Follow Up Post: “It Won’t Work For Swimming”

Last week Swimwatch got the following edited message in response to Jane’s article on the Arthur Lydiard she knew. Following the message is an article by David on the work he did with Arthur on this subject.

Did you ever meet Lydiard in person and discuss the running to swimming transition in his system? As an amateur triathlete and former swimmer I am constantly intrigued by the swimming to running ratio (4:1) and the swimming to cycling to running ratio(cycling being so complicated by the use of various bikes of various capabilities).

As far as transitioning Lydiard’s system to swimming, have you done any studies in overall aerobic, cardiovascular and muscular output of runners to swimmers? How do those possible results affect your transitioning Lydiard to swimming? Can a 24 week Lydiard system be properly transitioned to a possible 12-16 week swim season?

The running/swimming connection intrigues me.”


At least that’s what Brett Naylor, New Zealand’s ex-national coach told me. He was referring to the work I was doing to convert Arthur Lydiard’s running training to the sport of swimming. I am delighted to report, Naylor was wrong. It is equally providential that Arthur lived long enough to see Naylor eat humble pie. At that time, I only coached three swimmers using Lydiard’s evolving system. All three ended up national record holders, national champions and national representatives. All three also had international medals in their resumes.

Just before Arthur died he published his biography, “Arthur Lydiard – Master Coach”. Chapter 27, “the Wright way to swim” reports on the work Arthur and I did over the previous eight years to apply his methods to swimming.

Most people know that a Lydiard season is divided into three phases, the build up aerobic period, the anaerobic period and the trials and co-ordination racing period. These occupy 10, 4 and 10 weeks respectively. Most people assume that a ratio of 4:1 applies to the conversion of running to swimming. They do this because it takes a minute to run 400m and swim 100m, therefore 4:1. On that basis Lydiard’s build up weekly distance of 100 miles has to be 25 miles; 42 kilometers.

While all that may be logical and is where Arthur and I started, it is also wrong. You see training isn’t about distance or speed; it’s really about achieving identifiable physiological changes. Running 100 miles per week works because it causes certain aerobic changes to occur in the body. What swimming distance causes the same changes? The answer is between 90 and 100 kilometers. Aerobic conditioning works because it improves the body’s ability to swim fast aerobically. It does this by improving the cardio-vascular system in all sorts of ways. Most important it increases the density and number of capillaries. Quite simply our work shows these changes take longer swimming than they do running. My wife, Alison who ran for Great Britain and was ranked 7th in the world, used to run 100 miles a week in about 90 minutes training a day. It took Jane Copland, Nichola Chellingworth and Toni Jeffs about four hours a day to swim 100 kilometers a week, in order to achieve the same physiological result.

Changing Arthur’s anaerobic conditioning period to swimming was even more complex and resulted in the mess I made of Toni’s preparation for the Barcelona Olympic Games. The key to Arthur’s anaerobic period was three session each week of 30 minutes of fast running. He had determined this produced the anaerobic changes required to race well. How long was this in a pool? Was it the same ratio as the build up; three sessions a week of one and a half hours of fast swimming? That’s what I got Toni to do before Barcelona; an experiment that proved that wasn’t right. It was Arthur who said he thought that anaerobic physiological changes would take about the same time whether it was running or swimming. So we went to 30 minutes and it worked. Thirty minutes swimming is 25 to 30 x 100s or 12 x 200s, that sort of thing; done three times per week for four weeks.

Lydiard’s trials and co-ordination 10 weeks converts to swimming very easily. The table below shows the standard formula followed by Arthur and applied successfully to swimming.






Short sprints to start the week



Fast and easy repetitions



Over or under race distance



Fast and easy repetitions



Easy swim



Race distance



Easy swim and stroke correction

The key to this period in a Lydiard running and swimming program is the controlled use of time trials to bring athletes to a managed peak at the right time. Gone is the “train like hell and stop” old fashioned taper. Track athletes gave all that away a long time ago. During this 10 week period each athlete does 20 days of time trials or racing. As Arthur said, “If you can’t get something right when you’ve practiced it 20 times you really should find something else to do.”

You will also notice Lydiard trains seven days a week; something the world’s best runners have been doing for forty years. Another Lydiard quote, “If you miss one day each week, that’s 52 days a year. How do you expect to beat someone who trains a month and a half more than you every year?” I agree.

The added sophistication of track training in large part explains why track has progressed more as a sport than swimming. The nation that realizes this and develops swimmers training in the way track has done will steal a march on the swimming world, just as the USA and Australia did when they discovered the old fashioned interval training methods still used by many coaches today.

There are however a number of influences that militate against the adoption of a Lydiard program in swimming.

  1. The program does not fit easily into the USA’s 12 to 16 week season. Short change a Lydiard program and you short change the result. I have found this difficult. At this stage I believe the solution is to hold to the program and prepare for two out of every three USA seasons. I think that’s what Lydiard would do.

  1. In the USA the fanatical need for instant results will not be satisfied using a Lydiard program. Lydiard did not invent the fastest way to run fast. He invented the best way to run fast. International results take time; a minimum of four years or eight 26 week seasons. Many USA parents are not prepared to wait that long. Some think one year is a fair trial. That’s why they gallop from club to club searching for their personal training Shangri-La. They want a fast food Wendy’s training service and usually that’s what they get.

  1. Early morning school starts make it difficult to reach 90 to 100 kilometers swimming in a week. Rhi Jeffrey is currently swimming that far, but no one else on my team has managed to get close to averaging that distance over the build up weeks. Jane, Toni and Nichola managed to swim 1000 kilometers in ten weeks, many times. Jane and Nichola’s school only started at 9.00am and even then, they had an understanding Principal.

I miss Lydiard. Besides staying at his home and talking endlessly about training, it was reassuring to be able to call and ask his advice. I guess we spoke on the phone three times a week for eight years. Almost every day I still ask, “What would Lydiard do?”

Postscript: Many thanks to Gordon Andrews for submitting the questions that prompted this post.