At the 1960 summer Olympics, three New Zealand underdogs took home four medals. They podiumed in the 800m (gold), the 5K (gold), the 10K (gold), and the marathon (bronze). "All three men were coached by Arthur Lydiard, a milkman and factory worker that had never been to college." 50
Meanwhile, the Europeans and Americans, favorites to win, "[had prepared with] the most grueling workouts their university-educated coaches could devise. How could their hard work and talent fail?" 51
Since the 1980s, training methods in North America have trended toward lower volume and higher intensity. At the same time, the athletes' performance in international competition has worsened. Skewing their training mix too far in favor of hard, anaerobic efforts has led to their decline. 26
It's a lesson that should have been learned in 1960 when Lydiard demonstrated the superiority of a polarized training model.
In contrast, African and East Asian athletes dominate international competition using a more conservative mix of high and low intensity with "prodigious amounts of quality running for years". Prioritizing "relaxed, high-volume aerobic training" has been a more effective approach. And of note for the average runner, it's especially effective for athletes with less natural talent. 30
How is energy produced?
Davis separates energy production into aerobic and anaerobic respiration. Both terms could be misleading.
First, the idea of "aerobic respiration" as a method for breaking down sugar groups a bunch of separate reactions into one. The byproducts of glycolysis—breaking down glycogen ("sugar") for energy—are necessary for aerobic energy production, but glycogen does not power the aerobic system directly.
Second, the term "anaerobic respiration" is a contradiction. Glycolysis is an independent process that does not require oxygen. You can hold your breath and glycolysis will still function.
(John Davis, the author of Basic Training Principles is very knowledgeable and well aware of this. I suspect he intentionally kept his description to a short summary.)
In addition to sugar, fat and protein can also be broken down for energy by the aerobic system. Fat in particular is in almost limitless supply, but the chemical process is more complex. As such, while running out of fat stores is nearly impossible, the process is only sustainable at low to moderate intensities. (Magness, The Science of Running, 2014) That is, "low to moderate intensities" relative to the abilities of the athlete, not in absolute terms. For example, a world-class marathoner running at 21 kph for two hours is just above the aerobic threshold and primarily burning fat, not sugar.
The key takeaway is that the aerobic pathway ("burning fat" and sugar) is a slow, low-power process with a huge fuel tank. In contrast, the anaerobic pathway ("burning sugar") is a quick, high-power process with a small fuel tank. In addition, the aerobic pathway is highly efficient, producing 36 units of energy per unit of sugar while the anaerobic pathway produces only two.
How do the energy systems interact?
One of the byproducts of glycolysis—pyruvate—is a fuel for the aerobic system. If the athlete is training at an intensity above the aerobic threshold, then pyruvate is being produced faster than the aerobic pathway can process it. At that point, the excess pyruvate turns to lactate and appears in the bloodstream. Lactate is correlated with muscle acidosis, but does not cause it (as was assumed in the past and called "lactic acid").
An increase in the processing capacity of the aerobic pathway increases the amount of pyruvate that can be used for energy. So the athlete can tolerate higher rates of glycolysis and, in addition, produce more aerobic energy at a greater intensity without slowing down due to acidosis. This is why the aerobic base is so important and applies to any event over ~45 seconds, not just to long-duration events.
How did Lydiard train his athletes?
As aerobic capacity increases, more of the byproducts of glycolysis can be processed. The higher the rate of processing, the greater the rate of glycolysis that the athlete can tolerate. The greater the rate that can be tolerated, the faster or longer the athlete can move before fatigue sets in. So as aerobic capacity increases so does anaerobic power (the rate of glycolysis that you can sustain for a given duration).
This understanding—or, perhaps at the time, hypothesis—is what led Lydiard to train his athletes the way he did. Lydiard's approach was to break his training into two phases: the 10-week "marathon conditioning" phase to develop aerobic capacity; and an anaerobic phase to "handle the rigors of...frequent racing."
(Note that this 10-week base phase—repeated twice per year—may be enough for highly developed athletes with years of training behind them. However, in our experience at Uphill Athlete, clients that are new to training—or those with damaged aerobic systems from chronic HIIT training—will often need many months of slow, easy training to get their aerobic houses in order.)
How did Lydiard train volume?
Lydiard's marathon conditioning phase calls for ten-to-twelve weeks of long duration training at an easy to moderate pace, day in and day out. "The further you run, the more you will improve—as long as your body has the chance to recover." 101
The key to handling high-volume training is keeping the effort on all runs relaxed at first and introducing blocks of higher mileage or intensity gradually. Lydiard’s favorite way to describe the conditioning phase was “train, don’t strain.” 113
The fatigue that comes from long sessions comes from the duration, not from the intensity. This is true for both the fatigue from one day's training and the training week after week. With this approach, it can take up to a month for a chronic level of fatigue to manifest, especially at the start of a new training season.
Lydiard's program is often misunderstood as a purely pyramidal one where high-intensity is deferred until closer to a competition, but that was not the case. During his marathon conditioning phase, "his runners would continue their high-volume training, but would incorporate uphill running, bounding, and sprinting exercises into their routines." 131
How did Lydiard train speed?
Once the aerobic foundation has been laid, an athlete is set to maximize the benefits from the anaerobic phase. While the training across athletes during the aerobic phase may be very similar, the workouts chosen during the anaerobic phase will vary depending on the goal event of the athlete and their response to their training.
"Good training and bad training look exactly the same."
~ Ron Daws
Both coaches and athletes should take note: a cookie-cutter approach won't get the best results from all athletes. Coaches need to individualize their training plans, and athletes need to stop worrying about who else is doing what. What works for one may not work for another.
But regardless of the event, the goal of the anaerobic phase is universal: to stimulate your body's anaerobic system, to build up your tolerance for lactate, and to familiarize your body and mind with the pace you will be running in your goal event. 159
So why not just skip the aerobic phase, jump to the race-specific training, and do as much as possible? Because the bigger the aerobic base the athlete has, the more they will benefit from the anaerobic phase.
You will be able to run more repeats, you will be able to run them faster, and you will require less recovery. Furthermore, your body will repair itself faster. 167
How did Lydiard's athletes race?
By the time race season rolls around—or, for a mountain athlete, the departure date for an expedition—training is over. The focus needs to change from building fitness to protecting and using it.
The end of the season is not the time to make up for mileage by running workouts extra hard. At this point, your toughest days should be your races, and you should ensure that you are doing everything you can to recover after them. There are no magical “sharpening” workouts that will whip you into shape in a few days’ time. 183
Continuing to train past this point will lead to a decline in performance as the damage from anaerobic training builds up. This is a key point that the HIITsters don't understand and, if they do, are loath to admit. Some anaerobic training is good if it's supported by a strong aerobic base, but if overdone, the benefits can reverse and slow the athlete down.
In Lydiard's case, "his runners would race and improve for several weeks...simply by recovering after races."
John Davis wrote Basic Training Principles in 2012. The principles contained therein are as relevant today as they have been in every other HIIT-frenzied period. Human metabolism hasn't changed, so neither will the general contents of an ideal training program.
When training prioritizes gratification over effectiveness, the needle will move toward a HIIT-dominated program. If performance is measured, observers will see a plateau or decline. (If it isn't measured, blissful ignorance will ensue.) When the decline is evident, the trend will correct in favor of performance.
[Using the term "HIIT" is] a signal that the person standing in front of me has only a basic grasp of endurance development. Endurance coaches don’t use "HIIT" in their vocabulary. They recognize the nuance of interval training... [But] in the beginner personal-trainer world, this nuance is lost, and they all get thrown into the HIIT category.”
~ Steve Magness
Superscript numbers refer to the page or Kindle location of a quoted or paraphrased section of the original work.
The main image is the cover image from Basic Training Principles. It was taken by Flickr user SNappa2006.