The Lydiard Training Method

Reading up on LydiardChoosing a training plan: it’s not quite as complicated as choosing, say, a life partner or new shoes, but it’s a big commitment to spend 18 to 24 weeks of your life on a series of workouts that can make or break how you feel about yourself and your running. Will your training plan respect your needs, or run roughshod over them? Will it keep you interested? Or will you find yourself daydreaming about the plan you did last year as your fingers itch to Google other plans after just a few weeks of exclusivity?

I’ve dated my fair share of unsuitable training plans. There’s one where you run way too much; the one where you run less but faster; and even the one where you run way too much and also very fast (hello injuries!). In fact, I was 37 before I found the right training method for me, and from an unexpected source: the 1917-born Arthur Lydiard from New Zealand.

Currently, I’m on my fourth Lydiard-based training plan from the Lydiard Foundation’s Running Wizard website as I prepare for the Berlin Marathon in September, and I couldn’t be happier. Sure, we’ve known each other for a while now, so I always know what’s coming, but it’s such a deep, caring, mutual friendship and how about we put this metaphor out of its misery and I just tell you why I love it?

That’s Lydiard on the left, at the 1949 New Zealand Marathon Championships

Who is this Arthur Lydiard guy?

Arthur Lydiard was amazing! I mean, I never met him (he died in 2004, aged 87), but I just love a good underdog-goes-against-the-grain success story. Lydiard dropped out of high school at 16, so he didn’t have any formal education in sport science and he only started running seriously when he was 27. His story is fascinating. In a nutshell, Lydiard realized that the way runners trained at that time – basically, running hard all the time – was silly non-optimal. So, in a process of self-experimentation and learning by doing, he invented periodization in running: building the aerobic base with easier-effort mileage before adding speed and sharpening to peak for a goal race.

Today we take it for granted that this is one of the “right” ways to train; it’s even taught at USATF coaching certification seminars. Many of the most commonly used training plans are based on Lydiard’s principles and exercise physiologists can even tell us why it works. But when Lydiard was starting out, his ideas were revolutionary and there was no exercise science yet to back him up, just the proof of his own performances (he became the New Zealand marathon champion) and those of his athletes.

 

Fun fact: Lydiard is also credited with inventing the jogging trend. Yep, jogging for fitness started in the 1960s in New Zealand when Lydiard started advising a group of sedentary, overweight men who’d suffered heart attacks but wanted to start running. Eight months later, seven of those men finished a marathon in about four hours. If you’ve ever had to bite your tongue and smile politely as that guy at work chuckles that he only runs if someone’s chasing him, you might get a kick out of Jogging the Lydiard Way, in which he does not mince words on the topic of sedentary lifestyles.

Periodization? But isn’t Lydiard Training that thing where you run 100 miles a week and you only run slowly?

It’s a common misconception, at least on the internet, that Lydiard training is all about running 100 miles per week slowly. It’s true that in his writing Lydiard advises competitive runners that 100 miles per week is ideal for the off-season and that one should not run these miles too fast so as to avoid burning out. But don’t take that advice out of context: he also advises not to run too slowly, and prescribes different intensity levels on different days. “Steady” is the effort level he prescribes, and for the record, he’s talking about 5:55 per mile as a decent but not-too-fast pace! Doing the math, I figure he’s recommending 10 hours per week of this aerobic training, which doesn’t sound quite as intimidating. For me, that would be about 60 miles. But I’m not at that level right now because …

There’s a lot more to Lydiard training than lots of “steady” running.

Fig. 1: The Lydiard training pyramid (reprinted with permission from the Lydiard Foundation.)

Figure 1 illustrates the phases of Lydiard training, culminating in peak shape for your goal race. The longest phase, Aerobic Base Building, comes first. This is where people seem to think it’s all about running very slowly all day long, but it isn’t! You can run fairly hard and still be running aerobically. The main runs in this phase encompass a wide range of paces, from the tempo-esque “out & back” workouts to time-on-your-feet-paced long runs.

The next phase, Hill Training, is meant to strengthen your legs for the harder interval training that follows. Anaerobic Development involves one or two interval workouts per week. Lydiard concluded that you only need 4-6 weeks of interval work to achieve all you can in one particular phase. Integration focuses on dialing in to your race pace, and sharpening your legs up to run fast. For marathon training, I’ll do two runs per week at marathon effort (one of 4-5 miles, and one of 10-13 miles) during the integration phase. Finally, the taper cuts back on distance but keeps some intensity in the form of short “out & backs” and leg-sharpening 100m workouts.

For in-depth discussion of Lydiard’s training principles, the book Healthy Intelligent Training: The proven principles of Arthur Lydiard by Keith Livingstone is a good source.

The Running Wizard training plan

Finally! Let’s talk about me! I’m training for the Berlin marathon in September 2016 with a plan from the Lydiard Foundation’s Running Wizard website. I’ve completed Running Wizard plans in the past and loved them for half-marathon training. When you sign up, you enter a bunch of details including recent race times, length of your current long run, and how many days per week you want to train. The plan you receive is personalized with mileage, pace and heart rate recommendations for each run. There are detailed descriptions of how to do the workouts and a recovery adviser which will rate your recovery based on your resting heart rate, weight, and sleep. (I have used the recovery feature in the past, but don’t anymore because I’m obsessed with my heart rate variability.)

I asked Nobby Hashizume, one of the creators of Running Wizard, how close Running Wizard is to what Lydiard would have espoused. In my reading, it seemed pretty accurate, but I was curious if anything had to be changed to accommodate those of us who can’t run 5:55 miles or 100-mile weeks. Nobby says it’s as close as you can get to pure Lydiard; the main criticism from Lydiard enthusiasts is that Running Wizard allows you to run “only” four days a week if you wish (Lydiard advocated running every day.) Nobby says, “Arthur would never have turned down anybody simply because they don’t have time and energy to train seven days a week. Let’s face it; there are a lot of people who can’t train every day. We tried to follow the Lydiard principles within that scheme and put together plans with 4, 5, and 6 days a week.”

Caraway running
Lots of variety makes a happy Caraway!

Hallmarks of the plan

So why do I love it so much? Here’s what makes this training plan stand out:

Weekly long run capped at 2.5 hours. Yes, even for the marathon. For me, 2.5 hours equates to a 15-16 mile long run. Sound familiar? The Hansons don’t have a monopoly on this one! As Pumpkin recently explained, the idea behind the “shorter” marathon training long run is that you can get the adaptations you need from long runs of 2-3 hours; it’s the time on your feet that counts, not the number of miles. For marathon fitness, your total weekly mileage is more important than getting in a 20-miler at all costs. And it’s good that the long run isn’t any longer, because …

Back-to-back “out & back” and long run workouts: The weekly combination of a medium-long marathon-effort “out & back” run (so named because Lydiard advised doing the workout on an out & back course) followed by the long run makes you tired and very fit.

Longest run 15 weeks before the race: This is a consequence of the pyramid I talked about above. When the focus of training shifts from aerobic base-building to increasing speed and stamina, the long run is de-emphasized. The idea is that your weekly mileage is enough to maintain the aerobic fitness built at the beginning of the plan, so after the aerobic phase the long run drops to around two hours. For me, that’s 12-13 miles.

A mix of paces, daily distances, and effort levels = low training monotony and good balance: The daily distances in this plan range from a 3-4 mile jog at 10:30 per mile pace, to a long run at 9:30, to an out & back at 8:30 and a fartlek with strides and sprints mixed in. The mixture keeps my legs from feeling stale and there is a distinct mental advantage to knowing every run has a specific purpose. Everyone is different, obviously, but I thrive on the variety and wilt under training regimes where the shortest run is still an hour long.

Have you ever trained the Lydiard way? How did it work out for you?

I'm a 41-year-old living in Berlin, Germany. I run because I can't not run. I write about training, mental training, momming, and the odd rant.

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8 comments

  1. So I was intrigued enough to shell out the $ for the personalized plan from the Running Wizard… glad I did! First of all,there’s no 100 mile whole shebang. You can indicate how many days per week you want to run, how many weeks before your race, and you provide some details about yourself and previous race results. I’m 18 weeks out from my next marathon, and the plan it produced for me looks really great. Looks like it peaks around 55 miles per week (most weeks in the 40-50 range) running 5 days per week (perfect for me, as 50-ish is my sweet spot and I like to cross train). There are all different kinds of runs – similar to what you’d find in any other plan – but I like the variety and the change of focus throughout the phases (although to be fair, you are doing speedwork, threshold work, long runs throughout, just like with any other plan – it isn’t remarkably different). I was pleasantly surprised to see the de-emphasis of the long run (hooray!). Overall, this seems like a really great plan, with a nice, sensible progression and lots of variety to keep me interested. Think I’m gonna give it a go this time around and see what happens… Glad I saw this post!

  2. I have done one training cycle using the Lydiard method and dropped my marathon time significantly- Down to 2:57!