Distance runners who are actively engaged in their training have probably heard of Peter Snell and Arthur Lydiard. Peter Snell, the sixth best Olympic distance performer ever, won the 800m in an Olympic record in 1960, and then came back in 1964 to win the 800m (in another Olympic record) and 1500m. He also set world records for 800m and the mile in 1962.
Snell later went back to school and got a PhD in exercise physiology. He's spent part of his career conducting research that he believes confirms a scientific basis for Arthur Lydiard's high mileage approach for middle distance runners. You can learn more about Arthur Lydiard's approach from the link in his name above, but here's the basics:
- Middle distance runners need to train 100 miles per week (exactly 100 miles)
- Sunday runs are 22 miles and are hilly
- Training must involve periodization: base training, strength training, speed training, followed by tapering/fine-tuning through racing
Basically, Lydiard believed 800m and 1500m runners should train like marathoners with limited amounts of interval and sprint work. While Snell may believe that Lydiard "had it right", I tend to believe that there are no absolutes in terms of training programs. Lydiard's approach is just one of many that can make a runner the best in the world.
The article is more interesting to me because of some of the inferences Snell makes about training and success. For example, he says:
"I believe Lydiard had it right scientifically and I could argue that with anyone. A relatively small country had quite outstanding success, not just a couple of people but a fairly large number of individuals.
"It doesn't seem too much different from the success of the Kenyan runners does it? I like to think conditions in Kenya were what it was like in New Zealand 40 years ago.
"You didn't have too many avenues for achievement. If you weren't a rugby player, you weren't much at all."
Isn't it interesting that the best runners in the world are the least likely to attribute success to genetics? I've referred before to the lack of genetic explanation for East African runners' success, and I have to say I agree with Snell that national success in distance running is far more attributable to coaching and the variety of "avenues for achievement" available to potential athletes. The difference between New Zealanders today and those of 40 years ago isn't genetic, it's environmental.
And the difference between the US and Kenya today is the same. We aren't behind Kenya because of genetics. We're behind them because we don't choose to work as hard as them for as long as them. I think we're seeing that those individuals who do match their talent with the effort--Ryan Hall, Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenhein, Shalane Flanagan, Deena Kastor, Kara Goucher, Matt Tegenkamp--are beginning to achieve success at the world level.