Lydiard Training and Fell Running

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Arthur Lydiard pioneered the importance of aerobic training to maximise endurance performance and all contemporary training philosophies have their foundations in the Lydiard approach in one way or another. His methods are based on a strong endurance base and periodisation to peak at the right time.

Lydiard believed developing the body to run at a 'tireless state' was the most effective and sustainable way to achieve outcomes at races. This was done through an extended emphasis on being able to run as many miles as possible at best aerobic pace. This is an appropriate pace to progress condition, without putting the body into a state of 'breakdown'. It is a pace that varies everyday depending on how the athlete is responding and allows for consistency. Therefore, a 'feeling based approach' to training is key. The athlete must become tuned in to their feedback mechanisms, to decide what is appropriate on any given day.

His philosophy of training can be utilised to make for effective and enjoyable training for the aspiring high performance fell runner. His approach aligns with the culture and ethos of fell running. This is a brief summary of the main aspects of the Lydiard's approach to training that can be applied to the fell runner:


1) Aerobic Conditioning as the Foundation

Lydiard recognised aerobic development as being of prime importance to athletic performance and the foundation of all event specific training. Lydiard advocated three long runs a week of varying distance, terrain and intensity at the aerobic level during the build phase. He believed that the long run is the run that works best.

Practically speaking, building up to a strong weekly 2.5hrs in the hills on a challenging but runnable route will pay dividends in the long run. This big aerobic stimulus is a time and tested way to develop what Barry Magee coined “strength-speed” - the ability to access all of one’s reserves at the business end of a race; an ability that can be achieved by those willing to put the work in. Take easy aerobic recovery days after and absorb the stimulus. Remember, stress + rest = adaptation.

Long runs the Lydiard way match the ethos of fell running. They allow you to enjoy nature and explore more of the hills; they encourage an ability to listen to the body and therefore not rely on the GPS watch; they allow stronger aerobic efforts which may naturally come from hilly terrain. Lydiard created the infamous Waiatarua hill circuit in Auckland for his athletes including Peter Snell. This weekly long run around the New Zealand mountains was around 35km with 350m ascent. Times improved naturally as aerobic strength was developed.

Therefore, devising a fell specific route that takes 2-2.5 hours at best aerobic pace would be effective way to monitor aerobic development over time; this could be a runnable route or may include more climbing with a lot of elevation. For example, if targeting the Yorkshire Three Peaks, a route with a long runnable climb with plenty of fast running interspersed with steep climbs would be a great version of the Waiatarua circuit. Be creative and stick to the principles of varying aerobic efforts and listen to your body for feedback. Adapt and absorb.

Photo: getting in the miles on a mix of terrain is extremely enjoyable.

2) Response regulated Adaption

Any training programme should not be controlled by pre-determined values but rather by how your body is responding to the training and adjusted accordingly. Focus on principles and not formulas. One of the benefits of the buildup phase is that these longer aerobic runs allow you to safely build a rapport with your body. Being able to precisely gauge one’s effort over time is an ability that is the hallmark of all great athletes. They can run the razor’s edge, knowing how to pitch their effort and energy to extract the best from their bodies on any given day.

They adapt their training in order to adapt rather than sticking to a rigid training plan and arbitrary mileage goals. They know intrinsically that adaptation = stress + rest. They know to listen to their body and adapt their training to absorb the work put in.

3) Feeling Based Training

Lydiard was always a proponent of learning to run by feel, believing that the mind-body connection is the best feedback system there is. This has become counterintuitive to many runners who are too reliant on gps watches for feedback such as running pace, heart rate etc. Of course, these metrics have their place. But to truly enjoy running and run free I would encourage the fell runner to learn to adopt a feeling based approach.

This is can be done via putting the GPS watch in the bumbag or a pocket and running with either no watch or a simple Casio stopwatch which only displays the duration of the run. Runners of the golden era of fell running in the late 1970s/early 1980s were doing runs with only a simple watch, although by necessity. Arguably, they developed a better mind-body connection.

Runners must listen to their body and adjust their effort levels to prevent over or undertraining at any one time. During this period of training, he suggests running large amounts of mileage at varying aerobic speeds, effort, and courses. I have found this to be a very freeing way of training, especially during the long run. I love sport science and metrics such as heart rate zones and am a proponent of polarised training and Stephen Seiler‘s research. But feeling based training makes sense to me for the large majority of my training rather than looking at the watch for splits, heart rate etc. It is important to have a genuine rapport with the body and know when to go easier or harder. It is also a more enjoyable way to train seeing as the majority of work is aerobic.

4) Sequential Development

In Lydiard training, one development comes after another; from the lower intensity and the higher volume of general conditioning to the higher intensity and lower volume of specific event skills. Each development has to be placed in the correct phase in order to obtain the best results. After months of base training, hills are then introduced before anaerobic training and sharpening.

From a perspective of a fell runner, this could be focusing on cross country and road running in the winter and then fell running in the summer. It could be doing a Lydiard base phase in winter (still doing strides, hill sprints etc. for neuromuscular benefits) then peaking for key fell and mountain races in summer.

Importantly, Lydiard emphasised that there only needs to be a maximum of four weeks anaerobic work to maximise this capacity. He recognised that any more causes a decrease in aerobic enzymes and leads to increased mental stress, poor sleep, and burnout. Lydiard advocates that if ever in doubt, go easy and go aerobic.

5) Peaking

In competition, timing is everything from the Lydiard perspective. As the saying goes, it’s not the best athlete that wins the championships, but the best prepared. The ability to peak is dependent on being able to harness and coordinate the various rhythms of adaptions towards your goal. This requires an effective sharpending period, assuming that a substantial amount of work has been done in order to require an extensive tapering period. If targeting one major race such as Three Peaks, then peaking may allow execution of the best run of the year. However, the notion of peaking for a fell runner is complex because the fell racing season is approximately six months long with championship races spread throughout with different lengths, amounts of climbing and terrains.

For higher level competitors these races need to be rationed carefully to allow more time to prepare for target races. During the racing season peaking for target and / or championship races can be achieved by taking a couple of weeks out from racing to enable focus on specific aspects of the race ahead. This will most likely include a recce of the course and some targeted training sessions. During the season a weekly long run must be maintained in order to maintain the aerobic base and a period dedicated to pure aerobic training may be needed in season to counter extended stresses placed through races and hard sessions.

Concluding thoughts:

In conclusion, it is important to remember that you can love an idea or a training concept. However, it’s important not to be married to it because this limits objective or creative thinking. I love the concept of Lydiard training and incorporate a lot of it in my training philosophy. However, individuals have different requirements and alterations to individual needs are essential.

But no matter what, I would encourage anyone to run free, listen to their body and get the miles in on the hills. Treat the Lydiard philosophy as an approach and not a prescription and you won’t go far wrong.

Above photo: Finishing 1st in the 19 mile / 30.5 km and  4,450'/ 1357m Stretton Skyline Fell Race in Shropshire in 2019 in 2:25.12. To improve in this type of race, I believe specific long runs at best aerobic pace are key.