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3 Secrets of Legendary Coach Arthur Lydiard

Apply these top tips from one of the world's best coaches to make your next big breakthrough as a runner.

It’s not hard to start a conversation about famed running coach Arthur Lydiard. The New Zealander, who passed away in 2004, forever changed the sport of distance running by way of his influential teachings. He coached athletes like Peter Snell to the Olympic podium and was a prolific writer in his own right. Lydiard was also a dynamic speaker who preached his training philosophy like a fervent evangelist, creating disciples who still quote him in a quasi-religious way.

Lydiard was a legend, but unfortunately he gets labeled as an elitist and “the long, slow distance guy” who preached rigid periodization in training. At risk of his important teachings being oversimplified and misunderstood, it’s critical that we dig deeper into three of Lydiard’s most under-acknowledged secrets of success:

1. Lydiard believed in speed work.

“Far too many people think Lydiard training is all about long, slow distance running,” says Nobuya “Nobby” Hashizume of the Lydiard Foundation. “How many people realize that he used to have his runners, even marathon runners, compete in a 100-meter dash in a local track meet?” Hashizume contends that many people who study Lydiard’s teachings come away thinking that a lot of long, slow distance is the answer to successful running. He calls it “the plodding zone” and says that Lydiard did believe in 100-mile training weeks, but only to build aerobic strength to prepare the body for race-pace work that followed.

Greg McMillan, founder and head coach of McMillan Running, says that Lydiard’s anaerobic and lactate threshold workouts are often forgotten. “It’s important to remember that [Lydiard] was working with very competitive runners training for shorter distances and though everyone talks about his endurance or base phase, his programs have a lot of fast running as the race nears,” he says. McMillan points out that Lydiard incorporated 2-3 days of speed work after his endurance phase so that the athlete peaked on time instead of the 20-40 x 400m interval workouts used by other coaches that he didn’t think was as predictable in performance improvement.

2. He called for flexible, individualized training.

Many runners think of Lydiard as someone who followed a one-size-fits-all approach, but that wasn’t the case. “As the runner got into the race-specific training, Lydiard was doing many, many test runs and based on how these runs went, the athlete would adjust the program going forward,” says McMillan, who accompanied Lydiard on his final U.S. tour before he passed away. Lydiard knew that flexibility was a vital component to success and that both the coach and athlete had to work together closely in order to observe how the body and mind responded (and recovered) from training and racing. “They had to then adjust to build on the strengths and shore up the weaknesses,” McMillan says.

Rod Dixon, winner of the 1983 New York City Marathon, used to listen to Lydiard speak when he was a young runner in New Zealand and says that Lydiard encouraged “learning by doing.”

“He told us to apply the principles he taught to our own environment,” Dixon recalls. “He wanted us to evolve as runners and keep things simple—not to make the sport a complex formula. We knew that we wouldn’t respond the same way to everything; we learned that we had to adapt in order to run well.”

3. The potential to improve exists in everyone.

Lydiard is best known for the grueling workouts he passed on to the likes of Snell and for attracting the very best runners who were aiming for the Olympic podium, but what many don’t realize is that he worked with runners of all ability levels. “Lydiard is often described as a hard-nosed elitist coach who insisted everybody to run 100-miles-a-week,” says Hashizume. “Quite far from it. Remember, he was not only a maker of champions but also the father of jogging.”

In 1961, Lydiard gathered 20 obese middle-aged runners who couldn’t run a single lap around the track and coached them to run a 4-hour marathon in just eight months. “Arthur’s jogging program was ahead of its time,” says McMillan. “Bill Bowerman and subsequently Jeff Galloway saw how this idea was very, very beneficial to the masses of runners who weren’t trying to go the Olympics but wanted a more appropriate running routine to get them fit and healthy.” Hashizume says that his mentor maintained “hope for positive human potential” and told him that one can never know their true potential until they train systematically and intelligently for three to five years.

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