Lauded as one of the top 20 New Zealanders of the last century by the New Zealand Herald and the Greatest Coach of the 20th Century by Runner’s World - no individual in the history of New Zealand athletics boasts quite the same far-reaching legacy as Arthur Leslie Lydiard.
A coaching revolutionary who transformed the training template of distance running success, he guided Sir Murray Halberg and Sir Peter Snell to a total of four Olympic gold medals during a glittering era of success for New Zealand before his principles acted as the guiding light for New Zealand’s next wave of Olympic medallists in the 1970s.
Yet Lydiard’s methodology was far wider in scope than the coaching of elite athletes, and even today millions of recreational runners from all corners of the planet adopt his training principles in pursuit of their own individual goals.
Born in Auckland in 1917, Arthur was educated at Mt Albert Grammar School and later trained as a shoemaker. A keen schoolboy rugby player and boxer he had dabbled in athletics at school. However, after a friend, Jack Dolan, persuaded Lydiard to go for a five-mile run as a 27-year-old the experience acted as a high wake-up call.
“My pulse rate rose rapidly,” he said in his book Jogging with Lydiard. “I blew hard and gasped for air. My lungs and throat felt like that I had been scorched. My legs felt like rubber. My whole body felt the effects of the run and the effort expended to get me to the end of it.”
Concerned at his lack of fitness, he vowed never to feel that way again and he started running more regularly. Intrigued at the prospect of building fitness by running long distances at a steady speed he rapidly added the miles to his weekly training diet.
Often thrashing himself on his marathon-type training he would run up to distances of 50km and across a nine-year period he churned out almost 50,000km in total.
Initially a member of the Lynndale Athletics and Harrier Club in West Auckland, his pioneering training methods were out of step with the coaching philosophies of the time which focused on athlete’s running high speed interval training sessions as adopted by Sir Roger Bannister – the first man to break four minutes for the mile.
However, acting as a human guinea pig he discovered that a weekly mileage of around 100 miles (160km) a week was the sweet spot without feeling stale. This high mileage philosophy would provide the conditioning and the speed work under his periodisation model could be added later.
As an athlete operating under such a regime he started to make his mark on the national stage. In 1953 and 1955 he secured national marathon titles and ran his marathon PB of 2:37:55 for second behind Ray Puckett at the 1958 Auckland Championships.
He also competed for New Zealand at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland. The race from Eden Park to South Auckland was run in torrential rain and high humidity with Lydiard placing a disappointing 12th in 2:52:51.
His journey into coaching began accidentally. A group of young enthusiastic athletes out of the Owairaka Club – whom Lydiard had now joined after leaving Lynndale following a difference of opinion – became eager to learn more of Arthur’s methods.
Among this group were Murray Halberg, Ray Puckett, Jeff Julian, Barry Magee, Bill Baillie and Peter Snell with the addition of John Davies who travelled up from Tokoroa – who were to go on to dominate not only domestically but make a long-lasting imprint on the global athletics scene.
Adopting the Lydiard methodology, the group religiously trained 100 miles per week and were pushed to the extreme. Carrying out the LSD (long, slow distance) approach as the foundation and with speed introduced later his athletes were prepared like thoroughbred race horses and conditioned to perfection.
The legendary 21.9-mile or 35.3km Waiatarua training loop, which began from Lydiard’s Mt Roskill home at 5 Wainwright Avenue out to the Waitakere Ranges and back, became a weekly ritual – which gradually built the necessary endurance and stamina to take on the world’s best.
“Arthur’s Boys” - as they were known - quickly made their mark to dominate the New Zealand scene on the track, road and cross country before later emerging globally.
Halberg was his first star pupil. The Aucklander had placed a disappointing 11th in the 1500m at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but Arthur saw far greater potential for his charge in the longer distances. By the time of the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff he had stepped up to the three-mile distance, and it was in the Welsh capital where he served notice of his world-class ability by destroying the opposition to strike gold with a long and sustained run for home over the final three laps.
In the meantime, Arthur had started coaching a raw, barrel-chested middle-distance runner from his former school Mt Albert Grammar called Peter Snell.
After just missing out on qualification for the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Peter made a huge breakthrough in the 1958-59 summer season when defeating Murray in a 2000m exhibition race.
Despite a world ranking of 26th Peter was selected to compete in the 800m at the Rome Olympics with Murray slated to take his place on the start line for the 5000m.
However, Lydiard’s growing success did not meet with universal approval. Treated as an outsider by the national athletics governing body, who feared both his revolutionary training methods and domineering nature, they refused to accept him as part of the official team for the Rome Olympics.
A public appeal was launched, the money was quickly raised and Arthur attended the 1960 Olympics – albeit as an independent, unofficial coach.
With the men’s 800m final and men’s 5000m scheduled for the same session, Peter and Murray provide one of the finest hours in the history of New Zealand sport, as his two athletes secured gold in their respective events.
Peter defied his low pre-event ranking to defeat Roger Moens of Belgium, the pre-race favourite, by just 0.07 in a compelling final of the men’s 800m.
Then less than an hour later, and repeating his tactics in Cardiff, Murray surged to the front with three laps remaining of the men’s 5000m. Opening up a sizeable gap, he held on to clinch victory.
To add further sheen to Arthur’s rising coaching standing, he also coached New Zealand’s other track and field medallist in Rome, Barry Magee, who won marathon bronze.
Following his sensational results in Rome, Arthur and his coaching methodology could no longer be ignored and overnight he assumed the position as the world’s leading athletics coach. He continued to maintain a huge success rate on the international stage led by Snell, who during an unparalleled career of success set seven individual world records in distances from 800m to the mile as well as featuring in New Zealand’s 4 x one mile world record in Dublin 1961.
Peter’s finest hour came at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the then 25-year-old decimated the opposition to become the first man in 44 years to complete the 800m and 1500m double at the Olympic Games. To add further gloss to Arthur’s dazzling record, Kiwi John Davies took the bronze medal behind Peter over the metric mile.
Appointed an OBE in the 1962 New Year’s Honours list and despite his tsunami of success, he still never felt fully embraced by the New Zealand athletics authorities, and it was little surprise his talents were recruited overseas.
In 1966 he was appointed national coach for Mexico he helped guide Juan Martinez to fourth in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
The second golden period of Lydiard success came after taking up the role as Finnish national distance running coach. With a brief to “coach the coaches” the Finnish trainers lapped up the Lydiard philosophy and went on to enjoy overwhelming success at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
Inside the state-of-the-art Olympic Stadium, Finn Lasse Viren completed the 5000m and 10,000m double – achieving gold in the latter event in a world record time despite falling mid-race.
Meanwhile, his countryman Pekka Vasala who also followed Lydiard’s teachings, struck gold in the 1500m. Such was the Kiwi’s standing in the Scandinavian country, he was later awarded the White Cross (the equivalent of a knighthood) by the Finns.
He also served as distance running coach in Venezuela and Denmark while Japan also enjoyed a period of success working under the Lydiard model. Sending a delegation of athletes and coaches to New Zealand in 1963 – the following year Kokichi Tsuburaya won bronze in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. And four years later at the Mexico City Olympics, Kenji Kimihara took silver in the 42.2km event.
Lydiard’s influence continued to shine over New Zealand athletics for the following generation and Olympic and Commonwealth medallists; Rod Dixon, John Walker, Dick Quax and Dick Tayler were either coached by Lydiard or influenced by his coaching methods during another golden age of Kiwi distance running.
Besides his trailblazing accomplishments as an elite coach, Lydiard is also known as “The Father of Jogging.” In the USA, he came into contact with Bill Bowerman, the legendary Oregon-based coach and Nike co-founder. Inspired by meeting Arthur, he updated his training methods and launched the American jogging movement off the back of Lydiard principles ensuring his legacy remains today.
The IAAF (now known as World Athletics) invited the charismatic Arthur to seminars around the world to talk about his training methods.
Made the country’s 17th appointee to the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest civil honour in 1990 – 13 years later he was made a life member of Athletics New Zealand. In 2019 he was posthumously awarded a World Athletics (formerly IAAF) Heritage Plaque in the Legend category.
It was while on a lecture tour in the US in 2004, Arthur died of a heart attack in Texas.
The Lydiard Foundation lives on his name led by Lydiard disciples – Lorraine Moller, New Zealand’s 1992 Olympic marathon bronze medallist, and Nobby Hashizume - to promote the coach’s training philosophy.
It is also fitting that 85-year-old coach Barry Magee, the man Lydiard guided to Olympic marathon bronze, still preaches the Lydiard principles to the many athletes he guides all around the world.
Yet perhaps the final word should go to Garth Gilmour, who wrote the book Master Coach on Lydiard’s life.
“Thanks to him, men and women all over the world have gone on to achieve performances of which they might only otherwise have dreamed. Arthur Lydiard will not be a hard act to follow. He will be impossible.”
Author: Steve Landells
Image Credit: NZ Sports Hall of Fame, Getty Images