Modifying the traditional training approaches

Coaches have habitually used a period of the season referred to as “ascending to full volume”, “pre-strength” or “leg-strength” and we should consider making this phase of training a mandatory part of our preparations for athletes who are not yet moving sufficiently well to be able to handle proper training loads for their ambitions. We should further refine this period of each build-up by ensuring it focuses first and foremost on developing correct posture for the movements required in the sport and then focus supplementary strength training and drills on mastering proper execution of each movement first and only then progressing to adding significant resistance to the movement to further stimulate strength gains. Above all, we must abandon the practice of generic isolated muscle exercises inherited from traditional personal trainers and body-building, a field that has contaminated the approach to strength training across a wide range of sport, and instead favour natural movements that are as specific as possible for running. As a coach and athlete you will notice the additional benefit that these exercises are much less tedious and much more enjoyable to carry out.
With the introduction of a period dedicated to functional strength training, a classical Lydiard training pyramid could be morphed as shown below:

The “new” functional strength phase ensures that each runner possesses the minimum required functional movement patterns to handle regular aerobic activity. Arthur Lydiard did not have to employ this stage because he operated in a very different environment with very different athletes. You only need to study the leg muscles and running style of the Oceanic athletes of the 50s and 60s (Snell, Halberg, Magee, Elliott, Landy, Cuthbert, Perry) to realise that Cerutty and Lydiard worked with entirely different material than most modern coaches have at their disposal, discounting the Kenyans and Ethiopians. These athletes came from much less sedentary backgrounds, often walked barefoot to school, ran in the flimsiest of foot-wear and their autobiographies generally describe both a very active childhood with plenty of exercise and continued physical activity around running into their twenties and thirties. When athletes like Snell and Halberg entered the traditional “Lydiard pyramid”, they brought with them a much more complete skill set in terms of movement than the modern athlete and generally had further strengthened this by running long cross-country sessions and races during the winter season, often barefoot, and this at a time where no cross-country events were held on the lamentable glorified golf-courses and level parkland often seen today.

So today our first job as athletics coaches, or our first responsibility as self-coached athletes, is to ensure the necessary functional movement is present to handle roughly 8-11 hours of steady aerobic running at various paces for at least 6 to 10 weeks, longer for the aerobically underdeveloped, before beginning training as normal. After this point, the functional movement training should not be neglected, but rather dosed down to a sufficient level to maintain the benefits gained and to protect the athlete from “tensing up” or “losing good form” as the training load mounts up. Standardised reliable tests such as the “Functional Movement Screen” should be employed regularly to ensure the athlete is not regressing or building up new muscular tension from excessive training load and stress. In a more simplified form, teaching runners a few simple natural movements such as the well-known “third world squat”, can help teach them how to watch out for danger signals day by day. In my own daily routing, performing the third world squat and a few other key drills specific to my main problems, allows me to easily see when certain muscles are getting too tight or other factors are beginning to impair the normal movement patterns of my body. These “corruptions” will very soon begin to impact running, and lead to injury, if left unattended by the athlete or the coach. A particularly appealing feature of this approach is that it shifts responsibility for injury management back to the individual who stops being a victim of injury and rather regains control of their own health and proper function. Timothy Noakes, author of Lore of Running, asked us all to accept that “injuries are not an act of God”, but rather we are responsible for them, even if out of ignorance. This approach aids athletes in accepting this mantle of responsibility and providing the empowerment necessary to act on it.

The dangers of hill sprints

An important note of caution has to accompany the introduction of the functional strength phase of training: it is meant to bear no relationship to the use of the explosive hill sprints used by coaches such as De Rosa in training Kenyan athletes, prior to them beginning their aerobic phase. The use of alactic hill sprints has become a popular practice in recent years, an unfortunate development because Western athletes rarely possess the running form and physical ability to carry them out correctly. These athletes are, in essence, repeating the same mistake as the novice body-builder who walks into the gym and attempts a 300 lbs. dead lift exercise without proper instruction and conditioning only to suffer a badly mangled back as a result. Without having first mastered proper function, runners will strain unnecessarily against the hill and ingrain a very tense and wasteful running pattern. Even worse, they will injure themselves by subjecting the body to greater forces than it can safely handle or inflict undue anaerobic stress at a time of the season where building an aerobic foundation consistently day-to-day should be the focus.

For a telling example of how poor running form and excessive tension manifests itself during hill sprints, I recommend readers review this video. “But it works for the Kenyans,” is a riposte we should expect to encounter and so it does, for good reason. Kenyans generally possess close to perfect posture, ten years or more of consistent aerobic development and running economy, and have mastered the skill of running to a degree which allows them to execute fast hill sprints without excessive tension. Rewind in time and look at the pictures showing Cerutty and Elliott running up sand dunes and you find a similar approach to the “Kenyan hill sprints”; Cerutty described the work as “natural and pleasant, although most exhausting”, almost the antithesis of hill sprints as practiced widely in North America and Europe today. When introducing Cerutty’s dune sessions to modern athletes I noticed that many do not possess the correct posture, muscular range of movement or flexibility in feet or lower legs to do the workout without over-straining themselves. So if we consider the dunes or our uphill sprints our 300 lbs. barbell, it is time to remove your athletes from such an instrument and first teach them how to correctly lift the empty barbell and then progress from there. Functional strength training and easy striding are the first natural steps to utilise in the early phases of training. The Lydiard hill circuits can then be introduced later in the training schedule, as a safer training method than hill sprints, because the movements are slower and more deliberate yet still allow runners to attain all the same benefits in terms of strength gains and neuro-muscular recruitment, they would otherwise aim to gain from hill sprints.

Distance running coaching should look to the wisdom of Bud Winters, and his timeless book “So you want to be a sprinter”, for inspiration on how to develop fine speed and strength. You may expect to find a regime of hard resistance sprints but in reality, Winters, whose thoughts are still used by most leading sprint coaches today, prescribes easy striding on the flat with focus on relaxation extensively throughout his schedules, particularly in the early stages. He notes the risks of activity that causes sprinters to develop tight and tense muscles, exactly one of the effects you will observe when watching runners relying heavily on hard hill sprints with improper running form or excessive use of moderate-intensity hill running. Next time you attend a race, watch out for how many runners look tense and tortured when under pressure late in the race.

Regular students of Lydiard will notice that I have re-labelled the traditional “hill phase” as “dynamic strength” in the pyramid above to more clearly illustrate how it relates to the earlier phase of “functional strength”. “Power” or “explosive strength” may have been equally appropriate labels for even during the earlier functional strength phase, dynamic movements would be a key part. What sets Lydiard’s traditional hill phase apart from functional strength training is the level of resistance the body has to cope while running uphill. The hill phase, as described by Lydiard, does not have to change with the addition of a functional strength phase earlier in the training schedule, but rather forms a natural extension of it. Once you have mastered proper movement patterns, you can more safely throw yourself at the much more explosive, and thus riskier, movements involved in the Lydiard hill circuit especially the bounding and springing drills which require great control and technique. Indeed, should you find yourself in Denmark or similar places devoid of any notable gradients, you could simply adopt a much more strenuous and explosive version of the drills you put in place during the functional strength phase and conduct them at this stage and harvest most of the benefits of having a suitable “hill circuit” available to you.

Moving from defensive to offensive injury management

I have felt a certain “defeatist” attitude to injuries among the ranks of runners and coaches I have encountered in my running life, a sense that injuries are inevitable especially if undertaking Lydiard-inspired training and regular high-mileage running. The miles logged immediately get blamed, rather than the incorrect execution of them, or the impatience with which the workload is being approached. Perhaps this is the explanation on the current focus on “less is more” popularised recently, and the many athletes settling into a rhythm of doing few or no long runs, especially mid-week, and training only 3-5 times per week all the while relying on a mixture of anaerobic track intervals, tempos and long runs year round with the anaerobic work often done when it is inappropriate for the athlete’s aerobic ability. It is time to set aside the defeatism and realise that if we can but restore our athletes as close to their natural movement patterns as possible and then gradually accustom them to high aerobic mileage, using simple controls such as those advocated by Dr. Phil Maffetone, we develop athletes with better health and few or no serious injuries who will gain the ability, within a reasonably time-frame, to run at very fast paces, 6:30 minute/miling or faster, at low aerobic heart rates and then, and once again, only then, progress them to truly impressive faster workouts.

While the congested nature of the modern racing calendar may mean that many runners cannot set aside as much time as they ideally should for this predominantly aerobic work, they should always return to it during whatever breaks the local season affords and should regularly track not just their functional movement quality, as described earlier, but the state of their aerobic fitness using methods such as the “Max Aerobic Function” test invented by Dr. Maffetone and used so successfully by notable athletes like Mark Allen. It may be argued that common-sense should suffice but in my experience the prevalence of this virtue is overestimated, for runners are an obsessive breed and rarely the best guides of their own limitations. The sensible athlete and coach therefore puts in place unbiased controls to monitor deterioration of physical function whether it be health-based, functional or aerobic. For the self-coached athlete in particular, the onus is on learning and experimentation, whilst taking responsibility for their own injury rates. Cerutty memorably noted high intelligence as a hallmark of athletic champions and there is a strong lesson for us to gather from it today: we can no longer “simply go out and run” and expect not to get hurt, in many cases, as the injury statistics so painfully bear out. Similarly we should listen to Cerutty and recognise “the impostor, the mountebank: the charlatan” or in modern terms those who will lead you to believe that you were not “meant to run”, “should find a different sport”, “should run less“, “are getting old”, “should take anti-inflammatories and rest two weeks”, “am in need corrective footwear” and other pieces of advice borne out of a lack of knowledge on part of the practitioner, therapist or coach on how to address the root of the problem. The answer in such cases is simple find another coach, find another doctor or find another therapist!


In the second installment, I will attempt to bring the discussion a step further down from this theoretical framework and showcase how exactly a functional strength program should be implemented in a classical Lydiard-inspired periodisation program and what type of drills and exercises truly constitute “running specific” movement patterns.

Contributed by ChampionsEverywhere Coach René Borg

Comments are closed.