Monday, 13 December 2010

The all time best running coach

"Give me a hundred kids and I can give you an Olympic champion."

So said New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, once hailed by Runner's World as the "all time best running coach". At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, three Lydiard-coached runners (all of them "ordinary runners", according to Lydiard) won medals. One of these runners, Murray Halberg, hadn't been able to use his left arm since suffering a serious rugby injury as a youth. Halberg won gold in the 5000m. Peter Snell won gold in the 800m at Rome (and golds in the 800m and 1500m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964). Barry Magee won bronze in the Marathon at Rome.

Lydiard's training philosophy, radical at the time but later emulated by coaches around the world, involved building stamina and endurance in his athletes by having them run 160km a week regardless of their specialist distance. On top of this base training he added phases of specialized training to ensure his athletes were at the peak of readiness for major events like the Olympics.

In the late-1960s Lydiard moved to Finland where he sparked a renaissance in Finnish distance running. But his influence continued to be felt in New Zealand, where the great middle-distance runners of the 1970s, Rod Dixon, John Walker and Dick Quax, benefited from his training legacy.

Lydiard is also credited with sparking the jogging boom of the 1960s and 70s by encouraging people to run to stay fit. Prior to this, "fun runs" and mass-start marathons were non-existent. Marathons were the preserve of a special breed of athlete, "nut-cases," Lydiard called them.

A feature of the mass-start marathons of today is the presence of large numbers of older runners. Says Garth Gilmour in the foreword to Lydiard's Distance Training for Masters:
[T]he bulk of those huge fields have always been masters runners. Many began as keep-fit joggers who became so fit that the dormant instinct to compete and to reach for personal goals roared back into action. For people learning and succeeding to run well, it became a logical challenge to complete a 10-kilometres fun run or race, then a half-marathon and then that ultimate, a full marathon, to see how far and how fast they could go. The original intention, merely to run regularly for their health's sake, escalated into today's mass-start marathons all around the globe.

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