Run To the Top

Run To the Top 
Arthur Lydiard, 1963

Arthur Lydiard is the creator of modern distance running training. His book, Run to the Top, published in 1963, is, for the serious runner, the most influential book on distance training of the past half-century. Even if you haven’t read it, or even heard of Lydiard, you’ve been influenced. Lydiard was the first to lay out the modern concepts of volume training, quality, hard/easy, tapering, specific hill training, plyometrics, periodization, master’s running, female distance running, and peaking for the most important race. Not bad.

The core of the Lydiard program – a term Lydiard himself would use only with great reluctance – is building a base of stamina, then systematically, but gradually, building strength and speed on top of that. Here’s Lydiard, “The key to my conditioning training is 100 miles a week. No runner… should run more than that distance.” (Lydiard’s runners were all working men; except in the Eastern Bloc, the full-time runner was unknown back then. Lydiard’s concern was recovery. He never imagined a Paula Radcliffe with ice baths, a personal masseuse, twelve hours of sleep at night plus naps, etc.) Here is Lydiard’s baseline training, the year-round work you do before beginning your base training:

Monday: 10M, hilly course, half-effort
Tuesday: 15M easier course, quarter-effort, undulating not dead-flat
Wednesday: 12M fartlek
Thursday: 18M easier course, quarter effort
Friday: 10M fast over a flat course, three-quarter effort
Saturday: 20-30M, easy course, quarter-effort
Sunday: 15M easy, quarter-effort

People see “half-effort” and “quarter-effort” and incorrectly believe Lydiard was recommending long, slow distance. Far from it. Lydiard was quite specific in defining his terms. Let’s look at Monday’s 10 mile run. For someone who can run a marathon in three hours, race pace for ten miles is roughly 6:00 minutes per mile. Lydiard defines three-quarter effort as 6:15, half as 6:30, and quarter as 7:00. So your “half-effort” 10-miler on your hilly course is to be run at 6:30 pace. Friday’s 10 miles at three-quarter should be run at 6:15 pace. Lydiard is recommending substantial distance, but the opposite of slow.

Scheduled training starts 18 weeks out from the goal race. Lydiard was insistent his runners run their best when it counted most, repeatedly reminding them it didn’t matter if they came in far behind in the early races of the season. The Championship was the important race, not the weekly 5K or 10K (3-mile or 6-mile in Lydiard’s time).

Lydiard’s most remarked-upon innovation was having 800-meter and mile runners training like marathoners in the early part of their base training. Recalling that the running week above was general conditioning, not scheduled training, here is typical week in the first month of scheduled base training:

Monday: 20 x 400, quarter-effort
Tuesday: 15M, quarter-effort
Wednesday: 2M stride/float 50/60
Thursday: 18M, quarter-effort
Friday: 1M, three-quarter effort
Saturday: 22-28M easy
Sunday: 15M jog

Three things to observe:

  1. Even in the first month of base, because a solid general conditioning has already been done, the work is hard and there’s a considerable amount of speed. On Monday, for example, for a runner whose maximum pace was a 60-flat quarter, it would be 20 x 400 at 69 sec/lap. For a 5:00 miler, Friday’s mile would be at 5:06.
  2. While you’re varying the speeds, you’re also greatly varying the distances: Monday is 5M, Tuesday 15, Wednesday 2, Thusday 18, Friday 1, Saturday 25. The short days will increase with warm-up and cool-down, but the variation in distance is striking.
  3. The hill training is the most difficult part of the training; we haven’t come to that yet, but it’s nice to know the above is not the hard part.

No wonder Lydiard’s pupils ran so well. A wonderful aspect of the book is the way Lydiard makes exceptional levels of running seem possible. If you have decent talent and you’re willing to do the work, you might – you just might – develop into an Olympic Champion. Wonderfully inspiring.

There is a great deal more that could be said. Read the book – it’s still in print. The absolute core of the Lydiard approach, the central theme that is never far below the surface of anything he writes, is distilled on page 46, in “The Key to Conditioning”: “The essence of athletics is the pleasure you can get out of it.”

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