By Richard Mayer
Lydiard Athletics Club
(011) 884 4415 (w)
e-mail: mayer@fullardmayer.co.za

The track coach, a gnarled-looking middle aged man, standing at trackside wearing a baseball cap, stop watch in hand, shouting times and encouragement to his athletes, remains one of the greatest clichés in sport. Like most clichés, this depiction of the track coach is a fair reflection of many track coaches. But in truth, this kind of track coach, to be found not only in movies and advertisements but also at schools and colleges all over South Africa and the rest of the world, embodies a form of coaching that has been obsolete since the 1950’s.

Arthur Lydiard, a tough, straight-talking New Zealander, who died in 2004, was the subject of a biography by Garth Gilmour entitled, Arthur Lydiard-Master Coach, did more than any other athletics personality in the last 100 years to transform our ideas regarding the nature and function of the coach and coaching. One may speculate that it was because Lydiard was himself an athlete of some note, winning two New Zealand marathon titles in the mid-1950’s, that his characteristic activity as a coach was out on a long run with his Olympic athletes, rather than shouting times from the side of the track.

What is beyond doubt is that Lydiard completely transformed the coaching of distance athletes. To convey the magnitude of revolution in the training of distance runners brought about by the stocky, diminutive New Zealander, one must to look to the great path-finders of scientific discovery. Lydiard, widely regarded as the most influential personality in the history of athletics, introduced a paradigm-shift in the training of distance athletes every bit as ground-breaking as Copernicus’s dramatic surmise that the earth rotated around the sun or Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Before Lydiard, the accepted method of preparing distance runners was known as interval training. Pioneered in the 1930’s by the German coach, Woldemar Gerschler, interval training consists of numerous track repetitions of anything from 50 to 2000 metres. A particular track interval session favoured by coaches on all continents is 10 to 25 400 metre repetitions, with a rest of one to two minutes. This is doubtless because this allows the sedentary coach of cliché to stand motionless at the start/finish line of a 400 metre track, stopwatch in hand taking times.

The altogether more vigorous role of the coach and the accompanying long runs done with his athletes advocated by Lydiard, as Gilmour’s biography recounts, was born of his own experience as an athlete. Although in his early twenties Lydiard, like so many New Zealanders played rugby, by his late twenties he started running for his health. As he started to run greater and greater mileages and became a competitive athlete, Lydiard noticed that although he could not match the sprint speed of younger men, his endurance allowed him to beat faster men over all distances from 800 metres to the marathon.

Using himself as his own guinea pig for his training methods, Lydiard developed his endurance-based training system by trial and error. In contrast to interval training, the core of Lydiard’s training system were endurance runs of up to 3 hours, while speed sessions were used in the final phase of training to fine tune his athletes to reach a peak before major competition.

The Lydiard ideal of an active athlete-coach, running with and assisting his star athletes on a long, hilly course in the Waitakere hills northwest of his native Auckland, remains revolutionary and controversial to his day, quite possibly because of the persistence of the cliché of the trackside coach. In the 1950’s when he was still refining his coaching methods, Lydiard’s insistence that even 800 metre and 1500 metre athletes needed to train like marathon runners to prepare properly for their events, was met with a mixture of ridicule and fierce opposition from the New Zealand coaching establishment.

Lydiard’s athletes were told by rival coaches that he would destroy them. Instead he produced a string of Olympic medallists. In a magical hour at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Lydiard’s endurance training methods were dramatically vindicated and the faith placed in him by his athletes was emphatically justified. First, Peter Snell won gold in the 800 metres. Minutes later Murray Halberg won the 5000 metres. To cap it, Barry McGee went on to take bronze in the marathon. Four years later at the Tokyo Olympics, Snell took gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres and fellow Lydiard-trained athlete, John Davies, took bronze behind Snell in the 1500 metres.

After his awesome achievements with New Zealand athletes in two Olympics, Lydiard became as Gilmour’s title suggests, a maestro amongst coaches. Disillusioned by the provincialism and petty-mindedness of New Zealand’s athletics officialdom, Lydiard went on coaching assignments to various countries. In Mexico, Venezuela and Finland, Lydiard no longer focussed his energies on individual athletes, but like a master musician gave master classes, coaching the coaches. As Gilmour’s biography recounts there are Lydiard disciples all around the world who have used his methods with spectacular success: The most notable are, Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike and coach of the legendary Steve Prefontein; the incomparable Lasse Viren, four time Olympic Gold medallist who sent Lydiard a Christmas Card each year before his death; John Dawes, who detailed his adaptation of the Lydiard system in The Self Made Olympian, Nobby Hashizume and New Zealand-born Olympic marathon bronze medallist, Lorraine Moller, arranged the 87-year-old Lydiard’s farewell coaching tour to America, on which he died. Lydiard died doing what he loved most, in the evening after having lectured to a group of coaches. Like Michaelangelo, who was sculpting in the days before his death, the circumstances of Lydiard’s death graphically demonstrated his passion for his vocation.

As an ardent Lydiard disciple myself, and having modelled my approach to coaching on the man who the American Runner’s World styled “All Time best Running Coach”, I believe that the incident that demonstrated the essence of the man more than any other, occurred in Finland in 1967. Much like South Africa distance runners of today, Lydiard found that despite the proud tradition of Finnish distance running, Finnish athletes had “gone soft, lost their toughness”. Always a coach to lead by example, on his second day in Finland on assignment to revitalise Finnish athletics, Lydiard accompanied the Finnish National Squad on a 30 km training run. Although nearly 50 at the time Lydiard beat all the Finnish squad but one.

Lydiard could not have demonstrated the sorry state of Finnish distance running more eloquently. Nevertheless, his influence on the Finnish coaches was directly responsible for the re-emergence of Finland as a major force in distance running in the 1970’s, with Olympic immortal, Lasse Viren, the flag bearer of the Finnish revival, with his unprecedented 4 Olympic golds in the 5000 metres and 10 000 metres. Lydiard’s coaching principles also produced another generation of world class New Zealand distance runners in the late 1970’s, including world mile and 1500 metre world record holder, John Walker, and world 5000 metres record holder, Dick Quax.

The Finnish precedent has important lessons for South Africa. Like Finland we have an impressive distance running tradition which has fallen into decline. Lydiard came to South Africa with Peter Snell in 1964 and returned in 1979, sponsored by South African Breweries. It is not possible to gauge how much the golden age of South Africa distance running in the 1980’s is attributable to Lydiard’s influence. Not all the great runners of the 1980’s followed Lydiard’s schedules. It is nevertheless significant, as Gilmour’s biography points out, that Zola Budd, certainly the most celebrated athlete of the era, dramatically emerged as a world force, trained on Lydiard principles by her coach, Pieter Labushagne.

Long before Budd’s fateful clash with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the two were being compared. In a Sports Illustrated article which appeared shortly after Budd’s meteoric rise, Zola’s exposure to Lydiard’s endurance-based system was contrasted with the demanding speed training imposed on Decker in her youth. Referring to Budd’s long Lydiard-style training runs, the article stated:-

“In this she was wonderfully fortunate. Decker, by contrast, has thrown at an early age into hard interval and speed training, voluminous racing. That resulted in promising marks followed by a host of injuries.”

From a South African perspective the destructive training techniques to which Decker was exposed as a precocious junior are still all too prevalent in this country. Excessive pressure on school children and the widespread use of interval and speed training gives South Africa athletics the unenviable distinction of having the highest junior burnout rate in the world. Budd was lucky to have a wise, well-read and well informed coach, who Gilmour records attended one of Lydiard’s seminars in South Africa in 1979.

Using an extremely pure version of Lydiard training I have coached athletes to an array of successes including a place on the South African 2000 Olympic marathon team, three South African senior distance running titles and four silver medals at various South African Championships and no less than 15 provincial athletes.

If it can work for me and scores of other Lydiard-inspired coaches it can work for you.

In twenty first century South Africa, the value of the Lydiard system is demonstrated no where as dramatically as the Wits Sports Academy training group in Diepkloof, Soweto. Their coach, Lungile Bikwani, is a devoted Lydiard follower and like the master, runs with his athletes. He has coached no less than seven South African representatives, including the most exciting junior in the history of South African distance running, Tshamano Setone, the Phalula twins (the first black women to win senior SA 800 metres and 1500 metres titles) and SA junior women’s 800 metres and 4km Cross Country Champion, Violet Raseboya, Abram Khumalo, Thuso Phaswana and Xolisa Tyali.

A telling incident occurred when Bikwani’s junior women athletes took 1, 2, 3 and his junior male athletes took 1, 3 in a development race in Port Elizabeth in 2004. A local official complained to Bikwani that they were depriving the local athletes of medals and prize money. Bikwani responded in a brusque manner reminiscent of the New Zealand master: “Your coaches obviously haven’t heard of Arthur Lydiard”. Predictably the Eastern Province contingent had not, and it showed in the poor results of their athletes.

With the appearance of Arthur Lydiard-Master Coach, now available on the Internet, the current generation of coaches, teachers and physical education instructors have no excuse of being ignorant of Lydiard’s training legacy. As Lydiard said in the biography, “There are champions everywhere – they just need to be properly coached”. Working with champion athletes is the reward that awaits those like Bikwani, who venture along the path Lydiard has so boldly and generously illuminated. Those looking for more information of the “Lydiard Way”, order Lydiard’s third and last book on training, Running to the Top, consult www.Lydiardfoundation.com or the entry on Arthur Lydiard in Wikipedia to which I have contributed.

Bikwani and I are most happy to provide any coach or athlete with advice or guidance on the Lydiard way and middle and long distance coaching and training in general. I may be contacted on the telephone number and e-mail address above and Bikwani may be contacted on 072 476 1137.

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