26 June 2007

The Lydiard Method: A Scientific Perspective

Part 1: The 100 mile week

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science), CSCS, PES

So often, in the quest for peak athletic performance, ground-breaking discoveries are made by coaches long before sports science is able to ‘validate’ their effectiveness. The great Arthur Lydiard, perhaps epitomizes this better than any other modern coach. Arthur’s core precepts such as the 100 mile week, the hard-easy principle, periodization, multi-speed training and the benefits of Aerobic and Anaerobic Threshold training have been re-affirmed by numerous elite coaches and athletes over the 50 years since his first experiments to discover, through trial and error, the best training method. Names such as Bill Bowerman, coach of champion runner, Steve Prefontaine, Pat Clohessy, coach of 2:08 marathoners Rob DeCastella and Steve Monaghetti, and even the great Ron Clarke have all touted Arthur’s programs as a primary inspiration for their own world record smashing schedules. And yet, even to this day, his approach is not widely accepted or validated in the sports science community. In a world where a 12 week study is par for the course, there is unsurprisingly, very little literature that supports Arthur’s long-term approach to athletic training. What I hope to show here, and in the coming articles, is some of the scientific reasoning behind, what are, in my humble opinion some of the most important (and neglected) training principles required to reach your peak potential in endurance sports.
The 100 mile week
“I discovered years ago that the best results in this respect could be gained by running 100 miles weekly at my near best aerobic efforts and that, supplementary to this, running as many easy miles as I could”-Arthur Lydiard
After trialing various weekly training distances, ranging from 50 miles per week to 200 miles per week, Arthur settled on 100 miles per week at the runners “best aerobic pace” as the optimal training volume. This has been backed up over following years by practically every elite marathoner in the world, from Steve Jones to Rob De Castella to Derek Clayton (Noakes, 2003) and even today to runners like Paul Tergat (Wurz, 2005), who all run in the range of 100-130miles per week at an average pace that is @~70-75% of their vVO2, somewhat less than their Marathon race pace. There is good physiological reasoning behind this optimal training volume & intensity. But first, a quick recap of muscle physiology.

At the practical level, muscles within the body are composed of differing fiber types. These can be classified as slow twitch (or Type I) fibers, fast twitch oxidative (Type IIa) fibers and fast twitch glycolytic (Type IIb fibers). These fiber types have quantifiable differences in a number of aspects. For the endurance athlete, particularly marathoners and long-course triathletes, two of the most important distinctions are:

Glycogen Usage

Time required for Glycogen replenishment.

Studies have shown that Type I fibers deplete their glycogen stores at a slower rate than Type II fibers (Saltin & Karlsson, 1971). The practical implication here is that if an athlete is to stay below the recruitment threshold for Type IIa fibers, they will be able to accomplish substantially more training in a given week. This recruitment threshold has been physiologically defined as the “Aerobic Threshold” (Skinner and McLellan 1980). In popular literature, coaches such as Gordo Byrn and Joe Friel have defined this as Zone 2 or “Steady” training. Interestingly, all of the fore-mentioned coaches have concluded that, during the preparatory phase, this is the most important training intensity. Yes all of this is very interesting, you may say, but how does this relate to the 100 mile week? Read on.

The other important factor that distinguishes fiber types for an endurance athlete is the time required to replenish muscle glycogen stores after a long or hard workout. This is one of the prime determinants of recovery in an endurance athlete (Terjung et al., 1985) and consequently, if the endurance athlete can utilize fibers that recover more quickly during the bulk of their training, they will simply be able to train more and accumulate more of a training stimulus. Studies have shown that slow twitch fibers, when fully depleted can be replenished in as short a time frame as 10-22 hours. In contrast, fast oxidative glycolytic fibers, when maximally depleted can take 24-48 hours to replenish, even with a high carbohydrate diet (Piehl, 1974, Casey et al. 1995 ). So, the simple implication for the endurance athlete is that, if they want to maintain a solid training load from day to day, most training should be at or below the recruitment threshold for FOG fibers or, as Friel and others call it, the Aerobic Threshold.

The other constraining variable here is that, if the athlete wants to fully replenish their slowtwitch glycogen stores in preparation for the next session (generally 12-24 hours away), they are limited to ~2 hours of training per 12-24hrs at or around the AeT (to allow for the 10-22 hour recovery time). To make a long story short, this 2-4 hours of training at “your best aerobic effort” is precisely what Arthur Lydiard recommends for his athletes during their base phase of training. Incidentally, it is also echoed by one of the most successful swimming coaches in the world – Bill Sweetenham, who explains optimal volume for base training as “The most training volume that can be completed at 40-50 beats below maximum while still allowing the athlete to be fully recovered for the next training session - generally 12-24 hours away.” (Sweetenham, 2003)

At 2 hours of steady running per day, this equates to ~100-130 miles of training. For sports such as swimming and cycling, which do not exhibit the eccentric loading of running, recovery is quicker (O’Reilly et al., 1987, Sven et al., 1998) and, at the elite level 4 hours per day of training at the aerobic threshold is frequently accomplished. (Sweetenham, 2003, Lucia et al., 2003).

The potential for improving the work rate at the Aerobic Threshold is greater than perhaps any other physiological intensity, and in reality is the only level of training that one can expect to see improve over the course of a decade or more. Anecdotally, Mark Allen reported improving his pace for his 155bpm test progressively over the course of 10 years. While, no studies of elite athletes have been sufficiently long to quantify this improvement, Dr. Timothy Noakes in Lore of Running calculated that Allen’s aerobic threshold effort equated to a fat oxidation rate 50% higher than what had been seen in young national class athletes in the laboratory (Noakes, 2003). The protocol for such improvement was simple. For at least 3 months each year, Allen capped his HR at what he defined as his “aerobic maximum”, 155bpm. In addition, Bill Sweetenham, former national swim coach for Australia, devotes two full years to Aerobic Threshold training in the development of his junior elite swimmers (Sweetenham, 2003).

So, what does all of this mean to me, as a competitive Iron-distance triathlete looking to fulfil my athletic potential? It is the author’s opinion that one of the negative effects of the ‘trickle-down’ of advanced periodization concepts to the general masses is that, while annual periodization is an effective way to change the program of an elite athlete to prevent plateaus, rarely does an age-group athlete get anywhere close to a plateau of their foundational systems before (for the sake of variety), they decide to add more advanced training to their program. If 2 years of training, with the bulk of it below a heart rate of 150, is good enough for young elite swimmers, whose event typically lasts 50 seconds – 2 minutes, surely it is good enough for you as a sub-elite long course athlete (whose event may last 10-12 hours).

So, in practical terms for a long-course triathlete, Lydiard’s 100 mile training week equates to 2-4 hours of “steady” training per day (every day!!) until you witness a distinct plateau in your training volume and training pace. At that point, it may be time to make your shorter sessions faster and introduce training that approaches your Anaerobic Threshold. Stay tuned to Gordo’s blog for a link to the coming article on the role of Anaerobic Threshold training and supplementary endurance training as they relate to the Lydiard method & achieving your peak performance.
Casey, A., Short, A.H., Hultman, E., and Greenhaff, P.L. (1995) Glycogen resynthesis in human muscle fiber types following exercise-induced glycogen depletion. Journal of Physiology, 483(1): 265-271

Lucia, A., Hoyos, J. and Chicharro, J. (2003) Physiology of professional road cycling. In High-Tech Cycling 2nd Ed., (ed. E. Burke) pp. 265-288. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Noakes, Timothy. (2003) Lore of Running, 2nd ed., Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

O’Reilly, K.P., Warhol, M.J., Fielding, R.A., Frontera, W.R., Meredith, C.N., and Evans, W.J. (1987) Exercise-induced muscle damage impairs muscle glycogen repletion. Journal of Applied Physiology, 63(1): 252-256.

Piehl, K. (1974) Time course for refilling of glycogen stores in human muscle fibers following exercise induced glycogen depletion. Acta Physiol. Scand. 90: 297-302.

Saltin, B. & Karlson, J. (1971). Muscle glycogen utilization during work of different intensities. In Muscle Metabolism During Exercise, (Eds. B. Purnow & B. Saltin) pp. 289-299. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Skinner, J.S. & McLellan, T.H. (1980). The transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism. Res. Q. Ex. Sport. 51: 234-248

Sweetenham, W. and Atkinson, J. (2003) Championship Swim Training, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Sven Asp, Jens R. Daugaard, Søren Kristiansen, Bente Kiens, Erik A. Richter (1998)
Exercise metabolism in human skeletal muscle exposed to prior eccentric exercise
The Journal of Physiology 509: 305–313.

Terjung, R., Dudley, L. & Meyer, R. (1985). Metabolic and Circulatory Limitations to Muscular Performance at the Organ Level. Journal of Experiemental Biology, 115: 307-308.

Wurz, Jurg (2005) Paul Tergat: Running to the Limit, Aachen, Germany: Meyer and Meyer Sport.