Lydiard misconceptions explained

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original Blogs.

Note: I originally wrote this several years ago. While I may write it slightly differently now if I were to rewrite it, I want to preserve this as it was originally written.

Over the years since becoming familiar with the Lydiard style of training, I’ve come across several misconceptions of his methods. The two most popular misconceptions are that Lydiard is all about long, slow distance (LSD in running terms) and that his methods are outdated. However, the misconceptions go well beyond that. I must admit, when I first learned of Lydiard, I fell in the trap of believing some of the misconceptions, mainly that Lydiard is all about LSD.

Because of the widespread misconceptions and because I believe Lydiard’s philosophies are so important for competitive minded distance runners, I’d like to discuss the two most popular misconceptions, a little about why I believe they came into being and explain why they are false. Throughout this article, I will be referencing what I consider to be the premier online Lydiard resource, the Lydiard Clinic.

Lydiard is all about long, slow distance: I’ve found this to be the most popular misconception of the Lydiard principles. It seems like a significant number of people have come to this conclusion and are spreading it like wildfire.

I believe this misconception comes from the fact that very few people actually talk about base training. Lydiard, recognizing that base training is where champions are made, focused quite a bit of time on this in his discussions. In fact, because most "gurus" gloss over base training at best or, more likely, completely ignore the topic, Lydiard seemed to be the only one talking about it. As a result, the biggest difference between Lydiard and others was his thorough discussion of the importance of base building. Is it any surprise that people hear the name Lydiard and instantly think base which, to most people, means lots of long, slow miles?

There are two facts here to consider. First, base building is indeed important. Show me a successful runner who has never established a base and I’ll show you a runner who could be much more successful than he or she is. Second, while Lydiard focused more on base than most people, that does not mean that is all he focused on. When it was time to run hard, nobody – past or present – would promote as much intensity as Lydiard did. The Lydiard program is all about balance. When it’s time to establish your base, that is the priority. When it’s time to develop strength and speed, you don’t let base training get in the way.

Consider the following quotes from the Lydiard Clinic:

The Lydiard training system is based on a balanced combination of aerobic and anaerobic running.

If you continue reading, you will see that’s the case.

The conditioning phase of Lydiard training stresses exercising aerobically to increase your Steady State as high as possible given your particular situation. For best results, you should exercise between 70 and 100 of your maximum aerobic effort. This, therefore, is not Long Slow Distance. This is running at a good effort and finishing each run feeling pleasantly tired. You will certainly benefit from running slower, but it will take much longer than if you ran at a good aerobic pace.

Indeed, it is not long slow distance. You’re not just jogging around, you’re out working at a fairly solid effort. Of course, many people are constantly racing their training runs so it may seem like long slow distance to them but, if they do it right, they will realize that it is very beneficial.

Similar to the three long runs in aerobic conditioning, you should run hard (anaerobically) three times a week during the anaerobic phase. Be sure to allow yourself to recover between hard workouts, at least a day in between. The idea is to stress your system, recover completely, then stress it again. It is not all that important what the distances or speeds are, just run repetitions and intervals until you are tired and have had enough for the day. No coach can tell exactly how many repetitions you can do, or what your recovery intervals should be, on a particular day. So trust you instincts and use any schedule as a guide only.

A different phase, a different focus. How many programs that are supposedly not long slow distance like Lydiard have people running hard three times a week at any point? I’d challenge anyone to read that quote and then think the Lydiard plan is nothing but long slow distance.

Anaerobic training is essential if you want to race well. Bear in mind, however, that if you overdo anaerobic work, you will sacrifice the very thing you have worked so hard to achieve, your good condition, which determines your performance level.

Would anyone who is all about long slow distance say anaerobic training is essential? I doubt it. Once again, the first quote is the key. The Lydiard system is all about balance.

The Lydiard system is outdated: This is another widespread misconception. In a way, it’s easy to see why people might believe this. It has been decades since the Lydiard system was developed. Since the development of this system, virtually every sport except distance running has seen systems eclipse the training methods that were previously thought to be best. In some sports, this has happened several times. It would seem that the Lydiard system has been around for so long that something must have come along to eclipse it. Amazingly, though, this is not the case, which speaks to the effectiveness of the Lydiard system.

When considering whether the Lydiard system is outdated or not, consider the history of the system and the history of Lydiard himself. He began by testing the system on himself, where he progressed from a good club runner to one of the best runners in New Zealand at an age where most competitive runners were retiring. He then worked with a stable of New Zealand runners and took Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, and Barry Magee to the 1960 Olympics, where they all won medals (gold for Snell and Halberg, bronze for Magee). In the late 1960s, he worked with coaches, including Lasse Viren’s coach and American coaches such as Bill Bowerman. He also influenced or worked directly with runners such as John Walker, Dick Quax, and Dick Taylor and coaches such as Bill Dellinger and Mark Wetmore. His methods are still largely followed by the best and most respected coaches and athletes in the world.

When people say that the Lydiard system is outdated, they often cite the Kenyans as people who are supposedly succeeding on a system that is nothing like Lydiard’s. However, consider some facts before believing this conclusion. First, people who say this usually say that the Kenyans are running faster than Lydiard would suggest. Read the Lydiard Clinic and you will probably disagree with that statement. Second, they make wild claims of how fast the Kenyans are training, such as one individual who told me that the Kenyans never run slower than lactate threshold pace. That would be an impressive accomplishment, seeing as they frequently do two hour runs while rarely run for less than one hour at a time and lactate threshold pace is roughly the pace one can hold for a one hour race. Frequent one to two hour runs at one hour race pace? No wonder why they are so good.

In reality, though, things look a bit different. Are the Kenyans following a system different than the Lydiard system? Take Lydiard’s own observations on that into consideration. In 1992, Lydiard visited Kenya. He intended to discuss the Lydiard system with the Kenyans. When he got there, though, he observed them and realized that they were already following the Lydiard system. Without Lydiard’s help, the Kenyans had found the same thing that Lydiard had found three decades earlier. The Kenyan system is, in fact, so similar to the Lydiard system that he often used them as examples of what can be accomplished in future presentations.

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