The Magic Of Numbers

For those of us who employ a “Lydiard” training policy there are a number of foundation principles. Arch Jelley summarised some of these in an email he sent to me recently. Here is part of what he said.

Building a Strong Aerobic Foundation before embarking on faster work is of the greatest importance.  This is one of Arthur Lydiard’s main contributions to our sport and to many other sports too.  Arthur defied contemporary thinking and his revolutionary ideas were vindicated when Snell and Halberg won gold in Rome in 1960.

The volume of aerobic conditioning required by each individual varies greatly. Not everyone can become a “100 mile” a week person. Even 50 miles per week may be too far for some. How far do you think Juantorena ran each week! Perhaps 80-90km at the most.  David Rudisha the 800m world record holder and Olympic champion runs more than 60 miles weekly during the winter – a very high milage for an 800m runner who runs 45secs for 400m.

I agree with Arch. One hundred miles a week is not the point. Building a strong aerobic foundation is the goal. David Rudisha does this at around 60 miles a week. Mo Farah does it at more than twice that number. I believe John Walker and Peter Snell did it in the 80 to 90 miles a week range. The important point is that Lydiard’s 100 was a good average at which certain physiological aerobic changes occurred; a strong aerobic foundation was created.

Coaches are not training runners to run one hundred miles in a week. They are training runners to build a strong aerobic foundation. That might take a “Rudisha” 60 miles or a “Farah” 120 miles. Lydiard’s point was that 100 miles was a good rule of thumb average.

When I wanted to apply Lydiard’s principles to swimming the first thing I had to do was understand what each phase of a Lydiard program was attempting to achieve. In the build-up the goal was to establish a strong aerobic base. That took around about 100 miles of firm running a week. But what did it take in swimming? I had no idea. Was it 20 kilometers a week? Was it 200 kilometers a week? Seriously, when I began coaching Toni Jeffs I had no idea and I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me.

At the start I thought it would be easy. It took a minute for a good swimmer to swim 100 meters and a good runner to run 400 meters so all I needed to do was divide all the running distances by four. One hundred miles running was the same as 25 miles (40 kilometers) swimming. So I got Toni Jeffs to do her first aerobic build-up swimming 40 kilometers a week. The problem was she wasn’t getting fit. 40 was clearly not enough. Over the course of about five years I experimented with a variety of different swimmers and different distances – searching for the formula that would cause the same “build-up” physical aerobic changes I had seen in runners, like Alison, happen in swimmers.

Eventually I settled on a number. What 100 miles a week was in running – 100 kilometers a week was in swimming. That formula has stood the test of time. As Arch Jelley reminds us that does not mean 100 kilometers a week is right for every swimmer. Swimming too has its David Rudishas. In fact I’m coaching one of them now – Eyad. 100 kilometers a week is too far for Eyad. The aerobic physical changes required are achieved best, in his case, at about 70 kilometers. Jane got her best aerobic results from about 90. Joe Skuba and Rhi Jeffrey were happy at 100. I’ve had one or two who thrived on 120 kilometers a week.

In all cases it was not their application, dedication or effort that caused the difference. It was only that the same physical changes take place in different swimmers at different distances. It was important to determine what was best for each swimmer. For example if I was to demand Eyad swim 100 kilometers a week because that’s the same a Lydiard’s 100 miles it would be a disaster. He would get run down, sick and tired. He would be training like mad and going nowhere. On the other hand if Joe Skuba had only done Eyad’s 60 or 70 kilometers aerobic build-up he would not have improved the way he did. He needed 100.

That’s an aspect of swimming squad training I do not like. Everyone gets in and does the squad’s formula sessions week after week, month after month. There is no way ten or twenty swimmers in a pool are all going to benefit equally from the same training distances. Whatever the squad is doing will be right for two or three of the swimmers but the rest should be doing less or more depending on their physiology; depending on whether they are David Rudisha or Mo Farah.

That principle was another reason I never felt the great Swimming New Zealand experiment with centralised training would work. I’ve heard SNZ CEOs and Chairman say a hundred times how fantastic it was to have New Zealand’s best swimmers competing against each other in training. That’s like saying David Rudisha and Mo Farrah would be better racing each other around the Waitakere Ranges. It might not do Mo Farrah any harm but David Rudisha is not going to be the world 800 meter record holder that way. When it comes to aerobic conditioning build-ups individual attention is vital.

Post Script – I know I said I would steer away from swimming politics but two items did cause me to smile yesterday.

  1. I received an email that said the Swimming New Zealand Constitution was about to be changed. The new draft rules for voting, I am told, are rumored to contain this delightful line

“Only regions that have been deemed ineligible to vote may vote.”

I think it may be time to call the Approachable Lawyer.

  1. Much fuss is being made about the decision to reduce the competitive nature of children’s sport. I agree with the initiative. It’s a good thing. However I had to smile when the CEO of Sport NZ, Peter Miskimmin, was all over Radio Sport on Tuesday promoting his new idea. What a bloody hypocrite. It was his policy of paying for competitive results that caused the problem in the first place. Those who were exploited most were only following Miskimmin’s financial lead. His policies caused the problem. Talk about the fox in the hen house.

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