Lydiard Got it Wrong.
Arthur Lydiard is practically a god in the realm of distance training. He revolutionized training in countless ways and helped to bring performances to another. His placement on the Mount Rushmore of distance coaches is assured, but that does not mean he had everything right. We all make mistakes. Even the greatest scientist of the modern era got it wrong when he argued that the universe was stationary and not expanding. So, once again I’d like to put Mr. Lydiard among another great, Mr. Einstein. He got something wrong.
In Kenny Moore’s sensational book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon there is a section where he talks about how Bowerman went to visit Lydiard and came away with a lot of wisdom. The one that caught my attention is that Lydiard said that his athletes, such as Peter Snell, had great kicks due to their long run. The Oregon milers then went about adding long runs to their schedule hoping for that improvement in their kicks. It never happened. That leaves us with a question. If Lydiard’s athletes kicks had improved what was the mechanism to that improvement?
Of course it is foolish to pick one component of the training and say that it improved the kick. In reality it is a number of components and how they were blended together. But, after researching Lydiard’s and others methods I think the improvement in kick was due more towards Lydiard’s Hill circuit and not the long run.
Lydiard’s hill circuit consisted of an 800m hill with flat parts on the top and bottom. The specifics of the exact circuit can be found on the Lydiard Foundation website. It consisted of some uphill bounding, striding out downhill, wind sprints, and recovery jogging. The purpose of the circuit is the key. According to the Lydiard Foundation it is “to bring resistance to the leg muscles to develop muscle fibers; in particular the white (fast twitch) muscle fibers…” In other words, the goal is to recruit more muscle fibers than you regularly would when running and to train them; also known as developing strength endurance. If that term rings a bell with you, it might be because another distance coach, Renato Canova, also uses a variation of hill circuits to increase strength endurance. Once again, we can see that one of Lydiard’s ideas has stood the test of time, with slight modification.
This development of strength endurance is one of the key’s to developing a kick. It increases the fiber pool that an athlete can use and also increases the endurance, or ability of those fibers to work under fatigue. With some other workouts (which Lydiard also had, such as his 50m sprint/50m cruise workout) you can extend this strength endurance to high intensity strength endurance, meaning that you can train the body to recruit these fibers under highly fatigued conditions. At the end of a race, muscle fibers are “failing” and your body is trying to compensate by cycling in others to replace them. With an increase in strength endurance, the athlete will have a better kick at the end of the race because he can call upon more fibers, which can last longer. This may all seem grand in theory, but how does it work.
The key is the hill aspect. To increase the number of fibers recruited you have to increase the force requirement, or the amount of strength required. Lydiard does this with the hill and with bounding. Adding running like plyometrics (various jumps, skips) is another way to do this. These high strength activities recruit more fibers. Then, add an endurance component to the equation and you have a strength endurance circuit. An example would be uphill running with 3x10sec bounding interspersed with 30sec of moderate running in between. How you vary the intensity of the exercises and the running will determine the exact result of the training. For instance, increase the bounding intensity and it is a more strength oriented session.
While Lydiard may have given the wrong reason for the development of his athlete’s kicks, he still had the necessary components to develop them in his training. Being wrong in his explanation may have hurt others athletes (and made people run 20 milers more than they wanted to!), but not his own, so maybe it worked out best for him. You’ll also notice that his hill circuits are the most often ignored part of his training paradigm. Maybe we should all go reread Lydiard and second guess the discarding of that component. Coaches like Renato Canova seem to have brought back the hill circuits and it may be about time.
For now, here’s my 3 step cheat sheet guide to kick development:
1st. Increase maximum fibers recruited
2nd. Improve ability to use for prolonged time
3rd. Learn to recruit them under high acidity
More on that and the progression of development of strength endurance later if there’s interest.
Go to Part 2:
Part 2- How to Develop Strength Endurance