted 12 weeks or longer, they were starting them at 6:00 pace and finishing at 5:00. Peter Snell was surprised that at the end of the base phase he could run close to a 4-minute mile, with no speed training at all.

John L. Parker, Jr. explains how this works. Parker’s system (in Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot) is very Lydiard-like: run everything except speedwork no faster than 70% MHR per Karvonen – which for many people works out to somewhere under 80% MHR as a straight percentage.

(To calculate your 70% Karvonen heart rate, subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate, multiple by .70, and add your resting heart rate.)

Parker explains that as the weeks and months go by and you get fitter, your aerobic pace gets faster. And – an interesting point – as a consequence, it gets much harder to do your speedwork (in Parker’s scheme you can do speedwork year-round). That’s because aerobic fitness allows you to go much faster at the same heart rate. So your muscles really get a workout when you do intervals on the track.

This is only a personal view, but I suspect it’s why the Africans are able to train so “hard.” Americans and Europeans who witness the six-week training camp in Kenya that’s held yearly to select the Kenyan national team members are awed by their intense training. But it’s well known that runners like 1970s star Mike Boit and many other Kenyans were logging 100-mile weeks of aerobic running in elementary school for years on end.

I read somewhere the other day where someone estimated that most of the Kenyans had put in 18,000 miles of easy running before they entered the national team selection process. (Sorry – that’s terribly vague; in any case, it’s well known that the Kenyans run a lot in grade school.)

And, by the way, on their easy days the Kenyans run very easy – slow enough that Joe Henderson, at age 60+, was able to keep up and hold a conversation with a group of elite Kenyans who were staying at the same hotel before the NYC Marathon . Of course, the next day the Africans ran 3 min/mi faster.

Anyway, they build one heckuva base while they’re young. And if the “aerobic running makes you faster” theory is correct, well… Surely it would mean that, for the Kenyans, the selection camp isn’t as hard as it would be for an elite US or European runner.

Also, there’s a suspicion, expressed by a researcher who’s quoted in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, that all the years of barefoot running, or running in minimalistic shoes, accounts at least in part for the Kenyans’ more springy running form. (Noakes talks about the East Africans’ more elastic muscles in Lore of Running. Perhaps barefoot running contributes to that, too?) Once again, I’m being vague, but I’m simply not eager to look up the source.

On her website, former marathon record holder Ingrid Kristiansen cites research showing that aerobic metabolism is much more important at distances all the way down to 400m than it was formerly thought to be. And Peter Snell, now a sports physiology researcher at the University of Texas, believes that long aerobic runs exhaust the slow-twitch fibers, forcing the fast-twitch fibers to take over part of the load and get stronger.

Lydiard himself may have made the best argument for aerobic training, when he pointed out that anaerobic metabolism can be maximized in just 6-8 weeks, whereas aerobic metabolism can be improved over many years. All of his athletes laid a huge aerobic base before they began winning medals.

Lydiard believed that the US high school and college systems destroy runners, by trying to squeeze out rapid results with speedwork, while sacrificing a runner’s long-term potential. Lydiard believed the big aerobic base was the reason his runners were consistently fresher at the end of the 5000m, 10,000m, and marathon.

When the best US hope for the Olympic marathon could only run 2:14 before the 2000 Games, barely making the “B” standard, it has to be a sad commentary on the training of all US marathoners generally. No wonder Arthur’s ideas are making a comeback.

A runner mentioned that an article by Lydiard disciple and 1992 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Lorraine Moller on Lydiard’s theories will be published in the November 2009 issue of Running Times.)

Thanks for the heads-up to the Running Times article. Not sure how much speed I’ll develop at 67 by Lydiard training, but it’s very enjoyable.

I do find, though, that it’s absolutely critical not to force myself to run by the numbers – e.g., go 2 hours at a high aerobic pace because it’s on the schedule. I always take a gradual warmup and try to feel-out what the body can do on the day. I’m not at all averse to packing it in, or running quite slowly, if that’s what gives the best feeling of “rightness.”

I find that the body tells me quite clearly what it “wants” – the right pace for the day feels deeply harmonious, in-tune, solid and enjoyable. A bit faster or a bit too far, and the feeling gets subtly disharmonious, jangly, somehow “wrong.” A lovely thing about Lydiard is that this is exactly how he urged his runners to train – always by checking their feelings and never over-straining.

(A runner suggested that my mentioning the training paces of the elite Lydiard runners might mislead beginners.)

Oh yeah, absolutely – beginners, DO NOT try to run 22 miles at 7:00 pace (much less 5:00). You won’t enjoy it. 😮

Here’s what I’ve found works wonderfully during my Lydiard-style aerobic runs: start quite slowly, around 65% to 67% of MHR. Stay there until you can speed up tentatively and it feels just fine, like you’re slipping effortlessly into a higher gear. That’s your body’s way of telling you that its systems are nicely synced and ready to roll. Maybe you’ll be able to run comfortably at 70% MHR. After a while, speed up tentatively again and see how it feels. Maybe it will feel easy and “right” to run at 75%. Then, later, just cruise up to 77% or 80% depending on the day. The key is always to run at the pace that evokes that deep feeling of “rightness.”

When you practice pace discipline, you can’t go wrong – always, always, the run ends well. Even if you’re tired and can only go at 65% with that feeling of harmony and rightness, your body will reward you abundantly for not forcing it to do what it can’t. The reward is a very enjoyable feeling of attunement with your body’s needs.

I find that those “slow” days pay off richly with easy, faster running in the near future. But if I force the issue, I always dig a ditch from which it takes the body a long time to climb out. Some people think that all slow running is wasted time. No way! When it’s what the body “wants,” it’s a huge, smart investment in faster running “real soon now.”

(A runner posted about his experiences, running for years at 80 to 100 miles per week. This runner doesn’t use a heart monitor but has learned to adjust his training pace entirely by inner feeling.)

tww980 – I think that’s remarkable – that you’ve tuned your training so you can tweak your pace and volume by feel. Judging by your experiences and other reports of high-mileage runners, I wonder if the body “talks” more loudly when we give it a bigger mileage load.

I like the HR monitor. It does help. I can glance at it when I notice a change in the feel of the run and confirm that, sure enough, I’ve strayed a bit over the heart rate where I feel most tuned-in today.

For now, I find it easier to tune the pace than the distance. It’s still easy to go a bit too far. Who wants to walk the remainder of a long loop? But simply reducing the does pace helps a lot – if I’m 3/4 of the way through a run, and I’m not feeling good, I can generally throttle ‘way back and jog in limp-home mode and recover okay.

2 thoughts on “Why Arthur Lydiard-style Aerobic Training Works So Well”

  1. I had been doing a form of MAF training but felt the recovery zone slow plodding was hurting more than helping. So I started to inject some zone 2 runs into my runs and noticed my body respond better. So I am down with Lydiard and what he was saying, “you run just fast enough to stay aerobic”.

  2. I’m with you on that. “Just under anaerobic” worked beautifully for me, for many years. On long days it might be just under 80% MHR, on fast days just under 85%. Now that I’m a really old fart and riding the bicycle (sciatica prevents running), I’m finding something similar – every 7-10 days I can go like blazes, just under anaerobic.

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