John Hawley · Director of the High Performance Laboratory
Sports Science Institute of South Africa 

For the first few issues of this column I will feature extracts from the book "Peak Performance: Training and Nutritional Strategies for Sport", which I am writing with Louise Burke. It will be published by Allen and Unwin next year. I'll be covering topics like the scientific principles of physical training, training for endurance, speed, and power, training for team sports, aids and strategies for training, and so on. I'll also look at the magic, and try to look into the future. But I'll begin with a look at the past.

Over the last 100 years a small group of coaches have consistently produced a large number of successful athletes or teams. These coaches were credited with developing certain training systems, many of which have had an important and long-lasting impact on our current view of the physical preparation of athletes for competitive sport.

It turns out that these coaches relied heavily on a trial-and-error approach. A necessary element of this approach is a risk-taking personality, often to the point of flamboyance and eccentricity. They have the vision and conviction in their beliefs to tread unknown paths.

There are problems with the trial-and-error approach. One problem is the "error". It may take many years to perfect a technique before rewards are evident. Sometimes opportunities or even athletes are lost forever as casualties of failed experiments. Another problem happens when the coach tries too many trials at once in an attempt to determine the right mix. When performance improves, it can be difficult to identify the reason why. And sometimes the reason might have nothing to do with training, if the coach stumbled across an athlete of exceptional genetic talent. No matter how that athlete is trained, he or she will improve!

But the fact remains that the empirical field-based observation of coaches have had, by far, the greatest impact on the training practices of today's athletes. In the first chapter of our book we profile the greatest coaches. Here I will analyze and salute one of them, Arthur Lydiard.


The young Arthur Lydiard

"For years I ran many kilometers trying to find the correct balance for my conditioning training. I knew you could both undertrain and overtrain in both mileage and effort. I ran from extremes of 80 to 500 kilometers a week at close to my best aerobic effort."

Arthur Lydiard, commenting on his trial-and-error methods.

"The early competitions revealed serious flaws in his methods of attaining fitness, so he continued changing patterns and gradually evolved his basic theory. A need to perfect his system drove him to further refinements."

Garth Gilmour, commenting on Arthur Lydiard's training methods.

I doubt whether any coach will ever have more impact on the training practices of endurance athletes than this New Zealander. He revolutionized training with regard to the volume of work he thought an athlete should perform in their conditioning phase. His programs were simple, based on a consistent, thorough and direct application of hard work. Lots of it.

A soccer player originally, he was amazed at the haphazard and casual way most team players prepared for their sport. Realizing he was nowhere near fit for his sport, he began experimenting, running a wide range of distances, sometimes up to 500 kilometers a week, trying to find the correct stimulus necessary for his conditioning phase of training. But his trial-and-error approach to training was not without its shortcomings. His early methods exposed serious flaws and only gradually did he evolve his basic theory. A need to perfect his system drove him to many refinements. But eventually he became New Zealand's top marathon runner. By this stage he firmly believed most athletes should run up to 160 kilometers a week at their best maximum steady-state pace, a philosophy that was to become the cornerstone of his training methods. No matter whether the event was the mile or the marathon, building stamina through volume was an essential pre-requisite to the specialized training that followed. Lydiard claimed that athletes who undertook aerobic marathon training improved their condition faster and better than athletes using anaerobic interval training. Indeed, he saw staleness as a physiological reaction caused by too much anaerobic training. His system of aerobic base training has been applied to the conditioning of team players, squash players, canoeists and many other sports.

Unfortunately, many athletes and coaches have misinterpreted his conditioning phase as merely 160 kilometers a week of long slow distance running. This was not his strategy. Neither was it a rigid requirement. His athletes were regularly running 160 kilometers a week at their best aerobic effort but, in addition, were supplementing their training with easier morning and evening sessions, often totaling up to 250 kilometers a week! He advocated running year round, and pointed out that any athlete training six days a week couldn't hope to beat one who trained every day. He reasoned that anyone who lost fifty-two days of training a year wasn't going to have optimum results.

An equally important contribution was Lydiard's concept of periodization. He knew an athlete couldn't train hard and perform well simultaneously. He mixed different types of conditionin--the long mileage, the hill work, the speed work, the sharpening and freshening--so his runners arrived at the start line at their peak.

It wasn't all plain sailing. Although his success led to a number of overseas coaching appointments including spells in Venezuela, Mexico and Scandinavia, he was initially ignored in his native New Zealand. And during his stay in Scandinavia he was continually at odds with the Swedish sports scientists (considered at the time to be the best in the world) about his methods of training.

But his record speaks for itself. Among his most famous athletes were Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Barry Magee and John Davies, who between them won four gold and two bronze medals in the Olympics.

Major Coaching Highlights

1960 Olympic Games, Rome.
Peter Snell, Gold medal (1,500 meters)
Murray Halberg, Gold medal (5,000 meters)
Barry Magee, Bronze medal (Marathon)
1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo.
Peter Snell, Gold medal (800 meters)
Peter Snell, Gold medal (1,500 meters)
John Davies, Bronze medal (1,500 meters)

World Records

Peter Snell, 800 meters (1:44.3), 1962
Peter Snell, 1,000 meters (2:16.6), 1964
Peter Snell, One mile (3:54.4), 1962
Peter Snell, One mile (3:54.1), 1964

Summing Up

"Long even-paced running at strong speed increases strength and endurance, even when it is continued close to the point of collapse."

"Successful training is intelligent training. Intelligent training is knowing the why of an exercise, as well as the what and how."

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