Arthur Lydiard and Swami Kriyananda: The Principles of Success Are the Same in Running and Life

Every few decades, it seems, somebody decides that the time-tested approaches to training are wrong. They’re outdated, old-fashioned, passé, yesterday’s news, and just plain  behind-the-times drivel.

I think it’s, in part, because we humans – including runners and coaches – have a relentless itch for the new.

The longing for “something better” impels us go loping over the horizon in search of “something better.”

Trouble is, there’s nothing really new under the sun. And the hope of discovering something new and bright and shiny is often disappointed. That’s especially true when what you’re trying to “improve on” is elemental – like rice and beans, X-Men: United, or Arthur Lydiard.

For more than a half-century, Lydiard’s training theories have been tested and proven at every level from elite to amateur. They’ve been so uniformly successful that it’s a crime to go on calling them “theories.”

They are, quite simply, the best description, so far, of how training works.

Which isn’t to say that future coaches and runners won’t find ways to refine these ideas. (Lydiard himself tweaked the system to the needs of the individual runner.)

It would be prideful to assume that we already know everything about the body. But future coaching systems will likely have to build upon the legendary Arthur’s discoveries. They are for the ages.

Lydiard’s ideas weren’t conceived in the abstract. He didn’t dream them up by thinking deep thoughts. Nor did he study the muscle fibers and livers of rats and pigs and runners in a lab.

Lydiard’s “lab” was the roads and trails of his native New Zealand. His measuring instruments were his own legs, heart, and lungs.

His ideas are beautifully summed up in Keith Livingstone’s excellent book, Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard. (For a brief overview of Lydiard’s methods, see Lorraine Moller’s fine article, “Essential Lydiard: Principles, not formulas, are the keys to successful training.”)

Jesse Squire, who runs the Track & Field Superfan website, commented recently on the amazing successes of Canadian distance runner Cam Levins. Most recently, Levins won the 10,000m at the Payton Jordan Invitational in 27:27.96 (link to Flocast video).

In “Cam Levins’s Unusual Year,” Squires reviews Levins’s amazing rise and speculates on the possible causes:

Explanations for either Levins’ unusual resiliency or his continued and amazing improvement are scarce, but he’s also noted for having started an extremely high mileage program this year. Totals of 150 miles a week are being talked about and Levins isn’t denying them.

I had the honor of meeting Arthur Lydiard in 2004, just three weeks before his death. While 100-mile weeks were what became popularly associated with his training system, that was in the main training session of the day; some athletes totaled as much as 160 when all running was considered. In his speeches and writings and coaching, he said that it’s almost impossible to overdo aerobic endurance-type training (provided the speeds are kept within the athlete’s abilities) and athletes can get to a “tireless state.” Lydiard also said it was the key to long-term and continued improvement. The other thing people forget is that Lydiard’s athletes raced a lot, and only avoided competition for a few months of the year.

This is how most runners trained in the 70s, when heavy racing schedules were the norm and the USA produced many more excellent runners than we do now. Is Levins’ old-school training the key to his old-school racing? It’s just a thought, and impossible to prove either true or false. But I can say without a doubt that this year’s NCAA Championships races at 5k and 10k look like they’ll be the most interesting clashes in a generation.

I posted a comment (edited for vanity):

Masterful analysis and conclusions. Something Lydiard believed is that high mileage allows a runner to finish strongly while his competitors are flagging. Nowhere was this more evident than in Cam Levins’s dominant finish at Stanford.

Lydiard believed that the U.S. college system with its three tightly sequenced seasons destroys runners, by preventing them from returning to base training. We see this time and again. A case in point is Jordan Hasay, the brilliantly talented University of Oregon runner who twice won the high-school Footlocker national cross-country championships.

Hasay progressed wonderfully under the guidance of Armando Siqueiros, the physician-coach in her hometown of Arroyo Grande, California who had her long-term development at heart. Her progress as a collegian has been rocky, with disappointing  results. (Armando Siqueiros explains his training philosophy in several lengthy workshop videos.)

Hypothesis: when Hasay arrived in Track Town (Eugene, Oregon), her long-term development vanished as a priority of her coaches. It became all about meeting the expectations of the coaches and the Eugene track fans who, like American concert audiences, tend to expect the athletes to create a small miracle at every event, to stimulate their emotions and enhance their careers.

Let’s hope that Hasay will regain some sanity and balance in her running when she leaves school and turns pro.

In a recent article, Oregon coach Vin Lananna blamed Hasay for pushing herself too hard. The best that can be said of that self-serving public statement is that it’s quite a departure from the attitude of legendary UO coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman would never stab a runner in the back in the media. He was constantly looking for ways to help his runners. He guided their training with acute attention to their individual needs. (Kenny Moore was told to train hard no more often than once every two weeks; Steve Prefontaine could recover from more-frequent hard work.)

If a runner showed up at the track looking fried, with racing pulse, downcast eyes, and sagging demeanor, Bowerman sent them to the showers.

Message to Jordan Hasay: The moment you graduate, give Jerry Schumacher a call.

Schumacher coaches the Nike Oregon Project. (Interview with Jerry Schumacher.) In 2010, one of Schumacher’s runners, Chris Solinsky, rather like Levins, popped out from nowhere to run a spectacular 10K time at Stanford time (26:59.96, a national record). (Running Times Interview with Chris Solinsky here.)

What Levins, Schumacher, and Solinsky have in common is that they follow Arthur Lydiard’s ideas, particularly his belief that big base mileage is the foundation of success in distance running .

Lydiard’s methods endure, and that’s a wonderful thing, not only because he showed us how to train, but because knowing how to train frees us to refine our running.

Runners who enter the sport today can’t possibly realize how fortunate they are to have a proven method laid out for them. When I began running in 1968, there were so many conflicting ideas about training that I became thoroughly confused.

At the time, the sport was still influenced by the theories of Mihaly Igloi, whose interval training methods dominated distance running in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.

(A personal anecdote. When I worked at Runner’s World in the early ‘70s, there was an elite U.S. runner named Bill Scobey whose marathon PR was 2:15:21. Scobey set a U.S. 50K record of 2:52:52. Bill was nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his interval sessions: 10 miles of 100-yard dashes was not unusual. That’s particularly amazing, since he logged 100-mile weeks for over 20 years.

On a summer vacation, I drove to Vancouver. The first night, I stayed in Arcata, on the California coast near the Oregon border. In the morning, I went for a run on the track at Humboldt State University, where Scobey was a student. I found him there, doing endless 100-yard repeats, his face set in a fierce mask of determination. As I began my shamble at 8:30 pace, Scobey glared at me, as if to say, “How dare you desecrate this track with your stupid jogging.”

End of anecdote.)

In the late Sixties, there were three kinds of runners:

  1. Those who had “grown up” in running, having competed in high school and/or college and figured out the training that worked best for them.
  2. Those who seemed naturally tuned to their bodies and confident of their instincts – they “just knew” what to do from day to day.
  3. The rest of us were bewildered by the endless spew of conflicting, “scientific” training advice touted in books and Runner’s World.

I, of course, was among the thoroughly confused. I came late to running, at age 26, and no magazine or book or coach seemed able to answer my Big Question: “What’s the single best way to train?”

At the time, there was a big movement to make training “scientific.” Coaches and physiologists wanted to give us hard numbers so we could know, without a doubt, how to train. And all of them were semi-right and semi-wrong.

Arthur Lydiard laid our doubts to rest. He told us how to train. Of course, he didn’t give precise numbers, and it delayed widespread acceptance of his ideas for a while. But, over time, runners began to understand the wisdom behind his arcane explanations – what it meant when he said to run at “quarter-speed,” “half-speed,” or “three-quarter speed,” etc. Nowadays, with Keith Livingstone’s book as a guide, Lydiard’s system shines forth in its full clarity.

We now know how to train.  So where does that leave us? Lydiard gave us tremendous freedom, when he showed us how to train. All that remains is to learn to make our training individual.

We know the method. Training now becomes a matter of discovering ourselves.

And that’s the most promising experiment of all. Because when we can fine-tune our training outwardly and inwardly, two things happen: we improve, and we feel great.

The individual is the new frontier of training. The new art of training is about self-monitoring. It’s about realizing that our individual body is continually talking to us, and that it is happy to tell us how we should train.

All it takes is learning to listen. For each of us, it means conducting a Lydiard-like experiment of one, using the lab instruments of our heart, mind, and soul.

The science of the individual has always been available to us. The groundwork was laid thousands of years ago by the spiritual giants of antiquity.

Spiritual masters in all ages have been adepts in the practical science of life. They’ve shown us how we can individually know “what to do” in order to experience success and happiness. Not surprisingly, their ideas are an excellent guide for every human endeavor, including the training of distance runners.

The art of individualized training requires an exacting, relentless discipline. It demands that we learn to calm our emotions and listen carefully, and that we accept reality as it is, not as we would prefer it to be. It requires that we develop a tough-minded “BS meter” that knows when our emotions are getting the better of us and tempting us to do stupid things.

Until now, I’ve disguised the spiritual sources behind these articles on Fitness Intuition. I’ve hidden them behind a screen of science and practical principles. That’s because I hoped the bare principles would give people the freedom to adopt them, regardless of their religious faith.

It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine runners accepting that the body can talk to them about its needs, whether they’re Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, or Jews.

But I’m wondering if by continuing to hide the spiritual sources of intuitive running I’ve been cheating those who might feel attracted to these ideas as a way of life.

The mission of the spiritual teachers that I follow – Paramhansa Yogananda, and his disciple, Swami Kriyananda – is to revive the original teachings of East and West, by showing how they can serve as a practical guide to success and happiness in this modern, scientific age.

After 20 years of groping for the “method” of spiritual running, I realized that it was contained in two seminal books by my spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda. You’ll articles that expand on the ideas in those books, on these websites: Swami Kriyananda on Education and Swami Kriyananda on the Meaning of Life. (Both books were published under my teacher’s American name, J. Donald Walters.)

Labyrinth is aimed at college-educated young people who are searching for meaning, and who feel betrayed by nihilists like Jean-Paul Sartre. (Photo: Swami Kriyananda arrives at the Ananda Community in Mountain View, California, May 4, 2012.)

Education for Life is aimed at teachers and parents who want to give their children the personal qualities required to enjoy a successful life. It’s also a wonderful guide for adults who want to plug the holes in their education and enhance their own life skills.

It was odd how I discovered that the truths I was looking for as a runner were contained in those two books.

I had been “running spiritually” for 20 years, and although I had many rewarding experiences, I remained deeply confused about the method.

Nevertheless, my experiences were so inspiring that I felt I had to share them. I agreed to lead a weekend workshop at The Expanding Light, a yoga retreat and teaching center in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City, California.

Now I had a problem. I knew that spiritual running bore wonderful fruits. But I could hardly stand up and tell people, “Pray intensely and go for a run.”

I ended up doing the thing that always seems to work when I don’t know what to do. I prayed deeply, and the answer came as a clear intuition. I realized that all of the ideas I needed were contained in those two books.

From Labyrinth, I took the idea that what all people are seeking is to experience increased happiness, and to avoid suffering.

I also took the idea of “directional relativity,” which says that, wherever we stand in our journey to ultimate happiness, here and now is where we must begin to do the work that’s required to rise to the next level. (Photo: Paramhansa Yogananda.)

For runners, it means that we must accept the tools we’ve been given – for example, our VO2Max and biomechanics, which are given to us at birth – and make the best use of them. The goal is the same for us all – greater happiness and success – but we are starting from a different point, and we shouldn’t try to work beyond our present abilities, or hold unrealistic expectations.

From Education for Life, I borrowed the idea of the five tools of a runner. They’re the same tools of a child’s development: body, feeing, will, mind, and soul. (I talk about the tools in Chapter 3 of my book, “The Five Dimensions of Fitness.”

I realized that, for runners as well as for children, the heart’s feelings are an important key. For runners, letting our training be guided by emotional feeling is a recipe for disaster. But calm, expansive feeling is a one-hundred-percent reliable guide for knowing what’s best at any given moment.

Should we do intervals, or run long? Should we keep running, or cut the run short and go home? Intuitive feeling can tell us. The heart is Grand Central Station where two streams of wisdom meet: the inner signals from the wise, self-governing body and brain, and the wise, inner guidance of the soul (God).

I feel deeply that runners who are interested in more than just outward running success, and who want to know how to have a better life and understand how life works, would be richly rewarded by reading those books. If you don’t have children, or you aren’t interested in an analysis of the western intellectual tradition from a higher perspective, I can recommend two very interesting books: The New Path: My Life With Paramhansa Yogananda, by Swami Kriyananda, and Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. (The links are to the free online versions of the books.) Also available and relevant for runners who want to “spiritualize” their sport is an essay by Swami Kriyananda, Religion in the New Age, about the need for a more practical, expansive direction for religion in this age of growing energy-awareness. Finally, here’s a two-minute video, “What Will the Future of Christianity Look Like?

A feature of the wisdom of the ages is that it works at every level. Runners who are mainly interested in the physical aspects of the sport can draw upon spiritual principles to improve their training. They can train at their own level, and not try to achieve too much, too quickly. They can train “expansively,” with respect for the body’s needs, while always measuring success by the yardstick of the inner joyful feelings that follow the exactly right training.

Runners who are interested in learning to make more expansive use of their feelings, will power, and mind can also benefit from spiritual principles. It’s quite simple. When you face a decision in your training, try to consult the calm, impartial center of your heart. Feel which direction seems most expansive, and do that. Never train contractively, whether in body, heart, will, or mind, for to do so invites suffering. (Example: never overtrain.)

I read the news today, oh boy. Ten-time All-Pro NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide. The Notre Dame quarterback was arrested for resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor. Hordes of former players are suing the NFL for failing to warn them of the dangers of long-term brain damage from playing professional football. The New Orleans Saints coach and four players were banned for the 2012 season for offering “bounties” to players for inflicting injuries on opposing players. A Bulgarian weightlifter was jailed for dope smuggling.

And that’s just today’s news.

A more inward focus in sports can’t come too soon. It’s desperately needed.

In Education for Life, Swami Kriyananda makes a case for the idea that moral values are grounded in calm inner feeling, not logic and reason. When we face a moral decision, we don’t “think our way” to the answer. But we can quickly know the right, moral path if we can find our way into the calm, still place in the center of the heart.

Education for Life, and the Living Wisdom Schools that are based on the book, teach children to be strong, moral adults. The teachers take time to help the kids understand that doing the right thing brings them greater happiness, while acting contractively causes suffering. (Photo: Math class at Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California. Former math and science director Raj Iyer has a degree from MIT, as does the present director, Eric Munro.)

The practical wisdom of the great scientist-coaches like Arthur Lydiard gives us the groundwork to do something truly wonderful. It frees us to focus on the inner athlete. And for that, we should be very grateful.

The great spiritual teachers are the elite coaches in their realm. They’ve practiced the principles and can show us what’s possible. Their training theories give us principles we can apply to find success and fulfillment, at our own level, in every area of our life.


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