Although the athletic revolution initiated by the great New Zealand coach, Arthur Lydiard is now accepted orthodoxy amongst distance running circles across the world, the fundamentals of a sound distance running programme as preached by Lydiard are woefully and inadequately implemented by many distance running coaches in South Africa.

While this statement is likely to raise the hackles of many amongst the local coaching fraternity, when one hears the training schedules followed by so many junior athletes, some guided by recognized coaches, it is clear that the careers of many young athletes are ruined by training and coaching practices which were superseded by the innovations Lydiard brought to distance running over forty years ago.

If you are an athlete trained on a programme comprising four to six hard speed sessions a week, many on consecutive days, with little or negligible endurance work and long runs, your coach or the programme you are training on belongs to the running equivalent of the Stone Age. It is likely that you or your coach have not heard of the Lydiard principles or do not understand them. If you are a junior, be warned: your chances of a long, successful and injury free career are slim if your training is largely or exclusively speed-based.

The widespread failure to follow Lydiard principles in South African athletics arises from a number of causes. Firstly the vast majority of athletic coaches in South Africa are school teachers who often coach athletics as a second or third activity after their first love, rugby, hockey, netball or swimming. They accordingly have not had the time or made the effort to familiarize themselves with running fundamentals. Secondly many schools have very short athletics seasons which force the teachers coaching the athletes to resort to crash training programmes comprising excessive speed and anaerobic work in order to get their athletes fit in double quick time. Thirdly to many, including myself as a youngster, the Lydiard approach to training is contrary to common sense, or as the current buzz word has it, counter-intuitive.

The Lydiard philosophy is that in order to run good 800m and 1500m races, let alone the longer track distances, one is required to embark upon a marathon conditioning programme. This simply does not make intuitive sense to any athlete who has experienced the intensity and lactic acid accumulation that occurs in an 800 metres or 1500 metres race. As the late Ken Cohen, bless his soul, an enthusiastic Wanderers track die-hard raised on the grueling Zatopeck-style track sessions of the 1950’s said to me a quarter century ago when I asked him what he thought of Lydiard’s endurance-based approach to running training, “If want to play tennis don’t practise ping pong in the bath”. What he was essentially saying was “to race well on the track you need to train on the track.”

Although I had attended a talk given by Lydiard at the Wanderers Club in 1979 and was given a copy of Lydiard and Gilmore’s 1978 book on training, Running the Lydiard Way, my training was exclusively track based until I was nearly 20. The Zatopek sessions of endless track intervals of 150’s, 200’s, 300’s, 400’s, 600’s and 1000’s that I trained on with the talented Wanderers junior squad of my generation initially produced good results, but by our late teens our rate of improvement had dropped alarmingly.

Going back to the drawing board I pulled my copy of Running the Lydiard Way off the bookshelf again. I imbibed and followed the Lydiard principles and made consistent progress season after season. The key innovation introduced by Lydiard to distance running and which was the foundation of the successes of so many legendary athletes coached by him or influenced by him, is that the first priority in any distance running programme is to establish an endurance foundation. This entails running steady regular sessions of 20 minutes (for young athletes) to 2 ½ hours for a mature athlete to enable the body to adapt to processing oxygen as efficiently as possible. This develops what is called aerobic capacity.

Once the endurance base has been adequately established in any season (which in a beginner will take four to six months) the athlete ready to commence strength and speed training. Unfortunately the excessive speed training and crash training courses which many of our junior athletes are subjected to, mean that they are forced to train with an inadequate endurance base which leads to injury, staleness, discomfort and often copious amounts of lactic acids and vomiting. Needles to say they became disenchanted with running and the other attractions of teenage life lure them away from running.

If you are serious about distance running or coaching and have not read Running the Lydiard Way or the more recent Running with Lydiard you have not encountered the most important approach to middle and long distance running in the 20th century, and now the 21st Century. Those who doubt this are invited to consult Michael Sandrock’s two wonderful books on distance running and training, Running with the Legends and Running Tough which can be ordered through Exclusive Books.

Although it seems strange marathon conditioning allows a middle and long distance athlete to maintain a fast regular pace through a race that is not possible through speed training alone. Interval training allowed Roger Bannister to dip just under four minutes for the mile but his poor performance in the Olympic 1500 metres in 1952, where he did not even get a medal showed the shortcomings of his training when he was forced to run heats. Lydiard training allowed Peter Snell to lower the mile WR to 3:54 in the 1960’s and John Walker to run the first sub 3:50 in 1975.

I have seen Lydiard training drastically improve the performances of junior and senior athletes alike. Most graphically I saw the patient application of Lydiard principles over five years by the tough but not outrageously talented, Ian Gentles, lead to stunning victories over local greats Matthews Temane and Matthews Motshwarateu in Randfontein in the 1990/1991 road season. The reward was junior Springbok Colours for this son of a rugby Springbok.

In the early 1990’s under the guidance of his coach and mentor, Keith Sherman, Lydiard principles enabled Hendrik Ramaala to become South Africa’s greatest 10km/Half Marathon exponent. During his base training period Ramaala runs from 150 to 200 km a week around his Zoo Lake training terrain. .

Lydiard’s approach has inevitably had its modifications and refinements over the years. His insistence that a mature athlete must run 160 km a week in the endurance conditioning phase is probably excessive. Most elite runners will perform well off 110 to 130 km per week, provided they are not training for a marathon. But the endurance base introduced by Lydiard, whatever mileage it comprises, remains the mainstay of every world class middle or long distance running programme today.

Sebastian Coe in his book The Olympians is somewhat skeptical of Lydiard’s heavy emphasis on endurance work, but notwithstanding Coe’s strongly speed orientated schedules under father, Peter, his training contained a significant initial endurance base. Had it not, Coe would probably have never run under 3:38 for the 1500m, instead he eventually broke the 3:30 barrier in 1985. .

If you do not have a copy of Running with Lydiard, order it immediately through the nearest good book shop or check out the website . Lydiard’s methods enabled New Zealand, a country of only 3 million people, to produce a succession of champions and world record holders including Murray Halberg (Gold medal, 5 000m, 1960 Olympics), Peter Snell (Gold medal, 800m and 1500m, 1964 Olympics), Barry Magee (Bronze Medal, Marathon, 1960 Olympics), John Davies (Bronze medal, 1500m, 1964 Olympics), Rod Dixon (Bronze medal, 1500m, 1972 Olympics), John Walker (Gold medal, 1500m, 1976 Olympics) and Dick Quax (World 5000m record, 1977).

If Lydiard’s methods produced this roll call of achievement in New Zealand, imagine what results could be achieved in South Africa with a population over ten times as large. Lydiard visited South Africa in 1964 and 1979 and is firmly of the view that South Africa’s athletes can beat the world’s best. I first corresponded with Lydiard in1994 and the great man was kind enough to send a reply in which he stated:-

“I understand your feelings regarding the overall running standard of South Africa’s middle and long distance runners and I believe as you do that they can beat the other African and Asian runners if trained on balanced schedules and if they take a long view”.

I believe there is much reason for optimism. We are blessed, as always, with exciting young talent. As Lydiard emphasized in much of his thoughts and writings on coaching, “there is talent everywhere, it just needs to be properly coached”. Iff coached according to the balanced programmes advocated by Lydiard, a new generation of South African athletes can certainly emerge to challenge the current domination of distance running by Ethiopia and Kenya. In this regard I must acknowledge and applaud the fantastic work done by my brother coach, Lungile Bikwani, in Diepkloof, Soweto. Using Lydiard methodology, he produced 12 provincial athletes at the current SA Cross Country Championships, of whom the Phalula twins and the brilliant junior, Tshamano Setone produced medals at the Championships.

Anyone who wishes to discuss or debate the “Lydiard Way” with me is free to e-mail me on

By Richard Mayer, New Balance Wanderers Athletic Club

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