A Historical Case For Aerobic Development

The History Of Training Methods

In the 1960s, distance training was revolutionized by a coach from New Zealand named Arthur Lydiard. If you’re not familiar with Lydiard, he coached some of the fastest runners in the world during the 60s. His athletes dominated the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. Peter Snell, Lydiard’s star pupil, won three gold medals — two in the 800 meters and one in the 1500.

Lydiard’s training philosophy centered around first developing a huge aerobic base by running lots of miles, even for middle distance runners, combined with drills and strides (short, fast accelerations) to work on form and maintain speed. Lydiard is responsible for developing the concept we now call base training. Lydiard’s athletes (even Snell, who was a middle-distance specialist) ran over 100 miles per week and completed hilly, 35K long runs every weekend. Over time, Lydiard’s athletes developed huge aerobic engines, which is what allowed them to dominate distances from 800 meters through the marathon.

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As a result of Lydiard’s influence, high school coaches and athletes in the U.S. began to run a ton of miles. Lydiard’s high-mileage approach was “the secret sauce” of training and high school runners weren’t afraid to emulate their Olympic idols and log big miles. The results of this approach were astounding – 84 high school runners broke 9 minutes for the two mile.

Then, in the 1980s, training philosophy shifted. Olympic athletes like Sebastian Coe were running low mileage but including lots of intense, lung-busting intervals in their weekly schedules. In addition, coaches and athletes began looking at the science of training more closely. Researchers could accurately measure important markers like VO2 max and lactate threshold in the lab. And, because this was hard data, coaches were quick to act on it. Not surprisingly, when researchers assigned runners six weeks of lung-busting VO2max sessions compared to six weeks of steady base training, the results from interval training crushed the base training approach.

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Unfortunately, what science can’t easily measure is the effect of aerobic base building over the period of many months and even more importantly, years. In short, coaches and runners became short-sighted when it came to training. They preferred the quick, X-percent improvement in VO2max over the long and unquantifiable aerobic development. As such, American high school runners following this low mileage, high intensity training started to slow down en masse.

Luckily, in the late 1990s, the Kenyan dominance of the American road racing scene began. As coaches and researchers began to examine the training principles of these unbelievably fast Africans, they noticed that Kenyan athletes had HUGE aerobic bases. They were running up to 50-60 miles per week as children just so they could get to and from school! Long-term aerobic development was starting early, whether intentional or not.

For many coaches, this is where things began to click. Aerobic development is the most important training element for long-term success. High school coaches began instructing their runners to bump their weekly mileage and focus less on intense intervals. The result? A resurgence in American distance running, which started at the prep level, and has resulted in Americans making it back to the medal stand.

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