And How to Get Faster Still

Upon carefully reviewing my training, I find that I’ve been really stupid.

Either that, or a wise universe has my best interests at heart.

Last week, I suggested three ways runners can get faster, by targeting the trainable type IIB fast-twitch fibers in their legs.

Those three methods are plyometric exercises, done either on hills (as Arthur Lydiard recommended) or on grass (per masters 45-49 5K record holder Pete Magill), or doing deadlifts at the gym with very heavy weights, low reps, and long rest periods (as suggested by coach Barry Ross, strength trainer of Olympic gold medalist sprinter Alyson Felix).

All three methods have been shown to produce increased power to the ground on footstrike, resulting in higher average speeds at the same heart rate.

Feeling that plyometrics are undignified and dangerous at my age, I decided on deadlifts. Within days, my average training speed quickened noticeably.

It was all good news, and I’m not complaining. But, gosh — am I stupid or what? For about eight months, I’ve done Lydiard-style base training. And at about the time I began doing deadlifts, I realized that I had completely neglected an important part of Lydiard’s base plan.

I’ve only just begun to plug the gap, so it’s too soon to predict the results. But when it comes to improving speed, the “forgotten” method deserves attention.

Lydiard prescribed three types of aerobic runs for the base phase. Each type has a specific purpose.

Day of WeekProgram
(distances shown are for advanced or elite runners)
Heart Rate
(% of maximum)
Sunday22 miles over hilly terrain, at “low to medium” aerobic pace70% – 80%Improve aerobic condition and endurance
Monday, Friday10 miles over hills at “high” aerobic pace80% – 85%Raise the pace at which a runner can train and race aerobically
Tuesday, Thursday15 miles at “medium” pace75% – 80%Improve aerobic condition and endurance
Wednesday, SaturdayEasy aerobic runsRecovery

For months, I ran no faster than what Lydiard called “bread-and-butter” or “medium” pace, under 80% of MHR. Initially, it was a stretch, and I gave no thought to doing any faster running.

Partly, I was influenced by Peter Snell, who reported how he surprised he was, after 12 weeks of aerobic base training, to find that he could run close to a four-minute mile, without having done any speedwork at all. Snell credited the weekly long run for most of his fitness gains.

I figured that, if it helped Peter Snell so much, I might as well put 95% of my effort into the weekly long run. At age 68, there was no way I could do the schedule described in the table. About all I can manage is a long run at a good effort, a 30-minute recovery run and weight work on Tuesday, a longer easy run on Thursday, and more weights on Friday.

I carefully increased the long run until I was running 2 to 2½hours, finishing with 1 to 1½ hours just under 80% MHR.

The long runs gradually became easier, and my pace crept up, but very slowly. I didn’t expect spectacular gains, given my age and low mileage. And yet, I wondered if I shouldn’t be getting faster.

Soon after I began doing deadlifts, I realized that I’d forgotten about those faster Monday and Friday aerobic runs that Lydiard’s recommended.

Looking back, I realize that it was a brilliant mistake. I couldn’t have planned my training any better.

For an old boy, it was quite a stretch, at first, to jump into the Lydiard plan and start doing most runs at 75% to 80% pace. If I had thrown in a fast aerobic run, I’m sure it would have been too much.

The point of this is not to engross you with my story, which is hardly the stuff of legend. What’s interesting to me is how it all worked out well in the end.

Fitness Intuition embraces the widest possible spectrum of running, from the physical and mechanical aspects to inner, intuitive attunement with a higher guidance. Over the years, I’ve come to rely heavily on that guidance, and I find that when I put my training in its hands, I succeed.

It’s the most interesting part of the running experience for me. Everything else seems secondary, compared to the attempt to tune my running to a subtle, omnipresent wisdom and love. When I run, as the Navaho put it, “with beauty before me, with beauty behind me, with beauty above, below, and all around,” I enjoy my runs, I get results, and I am happy.

When I started the Lydiard plan, I emphatically put it in God’s hands. I believe I was guided to overlook the high-paced aerobic runs at first, since doing them too soon would have put me over the edge, setting back my progress and producing only confusion and discouragement.

At any rate, I continue to learn. The first run at a high aerobic pace was in equal parts instructive and scary. The run went well, but what happened afterward gave me pause.

I warmed up for 13 minutes, then ran for 47 minutes at about 85% MHR.

Because of the heavy deadlifting I’ve been doing, my legs felt strong — I was able to run at just under tempo pace without strain. In fact, I had to rein myself in, as my newly gnarly legs could comfortably carry me past 85%.

I finished the run feeling good; but it took a lot out of me. I felt hyper and jumpy the next morning, a sure sign of overtraining, and I crashed badly in the afternoon. A long nap didn’t help at all. I was wasted, toast, a frijol refrito.

Lesson learned. I’ll be easing into the faster runs, as Lydiard himself recommended. Max 30 minutes to start, checking for strain, and pulling back as required.

Is fast aerobic running a good way to improve speed? Based on Lydiard’s results, there seems little room for doubt.

Lydiard believed the best way to improve a physical system is “from below.” To increase the pace a runner can run comfortably, aerobically, Lydiard believed the best method is fast aerobic running — not, as many coaches and runners believe today, “tempo runs” of 20-60 minutes at 85% to 92% MHR.

Lydiard was explicit about this. When Running Times editor Scott Douglas asked Lydiard if a runner should do weekly intervals during the base phase, the following exchange ensued:

“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 the one thing you’ve got to learn.”

“For how long?” I asked.

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

Lydiard’s wisdom thrills me. I’ve never been sorry, whenever I’ve hitched my wagon to his star.

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