Comparison of Lydiard and Canova – part 1

Comparison of Lydiard and Canova – part 1

There is much discussion on forums around the world about whether the recent success of “Italian wizard” Renato Canova means the enigmatic coach has come upon a superior conditioning method for athletes, marathoners in particular, than Arthur Lydiard whose training principles have formed the basis or inspiration of the training of the vast majority of running champions over the last 50 years.

As I would like to spend these articles talking about the training systems of the two coaches rather than their biographies, suffice it to say that Renato Canova has been one of the most successful athletics coaches of the last two decades particularly working with Kenyan runners.

Lydiard versus Canova – is there a conflict?

Before going into the actual analysis, a bit of background of why such an exercise is even worthwhile seems in order. When it comes to modern training systems many have more shared characteristics than they have differences. Approaches such as Jack Daniels’ and Pete Pfitzinger’s are all periodised systems with their roots firmly planted in Lydiard soil.

So it is with Lydiard and Canova but discussions particularly on the forums of saw Canova come out quite vocally against Lydiard stating among other things “if the US marathon runners want to be competitive in the world scene, the first thing they should consider is throw away the idea of Lydiard.” When approached by Nobby Hashizume, founder of the Lydiard Foundation, it became clear that he did not quite understand what the Foundation curtained as “being Lydiard”. To put context around his comment, Canova told Nobby: “My boys (ed: Kenyans) run 150 miles a week.  100 is not enough.”  What he missed was that Lydiard’s runners often did run more than 100 miles per week (some like Jeff Julian over 200 miles per week) but had to balance this training load against full-time jobs unlike the elite Kenyans and Italians with whom Canova did most of his work. Lydiard, as is well-documented, agrees with Canova on the need for more volume, but only if it can be balanced with adequate recovery to keep the quality of the aerobic running at a reasonable level.

Greg McMillan, one of the world’s leading Lydiard-inspired coaches, worked with another Italian coach using similar methods to Canova’s, Gabriele Rosa, and says he believes he understands from this experience what it takes to break 2:05. It is, in effect, fairly easy: you put together a really tough training regime and anyone who could survive it would then go out and do it. The background of Kenyan runners allows them to survive such training regimes. As Greg McMillan has repeatedly stated, the problem stopping Western runners is not that they are using the wrong training system but rather: as Greg had said it many times, the question is: “HOW DO WE GET AN ATHLETE TO THE LEVEL WHERE THEY COULD MANAGE WORKOUTS LIKE THAT? (red: Canova/Rosa style workouts)”

When comparing the two systems, it is not enough looking at the likely performance benefits, we must also look at whether such regimes truly set up runners for long-term health and performance. One of the great benefits of Lydiard training is that it nurtures runners over many years and sets them up for a life-time of health and performance. As Lydiard explained with an example of a young high-school girl runner in an interview with a US track magazine: “She just ran 2:58 for 800m.  You can find a dozen girls who can run faster than that at any high school in the US.  We can push her so she can run 15 or 20 seconds faster next month, but then what’s gonna happen?  We’ll destroy her potential.  So we just take a long view and not worry about what others might say…”

Many training programmes set runners up to perform “like superman” for a period of time and then leave them burned out for years so when comparing the two systems a section must be dedicated to the likely long-term positive and negative effects of undertaking the prescribed regimes and workouts and include a look at the longevity of today’s generation of “superhuman” Kenyan runners.

The two systems in overview

Canova’s athletic philosophy has not been published in anywhere near the same amount of detail as Arthur Lydiard’s of which plenty of first-hand material is available, so I rely a lot on second-hand interpretations of the Italian’s work here so keep this in mind. Being a great coach is invariably synonymous with being widely misunderstood. As a final word of warning, many of the insights about Canova’s methods have to be gleaned from studying the schedules of his world class performers. Doing this incurs the same risk as looking at Peter Snell’s schedule in the 1960s and copying it line by line (as many Lydiard adherents did).

Like Lydiard’s system Canova progresses his training through phases with emphasis on different physiological developments evermore specific to the athlete’s target race. Shown as a pyramid the two systems can be compared by looking at the below simplified rendition. The one thing that stands out that in general terms is that the two approaches have a lot in common in that both accept periodization of training and build on a foundation of mainly aerobic work followed by faster specific work.

Lydiard training pyramidCanova training pyramid

Looking at the two pyramids it is clear that to really compare the two systems you must understand what activity goes around “before” and “after” an athlete enters the pyramid and we must understand the specific purpose and workouts in each phase. It is particularly troublesome to compare because the names of the different phases are sometimes a misnomer. Lydiard’s “anaerobic” and “co-ordination” phases for instance are really a 6-10 week periods of track-specific work progressing from the more general to the specific for non-marathon runners. For marathon runners these same phases should really be called the “marathon-specific” phase as the focus is on faster work but not so much anaerobic. In Canova’s case his “introductive” phase is sometimes called “regenerative” or “general” and so on. So if we keep in mind not to judge the two systems simply by the traditional names that the phases of the systems have been given, let’s have a look “under the hood”.

Core principles of the two systems

Anyone can apply a label like “generic” or “aerobic” to a phase and point out that they look similar so we need to do a phase by phase comparison to see how the specific workouts differ. Before we do this it is worthwhile looking at the overlying guiding principles that athletes should apply to be consistent with the philosophy of each training system and therefore would need to make the system work:

Lydiard Principles
  1. Maximise aerobic capacity
  2. Develop your internal feedback mechanisms
  3. Balance workouts with recovery
  4. Sequentially develop energy systems
  5. Apply correct timing
In addition, Keith Livingstone, author of Healthy Intelligent Training, neatly summarises the purpose of the initial aerobic work for marathoners and shorter distance specialists respectively in “How Lydiard would approach marathon preparation”:
The purpose of base conditioning for a marathoner is to INCREASE HIS CAPACITY TO DO MORE AEROBIC VOLUME AT HIGHER SPEEDS, WITH FASTER RECOVERY, and INCREASE UTILIZATION OF FATTY ACIDS, while CONSERVING GLYCOGEN STORES. The ideal base conditioning of a marathon runner or a middle distance runner are identical for the first 8 weeks. The purpose of the aerobic base for the middle distance runner is to INCREASE HIS CAPACITY TO DO MORE ANAEROBIC VOLUME, LATER, WITH FASTER RECOVERY. – Keith Livingstone, How Lydiard would approach marathon preparation
Canova principles
Canova’s overarching principles are not as neatly summarised anywhere but using the interpretation from the widely distributed “Something new in training”, they could be summarised thus:
  1. The most important training is that which is conducted at the speed of the race you want to run. That is, your “specific training” matters most.
  2. All other training exists solely to support the specific training.
  3. Improvement comes from the supercompensation in response to a training stress—so as the athlete reaches higher levels of fitness, the training stress must be different and greater in magnitude

Those practiced at reading between the lines will notice that principle 3 in both sets of training principles are essentially the same. Canova insists on two days at easier paces after hard workouts. Lydiard prescribed 48 hours between hard workouts and to not attempt another until resting heart rate and muscle soreness was back to acceptable levels. Canova’s principle 1 and 2 are essentially encapsulated by Keith Livingstone’s summary of the purpose of the Lydiard aerobic phase. As we shall see, the main difference of opinion between the systems exists around what paces at and around the threshold should be utilised for best results. This difference is partly explained by the Lydiard system taking a slower approach to athlete development than the Canova system.

Another key principle of Canova’s is “modulation” or the belief that the body must be stressed over a range of paces regularly, a concept known from strength training (“muscle confusion”). While Lydiard spoke less directly of this aspect, there is no fundamental disagreement here as the traditional perception of the Lydiard aerobic phase as being “just long slow running” is incorrect, rather he always included a full mix of all aerobic paces from jogging to lactate threshold pace as well as fartleks and strides to maintain some leg speed and prepare the body for faster work ahead. All modern successful training systems have to be progressive and both Lydiard and Canova’s systems recognise this but this fine point can be missed quite easily if using a training programme “from the book” as it may not show the exact pace and duration increases applied to each athlete but may just list workouts and durations.

More principles can be skimmed through the lines to compare but since both coaches have a great track record we can safely assume that in general they agree on the basic principles of endurance training and we’ll expect to find the differences of opinion mainly in the specifics.

Before beginning training

The Lydiard system assumes you are dealing with a runner who can comfortably run for at least one hour before even beginning a classic Lydiard-style peaking build-up. For more experienced runners, Lydiard always assumed that his runners would have done cross-country or similar varied pace running over natural terrain in the months before beginning their training and thus they would never start the Lydiard programme in what he deemed “a plodding state”.  So to correctly represent the Lydiard system, you could add “cross-country” as a precursor phase for competitive athletes.

Next, it’s important to be aware that most of the information about Canova’s specific training programmes has to be gleaned from the schedules of world-class athletes. This exercise is similar to trying to deduce Lydiard’s system by reading Peter Snell’s training schedules and is an approach fraught with the risk of misinterpretation. This mistake was made (and still is) by many Lydiard-adherents, when they strictly adhere to 100-mile weeks when in reality this was inappropriate for a non-Olympic athlete. Lydiard solved this problem by prescribing time rather than distance and by setting certain minimum fitness criteria for entering his full programme. Today the guidelines of the Lydiard Foundation are that a runner should be able to run comfortably for at least one hour before moving on to the more traditional training schedules people would recognise as distinctly “Lydiard”.

The Canova system generally described online is defined as it was applied to world-class athletes, mainly Kenyans, and as Alberto Salazar pointed out during the Endurance Seminar after the World Half-Marathon championships in 2009, these runners are perhaps 15,000 miles ahead of the average Western runner by the age 18 (some use a more conservative figure). Either way, we need to run more and run earlier and expect our athletes to peak later. So for elite or near-elite athletes contemplating the Canova system it seems apparent that either you need to tone it down significantly or you need to first build up a similar aerobic base to that possessed by the Kenyan runners.


So, at the surface, it looks like we are looking at two systems with a lot of similarities and which disparities can largely be explained by 1) different objectives in terms of how quickly athletes need to be brought to world class level and 2) a different set of prerequisites for the athletes entering the training system. I will look at the implications of this further in the next instalment…

This was a rather long “warm-up” for the “main session” where I will try to pull back the curtains as much as possible on how the two systems approach each phase of training differently and how their aims may subsequently differ. In third and final part I will attempt to look at the long-term implications of undertaking each training schedule.

Coming up in instalment two: round-table discussion

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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.

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