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, Kōwhai 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.
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.
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.
The highlight of Lydiard’s running career came when he was selected for the 1950 Auckland Empire Games marathon. He ran 13th, having not slept properly for months because of a sick child. Lydiard won the national marathon title in 1953 and 1955 before retiring from competition. In 1958, aged 40, he re-emerged to run second to one of his own trainees in the national championships. That year he became manager at his brother Wally’s shoe factory, where he developed stronger shoes for road running.
Lydiard’s fastest marathon was close to New Zealand’s best, but local distance runners lagged behind international standards until his coaching changed their approach. His first star was Murray Halberg, who started running as a teenager following a severe rugby injury. Halberg lacked speed, yet gained such strength from Lydiard’s training that he was the first New Zealander to break four minutes for the mile. From 1958 to 1962 he was virtually unbeatable between 2 miles and 5,000 metres, winning two Commonwealth titles and breaking two world records.
Lydiard’s greatest training triumphs came at the 1960 Rome Olympics. First the 800 metres was won by a near-unknown 21-year-old, Peter Snell; then Halberg won the 5,000 metres by sprinting with three laps to go. A few days later, Barry Magee came third in a world-best marathon. Lydiard was only in Rome thanks to public fundraising. New Zealand’s Olympic officials had refused to send a coach to avoid setting a costly precedent.
Lydiard came home a national hero and was made an OBE in 1962. As athletics was still an amateur sport, he supported himself by running a milk round and writing a newspaper column before being employed by the tobacco company Rothmans. This controversial arrangement at least kept him in New Zealand. Snell broke the world 800 metres, half-mile and mile records – on grass tracks – in one week in 1962, and overwhelmed his 800- and 1,500-metres opponents at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1963 another of Lydiard’s stable, Bill Baillie, broke the world records for the time to cover 20 kilometres and the distance run in one hour.
Athletes and coaches flocked to New Zealand to compete and to imbibe Lydiard’s growing understanding of the scientific basis for his regime. His uncompromising personality ensured that he was given no significant role in athletics administration. Lydiard instead inspired the founding of the Auckland Joggers’ Club. This began a movement for mass fitness, attracting men with heart problems, who unprecedentedly were encouraged to ‘run for their lives’.1 Jogging went global when it was taken up by the US coach Bill Bowerman. By the late 1970s, 1 million Americans were running road races, and by 2005, 8 million. Lydiard’s insight that distance running could benefit ordinary people was just as groundbreaking as his training methods.
By the time Murray Halberg, Peter Snell and John Davies (third in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 1,500 metres) retired, coaches like Arch Jelley were training the next generation on Lydiard lines. Lydiard sought a change of scene, going to Mexico in 1966 to prepare a squad for the 1968 Olympics. Soon offside with Mexican officials, he moved to Finland to lay the foundations for that country’s stunning distance-running successes at the 1972 Olympics. Here he met Eira Marita Lehtonen, the translator and former Olympic gymnast who was to become his second wife in 1977. He and Jean had separated around 1970.
Lydiard also coached in Denmark, Venezuela, Australia and Turkey before returning to New Zealand in 1972. He accepted a position with the construction company Winstones which also gave him time to mentor coaches and athletes. He coached New Zealand teams at the 1974 and 1990 Commonwealth Games, and continued to lecture frequently around the world.
At Eira’s instigation, Lydiard trained Auckland schoolgirls from the late 1970s, encouraging a boom in women’s running that rivalled that among men and brought New Zealand women almost equal success.
Lydiard’s training principles were applied to kayaking, swimming, and even horse racing: horse-trainer Ken Browne’s jumpers worked over hills to build stamina.
Lydiard’s success was partly due to his ability to train with his athletes, both assessing and motivating them. At 61 he could still break three hours for the marathon.
Eira died of cancer in 1984, aged 45, and on 20 September 1997 in Auckland Lydiard married Joelyne Gaye Van Der Togt, a runner 48 years his junior.
In his 80s and unable to run after suffering a stroke, Lydiard still exercised on a rowing machine. In 1990 he became a member of the Order of New Zealand and an inaugural member of the Sports Hall of Fame. American running experts called him the distance coach of the 20th century and the individual who had most influenced running in the second half of the century. He was made a life member of Athletics New Zealand in 2003.
Arthur Lydiard died of a heart attack in Houston, Texas, on 11 December 2004, aged 87, during a lecture tour. While his high-mileage theories have lost favour with coaches, distance running in the early 21st century was dominated by African athletes who effectively trained on Lydiard principles.