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
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 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.
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’ 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.
Written by Brian Martin
Other articles you may enjoy: