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Arthur Lydiard

In the world of running, there are few names as revered as Arthur Lydiard. Widely considered one of the greatest coaches in history, Arthur’s unconventional training methods and unique approach to coaching forever changed the sport of distance running.

Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

“I am but the disciple. Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand is the prophet.”

Bill Bowerman, American track coach.

Born on 6 July 1917 in Auckland, New Zealand, Arthur spent his entire life in pursuit of athletic excellence and helped countless runners around the world achieve their goals.

Arthur’s love for running began when he was just a schoolboy, competing in cross country races, but it wasn’t until he was 29 years old that he began to take the sport seriously. Within a year, he had won his first national title in the one-mile race. He went on to win national titles in the two-mile, three-mile and six-mile events.

In 1950, aged 33, Arthur won the New Zealand national championship in the marathon, finishing the race in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes and 37 seconds. He placed 13th in the marathon at the 1950 Auckland Empire Games, having not slept properly for months due to a sick child. He won the national marathon title again in 1953 and 1955 before retiring. This would mark the beginning of his transition from a competitive runner to a coach. He managed Zenith Footwear in Penrose, where he began producing Arthur Lydiard running shoes. His brother Wally later managed the company before opening his own shoe factory in Avondale.

Arthur’s coaching career began in the mid-1950s, when he started training a group of runners in Auckland. The group featured some of New Zealand’s top athletes, including Laurie King, Ernie Haskell, Colin Lousich, and Tom Hutchinson. Along with Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, and Barry Magee, most would go on to represent New Zealand.

His basic model was a combination of aerobic and anaerobic running, as often as two or three times a day for weeks on end. His training programmes were devised and perfected over years of trial and error. Arthur demonstrated innovation and great foresight, and dynamic thinking tailored to the athlete – or challenge – in front of him.

“You need to find your own limits. Everyone wants to know how much, how fast. They want it on a piece of paper. Your conditions change every day.”

Arthur’s methods were unconventional at the time, emphasising long-distance running at a slow pace followed by high-intensity interval training. This approach, known as ‘periodisation’, allowed athletes to build up their base endurance capacity and then to work on speed and power.

It involved breaking a runner’s training into cycles, each with a specific goal. The first cycle focused on building endurance through long, slow runs. The second cycle focused on strength training, with runners working on hills and other challenging terrain. The third cycle focused on speed, with runners working on high-intensity interval training.

Arthur’s coaching style and training methods might have been controversial at first but – simple and hugely innovative – they quickly proved to be effective. The results spoke for themselves. His runners began to win races and set new records. In 1958, Murray Halberg became the first New Zealander to break the four-minute mile, and, for four years he was virtually unbeatable in races between two miles and 5,000 metres. The 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome saw all that hard work rewarded. Arthur’s athletes won two gold medals and one bronze. Peter Snell won the 800 metres, while Murray Halberg won the 5000 metres, and Barry Magee won a bronze medal in the marathon. Thanks to public fundraising, Arthur was there to see them win. At the time, New Zealand Olympic officials refused to send coaches along with their athletes. At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Peter Snell won the 800 metres and the 1500 metres – a rare double – and John Davies won bronze in the 1500.

Arthur’s success at the Olympics made him famous worldwide and he began to travel and lecture on his training methods. He wrote several books, including Running to the Top and Jogging with Lydiard, which both became bestsellers and helped popularise the sport of running.

Arthur was made an OBE in 1962 and became a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1990. American running experts named him the distance coach of the 20th century, and the individual who had most influenced running in the second half of the century.

Arthur’s impact on distance running cannot be overstated. His revolutionary periodisation approach has become the standard for elite runners. His training methods have been used by countless Olympic medallists the world over, including Lasse Virén, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, and Paula Radcliffe.

His core training principle – that cardiovascular training is good for anyone, no matter what kind of body they have – was a catalyst for jogging as a pastime and social activity, helping countless people to get moving and stay fit:

“People’s bodies are basically the same. Anaerobic and aerobic exercise affects all people the same way. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow they are, the running can give them endurance.”

Arthur continued to coach athletes and non-athletes throughout his life, even as his health began to decline. He remained passionate about the sport until his death in 2004, at the age of 87. He was posthumously inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

Arthur Lydiard’s legacy as a coach and athlete lives on today. He is widely regarded as the father of modern distance running, and his impact on the sport will be felt for generations to come.

One of the key reasons for Arthur’s success was his willingness to experiment with new training methods. At once an incomparable visionary and deeply pragmatic thinker, he was willing to question the status quo:

“If you want to be a successful runner, you have to consider everything. You have to take a long view and train on all aspects of development… through a systematic programme. It’s a lot of hard work for five, six or seven years. There’s no secret formula. There’s no shortcut to success.”

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Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.