What would Arthur Lydiard, the maker of champions, have thought of all these fads coming out? Naturalmovement, barefoot, natural movement drills? Surely, a master coach who turned New Zealand into the “Kenya of its day”, a serious practitioner of his craft, would have no time for such ideas when there was “serious” athletics training to be done.
Today, certainly many athletics coaches will scoff and dismiss such notions, and do the responsible thing and send their athletes into
the gym for strength and conditioning, send them to physiotherapists to have orthotics fitted, ensure they wear the best and most hi-tech footwear out there and get them straight to a surgical assessment for serious issues. They also know better than trying to meddle with their runners “natural gait” or waste time on “technique” when there’s interval sessions to be run. That’s serious training after all, not jumping around barefooted in a forest hugging trees.
Well, why don’t we look at what Arthur Lydiard really did have to say on the matter? Surely, the man who guided unknowns to Olympic gold, who defined the training philosophy of generations and has been lauded “Coach of the Century” by Runner’s World, is the sort of man the serious athletic community would listen to. So how did he dismiss these wild notions? Well, he didn’t quite…
Can anyone “just run” naturally
It might be seen as the “epitome” of being “old-school” that you don’t bother refining your running technique but instead just throw on your gear and “simply go for a run”. But even in Arthur’s day not everyone was a naturally gifted athlete (which really just means “good at moving and coping with the forces involved in movement”) and in “Running to the Top” he had the following to say:
Not everyone is a natural athlete, with natural coordination….How to run well has to be taught and practised….You need to know how to run properly and how to develop a technique which will direct all your effort into going forward comfortably and as economically as possible. – Running to the Top (1997)
Arthur did not elaborate in great detail about what he meant by training proper technique apart from his famous “lydiard hill drills” which partly served this purpose. But these arrived later in the training programme and he clearly understood that undertaking the full programme from the start required a minimum level of running technique. Apart from this he generally limited his writings on the topic to referencing the sprint drills of Bud Winters, whom he considered the best sprint coach of all times.
He also shared most of Percy Cerutty’s views on what good running form should look like and generally summarised it as: ”To get power, you have to avoid that running posture that we call sitting in a bucket. This you have to run tall and think running tall to keep your body straight.”
But they did not run barefoot!
In fact, most of Lydiard’s runners, including himself, had spend significant periods of their life running or walking bare foot but it is also true that they spend most of their serious training in running shoes. These shoes, however, bore little resemblance to the shoes of today.
In my early days, we ran in canvas shoes. They were ideally flexible and we just put some extra rubber on the soles. We didn’t get plantar fasciitis, we didn’t pronate or supinate, we might have lost a bit of skin from the rough canvas when we were running marathons but, generally speaking, we didn’t have foot problems. – Running to the Top
As a shoe-maker, Arthur had a firm understanding of what shoes would work well and advocated that the less shoes interfered with the natural movement of the feet, the better. Perhaps the modern barefoot technology shoes were reading “Running to the Top”, because well before “Born to Run” was published, Lydiard described the perfect shoe as “very flexible, little more than a second layer of skin, if that is possible” and “If you could just attach a rubber sole to your foot, with nothing on the top, you’d have the perfect running shoe”, invoking images of the Tarahumara* sandals.
*(As an interesting anecdote, Lydiard met the Tarahumara while coaching in Mexico, recognised their potential as marathoners and arranged a marathon trial. Unfortunately, the local officials arranged massive feed stations on the route and once the Tarahumara, used to frugal living, saw these feeds, that’s where they stopped.)
He maintained his view on what footwear was ideal until his death, stating in an interview with Run Washington in 2005: “We like flexible shoes, to let your foot function. Shoes that let your foot function like you’re barefoot – they’re the shoes for me, as long as they have some rubber underneath to alleviate the jarring.”
Arthur and “his boys” also did not run 100-mile weeks in this footwear on lovely forest tracks and grassy fields either. Lydiard always preferred his athletes to run on hard surfaces with good traction and even the famous “Waitakere long hill run” was mainly on tarmac and hard-packed trail. We don’t know if he preferred this because it is beneficial to technique or had other reasons. But as most running technique coaches today understand, running on hard surfaces improves your technique because you “can’t cheat” (try to run barefoot on tarmac and you’ll see this effect) whereas running in minimalist footwear or bare foot on grass allows you to adopt poor technique without any ill effects.
What did Lydiard think of modern running shoes?
He wasn’t impressed at all by the direction modern running footwear took, going by his earlier writings, and even in Running to the Top, which was written decades after the cushioned running shoes rose to prominence, Lydiard remained scathing in his assessment:
The point we are making is that paying several hundred dollars for the latest in hi-tech running shoes is no guarantee you’ll avoid any of these injuries and can even guarantee that you will suffer from them in one form or the other. – Running to the Top
He also knew, like most seasoned mountain runners have learned from experience, that an elevated heel on a shoe is more dangerous than protective. It is almost impossible to sprain an ankle in a shoe with no heel elevation and Lydiard warned runners against the instability caused by high-heeled running shoes. Interestingly, he also did not believe in constantly shifting between different types of footwear and rubbished the notion that racing flats were only for racing and heavier more protective footwear being required for training:
As far as I’m concerned you train and race in the same shoes and those shoes have got to be more like slipper than the hi-tech monsters they’re producing these days (Ed: this was 1997) – light , flexible mid-sole,plenty of resilient cushioning under the feet, allowing your foot to function as naturally as possible. – Running to the Top
He remained unconvinced by orthotics as well, pointing out that supination and pronation does not occur to any excessive degree in any foot that is not malformed when people run barefoot. On my last re-reading of “Running to the Top”, I nearly choked on my tea when I read his curt conclusion on orthotics: “In other words; the orthotics are for the shoes, not the feet.” I had come to this conclusion one day in my physio’s office on my own and had it reinforced when Tony Riddle told me in London: “when people come to work with me with orthotics, the first thing they have to do is throw them in a bin.”
What about the strength required to run well?
That relaxation is a key component of successful running has been understood for a long time among experienced athletics coaches and Lydiard talked about the importance of this regularly, a sentiment he shared with the great sprint coach Bud Winters. Perhaps no quote sums his views up better than this:
I have seen advertisements advising people to hold weights in their hands while they’re running. That’s crazy. People who carry weights are upsetting their relaxation and creating extra tensions which eventually must disrupt their forward momentum – and, I repeat, that’s what’s running is all about. – Running to the Top
Yet strength and conditioning coaching today tends to develop exactly the type of tension Lydiard warned against. Because of the effect resistance training can have on your muscles ability to relax, he stayed a vociferous opponent of most weight training, telling Japanese marathoners, upon arriving in Tokyo, and inspecting their gyms, to “throw those weights into Tokyo Bay and come run with me”. Today this statement is often put forward as misguided and narrow-minded. In reality, Lydiard understood that training for running, even cross-training, has to stay specific. Lydiard preferred the example of a man shovelling gravel from one pile to another and he was right – complex, natural movements can supply runners with the correct power and strength they need, whereas the artificial exercises seen in many gyms achieve quite the opposite.
But he always advocated a “push-off”, natural running requires a “pull” or “lift” off
Read any book on Lydiard, especially if read in chronological order, you will notice that his use of terminology and language changes as he learned more about why his methods worked. Lydiard was no scientist and Keith Livingstone, author of the modern Lydiard bible “Healthy Intelligent Training”, recently told me in a phone conversation “Arthur mangled physiological terms”. Truth was, he observed what worked with his athletes and tried to explain it in scientific terms later when physiologists and others told him why it worked.
So when reviewing Lydiard’s writing, it’s clear that he was, like Cerutty, first and foremost a naturalist. He interpreted what he could see with his own eyes and tried to communicate it to his runners. One detail of the running stride he considered critical was what he observed as a powerful “push-off”. In modern bio-mechanics we know that what appears like a “push” in a runner with good running technique, is just a “bounce off” (like a rubber ball striking the ground) using a combination of the body’s natural elastic properties and the runner pulling his leg off the ground (rather than pushing). This difference is neigh impossible to spot with the naked eye. So while Lydiard may have interpreted this detail wrong, he understood how important it was that runners retain the elastic properties of their legs and feet:
So we want to learn to run faster and we’re being fitted with shoes which won’t flex to help us to do that. They’ll flex at the joint of the foot all right but not at the arch, where flexing is a natural foot function. Put a board under each foot of an athlete and he couldn’t even walk properly, let alone run, but that’s very much how some of these running shoes affect the arches.
Lydiard was all about training energy systems, not technique, was he not?
Apart from understanding the need for runners retaining their natural “bounce”, Lydiard understood that constructing a running training programme is not purely about sequencing the training of energy systems, although this is the part of his training model that has become most famous. To him technique had to be in place first, for any sport, before you undertook specific training for the event:
Once the nature of the activity and the fundamentals of technique are achieved, we can add the endurance and strength to get the optimal results out of the athlete…. Correct technique applies to every event because, if you have any kind of fault in your technique or in the equipment you are using, for cycling or rowing, for instance, you cannot capitalise on your fitness, however good that is.. So seek out the best advice you can get on these matters or you could be wasting valuable potential. – Running to the Top
The development of cardiovascular fitness is where the Lydiard pyramid has proved singularly effective in creating superb physiological running machines and ensuring that the different energy systems are stimulated when they are most needed. The biggest impediment for modern runners fulfilling their potential, however, is injury. Something 50% of the modern running population suffer on a yearly basis. So we had to deal with the question “how can we reduce or eliminate injury”. Lydiard really provided the answer above and urged all running coaches to understand the mechanics of running. He actively used video-recording himself, once saying: “When I was conducting training camps in America, I could change runners’ form within a week. We used video tapes and in a week we’d have them running like Sebastian Coe. “
This notion that running is, first and foremost, a skill to be mastered is not new, take for example Percy Cerutty’s view on it in 1960:
If we view running as a skill, as I suggest, and not as a strength-producing exercise, we get nearer to the modern idea. This is even more readily seen when we think of the jumps, hurdles, field games – all skills, and the athlete’s success depends upon the degree of his skill and the rating of his power. – Percy Cerutty, Athletics – how to become a champion
A clear message rings out to today’s athletics coaches: at an age with portable video cameras the size of mobile phones, it’s time to become “techno-naturalists”, film our athletes, teach ourselves the basic mechanics of running and help our athletes, through observation and evaluation of footage, to perfect their technique.
Minimalist, barefoot, natural running – was it ever even something new?
So would Lydiard have considered barefoot running and the drive towards minimalist shoes, natural running technique training and barefoot technologies, a fad? Clearly he never saw it that way, and how could he when minimalist shoes and barefoot walking and running was common-place when he began running and still was when he made his fame as a coach. To him, undoubtedly, the explosion of particularly American running shoes with heavy cushioning, spear-headed by his old friend Bill Bowerman, must have appeared as “the fad”. He would have seen this “fad” last for 40 years and one can only wonder what he really thought to himself, in his late 80ies, when journalists would ask him about barefoot running like it was something new. To him it would have been something old, that most of the world had just forgotten about. Would it have surprised him? Probably not, because his theories on long steady running had been forgotten, misinterpreted or ignored by so many, so why not natural running technique? No idea is so successful or so common-sense that it cannot be ignored it seems. Perhaps like “periodisation” (sometimes proclaimed “dead”) or “long steady running” (why do it when you can “run less to run faster”), barefoot and natural running was never a fad. It was just one of those age-old ideas that people like to forget…