Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Sporting Icon: The Great Arthur Lydiard

This blog tosses about ‘great’ a lot when referring to today's elite swimmers. Yet the word is never used casually. It is chosen with nearly the same care that occurs when I apply the term ‘mediocre’ to an Olympic medalist – which is to say only with considerable reluctance. The problem (as I see it) is the number of tremendous swimmers in today’s generation – several who have not only advanced the sport faster than thought possible but also have transformed swimming with historically significant accomplishments. Instead of the usual one or two every generation I'm seeing a pack of them whom I'm confident can be accorded such distinction. Maybe there are some who will disagree with my choices. I won't take offense. From my vantage point things get a little blurry way up there. There are better judges than I on what constitutes greatness in a swimmer.

But I can use the same accolade with serene confidence when I associate it with Arthur Lydiard, despite the fact most athletes of this era have never even heard his name. And yet, though he made his mark in athletics, there are few endurance based sports who cannot trace the basic foundations of their training back to this man.

Arthur Lydiard (1917-2004) started his coaching career simply enough – when in his middle twenties he decided to get back into shape and chose running to do so. Initially he tried adopting the training practices of his day which could be best described as “no pain, no gain”. Finding them unsatisfying and unproductive he turned to experimentation by varying the distances and pace at which he ran. After years of analysis he discovered when distance and speedwork were properly balanced his overall performance in both track and distance events improved. Thus was born a theory when fully fleshed out would eventually transform sport: "…that long, even-pace running at a strong speed produced increased strength and endurance – even when it is continued to the point of collapse – and was beneficial, not harmful, to regular competition."¹ Lydiard continued with his training, building success upon success, which reached its apex when he represented New Zealand in the 1950 Empire Games marathon. More importantly he was faster on the track as well.

By this time Lydiard’s unorthodox training methods were attracting interest from fellow athletes who had begun training with him. In 1955 Arthur Lydiard, the self-coached runner for fitness, finally turned professional and became a coach. Over the next three decades Lydiard would come to coach Olympic gold medalists and world record holders such as Peter Snell, Lasse Viren, and Murray Halberg as well as several other Olympic medalists and international marathon winners. But he never forgot the reason why he started running. Throughout his life he continually promoted long, slow distance running as an alternate way to fitness for everybody.
"The fellow who can run only a few hundred yards before tiring, then has to walk 10 minutes, thinks he's not getting any real exercise and may decide to quit," he said. "But even that helps his heart to work more efficiently. You can go too fast, but you can never go too slowly to develop cardiac efficiency”. Today we know this as jogging, a Shakespearean word Lydiard reintroduced to the world to describe his new form of exercise for the masses.

The methods ascribed to him for training elite endurance athletes, however, are not without critics. There are few swimmers who swam in the sixties, seventies and eighties who will not curse the workloads they had to endure because of his heavy emphasis on mileage. But if their angst was ever aimed at Lydiard it would have been misdirected. All too often intellectually lazy coaches seized only on his massive distance program without actually studying how Lydiard integrated this with other essential components such as anaerobic workouts and rest. In fact Lydiard’s methods (known as the Lydiard Way) utilized all the available tools in a coach’s repertoire which existed at the time. The website has an article on its site with the title Lydiard Misconceptions Explained which quotes from the Lydiard Clinic. Since I don’t believe I can present its arguments any better I’m going to quote a large part of it below:
There are two facts here to consider. First, base building is indeed important. Show me a successful runner who has never established a base and I'll show you a runner who could be much more successful than he or she is. Second, while Lydiard focused more on base than most people, that does not mean that is all he focused on. When it was time to run hard, nobody - past or present - would promote as much intensity as Lydiard did. The Lydiard program is all about balance. When it's time to establish your base, that is the priority. When it's time to develop strength and speed, you don't let base training get in the way.
Consider the following quotes from the Lydiard Clinic:

The Lydiard training system is based on a balanced combination of aerobic and anaerobic running.

If you continue reading, you will see that's the case.

The conditioning phase of Lydiard training stresses exercising aerobically to increase your Steady State as high as possible given your particular situation. For best results, you should exercise between 70 and 100 of your maximum aerobic effort. This, therefore, is not Long Slow Distance. This is running at a good effort and finishing each run feeling pleasantly tired. You will certainly benefit from running slower, but it will take much longer than if you ran at a good aerobic pace.

Indeed, it is not long slow distance. You're not just jogging around, you're out working at a fairly solid effort. Of course, many people are constantly racing their training runs so it may seem like long slow distance to them but, if they do it right, they will realize that it is very beneficial.

Similar to the three long runs in aerobic conditioning, you should run hard (anaerobically) three times a week during the anaerobic phase. Be sure to allow yourself to recover between hard workouts, at least a day in between. The idea is to stress your system, recover completely, then stress it again. It is not all that important what the distances or speeds are, just run repetitions and intervals until you are tired and have had enough for the day. No coach can tell exactly how many repetitions you can do, or what your recovery intervals should be, on a particular day. So trust you instincts and use any schedule as a guide only.

A different phase, a different focus. How many programs that are supposedly not long slow distance like Lydiard have people running hard three times a week at any point? I'd challenge anyone to read that quote and then think the Lydiard plan is nothing but long slow distance.

Anaerobic training is essential if you want to race well. Bear in mind, however, that if you overdo anaerobic work, you will sacrifice the very thing you have worked so hard to achieve, your good condition, which determines your performance level.

Would anyone who is all about long slow distance say anaerobic training is essential? I doubt it. Once again, the first quote is the key. The Lydiard system is all about balance.

So why exactly are Lydiard’s methods relevant to swimming? Even though I’ve always taken the position swimming and athletics actually don’t match up well when trying to compare their respective athletic performances there is one important aspect they do share: endurance. In fact sports physiologists rank swimming’s endurance requirements even higher than running’s by placing swimming on a par with cycling and cross country skiing as one of the most exacting endurance sports around. From distances as short as 100 meters on up aerobic conditioning becomes progressively more critical and speed increasingly takes the back seat. Let me try to illustrate this point. Our elite swimmers can expect their 100 meter free to be about four seconds slower than merely doubling the time he or she can swim the 50. Let’s say in our example the difference is eight seconds, which implies four seconds possibly available for improvement. We can attempt it two different ways. We can work on improving endurance, which will require the subject to practice more and train harder; or we can try to drop the subject’s 50 meter time a couple of seconds by increasing his or her speed. The first option requires only the willingness and ability of the subject to put in the additional effort. The second requires sufficient talent. That's something which can't be assumed. When you also consider Lydiard's methods naturally improves overall speed it is easy to see why his discoveries are now incorporated into virtually every swimming program throughout the world.

No real surprise a former runner such as myself has bought into this versus the more anaerobic approach exemplified by the “Less is More” crowd. It has some clear advantages for me. The process of base building provides the time and pace I need to work on technique as I simultaneously improve both strength and aerobic capacity. It’s also easy to recognize, however, that a commitment to Lydiard's training principles does present risks for someone my age. For one any base I can create is going to be rather truncated. Bill Sweetenham figures to maximize long term development swimmers will need to begin to emphasize base building as soon as they enter their adolescent growth spurt and from there gradually increase their kilometers until they reach what he refers to as ‘Breakpoint Volume’² somewhere between the ages of 13 to 15. The first drawback is Sweetenham's assumption the swimmer has been concentrating on honing their skills before entering the base building phases. I’m trying to do both at the same time. The second is his calculation most swimmers will find their Breakpoint Volume to be around 2100 to 2500 kilometers a year (about 50 km/week). Consequently his development program (and in this Sweetenham is considered the world’s leading expert) anticipates seven or eight years devoted to base building prior to moving into ‘high-performance training’ as the swimmer enters his or her peak years. I’m going to fall hopelessly short of those numbers. The big question is will I be able to build at least some sort of base off of which I can race, or will I simply be exhausting myself to no avail? Sweetenham suggests I have a big problem when he concurs with Balyi³ that “swimmers acquire the ability to absorb and adapt to training principally during the learn-to-train stage of their careers”. So while I may end up swimming the same meters as our elite masters they invariably trained competitively through the crucial adolescent years when I did not. I also would be remiss not to point out standard orthodoxy for training masters swimmers emphasizes anaerobic training for several good reasons – the minimal meters we normally train, our slowing metabolism, and the short distances we typically race. I’m certainly bucking conventional wisdom here. Theoretically I should be able to find out in a year a two from checking the progress in my recovery time from test sets, but until then I’m winging it.

¹ Gilmour, Garth. (1978) Run – the Lydiard Way, Hodder and Stoughton, New Zealand
² Sweetenham has a rather lengthy definition of Breakpoint Volume but for this blog's purposes it can be described as the maximum workload an individual can tolerate while optimizing performance. Sweetenham defines it as “the optimum volume performed at optimum skill level achieved through participation in a maximum number of training sessions of controlled intensity. The training volume achieved at the end of the maturation period will essentially be the training volume an athlete will maintain for the remainder of his or her swimming career. We also believe that an athlete’s recovery profile largely determines his or her future ability to handle intensive training situations (that is, a combination of high-performance training volume and intensity)” Sweetenham, Bill and Atkinson, John. (2003) Championship Swim Training, Human Kinetics, USA
³ Balyi, I. (2002) New Zealand Coach 10(3) (autumn):6-9 titled “Models of long-term athlete development and training requirements of different sports”.

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