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Running legend Peter Snell, Lydiard method, other cool stuff

Peter Snell shows me the track shoes that ran a 3:54 minute mile.

In Aug. 2008 when I was writing a story, Gold Diggers, about Olympic medalists who live in the Dallas area, I learned that the legendary New Zealander Peter Snell, winner of three gold medals (1960, ’62, ’64) in the 800 (twice), the 880 and the mile (Snell broke the four-minute mile 15 times, with a best of 3:54) respectively, lives right here in the White Rock Lake area.

In fact, my running group has passed right by his home on an occasion or two. Today he ‘s Dr. Snell and he researches exercise and aging at UT Southwestern. Last week I interviewed him for a story we are doing about (in a nutshell) aging well, and I derived a little wisdom, or at least something to think about, from our talk.

Snell’s coach was Arthur Lydiard, famous for putting his short and mid-distance runners to 100-mile training weeks. Snell still believes in the Lydiard training method. Only now, unlike when he was running the miles back in the 1960s, he says understands why the method made him a great runner. “Back then I was just following directions, he says.”

It’s complex, but basically, the incredible stamina produced by weekly hilly (“slow, 6-minute per mile”) 22-mile runs and daily 17-18 mile jaunts, allowed him to have a devastating kick at the end of short races.

(Check out this video of his two record-breaking miles for an example. )

Lydiard’s method also includes plenty of hills, intervals, race pace and such, but at its heart is miles and miles. In fact, in a Time magazine article, a source remarks that when a competitive runner reaches exceedingly high mileage and the joints begin to ache and the pain is enormous, most coaches ease up, but Lydiard would keep pushing until the runner “becomes insensitive to the pain.” (You can see here why the Lydiard method is sort of controversial.)

Snell poses with other sub 4-minute milers — can you find Roger Bannister?

Snell says the mile race begins at the 3/4 mark. The first three quarters are about positioning and relaxing, he says.

That translates too to marathoning — the marathon begins at mile 20, I’ve heard many more- experienced- than- me runners say. The key is feeling good and staying on target up to that point, then having enough in the tank to go strong for six miles. A good, sturdy base and frequent race-pace running, it would seem based on my studies and experiences, is key to making this happen.

That doesn’t mean 100-mile weeks, but it means significantly more than the 35-45 mile weeks I once relied on for marathon preparation.  But the problem with upping that mileage is balance/knowing when to say ‘enough’ — at 60-70 mpw, I am hurting. My knee is swollen, my heel is sore and my achilles is tender and tight.

Running Times a while back ran a comprehensive piece about Lydiard training. It addresses my issues. Here are some highlights; I totally recommend that serious runners read the whole thing:

Miles are “money in the bank”. The more you have the greater your currency to buy ATP’s (the units of energy your muscles need for contraction) and the faster you will eventually be able to race in any event that has a large aerobic component.”

Train based on feeling. Lydiard looked at modern technology — whether a coach yelling split times from the sideline or a watch that beeps — as training wheels. He would prescribe runs at half effort, full effort, or seven-eights effort and said the runner needed to develop a rapport with his/her body — we need to learn to trust the inner coach, he said.

Balance workouts/ breakdown and buildup. This is tricky. Despite what the aforementioned Time article said, Lydiard believed recovery is important. *”While Lydiard pushed his runners, he offset the overtraining syndrome by preparing them for optimal recovery with base training, gearing the training to be feeling-based, and adjusting workouts according to the athlete’s recovery response. The art of good training calls for an accurate assessment of which side of the adaptation curve the runner is on — catabolic or anabolic — and prescribing appropriately: a recovery run or a workout. There are simple ways of assessing this: An elevated morning heart rate, poor sleep, low energy, sore muscles and bad mood are all indicators that the runner needs further recovery and a workout of any intensity is contraindicated. Once the “spark” has returned the runner is ready for the next “stress.”

Have good timing. Three-four weeks taper, higher mileage during earlier weeks of training, more skills and speed in the weeks before taper … *”It is one thing to maximize the amount of energy at the disposal of an athlete. It is another to channel that energy into the event that matters. To ensure one’s best form is achieved on competition day, a Lydiard schedule is always written from the goal backwards, allotting the amount of time needed for each phase and using the remaining time for base training …  There is nothing more confidence-building than the somatic knowing of thorough preparation.”

Miki and Peter Snell, at home near White Rock Lake

After the 1960s, Snell didn’t do any competitive running. He met his wife Miki at a speaking engagement. She was also a runner — in the 70s she won the Turkey Trot three times. Together they have done a few short triathlons, and they are really into orienteering. They are both still quite competitive, especially with one another. They call exercise “the fountain of youth”, and they , now over 70, are living proof.

So whether you are running 100 or 15 miles a week, keep it up. Consistency, Snell says, is far more important than anything else.

More story in the November Advocate magazine, coming soon.

*quotes from Running Times 

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