This past weekend, I escaped to Florida for a little sun and learning at the Lydiard coaching certification program in Tallahassee.
If you don’t know who Lydiard is, chances are at some point you’ve been following his approach with your training. Originated in New Zealand, this legendary approach is built upon five principles; aerobic base development, response regulated training, feeling based training, sequential program and correct timing. It’s all about maximizing your aerobic capacity by building a “base” and then moving through a sequential progression of training to improve your fitness and speed just in time for race day. Time and again, the presenter reiterated that while there are quicker ways you make yourself faster – the Lydiard approach seems to be the most safely managed and predictable way to time your peak performance for when it matters most.
The certification program was put together by the Lydiard Foundation, clearly staffed by those who are passionate not just about Lydiard but about sharing their joy for running. Part basic physiology, part program design, part application – it was a quick and informative way for coaches and athletes to learn about a longstanding and logical way to train. We were a group of 20 – some new coaches, some who coach beginners, some who coach high school teams, some were just recreational runners. The information was presented by way of lecture, video, discussion as well as hands on learning in actual workouts.
While most of the program was information that I’ve heard before, it makes sense to revisit the basics of training. Often it seems that coaches forget basic physiology and how it pertains to the demands of triathlon performance. Lydiard’s principles seem especially relevant in today’s world of triathlon as many coaches have fallen prey to what I call the “McDonaldization” of training – faster for less (but it doesn’t always take you very far). Let’s make one thing clear: even at the shortest distance, triathlon is an aerobic event. Even an 800 meter race on the track is predominantly aerobic. It’s important to note that any speed of training (fast or slow) will indeed improve your aerobic fitness. But what most athletes lack is not speed, its stamina (or strength).
Lacking stamina or strength is especially true of adult-onset athletes. They simply do not have the endurance, strength or durability it takes to excel at triathlon. The longer the distance, the more this holds true. Coaches must remember that these adult-onset athletes were not athletes when younger (and let’s face it – these athletes make up the bulk of our rosters). And they, like most of us, lead otherwise sedentary lives (unfortunately, doing 1 to 2 hours of exercise a day while sitting another 8 to 12 hours a day does not make for an active lifestyle!) For those reasons (and more), taking the time to properly develop your aerobic capacity, strength, some call it fatigue resistance, will go a lot further than rushing into working on your speed – and likely keep you much healthier and longer involved in the sport. Keep in mind this doesn’t mean there is no place for speed in training. This just means that before you get there, you need the basic fitness or foundation to benefit from it. You also need the capacity, skills and coordination to benefit. Benefit means you can gain from it without it setting you back due to illness, injury or fatigue.
Now, the best athletes and coaches know that we indeed do “speed work” all year round but it comes in different disguises. Early in the year, it might be drills. It might then progress to strides where you focus on what Lydiard calls “feeling fast, feeling good.” From there it progresses to plyomteric work through hill resistance. Next, interval training. For many of you, this is a progression you’ve followed and one that you know takes time. For others, you’ve followed the “give ‘em what they want approach.” Fast training is fun, sexy and much more interesting to post on social media than “I spent time on my feet improving mitochondria.” But the problem with fast training is that often you’ve gone too fast too soon and while you might be fast for a month or two, at some point you breakdown or regress to the norm by falling injured or flat in your performance. Even worse, by doing too much, too fast, too often you can actually lose your fitness.
The Lydiard approach emphasizes doing the right workout, not necessarily the most impressive workout. Triathlon is filled with a lot of senseless boasting about impressive workouts from what I call flash in the pan athletes – they might excel for a season or two but before long they ether injure themselves, blow out their thyroids or burn out. To me, the point of hiring a coach or following a plan is to protect your investment in the sport – your body, your time, your longevity to be active and healthy for as long as life allows. The most impressive training doesn’t allow that. Instead view impressive as consistency, repeatability of progress (or greatness) year after year. This comes from doing the right workouts at the right time. Not the workouts to make you fit right now. Big difference. The right workout also means finishing the workout always saying “I could do one more” or “I could do that again tomorrow.” Never empty the tank. Never test yourself in training. Never leave your race in a training session just to build confidence. In those instances, you don’t need confidence, Lydiard says you need faith and discipline in your training program.
Lydiard believed that with his training approach, by properly building up, it was quite possible to run many miles per week (and the actual miles for “many” depends on you and your goals). If you properly build someone up, even a walker to a jogger – by getting them to run at the proper pace, usually much more slowly than they want – they can run more often, run every day and in turn, run more miles. There are no junk miles. In fact, that “junk” is often the glue that holds your fitness together. Lydiard also believes that the training you do today is for next year. Training needs to be viewed as a long term progression. It takes time to build up your tendons, muscles and mind to handle more training. And if you do so slowly, next year you’ll be training faster which means you will be doing more training. More miles covered in the same time.
Why this sequential approach? Lydiard recognizes that aerobic capacity takes the longest to develop and the longest to lose. Speed is quick to develop, especially if you have the strength and skills to coordinate the movement. In their words, you can’t coordinate something you haven’t developed. You can’t go fast on the track if you’ve never learned how to properly sprint (or stride). Spend time building the biggest foundation possible with the skills and fitness to support the highest peak. You’ve heard this before – we all have. It’s training theory at its most basic (and long standing). It works because it’s built on sound principles. The presenter acknowledged that while there are many ways to get fast – this one has worked over time. Don’t discount it because it takes time or it forces you to run slow. Again, most people are not limited by their ability to run fast. They’re limited by their ability to hold that speed over the distance. The ability to run a great distance with ease at a steady speed. Think about that – when was the last time your fitness allowed you to hold your speed for longer periods of time, at ease?
One part I really appreciated was one of Lydiard’s five basic principles: feelings-based training. It’s a good point to make for today’s technology obsessed athletes. In Lydiard’s view, don’t become so reliant on technology that you ignore your inner technology. In other words, a body’s got a brain so use it. Learn your body’s response and language. Understand what you’re doing – the why and when of each workout and how your body responds. Along those same lines, they propose doing what you can do. Right now if you can run more miles at a slower pace – do so in order to run more consistently and, in turn, run more. Don’t force a speed and risk an injury because you’re doing what you want to do or what you think you can do. Don’t do what you can barely survive. Don’t base your training on magical numbers. Base it on current fitness that you’ve demonstrated. Of course there is value in gathering data to look at your workouts and races to understand your weaknesses – stamina, speed or pace judgment. Yet also recognize the need to disconnect to enjoy running and develop your inner GPS.
We got into some specifics of workouts in each phase; hill resistance, interval training, coordination, freshening. Though I did not participate in the two workouts (hill bounding and 50/50s on the track), I learned the proper form and purpose for each workout. We did not go into too much detail about individual running form. The presenter did mention something I’ve heard before: by simply running more, you improve your efficiency. We briefly watched proper run form in a few elite and non-elite athletes on video, looking for a circular motion in their stride. But as the presenter said, good form will find any speed. Just because you’re slower than an elite, doesn’t mean you can’t (or don’t) have good form.
Like any approach, this one has its critics. Lydiard has been criticized for running too slow or (in some cases) too much. Most of Lydiard’s athletes were running 100 miles a week and training overdistance for even 800 meter races on the track. But it goes back to one of his basic principles: aerobic capacity. Again, run races at 800 meters ore more are increasingly aerobic. Improve that capacity and you’ll improve performance. This doesn’t mean that you, however, need to run 100 mile weeks or run only an easy pace. You can follow this approach without running big miles and at some point you – of course – progress on from running easy. The approach includes speed work, track work and intervals. So the point is not to think that Lydiard means all slow running. To me, it means following a logical progression with a big picture in mind. Not sacrificing tomorrow for getting gratification out of what we’re doing today. It takes patience, trust and time. It’s a way of increase your odds of being ready to go fast when it matters most. Certainly, it needs to be tweaked for an individual athlete’s physiology and psychology. And while it may work for many, the art of being a good coach means that for those it doesn’t work for – finding an alternative approach.
Another criticism is that it’s been around a long time. It must be outdated! Just because an approach has been around a long time or seems too simple doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. This is why simple isn’t always easy to do! It’s tempting to look for the next greatest, latest thing in training. Recognize that the basics of human physiology have not changed. If you can coach from those basics and tweak a program based on our experience and the unique physiology and psychology of an athlete, you will have the foundation of good coaching and deliver your athletes to a higher level of performance.
Overall this was a beneficial experience. Not to mention that I got to run outside – in shorts! But more importantly I learned why I trust what I know – because it works, because it’s stood the test of time. To me, the Lydiard approach makes sense because it is a lot of common sense. As a coach, I spend a lot of time telling people things they don’t want to hear; slow down, hold back, warm up, be patient, pace yourself, eat, rest. Whether this applies to speed, workout details, training approach or performance. What it all comes down to is that more often or not, people pay me for common sense. Sure, over the years I’ve learned some tricks but the real magic or “secret” lies in these three things: be consistent, stay healthy, enjoy your training. If you can combine those three factors in such a way that they resonate – daily – then you have the secret. It’s that easy. To me, Lydiard approach has plenty of easy to understand and easy to implement program ideas that allow coaches to coach in such a way that cultivates those three factors.
Bottom line: if the certification class comes to your area, I recommend it for any coach or athlete.