Secrets of Arthur Lydiard’s Waiatarua long run

Secrets of Arthur Lydiard’s Waiatarua long run

We all want to know the secret to becoming champions so in this article we’ll have a closer look at the long run employed by the runners of famous New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. Every Sunday, Arthur and “his boys” would start from the front of his house to complete the hilly 22 mile course up through the Waitakere mountain range overlooking Auckland, New Zealand. After you’ve read this article you’ll understand why this famous “Waiatarua loop” is not simply “another long run” and why you may want to replicate it by doing similar long runs instead of just “your regular jaunt”.

Waiatarua long run – overview

The original Waiatarua long run employed developed by Arthur Lydiard was roughly 22 miles (35km) and can be seen mapped out on this page at MapMyRun for those lucky enough to be in New Zealand to try it directly. Keith Livingstone, recently a guest of ChampionsEverywhere in Ireland, described  the Waiatarua thus  in his article “Keep things simple but no simpler

Weekends had the long 22 mile (35km) run which included the notorious 5km ascent, followed by about 5 minutes of gradual downhill recovery, followed by another six miles or so of undulating running on the ridge of the mountains overlooking Auckland. – Keith Livingstone, author of Healthy Intelligent Training

The MapMyRun statistics show us that the gradual 5km ascent begins at around 7 miles (11km) and finishes just after 10 miles (16km) have been completed.

Waiatarua long run
Waiatarua long run - overview

The total climb of 344m (1128 ft.) is not tough compared to the climbs in “real” mountain runs but most of Arthur Lydiard’s athletes ran this route in 2:30 early season (6:49min/miles or 4:14min/km pace) and as fast as 2:10 late in their base building period (5:55min/miles or 3:40min/km). Keep in mind this is perfectly appropriate endurance work for an athlete running around 13:30-14:00 for 5k or 2:11-2:12 for the marathon. For the rest of us, a similar route that is shorter and run slower would be necessary to mimic the benefits of the Waiatarua. Let’s have a look at what those benefits are:

Hidden benefits of the Waiatarua long run

When looking at the training of yesteryear it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions of what training was like. Keith Livingstone, who ran the route several times, has the advantage of having experienced the route and knowing how each part of it affects our physiology. The Waiatarua provides several benefits all at once, and it’s not simply “just any long run”. If we understand this, we can apply the same principles to our own long runs:

Stages of the Waiatarua – as described by Keith Livingstone

Let us use the voice of Keith Livingstone to talk us through the four main stages of the Waiatarua long run:

Stage 1 – Gradual easy acceleration to the right effort level:  “If we look at the physiology of these runs in modern terms, there was a slow start with a gradual increase in tempo and effort.

Stage 2 – Long gradual climb:  “…until the long hill climb. This would consist of about 20 minutes of running with a heart rate in the anaerobic threshold zone. Any faster and an athlete would “blow up” and not be able to complete the rest of the course in a fit state. Athletes learnt to ration their efforts and fuels very carefully in this weekly run.”

Stage 3 – Ridge running:  The recovery downhill and following efforts along the ridge road were really what we would call “lactate shuffle” running: hovering at the edge of the anaerobic threshold and learning to disperse lactates while starting to fatigue the carbohydrate stores in the muscles and liver.”

Stage 4 – Flat finish with small hill at the end:  The final miles of gradual descent and flat running were largely pure endurance/ fatty acid metabolism running, but a short sharp hill of about 700m at the 28km mark served to jolt the fatiguing athlete into short-term anaerobic metabolism again.”

Waiatarua long run analysis
Waiatarua - course analysis (physiological perspective)

Note in particular the training effects upon the “lactate shuttle” which has been lionised in recent years through the training ideas of Renato Canova and the concept of “New Interval Training” with specific sessions targetting it. As the Waiatarua shows us there are many ways to achieve this effect and this type of long run has  provided generations of runners with this stimulus for a very long time. For an experienced coach like Lydiard, the discovery of the lactate shuttle (happening only in the early 1980s) was not necessary to understand what type of training was needed to stimulate the training effects we need.

There are several technical and psychological benefits of a run such as this but in the interest of brevity, let’s just conclude that if features  a great mixture of flat, uphill and downhill and demands enough mentally of an athlete to toughen their minds for competition.

How to implement into your long runs

As you can see from the description above, you need to allow a reasonable section of your long run early on to be easy and largely flat before inserting a long gradual climb, a descent for recovery followed by undulating terrain before a fast downhill and a long flat finish with one last “kick in the teeth” in the shape of a short final climb before flattening out again to the finish.

You can apply roughly these guidelines based on the pace Arthur Lydiard’s athletes ran at:

  • 30 minutes of easier flat running
  • 20 minutes of gradual climbing
  • 40 minutes of undulating (ridge) running
  • 20 minutes of fast descending
  • 10-15 minutes easy flat recovery
  • 5 minutes or less final climb
  • 10-20 minutes easy flat to the finish

The above example adds up to ~2.5 hours but you obviously don’t have to make your own route match this exactly (it would probably be impossible) but serves as an example. To achieve the benefits of a classical Waiatarua you simply need a flat start and finish of a looped run with a big climb inserted at a stage when you’re sufficiently warmed up and “in the zone” followed by undulating running while you’re “up high” and a fast descent followed by another flattish start. The “evil hill” at the end can be considered optional but is certainly hardening and a good reminder of what happens in racing when there’s seemingly always “a little surprise in store”.

We’ll be posting some of our suggestions for “Irish Waiataruas” on the site shortly, so check back here for more…

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.