Page 1: Lydiard and his system
Lydiard, Arthur Leslie
Runner and running coach
This biography, written by David Green, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
The gregarious, dogmatic, hyperactive running coach Arthur Leslie Lydiard is one of the few New Zealand sportsmen to have influenced millions of people around the world. His system of training produced record-breaking runners and stimulated the international growth of jogging for fitness and health.
The first surviving son of David Lydiard, a jeweller (later a builder), and his wife, Elsie Laura Welch, Arthur was born in Auckland on 6 July 1917. He attended Edendale primary, Kowhai intermediate and Mt Albert Grammar schools before leaving school to support the family after his father left. Working for a milking-machine manufacturer, the stocky teenager was soon breaking up pig-iron with a 26-pound sledgehammer. He biked to work, racing trams and fellow cyclists.
Work and rugby
After the foundry went bankrupt, Arthur began working at Bridgens’ shoe factory around 1934, and stayed there for 24 years. He joined the Lynndale Athletics Club, but his real enthusiasm at first was playing senior rugby for Eden Rugby Football Club. Rejected for active service in the Second World War because of a severe rugby injury, he joined the Home Guard. Arthur married Jean Doreen Young on 27 January 1940 at Auckland; they were to have four children.
Training and health
Like most contemporary athletes, Lydiard trained mainly by racing. He recalled that at the age of 27, an 8-kilometre jog with an older clubmate nearly killed him. Worried about his future health, he devoured books about exercise physiology and took the advice of the English coach F. A. M. Webster to train daily, alternating hard and easy efforts. He was soon going far beyond Webster’s schedules, running up to 402 kilometres a week. Lydiard discovered that even after running to exhaustion he could do lighter exercise on subsequent days. A week later he would be significantly stronger.
In the 1940s Lydiard continued to experiment to find the combination of distance, stamina-building and fast running that would produce top form. For distance runners, he settled on a conditioning period of several months, running 160 kilometres a week at a steady pace, including a long weekend run. ‘Arthur’s boys’, Lydiard’s growing group of trainees, did this on the notorious Waiatarua course, 35 kilometres over the Waitākere Ranges. Once the essential aerobic base had been laid, strength was developed over hills or sand dunes, and speed through repeated short fast runs. The key was the optimal balance of these components. The inspirational Lydiard soon acquired followers and realised he had become a coach.
After falling out with Lynndale’s administrators in 1950 Lydiard launched a harrier section for the nearby Ōwairaka Athletics Club. He claimed never to poach promising athletes – nor did he turn away anyone willing to follow his schedules, however limited their ability. He asserted that there was raw talent everywhere; only effective coaching was lacking. Lydiard was an instinctive psychologist who demanded unquestioning loyalty from his athletes. To some he was also a surrogate father. He often clashed with people, but was incapable of permanent enmity.