LSD in running, posion or panecea?

Endurance training in the form of long slow distance (LSD) has long been the meat and potatoes of athletic conditioning across a range of sporting pursuits. Since the stunning success of runners trained by New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, and his many disciples, marathon training for sub marathon distances all the way down to the surprisingly short 800m event has been used with much continued success.

When Peter Snell crossed the line to win the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics the idea of marathon training really took hold. Four years later when he won the 800/1500m double in Tokyo Lydiard’s methods were immortalized. I’m not about to challenge the method, especially for conditioning elite level runners. But it is worth examining why not every runner is capable of hitting the big miles or extracting large gains in performance from running high mileage.

Picture credit: Lydiard Foundation

How does long slow distance help running performance?

Marathon training increase capillary density in muscles, makes the muscles and connective tissues stronger and strengthens the heart and lungs. More oxygen rich blood is pumped with each beat of the heart delivering it further and deeper into the muscles.

In short, more extensive plumbing, more efficient muscles and a bigger more powerful  pump. Endurance training also improves the capacity of the muscles to store glycogen (fuel) and also to metabolize and use fat as fuel.

Lydiard’s book Running to the Topcontains more information for those looking to delve deeper into his methods.

The problem

The theory is sound, proven beyond doubt, so why can’t each and every runner take this recipe and apply it easily to their training? Many runners, myself included, break down before they can reach a point where the Lydiard training benefits really kick in.

Often this is due to an over exuberant approach to adding mileage, the old adage about increasing distance by 10% per week is probably to blame for the idea that you can just keep adding miles week on week. Applying this rule literally to your training, off even a 20km per week base, will result in surprisingly large mileage totals within a very short space of time. Unless my math is flawed (a very real possibility) you’d be running 100 miles (160km) off this modest base in not much more than 20 weeks.

Setting aside over ambitiousness in your training progression we’re left with a multitude of other factors that might restrict a keen runner from dining out on a rich diet of LSD. Overuse injuries can be brought on by numerous factors as previously discussed in the running injury equation.

One of my strong beliefs is that strength deficits, imbalances, and flawed running form lie close to the heart of the matter. As you increase the distance any weaknesses you have will be quickly magnified and exposed.

Running Injury Multiplier - Running Technique

Satan’s program: a spanner in the works

We’re not headed into supernatural territory, the other day the so called Satan’s program came up in conversation when Mark and I were chatting to a client. 666: six days per week of sixty minute running for six weeks, this is what Mark and his elite running counterparts used to complete to get fit to train. Depressingly, this is more mileage than I’ve ever managed to complete, and that is even before the real training program begins.

You don’t need a compact with the Devil to be an elite runner, but you do need good mechanics and excellent genes. The fact that most recreational runners couldn’t do the 666 program gives us an insight into why Lydiard style training is not a universal pathway for running success.

Why can’t all runners follow Lydiard principles?

So where do you go if you’ve tried and failed dismally to hit 100 miles per week? I’m fairly optimistic that at some time in my running career I’ll sneak over the 100km mark, but I’m not yet convinced of my capacity to hit 100 miles. The process will be slow (over many years) and will be likely dependent upon my ability to continue to make further strength gains and improvements to my running form.

Not to mention finding the time and motivation to complete so much running. At my modest level of performance trying to run 100 miles per week is neither appealing or even warranted. Too much of a good thing could spoil the enjoyment of just getting out for a regular run.

The Lydiard philosophy works well for runners with reasonable mechanics, but if you’ve always battled overuse injuries that pop up after your second run of the week, then a different approach could be worth checking out. To survive and benefit from marathon style training you need good enough running technique to avoid breaking down. This means your underlying muscle activation pattern needs to be sound and your muscles, joints and tendons in excellent condition.

If you’re not naturally gifted, then working towards proper running form combined with strength work and a balanced training approach may serve you better in the short term. Once you’re confident in your ability to run well, you can gradually start adding more mileage as the years progress. Generally working in six week plateaus is a better approach than adding miles each and every week.

Jack Daniels – a different approach

Jack Daniels’ outstanding book Daniels’ Running Formuladoes contain training programs with a slightly different philosophy. They do have elements of the Satan’s program approach, advocating six weeks of steady jogging inclusive of some strides. But then the focus shifts quickly into mile pace repetition training. Daniels rationale seems sound, his view is this faster running helps develop better running mechanics and strength to allow the body to stand up to harder training later on. It makes a great deal of sense.

The Daniels approach is actually very helpful for runners looking to work on better technique. Faster running – especially shorter efforts of less than 200m makes is relatively easier to sustain good technique, as is the lesser intensity tempo pace intervals advocated by Daniels. 800-1000m intervals done at a low enough threshold to maintain good technique, but provide a challenge over three to five minutes of running depending on your ability level are a great way to learn concentration and gradually build fitness around your improved technique.

Daniels versus Lydiard

So if you’re a Lydiardite you’d hit your faster running towards the end of your training plan as race sharpening, but under the Daniels formula the faster running happens earlier. For runners with imperfect mechanics this is probably a better and more enjoyable way to train.

I remember reading a story about John Landy (the second man to break 4 minutes for the mile) who was preparing for the 1500m at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. There were doubts about his fitness as all he’d been doing was jogging through the forests. Sure enough Landy produced rapid performances off very little sharpening speed work and went on to win the bronze medal at the Olympics.

This sort of anecdote is not uncommon amongst elite runners, all that long easy running is done using a sound strength based technique. The right running muscles and connective tissues have been strengthened and conditioned so converting that strength into speed is not a great step to make. For runners with poor technique, if you don’t get injured, you’ll definitely get fit, but you’ll be fit and conditioned to run slowly.

On balance, for beginner runners or those with less ability taking the Daniels road is probably a better option, you’re not under pressure to keep cranking up the miles and you get the chance to do some faster running early on – not only good for improving your technique, but just plain fun. A long slow run has its charms but smashing out a few 200s and 400s can be more exhilarating and come with the larger hit of endorphins.

Having said that I’m a fan of the Lydiard training system and there are some hidden gems in their that I will return to in future articles for more detailed analysis. Head on over to the Lydiard Foundation for more information.

Should you run a marathon?

For all the reasons outlined in this article it may not be the wisest decision to take on the marathon too early in your running career. This is true of junior runners, but also late converts such as myself who come at the sport in mature age.

While the siren call of the marathon is a difficult to resist, scheduling it in so that you have at least two or three years running (or more) under your belt before taking it on is a good idea.

This will mean you benefit more from the endurance training because you will be conditioning the right muscles and will likely enjoy a less injurious build up and a more rewarding experience on the day.

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9 Responses to LSD in running, posion or panecea?

  1. Bob P January 5, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Another misconception is that Lydiard was not necessarily about hitting 100 miles/week. From what I understood from Running To The Top and Running With Lydiard, the foundational part of his running programs were more focused on time (actually, more akin to the Satan’s Program you mention in this post).

    Depending on the ability or age of the runner, Lydiard would have weekday runs of 45 and 60 minutes (or 60 and 90 minutes) and then a long run on the weekend of 90 to 120 minutes. Granted, for the elite runner who has an easy pace of 6:00 to 7:00 per mile, 100 weekly miles is easier to attain. For a runner with limited abilities who is going at 9:00 to 10:00 for an easy pace, a max mileage week might be closer to 45 or 50 miles/week.

    While this mileage (or the Satan’s Program) might be difficult for a recreational runner to attain, I am a bit more of the opinion that maximizing one’s abilities, regardless how limited they are, should not really be that easy in the first place.

    • Brian January 5, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      G’day Bob, Thanks for the comment. I agree it is not all about hitting 100 miles. The Lydiard Foundation actually has some great explanatory information on their website that dispels a lot of the misconceptions about Lydiard’s ideas. I agree time is a much better guide than distance, especially for beginner runners. You last point is so true, getting the best out of yourself isn’t easy. Running is such a sport of relativity which is why I think anyone who trains hard to improve their performance no matter how fast or slow is deserving of respect. Cheers Brian

  2. Nick Stanko December 30, 2011 at 1:19 am #

    An article I wrote in May of 2009 for a running magazine (Michigan Runner). From the information I have gained through studying Lyidard and real-life trial and error, it seems that his runners were not running slow for their LSD. I think it is a misconception and should be termed as Long Steady Distance. Steady equates to about marathon race pace.

    Also something else to consider is commonly one’s aerobic system will improve faster than their muscular system… and over time this imbalance probably leads to injuries because a runners “lunges” can outrun their legs. As you have stated… this is where the importance of weight training and a variety of running paces becomes so important.

    • Brian December 30, 2011 at 8:13 am #

      Hi Nick, Thanks for chipping in that great info and link to your article. That makes those long miles seem pretty daunting! Question for you: if memory serves me correctly Lydiard advocates 3 longer runs in a week once a good base is established, would based on your analysis only one of these be done at marathon pace? Seems like a lot of hard running. Cheers Brian PS Good luck at the marathon trials.

      • Nick Stanko December 31, 2011 at 10:18 am #

        Brian… I don’t have a clear answer on the 3 “quality” long runs. My reflection on the LSD running is that Lydiard’s runners where successful because of the quality they were getting in… regardless if it was 1, 2, or 3. The end product of “100” miles was not why they were good… it’s more important to know what made up that 100. I think everyone is different and they have to find what works for them. If they are positively responding to training off of 1 quality long run… then the training is working. If it’s two quality long runs… then the training is working… etc. If they are not responding to training then their training is most likely out of balance and they need to step back and re-evaluate before they dig to deep of a hole.

        There have been so many successful coaches over the years and they have all had their own answer to training their athletes. One could say that many are different in some ways, the same in others, and all right. They were right because they found the correct balance of training for a specific/unique runner. It might have worked for runner A and not for runner B. I’m starting to get off track…

        I guess what I am trying to say is that runners need to be actively engaged in how their body is responding to their training and find out what works for them… and what works for them one year, might not work the next. We are human and always evolving.

        • Brian December 31, 2011 at 10:33 am #

          G’day Nick, great call, totally agree with those sentiments. Got to listen to the body and not be a complete slave to your training schedule and program. I reckon good coaches help their runners to think along these lines and adjust future cycles of training accordingly. Thanks again for contributing. Brian

    • paul February 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

      Hi Nick,

      I very much doubt that his athletes were running the long runs over the Waiatarua course at their marathon pace. Certainly not if they were expecting to be able to run anything close to 100 miles per week regularly. The course involves some rolling hills at the start then a long steep ascent, more rolling hills before a long descent, and a few more rolling hills. Trying to run that course at MP every week in your base building phase would shred your legs no matter how tough you were.

      However Lydiards 100 mile weeks were deffinately not all run at an easy pace, as many people seem to assume when Lydiard gets associated with LSD and 100 mile weeks. There are several runs mid week at a good steady effort, Its not as fast as LT but its also not just wombling along enjoying the scenery.

      I do however completly agree with your comment regarding the bodys ability for the adaptions in the Aerobic system rapidly outstripping the adaptions in muscular skeletal system. In my opinion its probably one of the major causes for many running injuries, as people push beyond what they can safely support.

  3. Tom December 29, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I think the problem here is in the fact that many people don’t really take the time to learn the principles behind programs, just memorize the schedules, apply them incorrectly or in appropriately, and then get bad results. I think Daniels and Lydiard are both working from the same principles, but they apply them differently because of different circumstances. We seem to get problems because o these factors:
    1. As previously stated, people are operating I ignorance. They read a magazine article or hear something from a guy at the gym and then they run off half-cocked and try to implement a program by copying what someone else does without understanding the basic principles of training.
    2. Too many people apply programs, ideas, or principles in appropriately because they are not knowledgeable enough. For example, fitness joggers and recreational runners try to apply techniques, principles, and ideas more suited for serious competitive runners.
    3. There are too many pseudo-experts out there “selling” ideas to make a buck instead of responsibly educating people about the appropriate and safe way to do things.
    4. People tend to want quick fixes, programs that it doesn’t take any time of effort to understand, and magic bullets.
    When I began running competitively I read a lot about what the best runners were doing. But I
    didn’t learn the fundamentals behind the methods and I just tried to copy what I read Frank shorter or Lasse Viren were doing. I thought I could do the same mileages and work-outs if I just did them at my own speed. I also failed to develop the muscular strength and mechanical efficiency needed to do the higher volume and intensity of training. So I over did mileages, ran work-outs beyond my fundamental abilities, and my performances suffered. I eventually learned from my mistakes and did better, but I suffered along the way.
    Also, for a long time I didn’t understand that individual athletes respond in individual ways and that the real art to training is learning to apply the basic physiological principles of training in a way that fits each athletes particular anatomy and physiology. Great coaches, like Lydiard and Daniels, understand this and do this. You can’t just take the general program and make it fit individually and you can’t just take personal experience and make it universal. Flexibility, open mindedness, and a thorough knowledge of the science and fundamentals of what you are doing all must be considered and with education and experience can be applied successfully to any athlete, be he a world class miler or a fitness jogger.
    Just as you can’t consider yourself an expert on training by just reading Lydiard’s book you can’t s you can’t really judge hid methodology with-out studying his whole body of work and seeing how he applied it to runners of various abilities and needs. You also have to be open to other ideas, and I am sure he was.
    Lasse Viren is known as an athlete whose training was heavily influenced by Lydiard. However, his coach, Rolf Haikola, himself described the methods he used with Viren as a cocktail of Lydiard, Nurmi, Cerruty, Holmer, and Olander, with a little Gershchler thrown in if you don’t know who these guys were, you should if you want to truly understand training runners). There is an old saying which holds there is more than one way to skin a cat. The wise man tries to learn as many of these as possible and how to apply them all appropriately! Before we start debating about training methodology, we need to do the same.

    • Brian December 29, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      Hi Tom, Thanks for the comment. Don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve said there. I put this post together to make the same point as you, there is more than one way to approach running training. I’ve hammed up Lydiard v Daniels, not to really compare them or say one is better than the other, but just to underscore this theme that just running big miles is not going to work for every runner.

      I’ve been sponging in as much information as possible about running and training methods and there is plenty still to learn. You’ve given me a couple of extra names to read up on. Thank you for contributing to the discussion. Regards Brian